Spotlight: Naima Ismail and Health Inequities
In the latest issue of Displaced Voices, I worked with Naima Ismail to support her write and edit her article on Health Inequities with Somali Women in Kuala Lumpur.
Over the next few months, I will reflect on how we can communicate research through co-writing.
Co-Writing with Communities: Part 1 Providing Structure
Since first meeting with Naima Ismail in Malaysia, I had remained in regular contact. Often our conversation post fieldwork, were simple one expressing gratitude for having worked together. But, slowly the conversation returned to what we were both passionate about; speaking on refugee issues. For me this was my professional and academic curiosity, for her it was her lived reality.
When offered the opportunity to write on her work in the Somali Women's Association of Malaysia and in particular highlight the health challenges faced by Somali refugee women, Naima jumped at the chance. She was always keen to learn and push herself professionally, and this time was no different.
She had a degree in Health Policy, but had not written academically for a number of years. So in the first drafting of her ideas we simply focused on her telling her message. What were the issues faced by the women? Why was she so motivated to act and create change? What was it that she really wanted to say?
Understandably, her first draft (and to be honest my own first draft) was messy. It lacked structure and flow. The message was there but the rhythm was off. So now I came to give feedback. Rather than change it for her, I asked her 'what was the purpose of each paragraph'? 'How can you show your experience in the points you are making?' In thinking through and reflecting on those questions she developed her ideas further, added in her unique perspective and experience - her story that would have been missing if I had written this alone.
In terms of flow, we talked about the logical sequencing of ideas. What did the reader need to know first, then next,...? How could we make sure the reader saw her story in the order she wanted them to read the story?
I did not give Naima a structure to follow by providing a format. Instead, I allowed her space first, to speak, unvarnished with her messy mixture of experience, hopes, facts and figures. I then questions, and ask her to reflect on how her story and message needed to be heard. How to move from one idea to the next, and build, and challenge and finally reach a powerful ending where she could give her vision of change. Adding in reflexivity and allowing ownership for her story and message, meant we were together better able to give structure to what she had already created.
This structure became so visible and meaningful that in her peer feedback from the other contributors, one commented how much of a 'amazingly even' flow there was in her writing, and how much the order made sense.
For researchers, (and teachers and lecturers) it can be an uncomfortable position to allow this space. We want to come in with models, formats and pre-made worksheets. However, for people who have rarely spoken this can hinder their voice rather than support them to express it. Allowing them to write and be 'messy' is a powerful not weak beginning. Recreating order from their own chaotic words and emotions is more empowering than a completely perfect product of writing.
It doesn't end there: Co-writing into Co-Presenting
In the next month, Naima and myself will be speaking in University of Malaya Gender Studies Webinar series. Here we build on our partnership through co-writing and turn it into co-presenting on a rather meta theme - Co-Acting; refugee researchers with refugee women. In the webinar we will be engaging on topic such as 'how not to waste refugee women's time with pointless research', 'how, when and why to co-act with refugees' and 'what does it mean to speak together'. Naima will also present on why Somali Women's health is an important and forgotten conversation for refugee women in Kuala Lumpur.
By co-presenting and having Naima's voice next to my own in an academic format, places a value on her voice that is often neglected. One of self-representation. Naima is here for the first time allowed to reflect on her experiences as a refugee working with researchers in a usually academic only space. It allows for the communication of research to become a true lived dialogue.
In order to prepare Naima for this, I taught her four short sessions on giving academic presentations, namely: using structure, having style in your voice, giving visual impact, and finally practice, practice, practice. these sessions, I drew on the years of academic skills training I had given to students in bachelors and masters programmes. In adapting this training for Naima, I did not grade 'down' the subject of the material. Instead I opened it up to create space for her experience and needs, and reached the same learning objectives. Already being a confident and professional speaker, meant these sessions were mostly practice with a specific goal in mind. And also, presented a space for sharing and reaching mutual understanding.
Co-acting with communities is hard work for researchers, and it can appear to have little impact in terms of out careers. For early career researchers communicating research is a daunting prospect. This is no less true for myself. Yet, finding methods to re-connect with participants and find ways to communicate together on their terms has also been a rewarding experience. It continues the participatory actions we began in the fieldwork and allows space to reflect on what research means for the people are often spoken about but not spoken with.
Check out the whole issue below:
Special Issue: In Their Own Voices
Making Visible Lives of Refugee Women In Kuala Lumpur
Volume 1 Issue 2 (Winter 2021)
Displace Voices: A Journal of Migration, Archives and Cultural Heritage
Over the next few months, I will give a spotlight to each of the writers in the special issue to talk about how we engaged in the co-writing process. Next time, I will look at Co-writing with Communities: Part 2 Working with Translators to create a Story within a Story.