Garden laborer for 1 day

  • Inspiration, Research
  • 13.03.2024

Garden laborer for 1 day. On a rainy Tuesday morning, I am in orange overalls weeding weeds in a street in a residential area in an unnamed East Flanders municipality. My new colleagues are watching closely. They do not seem entirely at ease. In several spots I have not worked accurately enough. Starting all over again. My work pace is not quite up to scratch either. I have to shovel leaves into wheelbarrows but I am too much behind the leaf blowers. When I suggest taking over the leaf blower after the lunch break, they turn their eyes meaningfully.
Everything for the sake of science. What am I doing here in the rain among the garden laborers of a Flemish social economy organization? Well, winning trust. For the European INVOLVE research project, I am looking for workers in the social economy who want to be interviewed by me about their experiences with public services, and how those experiences affect their trust in democracy. That’s a big deal. And so do think the green workers. ‘A European research project?” they look at me questioningly.
For people who do not always have the best experiences with demanding institutions, answering personal questions from a complete stranger – the author in question – is not so obvious. The questions I want to ask are quite sensitive as well: about their school days, their experiences in the job market, as well as their health and financial situation. Not always obvious to talk about. That is also what the organization in question told us. They did predict some cold feet among their workers. So we opted for the blending-in strategy: spending a day with the laborers themselves, so that they could get to know me.
So that’s how I ended up on a drizzly Tuesday morning in a work van full of leaf blowers, pruners and wheelbarrows. I also tag along in other places: in a bicycle workshop, a restaurant and a painting workshop. Everywhere I am received kindly, but also with skepticism. “A research project?” “And what will that be for?” “What will happen with that? These are some of the questions I get. And also, ‘Is this your profession?’My temporary colleagues are not overly enthusiastic about the quality of my delivered work, but throughout the day they become more curious about the research project. ‘I have never been interviewed before,’ I am told. Especially when I take a pulse on their experiences of public service, the gate opens. All of them have had experiences with hard-to-reach service providers, complicated procedures and often struggle with digitalization.
Blending in is bearing fruit. I find 20 people willing to be interviewed. Painters, green laborers, kitchen staff, men, women, new Belgians, old Belgians, social tenants, people who speak Dutch, those who speak it less well, people in their twenties, people in their sixties… All the colors of the rainbow. All responded enthusiastically to be interviewed by me for two hours.
Winning trust clearly takes time and effort. Especially with groups that are usually suspicious of institutions. As a researcher, you have to go outside your comfort zone, and not hope for immediate results, by spending a day on your knees as a green laborer, for example. This slow approach yields less fast, but more sustainable results. It also provides unexpected perspectives. “What was it like to actually work for a day?” the green workers ask amused at the end of the day. Everything for the sake of science!

Martin Schoups, Beweging vzw


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