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Future Leaders Interview: Dr Katie McQuaid


The arts have a vital role to play in helping marginalised communities cope with the impacts of climate change, according to Dr Katie McQuaid, an anthropologist and research fellow at the University of Leeds.

Dr McQuaid is one of a new cohort of UKRI 'Future Leaders Fellows'.

As a Future Leaders Fellow Dr McQuaid will receive UKRI funding to undertake individual research and collaborative activities that have the potential to transform their subject areas.

She will use her funding to explore combining social science and applied arts-based methodologies as tools for co-producing ethnographic research, knowledge exchange and transformation in Uganda and Myanmar - areas impacted by climate change.

“I found out about the scheme at about the same time that I was really starting to want to lead my own research,” says Dr McQuaid. “I had been doing postdoctoral work for about four years and had really started to see what an arts-based approach could bring to work challenging urban vulnerability.”

As part of her first postdoc job Dr McQuaid spent nearly a year in Uganda working on climate change. “I really started to see how it was starting to bite in urban communities,” she says. “And at the same time also realised how rarely we hear about the urban impacts of climate change.”

As developing nations rapidly urbanise – it's estimated that 50 per cent of the Ugandan population will be urban by 2030 – climate change is exacerbating already stressed aspects of socio-economic systems, causing food prices to rise, along with increases in poverty, vulnerability, and reduced access to long term, sustainable livelihoods.

“I could see girls struggling to afford menstrual products and boys having to drop out of school to scavenge scrap,” says Dr McQuaid.

In addition, Dr McQuaid's fieldwork for her PhD in Uganda involved working with LGBTQI communities that had fled as refugees from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

“I started to think about how this marginalised group would be impacted by climate change and I really couldn't find any research focusing on LGBTQI groups in climate impacted areas, especially in socially intolerant contexts.

“All this was coming together in my head at about the time I heard about the UKRI Future Leaders scheme. So I applied!”

As an anthropologist, Dr McQuaid sees the value of long term research programmes and describes the Future Leaders Fellowship scheme as “a dream”.

“I've seen what life is like on the ground and seen how the arts has the potential to transform the lives of marginalised communities,” she says.

“In Uganda in 2015 we had been working with urban communities and saw that there were huge issues with land tenure and gaining access to land titles.

“There were about 14 different stages that people had to go through, which meant 14 different stages where officials could be asking for money.

“So, we wanted to take this problem to policy makers. But we thought, if we write a report, they will probably just read it and put it on the shelf. So, instead I worked with a colleague from the arts who wrote a comedy play.

“It had songs in it and showed the absurdity of the process. Comedy is an important art form in Uganda with a long history.

“We showed it to one level of officials, and then were invited to show it to the next level and the next. And in the end it was one of a number of interventions that ultimately led to land reform.”

By the end of her time as a Future Leaders Fellow Dr McQuaid hopes to be able to look back and see that she has been able to help raise the profile of marginalised people within their country context and more broadly, in terms of the attention paid to them by international institutions, development agencies and governments.

“I would also like to have helped raise their capacity to organise themselves – and to have demonstrated the value of the arts in this kind of work,” she says. “I would like to be able to lead all this at a high level and influence policy.

“I'm so grateful to the AHRC and UKRI for believing in my vision and making all this possible.”

The Future Leaders Fellowship scheme represents a transformational opportunity for early career researchers in the arts and humanities. The significance and the length of these prestigious awards are unprecedented and they will give the opportunity for the brightest and best to realise their boundless potential.

Find out more about the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships Scheme

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