Kelsey Timler

Participatory Action Research to Support Food Justice Programming for Justice-Involved Women and Children
Helen Brown (UBC, School of Nursing) and Valerie Napoleon (U.Vic, Law)
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have been working in equity-oriented and community-based research since 2013, and have had the privilege of witnessing the ways that action-oriented research can support community priorities. During my Master's I studied the impact of a pre-existing correctional agriculture program, spending time with federally incarcerated men in a prison farm where they grew, harvested and donated produce to surrounding food insecure communities and food-based organizations, include rural and remote Indigenous communities. I learnt so much from the participating men and community recipients, while also seeing the potential of participatory methods to support community-driven programming that centres community knowledge holders and provides opportunities for democratic community-driven decision making. A doctoral degree was the next step towards leveraging my academic privilege to create programming with and for justice-involved people.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I have been at UBC since my undergraduate degree, and the decision to stay for my doctoral degree was multi-layered. The main reason was the relationships I have built in the UBC Critical Research in Health and Healthcare Inequities (CRiHHI) Research Unit, based out of the School of Nursing. I have the privilege of working alongside amazing staff who provide ongoing intellectual and emotional support, as well as support and mentorship from faculty, including my co-supervisor, Dr. Helen Brown. My ongoing work as a research manager with Helen has also provided fruitful and supportive opportunities to network and collaborate across the wider UBC health & justice community. There are many other reasons, including the wonderful community of friends and peers I have across Vancouver, the views of the mountains when I bike to campus, and how easy it is to find wild blackberries in the summers here.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Program (ISGP) provides a unique environment for me to undertake Participatory Action Research ((PAR) rooted in interdisciplinary and diverse knowledge related to health and wellness, sex and gender, criminal justice, food justice, and Indigenous legal traditions. This program allows the flexibility to integrate the diverse methodological and theoretical approaches needed to respond to the complex barriers to health, wellness and food justice facing incarcerated and paroled women in Canada today. It has also provided me with space and time to focus on relationship-building, something that is foundational to participatory research yet difficult to fit into many formal graduate program structures and timelines.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I have lived in Vancouver and attended UBC since 2009, and am consistently surprised by how suddenly spring emerges here. I have also recently found a network of other women whose doctoral work is focused on the intersections of health and justice - and while surprised might not be the right word - I have found the support of peers with aligned objectives and values so important, and am regularly amazed at the level of care this community provides.

I have the privilege of working alongside amazing staff who provide ongoing intellectual and emotional support, as well as support and mentorship from faculty, including my co-supervisor.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I am incredibly excited to start working closely with the women at Fraser Valley Institute (FVI) and those served by Elizabeth Fry Society. I have been volunteering at FVI for over a year, and look forward to having more opportunities to listen to and learn from the women there, and to find ways to support their priorities through research. Food is often a central aspect of identity and belonging, and creating spaces to talk about food with justice-involved women in strengths-based ways will be complicated, difficult and joyful: what we like to eat, what historic forces have constrained our dietary decisions, how our family context impacts our relationships to food, or our body and to each other, and how to support each other through the lens of food.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Interdisciplinary participatory research is multi-layered and complex, and measures of participatory work done in a good way – such as ongoing relationship building and integrated community-driven Knowledge Mobilization - are not widely recognized in the academic world. This will be a challenge, but I look forward to working with other allied scholars and communities to transform how research with communities is conducted and what metrics of success are recognized.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

ISGP is providing me with the flexibility to build my own degree path, take the time I need to develop relationships, and collaboratively build processes that address the needs and priorities of my community partners. This flexibility has allowed me to develop relationships with community organizations and social enterprises across Vancouver, ways of learning outside of the traditional classroom context that is integral to my specific research objectives. Additionally, my co-supervisor, Helen Brown, has and continues to provide important mentorship on alternate and transformative ways to take part in the academic world.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

There are several experiences and opportunities that are interwoven into my current capacity as a participatory researcher. As a professional cook, I developed a good sense of humour and the ability to talk, teach and listen about food from across perspectives. A brief stint as an art student helped me to think visually and see the value of arts as knowledge sharing, something that has come in handy from coding map development to Knowledge Mobilization planning. Finally, my years as a research assistant and later research manager in the CRiHHI Research Unit taught me that research can matter, can be done in partnership with people whose wisdom and insight is profound yet often marginalized in academic spaces, and can create change.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

In a previous life, I was a professional cook, and that love of food has propelled me into my current research interests while remaining a favourite way to spend my time. I also love backcountry skiing and hiking, and enjoy finding ways to make elaborate meals in remote and beautiful places.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Find supervisors that you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. Equally important is to find peers whose work and values are aligned with your own, and have consistent mechanisms to touch base and hold one another up. Finally, it’s important to take breaks, to spend time in nature, read frivolous novels, and find ways to get far away from your computer once in a while!


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