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Re-learning Hope

Re-learning Hope

Posted by on Feb 26, 2014 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

I have been thinking a lot about hope these days. Reflecting on the places we visited on this journey and the people we have met, one of the most noticeable qualities we encountered along the way has been the experience and expression of hope.

Despite the adversity encountered by First Nations peoples’ in Canada or indigenous communities in Mexico who suffered the violence of colonialism, dispossession of their lands, repression of their culture and way of life or else by favela residents in Rio de Janeiro facing prejudice on a daily basis on top of the challenges of poverty and inequality, we met hopeful people and places.

People who were creatively engaging with the challenges imposed by the conditions they faced in the present and the legacies of the past by building and living alternatives. This in stark contrast to the discernible absence of hope we seem to be submerged in through the dominant mass media that inundates us, and the academic and institutional environments we are educated in.

I have been reflecting on a quote Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra in Oaxaca, Mexico, related to us during one of our conversations. Quoting Czech novelist, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel, Gustavo described the notion of hope Unitierra was using. This notion of hope, I believe, gave coherence to their autonomous and collective forms of learning and engagement with the challenges faced by urban and indigenous communities in the Oaxaca region. I recently traced the source of the quote by Havel:

Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit.. […] Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

(The quote comes from an article he published in Esquire magazine in 1983 – available online – and is also found in Havel’s 1991 book. Disturbing the Peace.)

This existential, embodied and non-future oriented understanding and experience of hope appears honest, empowering and appealing to me. It also resonates with the practices of Unitierra, as well as other places we visited, and the attitude they are living by.

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‘Crocheting a new world’ – painted mural on Zapatista house in Oventic. photo by Kelly

By contrast ‘hope’ is not a word you often hear in the corridors of educational institutions. In my 20 + years in such places of higher education I do not remember ever having really encountered it, either as a topic of learning or a focus of discussion. No doubt it has similar ‘fuzzy’ connotations as ‘love’, ‘compassion’, things seldomly considered as worthy subjects of inquiry or conversation in institutions concerned with ‘knowledge’.

Instead these institutional learning spaces have excelled at developing and imparting the very useful (and valued) skills of empirical inquiry, analytical thinking, and – though some would argue decreasingly so – critical thinking.

In the social sciences in general (and I am not even speaking here of the humanities and natural sciences too, where this also applies, but that is another story), the tools of critical thinking and empirical enquiry have been sharpened for generations, with methodological developments and morphing theoretical paradigms. But the conditions within which such developments take place are rarely examined in any depth, let alone challenged. Can critical thinking apply itself to itself?

This question has haunted me for years, as has the sense that there is a largely unarticulated and un-criticized set of assumptions, habits of thinking, practice, belief and social organization, that are a part of disciplinary ethos and institutional life. Beyond that still, there is an unquestioned and unchallenged set of assumptions, practices, values, beliefs and social organizational norms surrounding our system of higher education (or more broadly education). If these disciplinary, institutional and educational systems where to be considered a society and culture of their own, social scientists would be investigating them, also challenging claims to universality and so forth.

My restlessness and increasing unease within the academic contexts I taught and researched in then came from this sense that the conditions within which I was working, thinking, researching, teaching in, where shaping my practices, values, beliefs and how I related to others and to the place I lived in, but in ways that were both taming and at the same time part of a larger and deeper logic I did not fully understand.

I could also sense how this taming, reproducing a logic, set of values, ways of relating, acting and believing was also affecting students. Students, like all of us, are bombarded with the negativity and sense of hopelessness of the mass media. But their capacity for critical thinking is also, hopefully, sharpened through the course of their studies.

Across the social sciences students learn about countless injustices in the world today and in the past, and to critically engage with various modern institutions from a perspective that also points out the adverse effects of these: government, corporations, the economy, development, technology and so forth.

This is a hugely important part of a modern education, the capacity to also understand the horrors of the world and carefully consider the causes of these. At the same time, given the triumphalism of neo-liberalists across the political classes, business and academia, there is also the sense that we are at the end of the road for any further experimentation – that the battle of big ideas and for the organization of society is over. Whether fully conscious of this or not, this has bred a cynicism in the corridors of academia, a cynicism and sense of hopelessness that is also transmitted to students.

This has made me wonder how academic institutions reproduce hopelessness by the taming of imagination, thought and learning, which at the same time devalues and delegitimizes other aspects of our human experience and capacity to learn. Aspects which have to do with the other ways by which we are in and learn in the world not only by critical thinking, empirical enquiry, analysis, but by feeling, doing, valuing, relating to others and place.

This journey has been for us in a large way about re-learning hopefulness, in the sense quoted above by Havel, learning that what we are doing can make sense even when other things in the world (media, political, corporate and academic consensus and its legitimized cannons of knowledge) appear to point in the opposite direction.

It has also been a learning and unlearning journey, in the deepest sense, with both happening simultaneously. Unlearning in as much as layers of habits, beliefs, ways of thinking, relating, valuing are brought into consciousness and, at least to an extent, let go of in the face of new possibilities.

I have always liked (Deleuze and Guattari’s) expression of how thinking, or rather new thoughts, emerge from a situation of shock with the world, when something new is brought to awareness, provoking us to try to make sense of it in a different way. Instead of falling back to habits when faced with the new, or taming it into an academic logic, through this journey we sought to embrace this shock of the new, explore it, open ourselves to it. In many cases the new happens to be really very old!

Unpeeling an ingrained logic and habit of thinking and the emotional tone of hopelessness is not easy. I think for us it has been gradual and is ongoing.

At this point of the journey – and looking back at what we have written up in these posts since October 2012, we can see some contours of what we have been learning and some key ideas and experiences that have crystalized, configuring what might be described as enlivened learning. That is, a learning that is not tamed, reduced or reductive, abstracted or detached…. Rather, a learning that takes place from our whole being and within our network of relationships with others, humans, non-human beings and things.

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Food-“E”-scapes – Part 1: Learning Food

Food-“E”-scapes – Part 1: Learning Food

Posted by on Nov 25, 2013 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

When we set off on this journey I never imagined that I would learn so much about food. I did not consider that what I knew, thought and felt about food would change so much nor that I would be exploring the connection between food, learning and higher education.

As it turned out, I have come to learn quite a lot over the last year about the various ways that food is connected to our identities, our relation to our environment, to humans and non-human beings, but more broadly on the various processes of production, processing and waste surrounding food. All of these processes and the different relationships, practices and experiences they create have diverse, and often competing, kinds of knowledge systems behind them – distinct paradigms and cosmologies and as such this has become a key topic in Enlivened Learning.

I am calling this total system of relation to food, involving relationships, knowledges and practices, the foodscape. This is not a made-up term as there seems to be increasing use of it, especially in Geography (not to mention by certain photographers who make cities out of vegetables – just google it). I guess a foodscape is the particular way in which we relate to, know and intervene upon particular aspects of the environment involved in our sustenance.

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Signs of the Buffalo – Fort MacLoud, Alberta, Canada region of the Blackfoot, photo by Udi.

It is strange to think how, without a conscious intention, so many of the posts Kelly and I have written here over the last few months have been about foodscapes: Blackfoot Buffalo hunting and the extermination of the herds by the settlers; Blackfoot knowledge of the land, plants and animals in Alberta; the cultivation of corn and the rise of Meso-American civilization; urban gardening and dry compostable toilets in Oaxaca; communal agriculture amongst the Quechua Lamas in Upper Amazon in Peru (choba choba); extractive forest reserves and the struggle of indigenous communities, rubber tappers against rich landowners in the Amazon region in Acre, Brazil; the Landless Movement’s (MST) struggle for rural peasants and against agribusiness across Brazil.

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Choba Choba – communal agricultural practice amongst the Quechua Lamas, Lamas, Peru. photo by Udi.

Before we head into the other higher education initiatives we visited in Latin America I wanted to reflect a bit and try to synthesize some thoughts, experiences, readings, sharing some of what I have learnt around all this.

What was noticeable within almost all the learning places we visited in our journey was the centrality of foodscapes in their knowledge and pedagogy (teaching/learning practice and philosophy). This in turn made me consider the almost complete absence of learning about foodscapes in my own educational trajectory.

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Roof-top garden, Unitierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. photo by Udi.

No doubt people have different experiences of this, but what I remember from my formal education in respect to this is learning about the digestive system in biology, and maybe a bit of nutrition, a vague memory of something called Rural Studies when I was 14 (where we learnt about sheep and the teacher dissected a rabbit). I remember that cooking classes, or Home Economics, was fun but all I remember from there was making a swiss-roll and profiteroles. I do not remember ever really being taught where my food came from, how it was grown, produced and processed and where, what knowledge was involved in these processes and what kinds of foodscapes exist or have existed.

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Quechua Lama grandma teaching in the medicinal garden, Lamas, Peru. photo by Udi.

This has prompted me to think about how much of our food system involves an escape from food. The systems industrial society has created for sourcing, processing and selling food has meant an ever-greater distance and disconnection from the importance of wholesome food relationships. Our foodscape has then become a food-escape.

In contrast, the centrality of foodscapes in the places we visited reflected a greater concern, reciprocity and care for the land, the environment and all its beings, for sustainability in the use of resources for the production of food and shelter and in the water system and in the production of waste. Many of the places also showed a much greater awareness and care for the economic relations between those involved in food growing with concepts of cooperative work in growing food being key organising nodes (especially in indigenous communities – ie. comunalidad in Oaxaca, Mexico, choba choba in the Peruvian Upper Amazon with the Quechua Lamas).

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Agro-ecology Garden at the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes of the Landless Movement (MST), State of São Paulo, Brazil. photo by Kelly.

As well as the communal production of food we also noted the great importance of cultural activities surrounding cooking and eating. As Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra put it, the term comida in Mexico means much more than the English term ‘food’ – it is not just about material sustenance but the whole complex culture that surrounds cooking, sharing food and eating together. Perhaps this is much closer to the notion and movement surrounding ‘slow food’ which started in Italy in the 1980s as a re-assertion of local culinary cultures and practices of sourcing food in the face of the onslaught of globalised industrial Fast Food culture and agricultural production. I write more on the Fast/Slow food battles in the next post.

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‘Indigenous Organisations for Human Rights’ poster, Oaxaca, Mexico. photo by Kelly.

I have been wondering and learning about the consequences of our Food-E-scape – how we have become so dramatically cut off from the sources of our food, from the beings we eat and the landscapes they inhabit, from how they are killed and processed and transformed and stored and transported.

We, collectively in contemporary society, or at least the highly industrialised urban part of it, seem to learn (and educate the newest generations) so little about how our Food-E-Scape is severely transforming and destroying bio-diversity, soil, waterways, increasing pollution, affecting the climate and using the Earth’s resources in an unsustainable way.

It has also come to my attention how this lack of education or mis-education is actually being promoted by the few large corporations that are in charge of the agro-industrial Food-E-Scape, especially in places like North America.

As I recently learned in reading Michael Pollen’s excellent 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and watching several well-made and informative documentaries King Corn (2007), Food Inc. (2008), The World According to Monsanto (2008) abattoirs, meat processing plants, chicken factory farms and even high fructose corn syrup processing plants all refuse access to their facilities to those interested in learning what goes on inside.

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Further, agri-industry and bio-tech industry lobbyist, scientists, lawyers and managers wield tremendous power in Washington D.C. and are involved in drafting the legislation to oversee the industry or, as is often the case, convince politicians that no oversight is necessary. Huge pressure is also exerted on the government to keep the subsidies going for farmers to increase the production of commodities like corn and soya which are largely responsible for the current shape of US industrial agriculture.

A recent state-wide referendum in Washington State to introduce labelling on genetically modified foods was defeated at the ballots even though the pro-label group had a large early lead in the polls, after millions of dollars of Monsanto cash supported the advertising campaign of the anti-label side. So millions of dollars are being spent by large agri-business and biotech companies on keeping us ignorant of what we eat and also to reassure us that genetically modified foods are “safe, healthy and good for the planet”.

But I have also been considering the omission of our educational institutions (schools and higher education) of engaging more with our foodscapes. By this I don’t mean just things like campaigns on healthy school lunches, though these are also important, but more awareness of the various aspects of the totality of our foodscapes. How different might learning be in these institutions if learning was also grounded in the foodscapes we are immersed in was a core part of the curriculum, regardless of what degree you did? A part of a wholesome education. As Kelly wrote in the previous post, quoting David Orr, all education is environmental education by virtue of what you teach and omit.

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Urban agriculture workshop, Unitierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. Still from film, by Udi.

I remember a conversation with Jailson de Sousa e Santos, founder of the Observatório das Favelas, a grass-roots community organisation involved in education, research, capacity building and media communication in Maré, Rio’s largest favela (shanty-town). Jailson started ESPOCC, the School of Critical Communication to engage students in the field of media literacy and critique and give them tools through which to combat the toxic dominant media representation of favela communities in the country.

Jailson, who grew up in Maré and is also a Geography professor in the State university, talked to us about the model of the human being that is promoted in formal education – including universities – painting an image which has stayed with with me. This being – a veritable homo academicus – has a huge head in which to fit a large brain needed to think and record facts, a large hand to constantly write down things and a big ass on which to sit all day on a chair. I imagine the rest of its limbs atrophying from underuse, the rest of its faculties, de-sensitized fail to experience the world in all its wonderful complexity and relatedness. How is the stomach of such being? (We do apparently have millions of neurones there too, so have scientists have recently told us!) We don’t really learn with our stomachs, we don’t think or feel with our guts in these institutional settings.

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A sensory homunculus – Not quite the image I describe but it reminded me of this. It is actually a representation of what we would look like if each part of our body grew “in proportion to the area of the cortex of the brain concerned with its sensory perception.” (http://www.autismindex.com/Therapies/Therapy_Key_Word_Site_Map/sensory/motor_sensory_homunculus.html)

Travelling backwards up the Americas for thousands of miles to Southern Alberta another image of the human being comes to mind from what Ryan Heavyhead a Blackfoot teacher at Red Crow Community College spoke about in his approach to teaching. Ryan runs a year-long Phenology class for the Kainai Studies students at Red Crow (Kainai is one of the four Blackfoot bands which is resident in this territory).

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life-cycles and the relationship of these to seasonal change. Ryan’s class, as I have written about elsewhere, involves getting students to find a place and sit and learn it for five hours a week until the beings of the place become more familiar, and begin to show you things. This goes on for one year – a whole period of lunar cycles – the important marker in the Blackfoot calendar. After this year was completed the students were so transformed by the experiences they asked for a continuation of the course which Ryan created as a second year ‘Traditional Blackfoot Foods’ course. Here students learn to forage, gather, hunt and prepare traditional foods of this territory, sourcing them at particular times of the year.

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Ryan and Adrienne by pond where they re-learned practices of knowing place and its beings. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. photo by Udi.

Ryan’s immersion in the Blackoot foodscapes was impressive. He, and his wife, had re-learnt much that was forgotten in this territory about sourcing and preparing traditional foods, with the ‘old ways’ forgotten through the imposition of residential schooling (see post on this) but also the encroachment of settler lifestyles and their own foodscapes.

Ryan, amongst the many interested things he taughtme, said something that has stayed with me and is relevant here. That for the Blackfoot the relationship with non-human beings is essentially a relationship of food and that to really enter such relationships is to become fully human. At first this idea might seem strange, from a Western educated mind-set it might bring forth ideas of the ‘survival of the fittest’ of the struggle for survival through domination and consuming another. It reminded me of the Upanishad quote (an ancient Hindu sacred text) translated by Yeats in a film I once saw: “Everything in this world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and fire is eater.”

But this is to misunderstand the respectful and reciprocal characteristic of the relationship to plants, animals and place in the Blackfoot knowledge system that Ryan articulated. To enter a ‘food relationship’ does not mean that you just eat the food, but that you come to learn about the plant and animals being you are eating, about their life-cycles, their environment and their relationship to other beings.

It also means that you are indebted to the being that you eat and to their kind, as in so many hunter-gatherer groups, and so must reciprocate by not taking more than you need and by giving something back to them and the environment. The relationship of food is then not solely one of consumption and domination but of deep respect, gratitude and reciprocity.

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Intensive farming. Alberta, Canada. photo by Udi

 

How distant these ideas and practices seem from the agro-industrial oil and chemical fed machinery that extracts produce from the Alberta landscape now. Narcisse Blood, a Blackfoot elder who also taught at Red Crow College, lamented the waves of monopolies in this region, first, he told us, there was the Hudson Bay Trading Company and “Now we have Monsanto” monopolizing and transforming the agricultural landscape through a destructive form of farming.

Cut to the isle of a giant supermarket, could be anywhere, but say in the US, where the products of those fields end up. I stare down a neon-lit corridor of brightly packaged food – a cornucopia of diversity. What a multiplicity of flavor combination and shapes and consistencies and colours! But the sheer diversity of products and company names hides their often common source in only a few large parent companies which own most of the homely and rustic seeming brand-names.

 

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Cornucopia… photo by Udi.

 

I read the labels on a few products, the diversity of ingredients also hides their often common source in a variation of corn, most frequently high fructose corn syrup or some corn (or soy) additive or preservative. This is the relation of food to many of us – one of reading – oh homo academicus… More recently I have learnt how much the seeming multiplicity of the US diet and by consequence of US people is made of corn. You can trace back the carbon we have in our bodies which bridge our cells to their original source and this in an average North American is around 70% corn!

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“Brands and the economic concentration of the Multinationals” from the wall of the MST office, Porto Alegre, Brazil. photo by Udi.

 

As a key institution of social reproduction, our education system (including our universities) surely has a role in shaping how we understand and relate to our foodscapes and the kinds of knowledges and technologies it creates in relation to this. (I write more on the conflicting knowledges and technologies shaping our foodscape and those of many other places around the world in my next post).

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“Maize from Chiapas”, Chiapas, Mexico. photo by Kelly.

 

On a theological – or maybe spiritual note – I was really struck by what Cezar Añorve, an architect from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and in his word ‘cacologist’ (an expert on caca), said recollecting one of his last conversations with philosopher and theologian Ivan Illich. Cesar has spent most of his life promoting awareness of our how we might deal with our poo without polluting water (see the posts on this), in this he was influenced by his life-long friend Ivan, whose works entailed a critique of industrial civilization and the possibility of a post-industrial world built on a more local and human scale, emphasizing values of friendship and conviviality. Ivan died in 2002 and in his last conversation with Cesar, he had told him that “The highest offering we can give to God is not our head or our hearts, but our guts”.

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Cesar’s cacaravan workshop. Unitierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. Still from film by Udi.

 

I have often thought of this phrase in relation to the large scale damage being done to the ecosystem through the unsustainable agricultural practices and technologies being developed which are negatively distorting life itself in some many directions (see next post on this). I have wondered what it might mean to offer our guts to a higher value or principle, one that seeks to support the continuation of the web of life in its intricate and delicate balance.

I also often think of Ryan’s comment on the Blackfoot relations to non-humans as being one of food – meaning not just consumption but also interest, respect, gratitude and reciprocity acknowledging the role they play in the perpetuation of life. In the foodscape I have been raised in, we were not taught to think enough with our guts, nor extend our gratitude and interest (in practice not just prayer) to the beings that give us life. But this does not mean things cannot change. To change how we think about and relate to these beings and their environment, thinking with our guts, may well be a big step toward such transformations.

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Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Posted by on Sep 2, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, ENFF | 0 comments

In the next few posts we pick up our journey once again in South America…

The bus from Rio dropped us off on the highway 70km before arriving in São Paulo. The highway passes through small towns, farms and factories. Getting our bags before heading down the small country lane we are greeted by a large sign with colourful dancing M & Ms in front of the chocolate factory across the highway, the banner reads: ‘A diversão começa aqui’, ‘The fun begins here’.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

We did not know what to expect as we came to visit the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes ENFF, the Florestan Fernandes National School, named after an eminent Brazilian sociologist and activist. This place of higher education (they do call themselves a university), is a flagship and central learning space of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Landless Movement of Rural Workers, (or also known as the acronym, MST).

Founded in 2005 through the collective effort of the MST and funds from eminent supporters like photographer Sebastião Salgado, musician Chico Buarque and many others, the ENFF has been created to act as a central learning hub for the MST and other like-minded social and ecological movements in Brazil and Latin America.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Our communication with the coordination team of ENFF had been sporadic and brief so we did not know how we would be received and if people really understood what we were doing. We also were not sure what, if anything would be happening at the school as courses do not run all year round but happen in blocks at certain times of the year or else in one-off events. Any unease we had about being here soon dissipated as we are warmly received and shown to our accommodation by our friendly hosts who were in charge of organising this place.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Still from film. photo by Udi

Landless Rural Workers, like other marginalised social groups, such as those from the favelas which we wrote about in the last posts, tend not to be fairly represented in the mainstream media in Brazil. The MST in particular, because of their struggle for an overhaul of the country’s intensely unfair land ownership system and the proposal for a socialist and redistributive state, tend to receive a particularly negative representation from the right-wing leaning printed press, such as Veja magazine and from Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, the Rede Globo Network.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Poster. photo by Udi

Against this hostile media background the movement has also always suffered from violent attacks and threats by landowners. The most notorious of such episodes was the massacre of 19 MST activists in El Dorado dos Carajas in the state of Pará by military police in 1996. During our days visiting the School, a regional MST leader, active in promoting more environmentally sound agriculture, was murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Many at the school knew him and on hearing the news an emotional celebration of his life took place.

With threats, the actuality of violence or death and the symbolic violence of the media, it is no wonder that the MST can be guarded to outsiders. But it did not take long, as has been our experience in all the places we have visited, to feel warmly welcomed by those we met: people coordinating, running, teaching and learning at the school.

During our time in the School we were shown around and talked to coordinators and activists from the MST, a couple of university lecturers who were teaching classes here, a group of teachers working in schools across the country who also came here on a course on Education, Literature and Music and Rural Education. We also talked to younger MST members who were studying at public universities across Brazil in courses designed in partnership with ENFF. We will talk more about what we learned from them and from being there in the next post.

Whilst here we also talked to people like Cléia who had a degree in agriculture and was working in the gardens demonstrating various aspects of cultivation and who was especially keen on bringing more ecological principles into the movement (which has historically used a more chemical-based and industrial approach to farming and food processing so as to make production more commercially viable). Agro-ecology is taking over as an important agricultural view and practice in the Movement.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Garden. photo by Udi

We learned about the international dimension of the Movement talking to Leo, who was here at the School waiting for the rest of his team from the MST who were going on a two or three year posting to Haiti to work with local partners on a water capture, storage and irrigation project in communities affected by the 2010 earthquake. Leo, from the northeast of Brazil, had already been to Haiti on this project for two years and spoke Creole, he loved his time there and was keen to go back. He was here to also teach others from his team Creole and about the project.

We learned about the experience of children in Movement from two delightful guides, five and eight years old, sons of families who were living here at the School. They showed us around the place: where the pre-school children organised themselves to have a camp night, away from their parents in the premises of the school; the large cafeteria where people ate all meals together; a frog swimming in the swimming pool. We loved their curiosity, confidence and ease at engaging with grown ups. The MST also has its own children’s groups and events, the Sem Terrinha, or Little Landless People, at each camp and settlement which also has its own publication.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, The feet of our guides. photo by Udi

(This experience we had elsewhere in our journey when we met children who were being raised within a learning environment that gives young people more autonomy, encourages their own initiative and curiosity in defining what they want to learn. We want to write about this in later posts).

Combined with the warmth of the people we talked to, their optimism and deep motivation and commitment for a better world what moved me the most whilst visiting the School was something more subtle which I had not read or heard described elsewhere about the MST. This has to do with the strong affect between members of the movement, their care and warmth for each other and the ties of solidarity that bound them.

The stereotype about people who are highly politically committed, especially those subscribing to a particular ideology, is that there is a kind of hardness, a righteous anger, a future orientation and single-mindedness that is incompatible with tenderness and a gentle cultivation of interpersonal relationships. But here at the School the deeply political and gently interpersonal were interwoven. There was a beautiful softness between people along with playful laughter in between the discussions of politics.

Perhaps this is the result of the physical proximity through which many in the Movement must have at some point in their lives lived through with other activists in the temporary camps where they occupy unused and unproductive land across Brazil. Living in a camp means living close together and cooperating across all aspects of life so as to ensure survival, like nomadic bands do in so many parts of the world.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Teachers Play Performance, photo by Udi

Maybe these bonds of affect and solidarity are also the result of the cultivation of a deeply democratic culture within the movement. Decision-making across various aspects of day to day life and about the direction of the movement are taken through constant deliberation, debate and voting. This democratic ethos is promoted across levels of the Movement, from camps to regional and national secretariats, from pre-school children to university study groups. The aspiration for a participative culture is infused in the movements’ very pedagogy, the way they practice and understand the role of teaching and learning. I will write about this in a following post.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Dinning Room. photo by Udi

But beyond the living in close proximity and cooperating in camps and settlements and the democratic ethos of the movement there is another important catalyst that weaves the ties of affectivity and solidarity. This is the mística.

Mística can be translated as the ‘mystic’ or maybe more faithfully the ‘mystery’. This is the ceremony that members of the MST are involved in daily, often early in the morning, and at specific events. Though the MST is deeply influenced by Liberation Theology, the popular movement that swept Latin America’s large Catholic community from the 1960s and interpreted Jesus’ message through the lens of social justice and Marxism, mística is not a Christian ceremony. In fact, in the ceremonies we attended whilst we were there, no Christian symbols were seen. Instead the ceremony is a celebration and evocation of a living thread of those who have struggled for freedom and justice across history.

In one of the místicas we attended, for instance, the images of Zumbi dos Palmares, the 17th century African prince and runway slave who led a colony of former slaves in their battle against the Portuguese crown in Brazil, was placed. This picture, surrounded by flowers and candles, sat along that of Steve Biko, the South African activist and intellectual who fought against apartheid and who was murdered by the police in the 1980s. The mística also involved singing and poetry and even some dancing.

classroom with Biko

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Classroom with Biko and Via Campesina flags. photo by Udi

Like other ceremonies we have taken part along this journey (see Quechua post) we enter them shy, awkward, self-conscious of the theatricality of the performance, yet keen to participate with an open heart and mind. We try to soothe the over-analytical and distancing mind and feeling academic training and irony-loving post-modern culture has cultivated. Instead we try to join in song and dance and the spirit of the event, opening ourselves to the experience. Soon a warm feeling of solidarity emerges amongst us in the group and a sense historical continuity with others also striving for a better world. This thread in the mística is probably not far from what Gandhi called Satyagraha, truth or soul-force, a spiritual strength that overcomes injustice in the world seeking to show the true nature of things.

My experiences here, where I have spoken of the strong affectivity, warmth and solidarity at the ENFF are not necessarily reflective of the Movement as a whole, a very broad and diverse collection that includes hundreds of thousands of families spanning the continental scale of Brazil and its many local cultures. But at least here in this place of learning these qualities of friendship and solidarity, so often absent or repressed in more traditional academic spaces, where very much present.

These are qualities we have also been experiencing in other learning places we have visited, teaching us a great deal about a whole sphere of being in the world and being together (of emotional, social and spiritual intelligence to put it crudely) that is painfully lacking in conventional higher education spaces. Experiencing how learning spaces can accommodate and nurture these dimensions of our being, as we have tasted along this journey, has been inspirational for us showing that there are some powerful ways of re-imagining higher education.

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July Update

July Update

Posted by on Jul 25, 2013 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

Friends it has been an intense few weeks since we launched our campaign to raise funds to finish the Enlivened Learning documentary.  During the campaign we were busy travelling between several university initiatives and meetings around India.

We have also been joined by co-traveller, Marina Leitner here, who has been working with us in the project for many months. The last time she joined us to visit and learn from places was in Brazil.

India - Navdanya Seedbank white wall art

Whilst in India we have been visiting three exciting universities Navdanya/the Earth University (near Dehradun), the Adivasi Academy (rural Gujarat) and Swaraj University (Udaipur, Rajasthan) as well as attending a number of meetings. One of these was the wonderful Learning Societies Network (mostly annual) Unconference, this year held in Pune. Here we had the chance to meet hundreds of inspiring people working on environmental initiatives, organic agriculture, alternative education and many other wonderful ventures across India.

tour with andy sophie us walking by the rice

India, Navdanya, tour of the rice fields

Navdanya, was the first place we visited. It is located in Doon Valley outside of Dehradun, where Vandana Shiva helped to start Bija Vidyapeeth (the Seed School) or the Earth University and a Grandmothers’ University initiative. There we were filming, participating in many discussions, gardening (weeding) and learning much about the farm and the amazing seed bank (over 630 species of rice) – we also were able to record a conversation with Vandana which was wonderful and thought-provoking.
A key learning for us at Navdanya was the importance of diversity – in foods, crops, knowledge and cultures. Knowledge from grandmothers, farmers, indigenous peoples are the source of knowledge that informs all scientific experiments (soil, natural pesticides, natural farming, multi-cropping) in a cyclical process (informing each other). They combine local and scientific knowledge and are doing wonderful things in the field of organic agriculture. We have been thinking about and have had discussions with people visiting about the parallels between monocultures in agriculture (mono-cropping) and monocultures in ways of thinking, knowing and being (the opposite of diversity) which are dominant in universities. Here is a link to Navdnaya’s site: http://www.navdanya.org/earth-university

adivasi academy - wall of languages
India, Adivasi Academy, wall of languages

The second place we visited was the Adivasi Academy in a village called Tejgadh in rural Gujarat, a couple of hours east from Baroda. The Adivasi Academy (Adivasi meaning indigenous in Hindi), is one of the key places in India devoted to the country’s indigenous communities (in local terminology, both Tribal and nomadic peoples). This place is a center of learning, research, arts and culture. This place was founded by Dr Ganesh Devy, a wonderful and generous literature professor who became interested in the plight of Adivasis and in India’s rich linguistic diversity many decades ago. Dr Devy then spent many years learning from Adivasis in Gujarat and elsewhere in India before founding the Academy as a response to local needs. The Academy is involved in a number of exciting and pioneering projects, including a People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which has mapped out the country’s rich linguistic heritage and diversity, currently counted at 870 with over 800 of these being associated with Adivasi communities! Adivasis make up around 10% of the total population of India.

Adivasi Academy - planting marigolds

Planting marigolds with children living and studying at the school that is part of the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh

Here we began to make the connections between the ecological and knowledge diversity we mentioned before to linguistic diversity and ways of knowing and being in the world they contain. What was also exciting about this place was how though its roots are as a higher education initiative, it has since expanded in response to local adivasi communities needs – health clinic, a ‘living’ museum where there are art and music workshops and festival gatherings, 66 non-formal education centres around Gujarat, legal advice, self-help groups (over 200) – and the dreams and plans continue to emerge. Here is a link to their site: http://www.adivasiacademy.org.in/Default.aspx

adivasi school -

Young students speaking with us at one of the non-formal education centres in Gujarat

The last place we are visiting for our project in India, and where we are writing from now, is Swaraj University in Udaipur, Rajastan. The principle of self-directed learning guides the ethos at Swaraj (an old Hindi term made famous by Gandhi and others meaning – amongst many possibilities – self-[or home]-rule or self-mastery).  Swaraj University grew from Shikshantar:  The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development that was established 15 years ago and has generated and co-created many community and localization projects in and around Udaipur over the years – all of which challenge dominant models of development that value profit-making above everything else (by placing emphasis on people and the planet before profit).  Both Shikshantar and Swaraj University place emphasis on unlearning…

udaipur - shikshantar sign

Swaraj University draws 15 to 20 khojis (khoji meaning ‘seekers’, rather than students, in Hindi) every year for a two-year programme where they “get exposed to and then gain mastery in livelihood streams of action-knowledge that are based on principles of ecological sustainability, localization, social justice and social innovation” (from Swaraj website). This happens through a series of workshops, mentorship periods and learning journeys.

swaraj - koji activity

Khojis at Swaraj University starting the day with a group storytelling activity

The khojis go between periods of collective learning and working on their own projects, supported by a network of mentors, their peers and a group of core facilitators. During the time we have been here the khojis have been engaging in a series of learning tasks in the city, around entrepreneurship and eco-initiatives. We did a few days of filming in and around their beautiful campus outside the city too.

swaraj - udaipur, khoji mela

Street theatre performed by Karen and Kamal during the mela the khojis put together in Udaipur.  The audience were mesmermized and stayed through the heavy monsoon rains that started soon after!

What has been wonderful about this place, as well as the innovative and inspiring approach to self-directed learning, is the amazingly warm and open feeling between all people involved.  This feeling of warmth and generosity is core to Swaraj University (un)learning.  There is great emphasis places on emotional growth and personal (non-violent) communication that is encouraged to be shared within the Swaraj community.  For example, when we were attending presentations that were made by each khoji, the method of responding to each person was organized to explore with the heart as much as the (intellectual) head.  After each presentation, the group divided into 4 – one group discussed ‘what they felt was inspirational – for themselves and for the khoji presenting';  another group discussed how the khoji was developing their ability to express their emotional experiences and learnings; another group discussed how they thought the khoji’s work was benefitting the Swaraj community and outside communities; the final group discussed what they felt ‘was missing’.  We were all very inspired by the incredible sophistication of emotional, social and intellectual analyses of each khojis.

 

The khojis range in age from 17 to the early 30s, they range in experience with formal education, from uncompleted schooling to graduates, and they vary in socio-economic and religious backgrounds. Still within all of this diversity a feeling of deep friendship and solidarity permeates Swaraj as the khojis undergo profound and transformative learning experiences as they discover more about themselves, their passion, their world and others around them. Swaraj was founded by Nitin Paranjape, Reva Dandage and Manish Jain — all three have been involved in social and ecological movements focussing especially on learning, education and un-schooling. Here is a link to their site:

http://www.swarajuniversity.org/program.html

This is just a very brief glimpse of some of the places we have visited in the last few weeks. We will be writing more in depth on our experiences over the next few weeks as we get caught up with our writing.

Speaking of writing, Udi has just had an article published in The Ecologist magazine on our experience of Blackfoot ecological knowledge in Red Crow Community College
http://www.theecologist.org/Guides/The_Ecologist_Guide_to_Skills_and_Courses/2007750/enlivened_learning_at_red_crow_community_college.html

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Imaginary Struggles

Imaginary Struggles

Posted by on Jun 27, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, ESPOCC | 0 comments

I started writing this post a few weeks ago. Since then the bubbling discontent we witnessed across Brazil when we were there in January and February in relation to a number of social and political issues including the huge costs of the upcoming World Cup has spilled out into the streets.

People across the social spectrum have got fed up with the way the World Cup costs have spiralled up, sucked public money into private coffers and at the same time, across the country, displaced people and destroyed parks and other common spaces for the building of new facilities. In some cases like the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, this historical stadium will be operated by a private company in the first time in its history.

People have also got fed up with the rising cost of living in the country (in part a consequence of the Games), with the rise in public transport costs, but most of all they are fed up with corruption, with the failure of the rising economic growth to tackle the problems in the health and education system in the country.

Brazil has not seen such mass protests in twenty years and it looks like the government is going to have to listen. The post I write here, is about the struggle of media spaces and the images and stories which are produced about, and now increasingly from, marginalised places like favela communities. The post relates to the present struggles in Brazil in as much as the media continues to be a place of contest where a battle over stories and imaginations is also waged.

ESPOCC - mural outside.JPG

Mural outside the Popular School of Critical Communication (ESPOCC) in the Observatório das Favelas, in the Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi

Imaginary: Existing only in the imagination () Origin from Latin imago which in psychoanalysis is an unconscious, idealised mental image of someone, say a parent, that influences a persons behaviour.

 

Favela: a group of dwellings with high density occupation, the construction of which is carried out in a disorderly fashion with inadequate material, without zoning, without public services, and on land which is illegally being used without the consent of the owner

(Official Bulletin of the Brazilian Secretariat of Social Services quoted in Perlman The Myth of Marginality 1979:13).

 

Imaginary of Marginality: An imaginary about historically marginalized populations, held by dominant social groups (and sometimes internalized by the marginalized themselves) often containing prejudiced representations, images, stories, sometimes connected to stereotypes around race, poverty and gender. These negative representations tend to circulate in the dominant mass media and in certain forms of research and educational systems. Un-confronted, these representations come to be widespread amongst the population and perceived as the main narrative, the norm.

 

We often come to see and know places and people we do not personally encounter through stories and images that others create about them. These stories most commonly come to us through the media – through television, the news, the internet, etc. At the scale of a city, the media helps to virtually weave an imaginary web linking separated places and lives. We are often not very mindful of this web – this matrix of images and stories, feelings and attitudes, but also a landscape we walk through in our day-to-day lives that provides a sense of meaning to us and the world around us.

The nature of this imaginary web is shaped by those who weave it. Those weavers, often the most privileged sectors that dominate and own the media, have little experience or willingness to convey the stories and perspectives of the less powerful in those communities, especially through their own voice, their own point of view and experienced reality. Here in Rio de Janeiro, places and communities like favelas for instances.

 

Rio ESPOCC rede globo.jpg

Globo logo, Brazil’s largest media network, still from TV

The democratization of the media has been an important area of mobilization amongst civil society and social movements in Brazil for several decades. Especially since the end of the dictatorship (in 1984) gaining access to the institutions of mass communication has also come to be seen as an important right to acquire, that is intrinsically linked to the identity and practice of being a citizen in Brazil. This right-to-acquire has come from the growing recognition of the media as a force that shapes society and public opinion and, as such, something that ought to be more equitably distributed and controlled. The theme of media and citizenship, or what has been referred to as ‘visual inclusion’, has also gained importance in Brazil’s public sphere over the last two decades.

Visual inclusion here means the inclusion of a more diverse and representative presence of Brazilians and their stories across the national media. Indigenous people, Afro-descendants or else regional cultures are infrequently or else stereotypically depicted in the media which is dominated by the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo axis (and a particular upper middle class culture and perspective from these cities).

rio - espocc poster.jpg

Posters of different film festivals organized by the Observatório das Favelas, ESPOCC, Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi

Visual inclusion also involves the more equitable distribution of the means of image production amongst the population. Though community radio has been around for much longer in favela communities, what we now see in Brazil is the intensification of alternative media production centers and dissemination networks, in particular through new forms of technology such as social media, digital video and photography and the Internet. Such initiatives are often aligned with grass-roots and community organizations across a number of historically marginalized groups and communities.

Rio - ESPOCC sign.jpg

An example of this kind of work is a project I came across in Rio de Janeiro around 2006, the Observatório das Favelas based in one of the citys biggest favela Complexo da Maré is large conglomeration of 16 different communities and has a population of around 140,000. The Observatioro das Favelas is a large community-NGO responsible for a number of different projects inside favela communities focusing on research, policy development and capacity building.

Observatório das Favelas and others like it who, to varying degrees in scale and success operate in different favelas, see a major part of their role as involving the formation of technically competent and politically aware individuals and groups inside low-income communities. A key element in many of such initiatives is what is often referred to asCritical Communication, involving the telling of stories and conveying the perspectives of those who live in these communities, especially from members of these communities themselves. Essentially – their own narratives, stories, voice.

A pioneering project of the Observatório das Favelas is the Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica ESPOCC (Popular School of Critical Communication) which had its first class of forty-two students in 2005 and is now in its 8th year. This project is a one-year vocational course with the aim of training young people mainly from Rios favelas and peripheries, but now also from the middle classes, to become critical communicators, to learn how to engage with and challenge the imaginary of marginality prevalent in the city.

For example, favela communities are often depicted in the mass media as violent spaces, lacking in all the things the other parts of the city have – education, work, culture, organisation, safety, and so on. Such representations mean that these places, and those who live there, bare the stigma associated with these images and stories. They have an identity imposed on them emanating from these images and stories, which have no part in creating themselves. Residents of favela communities, which as we saw in the previous post on the Museo da Maré have in some cases been here for three generations, live under and cultivate their identities under these adverse conditions, and not only this but they are also discriminated in day to day relation to others across the city and to the state.

You could say that the young people in ESPOCC learn to read the web, the matrix, the media landscape in an acute way so as to subvert it and create their own narratives and media spaces. They learn to weave different imaginaries across the city, contributing to the transformation of the imaginary of marginality into more inclusive imaginaries. I will write more about this in the next post.

We witnessed an example of the prejudiced media landscape in the city and how people have been trying to combat this during our time in Rio. Though not directly involving ESPOCC, I point to these events here as they occurred whilst we were in Rio and clearly show the kind of mass media logic that places like ESPOCC are engaging with.

The city has been busily preparing for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 building many new sporting facilities. For the World Cup the city has been converting the 60 year old Maracanã Stadium (in its time the biggest stadium in the world with a capacity of 100,000) to the international criteria of FIFA demolishing some surrounding structures and buildings for new parking facilities. One of the buildings to be destroyed was the former Indian Museum which has been unused as a museum since the 1980s but which has been occupied by a group of indigenous families since 2006 in protest of plans to demolish this historically significant building. After a number of standoffs with the police Rede Globo, the dominant media conglomerate in the country, did a news piece to discredit the indigenous protesters by saying that they had been selling drugs at the premises. Armed with their own video cameras indigenous filmmakers filmed the reporter and confronted her with the lies being told about them. The clip went viral on the Internet and Globo was forced to retract their story.

Mural outside the Popular School of Critical Communication (ESPOCC) in the Observatório das Favelas, in the Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi

As Salvador Passos, analysing the incident put it:

The objective of this type of comment was to disqualify the families that were there. When running such news-story without due verification, the channel does a disservice to democracy. The news item provides the perfect alibi for a violent intervention and removal of the indigenous families. Suddenly, there is no more talk of real estate speculation and profits, but rather of drug trafficking and vandalism on the part of the natives, all based on images that prove nothing. [my translation from http://www.advivo.com.br/blog/luisnassif/acusacoes-da-globonews-sobre-as-tribos-do-museu-do-indio?page=1]

The story encapsulates the overlap of media interests and the imaginary they attempt to weave with the corporate logic and profit motive that pervades these mega sporting events with full endorsement of the state. Both attempt to transform the city without much concern for those whose stories and lives have no place in their imagination. That the ‘natives’ now have a camera and access to alternative media networks, like those associated with ESPOCC, means that such dominant interests cannot weave their own imaginary of the city unchallenged.

indian v globo.jpg

Still from video posted online showing the confrontation between indigenous people occupying the Museo do Índio and a Rede Globo reporter

To see clips of the story around Indigenous occupation of the museum and Globo and its response see:

http://revistaforum.com.br/blogdorovai/2013/01/15/globo-news-se-desculpa-por-ser-leviana-com-indigenas-da-aldeia-maracana/

For a friends’ (Nayana Fernandez) short film on the story see:

https://vimeo.com/62336744

For an excellent article on the recent protests in Brasil written by the same friend see:

http://lab.org.uk/uprising-in-brazil-an-extraordinary-moment-for-change

 

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