Joe Curnow (BS05), Winner of Canada’s Biggest Doctoral Award, Studies Youth Movements

Joe Curnow (BS05), Winner of Canada’s Biggest Doctoral Award, Studies Youth Movements

Joe Curnow

Joe Curnow (BS05), a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, is the winner of the Vanier Graduate Scholarship, Canada’s largest doctoral award. The award supports her current research into the engagement of youth in social movements.

A social policy graduate, Curnow  is investigating how youth learn about colonialism, race, gender and patriarchy through social engagement. She was awarded the Vanier for academics, research and leadership.

Social engagement insights
“My goal is for this research to become useful to students campaigning on university campuses. I hope that our work can help people to think about how they organize on campus and how organizers can learn and build social movements rooted in solidarity,” Curnow says.

At the center of her study is an environmental initiative led by students at the University of Toronto. “Through an in-depth video analysis, I trace the collective transformation process as Fossil Free UofT organizes to make the University of Toronto divest from fossil fuels to prevent climate change,” she explains.

“Analyzing video data allows me to follow learning as it happens,” explains Curnow.

A start at SESP
Her research methods class at SESP and concern over free trade coffee set Curnow on the path to an academic career. As a student in SESP, Curnow became involved in student organizing around fair trade internationally. “My experience with student activists (as a student and as an organizer) led me to ask questions about how people become politicized, particularly in student activist contexts. I was curious about what and how we learn through our campaigns, and when we successfully learn about the intersections of race, class and gender, how are we able to mobilize that learning,” she says.

“As an undergrad, SESP supported my questioning and facilitated my thesis research in coffee communities,” says Curnow. “The most lasting impact from SESP may have been the Research Methods class we were required to take.  I know a lot of people moaned about the course, but I loved it. Being introduced to feminist approaches to research totally changed my critiques of academic research … I would never have considered an academic path if it had not been for that class.”

Video to view learning
Now Curnow is busy looking at how current students are learning as they organize an environmental campaign. She records meetings, trainings, actions, and reflections throughout the campaign.

“Using video analysis to trace any changes in how the individuals and the group talk about colonialism, race and racism enables me to track how members discuss the issues and identify possible shifts in participants’ understandings of race and colonialism, and whether their actions spawn more critical views.” Sophisticated software allows her to combine interaction analysis with gesture and conversation analysis “to deepen understanding of how people co-construct meaning.”

Halfway through data collection for her doctoral research, Curnow sees a few early findings already becoming clear, especially because of the use of multiple cameras. “So much learning happens in social movements! My research design traces eight focal participants throughout the campaign, and it has been amazing to watch these people learn together.” 

Working in Canada has also given Curnow a new perspective on historical colonial relationships in Canada. “My work looks at how students learn these histories and use their power to try to change the system.”

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 3/11/15