THE URBAN DEMOCRACY LAB
Interview with Gianpaolo Baiocchi
1) Tell us a little bit about the Urban Democracy Lab?
Gianpaolo: The idea of the Urban Democracy Lab owes more than a little bit to ideas of “popular education” that existed all over Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and were influential during the aftermath 15M Movement (the “Indignados”) of Spain that I had the opportunity to observe and learn about in 2012. The methodology goes by different names, like “socio-praxis,” or Factories of Dreams. The idea was to create democratic spaces of conversation to imagine and build things together. Those spaces are about democratizing knowledge production, bringing different kinds of expertise together, facilitating a “forward looking” conversation across different experiences. This is instead of the university going out to capture other people's ideas and digest them in some way.
We started in 2014, first focusing on public events of the sort and then building out a scaffolding for students to be engaged through our fellowships, then followed by working groups we have had over the years. We have worked on all sorts of topics - from urban humanities, to participation, to mutual aid, abolition, municipalism, displacement and housing. Since the pandemic we have been focusing a lot on land and non-market kinds of housing.
Sometimes our work has taken the form of bringing people together to ask, “Okay, what would it mean to just cancel rent for everybody for a month? What would that look like?” And then academics and different kinds of people come to the table and we sort of cook it up together. So that is the big picture vision.
Partnership and collaborations are obviously central to our work, and a bedrock principle for us is that all our relationships be non-extractive. We are concerned in everything we do that collaborations have a horizontal feel to them and that we're democratically accountable. We spend a long time on the process of collaboration because we believe that the kind of knowledge that we can produce this way is different. And we believe that the university can provide resources and space for collaboration that other institutions cannot. We are knowledge producers and we have spaces and resources and time.
2) How does knowledge production look different at the Urban Democracy Lab than it might in a more traditional academic space?
Gianpaolo: When we started doing this, I was new to this sort of institutional role. So I talked to people in movements and organizations who told me that university-based “parachute” projects come up with deliverables from the university side, but are often useless and exploitative for those outside of the university. I remember someone literally said to me that “the last thing we need is undergraduates walking around housing projects with clipboards, talking about how forlorn and sad people of color are.”
There is this phrase that this group called Black Space uses, which is to “move at the speed of trust.” And so that's something else that guides our intellectual production. So we move at the speed of trust and try to have long term relationships. We have worked with Right to the City for eight or nine years. We've worked with SEDOAC which stands for the Domestic Workers Alliance of Spain for like five years, Housing Justice for All for four or five years.
We've been very fortunate to have partners that we work with over a longer period of time. This means also they have no compunction in calling us up and saying, “Oh, by the way, this sucks or we disagree with this thing you're saying. Change that.” Building those relationships where there's enough trust to then “Can you tell me why?” In my experience that has only been possible with longer term things.
I realized, too, after about two semesters people don't live on the semester schedule. Our lives are semesterly and cloistered behind private space. And we naturalize the semester, but the semester doesn't exist for most people. The fact that you have to do a report by the end of the semester means nothing to someone who's involved in some campaign or trying to put the means together to survive.
I suppose it goes without saying that we try to be responsive when people ask us for stuff. For example, right now we have a request to help do a new oral history that's a counter history of the housing movement in New York City. That was a request and we have a grad student who is going to do it. Another one we got was to produce a story-telling toolkit.
We get policy type requests, like with all the social housing stuff we've done as of late, that are “on spec.” We ask “what would this look like?” and then we try to help facilitate a meeting where we partner and sit down. It’s not frictionless and it's not super fast. You cannot speed write articles, like I was taught to do.
I will say that there is a lot of joy in doing work this way. This can be an attractive and meaningful way to do work and we have been very fortunate over the years to have very talented and committed younger scholars who have worked collectively with us and our partners to produce really wonderful work. I am very proud of all the work we have done and facilitated over the years.