When the Outside University Enters: What are Key Characteristics to Promote Participatory Research?

October 15, 2019

By Nora Pillard Reynolds (Globalsl & Haverford College), Iain J. Hunt (Villanova University), and William Muñoz (Madre Tierra Foundation)

Nora Pillard Reynolds: At the most recent Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace gathering in June 2019, I finally met Juan David Reina-Rozo, the editor I’d worked with to publish this article. Juan David described to me his vision for creating the first Spanish issue of the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace (2019): “we did not translate an English issue to Spanish. The issue is in Spanish.” I was thrilled to share with him my excitement about the issue. Although I am bilingual and I’ve co-written pieces with Spanish-speaking colleagues, they’ve always ended up published in English. This was an opportunity to actually publish our work in Spanish. 

What I did not initially realize is how that would work to shift the interaction with my colleagues in our writing process. Iain, William, and I have worked together in various capacities for years, but this was our first time writing an academic publication together. Initially, William was not critiquing or editing my writing much. When I asked, he reminded me that I was the one with the PhD and I was the one that had published in journals. I reminded him that if he didn’t rip my writing apart and clarify our argument, our article simply would get rejected. Suddenly, on the next revision of the article….let’s just say that there were plenty of track changes for me to review! We chuckled about it later, but as I told Juan David, I’m not sure if that dynamic would have shifted otherwise (even if we co-wrote an article that would ultimately be published in English). 

So, while I often translate abstracts and key findings of articles to Spanish for colleagues, here I’ll do the reverse from our article, “When the outside university enters: What are key characteristics to promote participatory research.”

Abstract: In this article, we analyze the question: What are the key characteristics for an alliance between an outside university and local actors to promote participatory research? We use the ladder of participation (Briggs, 1989) and the insider-outsider spectrum for researcher positionality (Herr and Anderson, 2005) to analyze examples of research done by outside universities in Waslala, Nicaragua.

We argue that outside researchers should ally with local stakeholders to improve and ensure participation in all stages of the research process – formulating the research question, data collection, analysis and dissemination of results. Key features to facilitate participation in each stage include: the presence of cultural mediators, opportunities for communication and dissemination in multiple languages and using different means to reach different audiences, and for a project to be part of an alliance with purposes beyond only research.

Fundación Madre Tierra (FUMAT) in Waslala, Nicaragua


We met in Waslala, a rural municipality of 65,000 people in the mountains of Nicaragua. William Muñoz, a Nicaraguan moved to Waslala with his family when he was eight years old. Nora Pillard Reynolds travelled to Nicaragua for the first time in 2002 and started an NGO, Water for Waslala. Iain Hunt arrived in Waslala in 2011 to start work with Water for Waslala. Now, all three of us work in educational institutions – Madre Tierra Foundation (FUMAT) in Waslala, The College of Engineering (CoE) of Villanova University and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship of Haverford College both in Philadelphia (USA) – which all work in international alliances and research projects. Although our lives have taken us on different paths and we’re situated in different countries, types of institutions, and job roles, Waslala connects us and we all continue working in different ways for the development of the territory of Waslala, Nicaragua. 

There have been rigorous research studies carried out in Waslala on different topics, among them: water, coffee, livestock, basic grains, environment, and organizational structures. Without a doubt, despite those efforts, the majority of the results of these research projects are not utilized by local organizations and inhabitants of Waslala as an opportunity to improve their lives. Many of these research projects were done by outside universities….

William Muñoz (tan backpack) facilitating group visits in Waslala

The Praxis of Engineering: Theory and Value Driven Practice is one of the Plenary Conversations at the 6th GSL Summit at Clemson University, from Nov 3 – 5. Join us there; register now.  

Nora Pillard Reynolds co-founded Water for Waslala in 2005 and has worked in Waslala, Nicaragua on issues of water and sanitation since 2002. In 2015, Water for Waslala pursued acquisition and was acquired by WaterAid and El Porvenir. She now leads the Globalsl Network, hosted at Haverford College, and serves on the El Porvenir board of directors to continue work in Waslala. 

Iain J. Hunt, originally from Colorado, completed two stints in the Peace Corps (in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic) before assuming the role of Water for Waslala project director in Waslala, Nicaragua from 2011 – 2015. He is now the Initiative Manager for Sustainable Engineering for International Development in the College of Engineering at Villanova University. 

William Muñoz grew up in Waslala; however, his studies took him elsewhere in Nicaragua to study agronomy and then to Costa Rica for his masters. In 2014, he returned to Waslala to work with the Fundación Madre Tierra (FUMAT). FUMAT’s mission is to promote human development, through training and research, preserve local knowledge, diversify production, and connect the actors dedicated to sustainable development. 

If anyone is interested in further translation, please don’t hesitate to contact Nora at npreynolds@haverford.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • update-img-new

    Get updates on what's new in the Campus Compact Network