CETAL (Emancipatory Skills for Food Transition) Research-action project , Focus is on skills that foster precarious public’s emancipation and positioning them as actors

CETAL – (des Compétences Emancipatrices pour la Transition Alimentaire – emancipatory skills for food transition) is a research-action project that aims to support local community dynamics in the realm of food aid and to analyze their impact on the development of participant’s skills. The focus is on skills that foster precarious public’s emancipation and positioning as actors in food quality and food justice. Food aid beneficiaries are the targets and actors of many projects that aim to improve their access to and control over their food. Do these experiences really allow social change? Do they allow a greater sovereignty and autonomy of beneficiaries? What is their impact on food quality and social participation of beneficiaries? Food aid is for us an entry point for the general objective of strengthening competences in an emancipatory aim.

The project which includes a range of participants (beneficiaries, volunteers and social workers from local organizations as well as researchers) in four countries (France, Belgium, Bulgaria and Italy) has started in march 2020 with a meeting in Montpellier, France and finishes in early 2022 with a press conference in Italy. In the meantime, workshops are conducted locally and partners are meeting online regularly to coordinate their actions and reflect on the findings of the action-research. Workshops will finish in December and researchers will take stock of these experimentations until March.

The epidemy of covid-19 has arisen a great number of challenges in the implementation of workshops. In the four countries, lockdowns took place when the workshops had just started and were a hard blow to the emerging dynamic of the groups. Some of them survived, some did not and in all cases at the next workshops, several months later, the previous workshops were a distant memory. This was a strong challenge especially because workshops were designed, on one side as a cumulative process (each workshop building on the previous and preparing the next) and, on the other side, as a participatory process (each project being defined by the participants from a brainstorming of issues relevant to them). In some local groups the turnover of participants challenged the prepared program, which was designed to be conducted by a similar group from the beginning to the end and which had to be adapted to suit the needs of every group.

One identified factor of turnover was the length and frequency of workshops. In some groups, 3-hour workshops were cut in half to keep participants’ focus. In others, people tended to move on to other things if they did not meet on a very regular basis. The place chosen to conduct workshops was also a factor of disengagement, as an open space would allow more interruption (“Does anyone know where the coffee is?”).

The shape of workshops is another aspect on which we have learned a lot. We built a program of eight workshops, each of them being a step in a learning-through-action emancipatory process: (1) learning and identifying (issues important to the group), (2) choosing (an issue and a project they wish to work on), (3) developing with others, (4) analyzing and planning, (5) acting for change, (6) thinking development for all, (7) defending and sharing one’s ideas, (8) evaluating and celebrating. Workshops were designed as a mix of practice (conducting a project together and learning skills in the process) and theory (reflecting on the skills thereby acquired).

It fitted some and did not fit others. For some groups the mix of theory and practice seemed ok while others expected to conduct a practical project for the very beginning and did not see the interest of reflecting on competences. One of the central questions to answer is thus: how to link a practical project with a reflection on skills without losing people’s interest? The valorization of skills is a great challenge for beneficiaries who are often socially devalued.

We also understood that the description of workshop could take many shapes, from an extended program with detailed timing and activities to a shorter version listing the main objectives of each workshop. The former helped workers and volunteers who never moderated a group and felt ill-equipped for conducting workshops; the latter allowed facilitators who felt at ease to use their creativity while stills serving the projects’ objectives. We came to write and share both and let facilitators do it their way.

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