Decolonizing Academic Praxis with “Words that Remake Life”

Editor’s Note: the following reflections are by Amber Murrey, Hasnaa Mokhtar, Patricia Daley, and Melanie Bush. This piece has been shortened for ENGAGE; to read the full version, please contact Amber Murrey at ambermurrey@gmail.com.

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Photo by Toma Mengebier © TOMAMADE 2017

A collective of transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary thinkers came together for a two-day workspace on “decolonizing” academic exchanges at Clark University on the 9th and 10th of April 2017. Our ambition was to interrogate, critique, and re-imagine academic workspaces and communicative praxis. Hence the title for the space: Decolonizing Communicative Praxis with “Words That Remake Life.”

This workspace sought to explicitly imagine other ways of expressing knowledge, sharing a collective thinking and creative process. Through guided and exploratory discussions, interactive and embodied sessions, as well as critical readings, we addressed the structural and epistemological legacies of colonialism within our universities and societies at large.

Our sessions covered a broad range of topics—from stories of resistance, to re-imagining space and technology to reparations for epistemic violence.

 

The Workspace: Coloniality & Resistance

Patricia Daley (School of Geography & the Environment, University of Oxford) described the emergence and evolution of Rhodes Must Fall. Inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town, the Oxford students’ protests grew into Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford with a mission “to decolonize the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond.” Their demands spoke to a larger problem than the perpetuation of colonial iconography, Eurocentric curricula, and the limited number of people of color in the university’s staff, faculty, and student body.

In this context, Daley proposed reparations for “epistemicide,” or the killing of epistemes and knowledge systems through coloniality. She pushed us to consider what this might mean in the space(s) of the university. Such reparations, then, would explicitly give attention to and space for the compensation of epistemic harms. Reparations demand a re-centering of human dignity, not just in educational spaces, but also as a tool for transformative social change.

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (Archie Mafeje Research Institute of University of South Africa) joined the group via Skype to discuss his recent article, “Why Are South African Universities Sites of Struggle Today?”, in which he situates the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall student movements within the wider South African context. He argued that the end of apartheid in 1994 dealt with a particular problem in a specific time and way, while the current protests are about decolonizing and humanizing Black South Africans. This project is about re-writing South Africa’s history from the perspective of its black and non-white peoples.

Gordon Asher (Learning and Curriculum Developer at the University of the West of Scotland) likewise joined us on Skype to speak about his reflexive work on being part of the academic precariat in the UK. His talk drew upon our discussion of his toolkit for the neoliberal university, which unpacks the conceptual language to describe the patriarchal capitalist ethos that now infuses the management and self-management of scholarly life in which knowledge is a commodity for the marketplace.

Hasnaa Mokhtar, a PhD student at Clark University, read a short reflection piece on the contentions she has been grappling with in her research as a practicing Muslim examining religio-cultural gender-based violence in Muslim communities. Although grateful to the social sciences and the knowledge(s) she acquired, Mokhtar’s reading nodded to a struggle to reconcile the metaphysics of Islam with depersonalized social science data devoid of meaningful consideration for spirituality.

During an important bi-lingual exchange, Patrice Nganang (English Literature, Stony Brook University) and Joyce Ashuntantang (English, University of Hartford) discussed resistance to linguistic inequality and language-based discrimination. The linguistic divisions within Cameroon are colonial divisions. Mixing poetry and prose readings with social media videos and political speeches, the prominent authors offered reflections on language, state violence, #BringBackOurInternet, and nonviolent resistance.

In her Dialogue on Decolonizing Technology, linked to the MayFirst PeopleLink Technology and Revolution convergences primarily being organized in the United States and Mexico, Melanie Bush (Sociology, Adelphi University, UNISA) led the group through an exploration of the potentials for further and future technology being used for liberatory projects. Participants worked in pairs to imagine new tools and celebrate existing tools necessary to meet human needs and challenge the coloniality.

In an interactive session on Resistance

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Photos by Toma Mengebier © TOMAMADE 2017

through Geospatial Science, Jennifer C. Veilleux (Geography, Florida International University) guided the participants through a map-drawing activity. Through a series of questions, Veilleux suggested that processes of determining people’s needs often get “lost in translation” when converted into scientific narratives.

The evening concluded with a session led by Dianne Rocheleau (Graduate School of Geography, Clark University) and Padini Nirmal (Graduate School of Geography at Clark University) on living, dying, and resisting in the global capitalist hydra. In the session, Nirmal facilitated a powerful discussion about the politics of navigating institutional requirements in the pursuit of a doctorate. Participants shared stories on the alienations of being racialized scholars, often working against the assumption that they have incomplete knowledge.

 

Going Forward

The notion of drawing on words, language, and communication otherwise to “remake life” is encapsulated in a poem, The Wrath of God, written by the Cameroonian author and poet, Patrice Nganang. The poem richly animates the oftentimes-violent ambiguity of language and words that do not seem to speak and of mouths that, in stillness, refuse to speak.

One of the ideas generated through our exchanges was an idea put forward by Patricia Daley, to create a platform for a decolonizing dictionary. This idea emerged out of Melanie Bush and Amber Murreys (International Development & Social Change, Clark University) jointly curated discussion of the need to recover, recuperate, and create concepts-otherwise for understanding social worlds and social identities.

Knowledge(s) that might be centered in such projects are often relegated to the periphery of social science (dismissed as “politically motivated” or negated). Some members of our collective are working to create a collective and interactive portal under the auspices of a “decolonizing dictionary to remake life.”

Going forward, we remain animated:

  • How do we continue to bring to the fore that which coloniality has rendered invisible and/or “of no value” to humanity?
  • How do we cultivate pluriversals and ethos for methodologies and knowledges otherwise?
  • Are projects seeking to dismantle colonization (from within the university) more powerfully reconfigured in practice by avoiding claims to the very term “decolonization”?
  • Are these conceptual conversations generative and meaningful? How might they be redundant, superficial, and/or self-congratulatory?
  • How is “decolonization” (the term, the projects) being de-radicalized?

 

Acknowledgements

Human Geography—A New Radical Journal and Clark University’s International Development, Community & Environment sponsored the workspace. A special thanks is due Dylan Harris and Teresa Bornschlegl (both graduate students in Geography at Clark) for their collaboration with the logistics of the event and to Toma Mengebier (founder of Toma Made) for single-handedly managing all tech, promotion, video, and photos for the two-day workspace.

About the Authors

A decolonial feminist political geographer, Amber Murrey researches and writes on resistance, the politics of knowledge, and resource extraction in Africa (Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia). She is the editor of the forthcoming volume, “A Certain Amount of Madness:” The Political Philosophies and Legacies of Thomas Sankara. She tweets at @AmberMurrey.

Hasnaa Mokhtar is a Ph.D. student in International Development at Clark University, Worcester, MA. Her current research examines religio-cultural gender-based violence in the Arab Gulf States. She holds a M.A. in International Development and Social Change and a B.A. in English Language. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, Hasnaa was a journalist in Arab News, Saudi Arabia. She writes at www.clippings.me/hmokhtar

Patricia Daley is Professor of the Human Geography of Africa at the University of Oxford. Her current research project is entitled: Decentering the Nation-State: Citizenship and Identity in Tanzania.

Melanie E. L. Bush is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Adelphi University, New York and Research Fellow at the University of South Africa. Her recently published book, Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie or Reality (2015), was co-authored with Roderick D. Bush (1945-2013). Her current research explores the yearnings and accomplishments of those involved with solidarity economy projects.

Toma (Thomas) Mengebier is a French-American multimedia engineer who combines visual messages with key areas of research, including refugee and immigrant representation, climate change education, and advocacy for social justice. He holds a M.A. In International Development and Social Change from Clark University and a B.A. in Fine Arts and Cultural Industries. Toma founded his business, TOMAMADE, in March 2017 to provide communication solutions for multimedia, social media, and audiovisual design and production.

 

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What’s Up This Summer? IDCE Students Share Their Plans

The IDCE Department at Clark University is a community of scholars and practitioners, and nowhere is this more in evidence than in the diversity of work, research, activism and service activities with which IDCE students fill their summers. And I do mean fill—almost to bursting, in fact. I’ve caught glimpses of these busy three-month interludes many times over the years—at parties, graduation ceremonies, speaking events—so I thought it would be of interest to the wider community to pull as many as possible together in one place.

In mid-May, I asked students to share their plans. Here is what they’ll be up to.

Caliper Metal Turning
The Fair Tech Collective

Sarah Gates (GISDE) will be conducting research projects with The Fair Tech Collective and World Resources Institute as a Summer of Maps Fellow at Azavea.

Stanley Greidinger will be working with Professor Tim Downs and various students on a environmental impact assessment review which they hope to publish. Stanley will also continue his job at the US Forest Service where he is an executive assistant, and taking over a position as the general manger for the Clark Community Thrift store. Stanley adds that all of this is part of ramping up his practical experience with community and environmental issues, as well as connecting his academic study to research.

Cory Hertog (ES&P/MBA dual degree program) will be working with the Environmental Defense Fund as a Climate Corps Fellow. Cory will conduct energy and water efficiency benchmarking on public housing properties in Boise, Idaho, to gather data on the properties and identify energy saving opportunities.

Drew Hooks (IDSC) will travel to Barcelona to conduct focus groups with members of worker cooperatives. These focus groups will discuss the members’ motivations for forming cooperatives and the manner in which their respective cooperatives engage with the community.

Bethia Kadoe (ES&P) has an internship with the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership (NEEP) in Lexington, MA, for the first half of the summer, and will be spending the latter half in Burma/Myanmar researching impacts of sand mining.

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Mexican Spotted Owl

Jeanie Lai (GISDE) will be in the Denver area completing a fellowship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she will be locating, digitizing, and updating spatial data related to the Mexican spotted owl and southwestern willow flycatcher.

Daniel Lassila will be doing GIS land-cover research with the NGO Iracambi in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Nara McCray (GISDE) is spending the summer in Washington D.C. creating energy access maps of India and Tanzania for the World Resources Institute.

Molly McPhee (CDP Class of 2017) is working this summer as Assistant Director at a Boys & Girls Club camp in Colorado.

Kelsey Meisenhelder (GISDE) will be a conservation geospatial technician with the Nature Conservancy on Palmyra Atoll (about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii) as part of the Growing Leaders on Behalf of the Environment (GLOBE) intern program. Kelsey will be taking geospatial data in the field (with a GPS) to support ongoing ecology research, and will create infrastructure maps of the research station and islands.

Hasnaa Mokhtar (Ph.D. student, International Development) will be working with Professor Nicole Overstreet on a research project  identifying sociocultural barriers preventing Muslim women survivors of violence from accessing services in Worcester, MA, and developing strategies to reduce gaps in service needs. She has also been accepted into the Karamah Law & Leadership Summer Program which she will attend for two weeks in July in Washington, D.C.

Magaly Preciado (IDSC) will start a project with the UN Global Compact office in Mexico, developing indicators to evaluate the sustainability reports presented by corporate signatories.  She also has an internship as a Diversity & Inclusion Analyst at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.

Patrick Seed (IDCE MA Class of 2017) will by traveling to Roche a Bateau, Haiti, at the end of May to assist with post-Hurricane Matthew reconstruction.

Matthew Woodruff will be working as an assistant program coordinator for Recreation Worcester, a free six week youth development program that takes place at local parks. Matthew will oversee data management and program evaluation for all sites.

(Editor’s Note: don’t see your name? Never fear: just send me your own summer plans and I’ll update this post)

 

Unnatural Disaster: The Famine Crisis in Africa and Yemen

The worst hunger emergency since the second world war is happening right now.

That is the conclusion of Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator. For the first time in the organization’s history, his office warns, famine is either underway or developing in four countries at once: South Sudan (where it has already been declared in some regions), Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. Approximately 22 million people are threatened with starvation in the weeks and months ahead. Another 30 million are severely hungry, living with the pain, physical weakness and other debilitating effects of hunger on a daily basis.

O’Brien has made a very specific appeal to U.N. member countries: more than $4 billion by July for emergency relief alone. “We stand at a critical point in our history,” he said. “Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death.”

This disaster cannot be traced to a single cause—indeed the temptation to do so must be rigorously avoided, for anyone concerned with issues of food security. As with all hunger disasters, from those inadvertently engineered by the British in the 19th century to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa, a host of factors has contributed to the present crisis.

Much More Than Drought

Many casual readers of the news are left with the impression that one factor—the weather—tells them all they need to know about hunger. In the four countries at the heart of the current crisis, the climatic situation is certainly dire. Sustained drought has killed crops, fodder and livestock. Extreme heat events associated with climate change have further damaged food production (for example, by preventing or stunting crop germination). Rivers have shrunk or dried up altogether. Vital rains have failed.

But again, these climatic elements of the tragedy are only part of the picture. During the 2011 crisis, IDCE Director Edward Carr put it bluntly:

The drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

Carr underscores the profoundly interconnected nature of the causes of food insecurity. He notes that such causes virtually always include the failure of markets, as they are the mechanisms by which food reaches people, and through which they generate income to purchase it.

These markets may be local, regional, or global—but increasingly they are all three at once. “At this point, the interdependence of markets is so remarkable that droughts in Russia compromising a wheat harvest can trigger maize price spikes in Malawi during a normal harvest year.”

causes flowchart

As the illustration suggests, market failures themselves stem from numerous causes. Elisabeth Gilmore, an Associate Professor at IDCE, along with colleagues at other institutions, has been investigating the effects of food price spikes on social unrest, regime change and civil war, as well as caloric consumption and economic well-being. Currently, she leads an effort to review the metrics commonly used by conflict scholars to examine the pathways from food prices to political instability. She cautions that over the longer term, higher food prices (such as those caused by climate shocks) could force the world’s poorest to spend more and more of their income on sustaining basic caloric needs, with adverse impacts for development and social stability.

Conflict, in the current hunger emergency, is a factor of extraordinary importance. Ellen Messer of the United Nations University goes so far as to state that “only in conflict-affected areas does drought produce famine that kills.” Others analysts do not go so far. What is certain is that all four countries now threatened with famine are experiencing large-scale armed conflict, with millions of people having been driven from their homes.

In Yemen, the ongoing war is a disaster of staggering proportions all by itself. Various municipalities are under near-constant siege, both by Houthi rebels and devastating Saudi airstrikes (with initial, and to some degree continuing, U.S. support). The city of Taiz, third largest in Yemen, has been without running water or electricity for two years. Health and sanitation systems have broken down, as have systems of governance and accountability.

In addition to the thousands killed in battles and bombing raids since the outbreak of war in 2015, the conflict has shattered the economy, displaced over two million persons and left 6.8 million in a condition of extreme food insecurity. Of these, some 3.3 million children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are severely malnourished. And the ongoing combat has slowed or halted nearly every form of response. Western banks, doubting that they will be repaid, have cut lines of credit for food traders seeking to import food into the country. Fighting in and around Yemen’s ports has endangered humanitarian workers and destroyed dock equipment, leaving vessels laden with food anchored offshore. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called Yemen’s crisis the largest food insecurity emergency in the world.”

Conflict is also the most acute factor in South Sudan’s famine emergency, where war has been raging since 2013. Food has even become a weapon of war in this young country, where crops have been intentionally burned and millions forced off their farms, often into refugee camps in Uganda or Kenya. This spring, IDCE Professor Amira Mohamed taught a class entitled “Conflict and Displacement in the Horn of Africa,” and devoted portions of the class to famine and food security. In early March, the class hosted a panel discussion on the recently-declared famine in South Sudan, in which scholars and human rights activists Dr. Isaac Gang and Omer Ismail participated via Skype.

In similar fashion, the fighting in northeast Nigeria (between government forces and Boko Haram militants) has displaced two million people. The fighting prevented harvest of the last two years of crops and could do so again in 2017. It has also crippled the internal markets that could otherwise be moving produce from other regions of Nigeria into the northeast.

Somalia last suffered famine in 2011, and now faces the possibility of its return. Unlike 2011, there is now a real if fragile central government in Mogadishu, and hence something of a national response. On the other hand drought conditions are more severe and widespread: last year, the country’s first seasonal rains were well below average, and the second, final rains failed altogether. In the first months of 2017 the vital Shabelle river in southern Somalia has been dangerously low. Just as concerning is the lateness of the global response. The global humanitarian reporting agency IRIN notes:

If there was an overwhelming lesson from 2011, it was that the time for rapid action is before the situation deteriorates into famine. The window for early action to prevent widespread mortality in 2017 is rapidly closing – indeed it is already late in the process to be trying to mitigate the crisis.

As Edward Carr noted in 2011, the public’s ability to help with an ongoing crisis is limited. “Send money,” he advises. “Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research beforehand.” Individuals, however, should not even consider making a journey to a region facing a food emergency, as it’s impossible not to get in the way. “If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.”

But anyone concerned with food security can help in the struggle for long-term solutions. That struggle rests fundamentally on improving our grasp of the full, multi-causal nature of the problem of hunger. In future articles on food security, ENGAGE will consider some of the ways IDCE scholars and others are applying their knowledge and eschewing disciplinary boundaries in the search for answers.

Update: in a fascinating and highly pertinent essay, IDCE Professor Amber Murrey discusses food sovereignty, food justice and imperialism through the example of Thomas Sankara of Burkino Faso. Among other things, her essay reminds us how food aid can actually erode food security in the long term if not paired with broader movements for ecological and social justice.

 

Clark IDCE Grad Student a Leader in the Struggle Against Islamaphobia

hasnaa-mokhtar-clark-university-library_0Accomplished journalist and Clark International Development PhD student Hasnaa Mokhtar received multiple and well-deserved forms of recognition this spring for her work combating prejudice and misconceptions about Islam, with particular attention to issues effecting Muslim girls. Mokhtar received her MA from IDCE and is now doing coursework for her PhD. Read about her important work in Clark’s own newspaper The Scarlet and the snazzy online magazine Nylon, which named Mokhtar one of eight influential Muslim journalists to watch, especially noting her powerful essay following the 2015 terror attacks in Paris. We salute you, Hasnaa!