In March-April, we began by recruiting the next generation of scholar-activists. On top of the imposed strictures of what constitutes an ‘early career researcher’, not least affiliated with South African or UK institutions or civil society networks, we added our own important caveat – that only those working towards environmental and social justice from a food systems perspective need apply. While challenging, we eventually found twenty-eight talented, driven and creative ECRs. As well as their UK and South African affiliations, in reality this group has drawn on their rich experiences as researchers from Cameroon, Eswatini, Ghana, Greece, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe. Many have been working as scholar activists and researcher-practitioners engaged in policy, practice and planning, often combining farming practice, social organisation, feminism and the creative arts.
The three webinars and five workshops introduced ECRs to the critical concepts to be explored through their own research, and to provide networking opportunities to build interdisciplinary research teams to explore emerging themes, and to co-produce research that centres the voices of those most impacted by the dual climate and biodiversity crises from a food and farming systems perspective.
The pressures of 2021 notwithstanding, and with the benefit of the rich discussions during events and workshops, our ECRs went on to participate in networking and professional development sessions to explore creative and inclusive ways of doing and communicating their research, applying a critical eye to the projects’ three themes while honing in on the areas that each ECR was interested in exploring further, and identifying others with similar interests. As themes began to emerge during the networking sessions, a Jamboard was created establish their connections and ideas to begin building their research teams.
Under the conditions of the Challenge Prize, ECRs were tasked with forming teams, each developing competitive research proposals, for the opportunity to win up to £8,000 for implementation. Each was assigned with a mentor, and proposals were assessed by the project team from CAWR and UCT.
From the earliest stage of the project, on hearing that only a small number of teams could succeed in winning available funding, this tight cohort soon demonstrated its innate sense of solidarity – seamlessly organising. If funding could only support four teams, then they would form only four teams so that everyone had an equal opportunity to collaborate on research, be principal investigators, and co-author and publish together. And if, for any reason, one team’s proposal wasn’t successful, then the other projects would welcome those team members into their own. This proved an inspiring start to a project with ‘justice’ in its name, and reassured us that, while we might have fewer ECRs than anticipated, we had precisely the kind of ECRs that we’d hoped for.
However, the online process that enabled a convergence across these different locations and spaces with reduced climate costs, the motivation of teams was undoubtedly been affected by a lack of face-to-face team-building. UK colleagues’ realities were pressured by temporary contracts and budget cuts to their institutions. While in South Africa, rising COVID-19 infection rates and civil unrest proved highly stressful. Under these conditions, the spirit of solidarity has been an enduring feature of the project to date, with ECRs supporting each other and sharing responsibilities when one or other member of their team has faced personal challenges.