A Weekend of Merging Knowledge

ATD Fourth World began the Multidimensional Aspects of Poverty research that will happen in 7 countries. In the United States, working groups of people with an experience of poverty, other groups of academic researchers, and other groups of practitioners in poverty eradication programs will work within their “peer groups” to determine different aspects of poverty. We started off this research with a Merging of Knowledge methodology training in New York on December 3-4, 2016.

Justine Knebelmann, a visiting scholar at Department of Economics at Columbia University, was one of the participants. Here’s her reflection on the training weekend in New York.


As we were being warmly welcomed in the ATD house early on Saturday morning, and the thirty five of us – from an incredible variety of social and geographical backgrounds – sat down in a large circle in the main meeting room, I could not help but wonder how at any point I would feel legitimate to share ideas I might have (if I came up with any at all) on how the Merging of Knowledge research on the multidimensional aspects of poverty could be carried out in the US.

However, over the weekend, well thought mechanisms were put into place to make each of us feel comfortable and engage in a fruitful dialogue with the other participants. The participatory research method was described in broad strokes only, but very convincingly put into practice, in a way that made everyone feel equally empowered to play a proactive role in the project.


Donna and Sophie[1] led the way, guiding us into the different workshops over the two days. They also shared the experience and outcomes of previous Merging of Knowledge research projects they had led, which was a good complement to the fact of actually experimenting the method as we were doing in the seminar. The New York ATD team members acted as facilitators in the different steps of the training, doing a fascinating job in finding the right balance between fueling the dynamics of the discussions and leaving the space for the “co-thinking” to actually happen.

Two essential progressions took place in parallel throughout the weekend. The first progression resulted from being successively all together and divided into small groups of different nature. We were first divided into “peer groups” of three types: activists – people with a direct experience of poverty; practitioners; and academics. The first exercise consisted in sharing a word which we associated with the concept of “poverty”, before coming up with a term on which all members of the peer group agreed. Other workshops followed, and in between each of them, we would gather again with all participants and each peer group would present the outcome of their brainstorming. I had the feeling that starting the discussions by being in peer groups allowed everyone to feel at their place in the training, and to overcome the barriers that could have prevented some of us to directly take part in larger group discussions.

Later on, we were divided in “mixed groups”, bringing together activists, practitioners and academics. Working together is at the core of the Merging of Knowledge approach, but it was all the more fruitful as it came after we had had both general and peer group reflections on the necessary conditions to make this merging possible and effective. Finally, for the last session we worked in “geographical groups” – one for each of the locations where the project will take place in the US (New York, Trenton, New Orleans, Oakland, Boston and Gallup). That is when the feeling of being part of a team for the future developments of the research started emerging in a much more concrete way.

Altering between being all together and being in small groups, and between the type of small groups we were divided in, was effective both to generate ideas and plans for action, and to have us experience how we could work together in a participatory way.


The second major evolution which took place over the two days lies in the contents of the discussions and the ideas that grew from them. From general reflections on poverty and on the methodological concepts behind the Merging of Knowledge approach, we were guided to move on to thinking about what our role could be in the project, about how we could work as co-researchers with people living in poverty, and finally about very concrete considerations of what the next steps should be in our particular location – which networks to activate to find participants, which spaces could be made available, etc. It thus became very clear to me why the indications on the detailed steps of the project had seemed somehow vague: they must be defined in the process itself.  This was strongly felt in the final discussions by geographical groups: members started interacting as co-actors and elaborating together a concrete plan of action.


All this worked very well thanks to the format of the workshops and the communication tools that had been prepared by the facilitators. For example, requiring that we express the outcome of our brainstorming through a single word, a single picture, or a chart – depending on the exercise – ensured that each peer group was represented equally in the general discussions. Opening the floor for questions of any type on the project and its next steps – questions that could be asked orally or on anonymous papers depending on the session – created a feeling of “freedom of speech” and “freedom of doubt” which was very fruitful for the advancement of the discussions.

I left feeling very impressed by the way individuals with such different backgrounds and daily activities could display this commitment and enthusiasm for a common project and start learning how to work together effectively. There is only one challenge that this weekend brought about – we now have to do as well in the next stages!



[1] Donna Haig-Friedman is a Senior Research Fellow with UMass Boston’s Center for Social Policy, of which she was the director for 18 years, and she is a lead facilitator in the international planning and learning seminars for ATD’s multidimensional aspects of poverty project. Sophie Boyer has been an international full-time volunteer with the Fourth World Movement since 1997 and has conducted three participative research projects before the MAP project.