Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Reciprocal training: An instrument of epistemic justice in the campaign for a just energy transition

March 2024

Laurence Brière, UQAM, Guillaume Moreau, UQAM, Maude Prud’homme, Réseau Québécois des groupes écologistes, Isabel Orellana, UQAM, Marie-Ève Marleau, Comité pour les droits humains en Amérique latine et Martine Chatelain, Eau secours

Summary by Marie-Pier Lafrance, Master’s student in environmental sciences, UQAM


The movement for a socially just energy transition in Quebec has largely avoided dealing with epistemic issues surrounding the ideal of energy justice. The same could be said for the academic literature on the subject. As for non-scientific forms of knowledge, they lack legitimacy in the public sphere. This is especially true in the case of energy issues, which are typically viewed through a technoscientific lens. We would argue that a general reluctance to assert situated, experiential, and activist expertise has caused campaigners to miss out on opportunities for sharing such knowledge. There has also been too little in the way of efforts to encourage and enhance opportunities for co-constructing knowledge on energy issues.

The pressing need for action has meant that co-instruction—which could simply be called “information sharing”—usually happens on an informal and ad hoc basis, with a view to achieving specific short-term objectives. Soon lost to memory, such exchanges can only benefit a limited number of individuals. But based on the results of a diagnostic survey, energy activists in Quebec have a desire to formalize their approaches to sharing knowledge and expertise, especially if this can accelerate the process of positive social change (Brière et al., 2021). On the ground, a consensus has been emerging on the importance of creating spaces for political education as a central component of the fight for a socially just energy transition, especially at the local level (Brière et al., 2022a).

As part of a participatory action research project initiated by FORJE (the Formation collaborative pour la justice énergétique), in partnership with environmental citizens active in the energy transition movement, we conducted a needs assessment and explored potential means of enhancing collaboration and knowledge-sharing among various stakeholder groups (labour unions, environmental and community groups, citizen action committees, and academic networks).  

Research Design

From an epistemological standpoint, two key paradigms helped orient the FORJE project. Adopting an interpretivist approach, we examined the meanings that individuals attach to their environmental activism, to the representations forged through political action, and to their specific needs in terms of knowledge dialogue. Adopting a critical perspective, we set about deconstructing certain political mechanisms that can hamper interaction between social groups concerned with energy issues, especially at a regional scale. We also considered the dynamics at play among environmental activists. Finally, we explored ways of reworking political action to ensure constructive engagement, with an emphasis on approaches and strategies that involve cross-training and social/cultural mobilization.

The project drew on methodological and theoretical approaches rooted in participatory action research. It was designed to promote the cross-pollination of knowledge between project participants and members of the research steering committee (Brière et al., 2022b). With a view to enriching discussion, we also prepared thematic literature reviews based on the issues, needs, and approaches identified in connection with different topics addressed by the project.[1] In short, we built our research strategy around two interconnected components. The corresponding objectives and methodologies are summarized in Table 1. Rooted in the research team’s ongoing participant observation efforts in pursuit of a socially just energy transition, the process allowed us to develop new theoretical perspectives on political action by environmental citizens, as well as a critique of existing theoretical approaches to the question of energy justice. Indeed, by moving back and forth between theory and practice, we have been able to develop a conceptual framework that supports a holistic and emancipatory vision of energy justice.

Table 1: Description of the process followed by the FORJE project.

Source: Partial translation of a table included in Brière et al., 2022, p. 19.

Representations of Energy Justice Within Associated Movements/Activist Groups

The FORJE survey made it possible to identify four principles associated with the ideal of energy justice among energy activists in Quebec. Project participants noted (1) the importance of including Indigenous perspectives in discussions and ensuring First Peoples regain some control over the land; (2) the need to ensure public and labour union participation in decision-making processes; (3) the vital importance of addressing social justice issues in the context of the energy transition, thereby acknowledging the realities faced by marginalized individuals and those living in poverty; and (4) the urgent need to recognize the environmental impacts of so-called green energy solutions. Critical perspectives—buttressed by a commitment to social solidarity, open deliberation, and shared decision-making—were therefore central to how participants engaged with the project. In this context, energy justice refers to the need for transforming, through public engagement, the prevailing economic and energy regime into a system that is both socially equitable and environmentally sustainable, with the aim of establishing a participatory process for the environmentally sound management of energy systems.

Epistemic Justice as a Transversal Component of Energy Justice

We see the epistemic dimension of social and environmental justice as crucially important. However, it has been largely ignored in the literature on energy justice (Heffron & McCauley, 2017; McCauley et al., 2019; McHarg, 2020), as well as in the context of struggles and plans for an energy transition. This even holds true for the working definition of energy justice developed by FORJE project stakeholders. Nevertheless, we did find echoes of the epistemological and andragogical concerns underlying the project when we asked participants about their relationship to knowledge and the issues that led them to activism. They pointed out that effective public resistance to megaprojects requires the rapid collection and analysis of a vast quantity of information, not to mention the preparation of a set of arguments supported by scientific data and legal or regulatory references. By contrast, developers typically have months if not years to prepare their case, with access to resources that far outstrip those available to groups in civil society.

This comparative lack of resources makes it difficult to secure recognition for local, day-to-day knowledge (i.e., knowledge gained through observation, experience, and dialogue) on the state of the environment, the health of animals, threats to the social fabric, etc. In the context of formalized discussions, such knowledge needs to be systematically supported by scientific data or expert judgments. Otherwise, it will be dismissed as opinion and not taken seriously. To a large extent, the lack of regard shown by public authorities for the citizens knowledge reflects the positivist and utilitarian conception of science (Simonneaux, 2011) that predominates in our society. And because many activists share this conception, arguments grounded in critical epistemology and social constructivism tend not to resonate with them. This makes it difficult to sustain efforts for building on the citizens knowledge through cross-training. Often, activist groups fighting for energy justice build relationships with teams or networks of academic researchers based on the transfer of knowledge from the academics to the activists. A relationship based on knowledge dialogue would undoubtedly be more fruitful.

Given these important issues, we have come to treat epistemic justice as a transversal component of our conceptual framework for understanding energy justice (Figure 1). The notion of epistemic justice refers to the “active recognition” of how, in the course of dealing with difficult questions, different forms of knowledge can coexist and complement each other (Godrie et al., 2020; Piron et al., 2016; Visvanathan, 2009).  Upholding epistemic justice involves recognizing the potential for forms of knowledge that are typically dismissed and overlooked—experiential knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, the citizens knowledge etc.—to create spaces for knowledge dialogue in which their value can be recognized. It also involves restructuring deliberation forums in a way that places forms of knowledge supported by different epistemologies—including popular and Indigenous epistemologies, epistemologies of the global South, etc.—on an equal footing.

Political Education Through Co-Instruction and the Campaign for Energy Justice

The results of the FORJE survey provide an overall picture of current issues surrounding the campaign for energy justice in Quebec. Apart from matters of epistemological framing, we found two additional areas of concern related to knowledge dialogue and collaborative knowledge development: (1) the conditions under which activism takes place and (2) the communication barriers encountered by activists.

The campaign for energy justice is taking shape in contexts where access to resources is limited and often conditional. The project-based funding of community organizations hinders action; it creates competition between groups, in addition to complicating their work and limiting their ability to speak out on emerging or controversial issues. Meanwhile, new community-based environmental groups have virtually no access to funding. The need to constantly keep tabs on developers and government agencies, all with very limited resources, inevitably leads to burnout. Project participants mentioned how difficult it can be to maintain knowledge gained in the course of previous campaigns or held by individuals who are no longer active in the movement (due to burnout, among other reasons).

They also noted that relations within the movement are starting to become as confrontational as those between activists and developers. Because these groups feel a constant sense of urgency, such internal conflicts are rarely addressed, let alone resolved. Many activists would like to see the situation change—for example, by adopting a more care-centred approach to how their groups operate. Meanwhile, labour unions are finding it difficult to strike the right balance and tone when it comes to environmental messaging. How can they raise awareness of the issues and gain a degree of influence without closing the door to dialogue? Likewise, avoiding binary logic (whereby someone is either for or against a project) appears to be a vital but highly difficult aspect of mobilizing support (Batelier & Maillé, 2017). Communities often find themselves divided by energy development projects, and addressing the issues in such all-or-nothing terms discourages listening, dialogue, and knowledge mobilization. It also glosses over the complexity of the dynamics at play.

Table 2: Priorities identified through the FORJE survey.

Source: Partial translation of a table included in Brière et al., 2022, p. 13.

Note : The various needs are not listed in order of importance.

Cross-Training Priorities Within Quebec’s Energy Justice Movement

In terms of the campaign for a socially just energy transition in Quebec, Component I of the research strategy (diagnostic survey of activists) allowed us to identify four priorities for supporting community mobilization through co-instruction (Table 2). Below, we briefly discuss some of the opportunities and challenges associated with two of these needs.

Arriving at a Shared Understanding of How to Ensure Fair Representation Within the Movement

Participants recognized that the diversity of organizational cultures and the unequal distribution of resources between organizations constitute major obstacles to adopting common positions and coordinated action strategies. They also acknowledged that reaching out to groups experiencing social injustice at the hands of the hegemonic energy regime is easier said than done. And yet, such groups should be included in any discussions or initiatives related to an energy transition.

The FORJE project has helped reveal important truths regarding collaboration with groups primarily concerned with having social inequality and other historical wrongs recognized and righted. We need to enhance our capacity for decentring and education ourselves, with a view to understanding and honouring the frames of reference, demands, and aspirations of the groups in question. It is important to be proactive, and to avoid always requiring others to explain their realities and positions. This will allow those in a more privileged position to begin taking responsibility for educating themselves on political solidarity, thereby helping establish trust while removing some of the awareness-raising burden from groups deemed marginalized or oppressed. Such an approach requires abandoning the very idea of integrating people “on the margins” within the movement for a just energy transition, an idea that presupposes that the movement revolves around those attempting to reach out.

Lessons on Self-Care and on Caring for Fellow Activists

Activists’ susceptibility to burnout may be related to their high expectations. Within the environmental movement, practising self-care tends to be considered an individual concern, and is often perceived negatively by associates (Cox, 2008; Weixia & Gorski, 2015). In any case, activist groups place little emphasis on self-care and caring for each other. Often justified in terms of limited financial resources or time (Cárdenas & Tello Méndez, 2017), this state of affairs poses a barrier to ensuring activists have access to basic health supports.

Those seeking to promote a holistic and systemic vision of care, one that would foster collective resilience and mutual support, emphasize the need for an integrated approach to caring for ourselves, our fellow activists, and the environment; for improving communication and listening processes; and for making care a core component of organizational and community life. Such an ethics of care has only recently begun to find its place within the environmental movement, through time set aside for sharing feelings, the celebration of shared victories (however small), twinning programs focused on mutual support, the explicit acknowledgement of care efforts, training in nonviolent communication, etc.

Using Cross-Training to Strengthen the Movement: Challenges and Opportunities

We hope the FORJE project will promote cross-training among those involved in the campaign for a socially just energy transition. Specifically, cross-training has the potential to enhance and support efforts for the co-construction of knowledge within the movement. In the fall of 2020, we were excited to learn that the Front commun pour la transition énergétique (FCTÉ), one of the project’s main partners, had begun implementing the community of practice model as a core component of Québec ZéN, a project that involves setting up regional transition initiatives in pursuit of net-zero emissions.

In the spring of 2021, the FORJE project steering committee organized four lunchtime conferences in collaboration with the FCTÉ. The aim was to facilitate discussion on questions related to the four priorities listed in Table 2 (conference participants received the discussion topics in advance). Dubbed Midis FORJE, these gatherings provided an opportunity to share our research findings, spark interest in knowledge dialogue processes, and add to the FORJE team’s catalogue of promising approaches. The discussions were therefore action-oriented insofar as they served to connect approaches identified through the FORJE project and the Midis FORJE with the aims and activities included in the FCTÉ Strategic Plan and the Québec Zén Implementation Plan.

The Midis FORJE marked the first time that the FCTÉ had engaged in cross-training activities. In all, the conferences brought together 80 individuals representing 42 organizations. When asked for feedback on the sessions, most participants reported having learned a lot. In particular, they appreciated the opportunity to exchange ideas in breakout groups and the overall approach to facilitation. In short, the Midis FORJE provided a glimpse of what the Québec ZéN project’s community of practice might look like.


The FORJE project has provided an opportunity to reflect on the building blocks of a holistic and emancipatory vision for energy justice, a vision focused on leveraging the potential of knowledge dialogue. Still, much remains to be done in terms of ensuring that the epistemic dimension of energy justice receives the attention it deserves in both the environmental movement and the political arena.

As for the campaign for energy justice in Quebec, our research efforts have allowed us to identify and document four cross-training priorities, each of which corresponds to a different aspect of political education. More broadly, in addition to developing intervention strategies designed to address these priorities, we have been able to showcase the importance of supporting knowledge dialogue across all aspects of the movement. There are still significant obstacles to creating spaces for sharing and co-constructing knowledge. Going forward, we believe it would be better to split the difference between traditional training methods and co-instruction. This should best support the socially just energy transition that activists ultimately want to achieve. Indeed, it seems more realistic to promote knowledge sharing and co-construction in the context of topic-based training sessions led by experienced trainers than to count on the emergence of a community of practice capable of supporting shared facilitation. And as we pursue our research into maximizing learning opportunities and supporting personal well-being within the environmental movement, we intend to focus on forms of training that encourage knowledge dialogue.

[1] These literature reviews covered the following topics: the axiology of energy justice, causes of activist burnout and ways of avoiding it, and issues associated with political engagement at the local level.

To cite this article

Birère, L., Prud’homme, M., Orellana, I., Marleau, M-E. et Chatelais, M. (2024). Reciprocal training: An instrument of epistemic justice in the campaign for a just energy transition. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text
Brière L, Moreau G, Prud’homme M, Orellana I, Marleau M-È et Chatelain M (2022) Soutenir la justice épistémique par la formation réciproque au cœur d’initiatives citoyennes de transition énergétique porteuse de justice sociale. Éducation et Socialisation 63(3). DOI : 
Batellier P and Maillé M-È (2017) Acceptabilité sociale : sans oui, c’est non. Montreal: Écosociété. 

Brière L, Moreau G, Chatelain M, Marleau M-È, Orellana I, Prud’homme M and Riverin J-A (2021) Encourager et nourrir la formation réciproque au cœur d’initiatives citoyennes de résistance et de transition énergétique. Rapport de recherche – projet FORJE. Montreal : Les Publications du Centr’ERE.

Brière L, Prud’homme M, Moreau G, Orellana I, Marleau M-È and Chatelain M (2022a) La formation réciproque sur les questions de justice énergétique dans l’espace politique local: enjeux et possibilités. VertigO – la revue électronique en sciences de l’environnement 22(3) DOI : 

Brière L, Marleau M-È, Orellana I, Chatelain M, Moreau G and Prud’homme M (2022b) Soutenir la justice épistémique au cœur de la recherche collaborative sur des questions socio-écologiques vives. Éducation relative à l’environnement : Regards – Recherches – Réflexions 17(2) DOI : 

Cárdenas Hernandez A.M and Tello Méndez N.G (2017) Self-Care as a Political Strategy. International Journal on Human Rights 14(26): 171-180. DOI : 10.2139/ssrn.3230812

Cox L (2008) How do we keep going? Activist burnout and personal sustainability in social movements. Fourteen International Conference on Alternative Futures and Popular Protest. 

Godrie B, Boucher M, Bissonnette S, Chaput P, Flores J, Dupéré S, Gélineau L, Piron F and Bandini A (2020) Injustices épistémiques et recherche participative : un agenda de recherche à la croisée de l’université et des communautés. International Journal of Community Research and Engagement 13(1).

Piron F (2017) Méditation haïtienne. Répondre à la violence séparatrice de l’épistémologie positiviste par l’épistémologie du lien. Sociologie et sociétés 49(1): 33-60. DOI : 10.3917/chime.099.0201

Piron F, Mboa Nkoudou T.H, Regulus S et al. (2016) Une autre science est possible. Récit d’une utopie concrète dans la francophonie : le projet SOHA. Possibles 40(2) : 202-217.  

Simonneaux J (2011) Légitimité des savoirs et des expertises. L’exemple du développement durable. In : Legardez A and Simonneaux L (dir.), Développement durable et autres questions d’actualité. Questions socialement vives dans l’enseignement et la formation : Educagri éditions, pp.365-382. 

Visvanathan S (2009) The search for cognitive justice. India Seminar. Available at : 

Weixia Chen C and Gorski P.C (2015) Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications. Journal of Human Rights Practice 7(3): 366-390.