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Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Posted by on Jan 30, 2014 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

During our second week in Rio (Brazil), I received an email from my good friend Manish Jain, one of the founders of Shikshantar and Swaraj University, in Udaipur, India.  Manish was writing to give me the name of Edgard Gouveia – someone we ‘really should try to connect with’ as he was doing some really exciting and inspiring work in Brazil.

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Following through on our principle of openness to what-arises-along-our-journey, I contacted Edgard right away and told him something of Enlivened Learning – what we were doing and why. Edgard responded within a day and invited us for a visit with him at the small and magical coastal town of Paraty, located about mid-way between Rio and Sao Paulo.  He was there co-creating and co-developing a game project – ‘Play the Call’ which he said he would tell us lots more about once we arrived… Udi saw that we could stop and visit Edgard on our way back to Rio after visiting the Landless Movement University, which was only an hour from Sao Paulo.  We were a bit concerned about finding a place to stay, especially with costs.  I emailed Edgard and asked for accommodation suggestions.  His response came – ‘we are exercising gift economy as much as possible’ … plenty of space in exchange for us cooking a few meals!

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

I first came across the ideas and language of ‘gift economy and gift culture’ when I visited Shikshantar: Rethinking Education and Development in Udaipur, India in 2008.   Manish and his wife, Vidhi co-founded Shikshantar in 2000 as an open space for gathering together, co-learning and co-creating alternatives to mainstream ideas and practices of education and development (so-called progress). Aside from the many activities I engaged in while visiting Shikshantar, all of which included a generosity of time, creative spirit and skills, I spent hours delving through the deluge of donated books, magazines and other texts stacked on shelves that lined the walls.   In particular, however, there was a stack of self-designed, ‘copy-left’ booklets on a range of topics that Shikshantar had self-published on a back table. One of them, Reclaiming the Gift Culture (edited by Manish and his sister, Shilpa) caught my eye.  It became my first encounter with the language and ideas of gift culture, or gift economy, as it is often called. Reclaiming the Gift Culture   The Shikshantar booklets were available through contribution (whatever anyone feels moved to give).  I donated a small amount of money at the time to take several of these publications home with me. I found them inspiring and engaging –  I used several of these booklets and incorporated them into different classes I taught at the University of Bath.   ………. Back to Brazil ……….   We arrived into Paraty after a day of bus travel from the Landless Movement University.  We were without a phone and about 3 hours later than we had said we would arrive.  All of us were tired, hungry and a little car/bus sick from the hours of travel. Paraty is a beautifully preserved Portuguese colonial town along the Costa Verde (Green Coast), a lush green section of coastline in the state of Rio de Janeiro, south of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  The town looks much like it did when it was settled during the Portuguese colonial days – the buildings are all refurbished, left over from the colonial era, the majority of the streets have not been paved and have unique forms of large cobblestone.

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

It had been raining when we arrived and some of the streets were nearly flooded.  The pedestrian-only streets of Paraty consisted of large stones where we had to either hop or take large steps between them, because of the rain.  Not such an easy mode of transport carrying heavy bags and feeling tired and sluggish.  However, we all felt a burst of new energy as we walked/hopped deeper into the town in search of the house with the address where Edgard was staying. We finally found the address at a huge corner house, one block from the sea.  We rang the doorbell and no one answered.  Suddenly around the corner came three people.  We heard a loud, booming voice, ‘Kelly?  Udi?’  Edgard was suddenly there with two other friends.  He enveloped each of us into a big hug (quite easy for him to do as he is 2 metres tall!) and ushered us into the house. We entered into an exquisitely beautiful house that looked as if it could still be the 1800s.  The floors were dark wood, high ceilings and lots of windows.

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

The walls were adorned with signs and posters from what I was assuming were drawn by the different people that had been joining Edgard to co-create the game project.

Shot from inside the house with poster of 'Play the Call' - photo by Kelly

Shot from inside the house with poster of ‘Play the Call’ – photo by Kelly

We all sat down in the huge main room and a long conversation ensued.  The friends that were with him – Chris was leaving the next morning and was just passing through town as Udi, Marina and I were.  The other friend, a lovely woman called Adrienne, had been there several months offering her time and creativity on their game project, ‘Play the Call’. The intent of the game is to involve young people to engage more directly in making change within their community.  It had evolved as an online, virtual game that is carried out in real life.  Young people over the age of 8 are given a series of ‘missions’ to plan and carry out, each one more challenging than the previous.  In order to move to the next mission, each player also had to engage with others about what they are doing and why, take a few photos to exchange the story of how they had accomplished each mission – and have it ‘liked’ by many on facebook, before moving on to the next mission.

Hand-drawn poster, 'Play the Call', photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn poster, ‘Play the Call’, photo by Kelly

The entire project had been completed almost entirely without monetary exchange. The aim was for the game to be entirely accessible, for anyone and without any barrier-of-entry due to some financial requirement. The idea was that the planning, creating and establishment of the game should be completed in the same way.  In other words, all stages of ‘Play the Call’ (from its conception to its full functionality) were to become part of a gift economy and culture. Edgard had been experimenting with various possibilities of a gift economy to not only provide access to the game, but to set it up as well.

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

Edgard made the point that if you are clear in what you want and open to asking and giving (through acts of reciprocity) things open up, often beyond what you think is possible.  The idea of ‘Play the Call’ aspired to contribute to a more peaceful and just society.  But, to get things rolling, Edgard needed a place to stay, to host other people, access to food, technical expertise and people who could help co-create the specificities of the game.

Posters hanging in the house - made by co-creators of 'Play the Call' to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Posters hanging in the house – made by co-creators of ‘Play the Call’ to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Most of us are completely dependent on money to ‘do the things we want to do’.   I hear this statement all the time.  If ONLY I had the money, I could…. I would… Again and again – before embarking on this journey, and during this journey, we have met many people who stopped projects because of the lack of financial resources ‘it just became impossible because we did not have enough resources’. Yet, many, many others along our journey have used their lack of financial resources as a welcome opportunity to imagine alternative forms of resources to be more creative and further enhance what it is that they want to do – to reach out – building communities and learning (and exchanging) time, creativity, energy, hospitality, new skills in the process.  At the base of this, it has seemed to me is a willingness, a confidence and a courage to re-define what is meant by ‘resources’ and to see the abundance of what is around you, immediately available (if you can see it in this way), rather than seeing most of the world through a perspective of scarcity.

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Udi and I have been trying to do this as well – where we can.  Coming from research backgrounds where institutional money is spent much more freely (e.g. – hotels, restaurants, taxis) during time spent in the field conducting research, we have been unlearning on this journey — by being committed to engaging in gift economy practices as much as we can.  Although there are obvious costs associated with flight travel that are difficult to negotiate (especially long flights between countries), we have been taking many long (15+ hour) bus rides, staying in homestays and with friends– as well as couchsurfing (rather than staying in hotels).  We have also been offering our skills with filmmaking and photography from a ‘copy-left’ (what is mine, is yours) perspective when we can.

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Edgard had been searching for a place in which he could host people to help create and support all aspects of ‘Play the Call’.  A friend of his let him live in a house of theirs for 4 months, for free – a house that accommodated many people at the same time.  To feed himself and the people who came to help, Edgard reached out to local restaurants and food businesses and asked that they donate meals during the months they were creating and finishing the game.  For the technological expertise needed to create and complete the game, Edgard invited people he knew – to then reach to more people that they knew – to locate interested and technologically skilled people to come and give their time and energy. All of these steps of reaching out worked.  Gifts of accommodation, food, skills and creative energy were exchanged in this way through reciprocity.  The abundance that is there, literally right at Edgard’s doorstep – was not out of reach.  It just had to be located and asked for.  The reason it worked?  Edgard’s humility, energy, commitment and passion for what ‘Play the Call’ could be … would be … once completed.  Not just for the young people participating, but for their communities – and as a huge network of individuals and communities across the globe. As Edgard explained – ‘who can say no to the earnest and innocent energy and courage of children? — as adults, we are far more likely to listen to the views of children than other adults’   This was a fledgling, but very much living gift economy that Edgard helped to setup in the local community of Paraty around his project.  These gifts were actually alive – providing sustenance, energy… as Lewis Hyde describes the ideal of a gift in his wonderful book ‘The Gift’.

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

The gifts exchanged as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were imbued with a spiritual energy surviving the consumption from those individual participants – these gifts literally, kept the creation and development of the project alive… and they created new networks of community relationships out of individual heart-felt expression of hope toward the project.  These gifts as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were simultaneously material, social and spiritual. A gift economy or gift culture focuses on exchange as any economy does – but this exchange avoids typical exchanges that we are used to within a capitalist system.  In other words, beyond money … money is seen as one form of many different types of exchanges, rather than the ONLY form.  A gift economy and culture exchanges services, skills, time, non-commodified labor, care, hospitality, love…

From left - Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne - walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

From left – Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne – walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

… and as Edgard taught Udi, Marina and me, a gift economy increases the livingness, the value of the gift by creating community and bringing forth abundance where it might not have been seen or experienced previously.  Typical to gift economy or gift culture, there was the avoidance of the interaction of money or consumer good as the center point of the exchange. Gifts exchanged within a gift culture or economy, are centered on relationships between those exchanging gifts (which again Lewis Hyde beautifully describes in his book). Imagine if learning communities that emerged from gift culture were commonplace.  Imagine if our learning was to imagine, create and experiment with different forms of gift culture and reciprocity.  How much richer could our worlds be?

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

There are communities all over the world that are experimenting with different forms of gift economy – places like Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth in Oaxaca, Mexico), Swaraj University (that emerged from Shikshantar in Udaipur, India), transition towns creating local currencies and time banks, home-schooling communities tapping into the wealth of local knowledge and skills that are within walking distance of their homes… In various forms, each of these places are experimenting with gift culture and economy.   Last October, Manish and many others organized a ‘Giftival’ in Istanbul, Turkey followed by another Giftival held in Kerala (India).  See this link for a detailed blog posting about the Giftival event in Turkey. I hope to write much more about our continued learning and encounters with gift economy and gift culture as our journey continued… Edgard taught us about the possibilities of taking a brilliant idea and creating a living project and community — by finding the abundance that is right around you and engaging in a reciprocal gift economy.  We did cook those few days with Edgard — and he gave us the invaluable gifts of courage, wisdom, hospitality and friendship, to inspire us to notice the abundance around us – and to spread that awareness and inspiration with others….

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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.

bison mural.jpg

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.

Lamas - chacra - choba choba.jpg

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.

Unitierra - urban roof garden 2.jpg

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.

Peru - medicinal garden 2 pueblo.jpg

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).

Sao Paulo, MST, garden.jpg

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.

Oaxaca - indigenous resistance corn advert.jpg

‘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.


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.

unitierra urban agriculture workshop.jpg

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.


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.

Ryan and Adrienne by pond.jpg

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.



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”.


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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“All Education is Environmental Education…”

“All Education is Environmental Education…”

Posted by on Nov 19, 2013 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

David Orr author of, Earth in Mind, once wrote ‘all education is environmental education…’

Five words.

Direct statement.

Simply stated. Yet, is it simple?

Hardly.It is stated as a fact, something that is.

But how is this understood as a fact?

How is education approached as environmental education? Or perhaps more significantly, how is it not?

Photo of the Earth - http://www.freefever.com/wallpaper/1920x1080/lovely-earth-hd-from-space-p-anomaly-warzone-17909.html

Photo of the Earth – http://www.freefever.com/wallpaper/1920×1080/lovely-earth-hd-from-space-p-anomaly-warzone-17909.html

Many times along this journey, I have been lost in my thoughts considering these questions – turning them around, stretching my mind (and heart) to answer these in different ways. I am continually amazed by the ingenuity and courage I keep encountering within the places of learning that we are visiting as to how groups of individuals have put their creative and inspiring thoughts into transformative action – to bring these two (‘education’ and ‘environment’) supposedly separate entities, into one intertwined being.

Because I have been thinking about environmental education for such a long time (through my studies but also through teaching and activism work that I have done), the forms of education and learning that we keep encountering on this journey continue to challenge my understanding of not just what ‘environmental education’ is, but equally what ‘education’ is and can be, and, where ‘the environment’ actually is.

My initial idea of what constitutes the ‘environment’, was very much the non-human environment. Before I had ever thought very deeply about it, ‘the environment’ for me could be found in its ‘pure’ form where it was that human beings were not.


I was trapped in the dualistic world within which the vast majority of us live and learn. Dualistic in the sense that nature and the environment were just down the road, out of town, separated from the rest of us human folk.


What I have come to learn through all of these 20+ years since I left home, is that the root of the multiple problems and crises we all face, are directly related to this perceived separation between ‘me’ the human and ‘the environment’ and ‘nature’. This might be quite a serious jump to make, in fact such a leap that it might seem preposterous and somehow archaic, but I keep ending up facing this conclusion. And, this journey has escorted me to that edge within every place of learning we have visited.


I grew up on the edge of a small town in southern Oregon called Klamath Falls. The closest store to my house was 5 miles away. If I walked up the large hill behind the house, I could continue walking for 20 miles or so in undeveloped wilderness.

Photo from - http://gr8ful.blogspot.com/2010_07_01_archive.html Taken from the center of Klamath Falls, Oregon, showing Mount Shasta in the background (Mt. Shasta is 60 miles to the south).

Photo from – http://gr8ful.blogspot.com/2010_07_01_archive.html
Taken from the center of Klamath Falls, Oregon, showing Mount Shasta in the background (Mt. Shasta is 60 miles to the south).

To the east was the vast Cascade Mountain range that runs all the way from southern British Columbia down to Northern California. Growing up just west of this majestic mountain range, I could see the high and snowy peaks of Mt. Shasta and Mt. McLoughlin from town and I was just 45 minutes south of the richest blue imaginable, emanating from Crater Lake, the 7th deepest lake in the world.

Photo taken at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, by Udi summer 2011

Photo taken at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, by Udi summer 2011

This was nature, the environment at its best. It was an environment for me to visit, learn from, engage with and be inspired by. To many of the people living in Klamath Falls, these natural places (excluding Crater Lake as that is a preserved National Park) were seen as an environment to manage – to cut down, dam up, extract from – through which to earn profit. In fact, the profit motive for natural resources, particularly timber that surrounds this town goes beyond individual and family accumulation – fuelling the very public and government services of the region.

Photo of felled timber in Klamath Falls - taken for an article in the New York Times in 2007 - http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/05/us/05timber.html?_r=0

Photo of felled timber in Klamath Falls – taken for an article in the New York Times in 2007 – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/05/us/05timber.html?_r=0

Revenue from timber receipts have historically funded up to a third of the county’s educational budget. During one of the years that I was in high school, when timber felling and harvesting became increasingly restricted due to environmentally-related policy constrictions, programs were cut, including the bus service through which the majority of students were transported to the school. The rural nature of the location of my high school then came into full fruition — several students rode their horses to school!


In spite of the various economic and recreational ties to the environmental and natural abundance surrounding this area – this nature, this environment, was not quite part of me, or else I did not (and perhaps could not) see or experience it as such.


Then I decided to study Environmental Studies during my under-graduate years – on the other side of the United States. So economically sensitive is Klamath Falls to ‘conservation of the natural environment’ that I often avoided to fully explain to friends and others what I was studying when I would return home. I discussed all that I was learning in history, philosophy, sociology, science…. avoiding the centrality of ‘environment’ within these various disciplinary perspectives.

Photo from website - http://photos3.meetupstatic.com/photos/event/b/5/4/c/event_193786412.jpeg

Photo from website – http://photos3.meetupstatic.com/photos/event/b/5/4/c/event_193786412.jpeg

The wonderful thing for me at that time, was that I was learning through all of these perspectives – although they were centred on ways of understanding, managing, stewarding and valuing ‘the environment’.  Though largely intellectualized, it was my initial entry into multiple worlds. I began to perceive the area I grew up differently – I was more critical, more nuanced – and felt a deeper intrinsic value for these beautiful and awe-inspiring places. I was thrilled at the various thought-provoking doors that kept opening.


I was (finally) in an educative learning space that enabled me to consider the environment. Yet, I was still perceiving through a separated lens – a lens that separated me from this land, particularly in that I was learning about all of this from such a geographical distance. It was, however, the first time thoughts about how to teach and learn about the environment crossed my threshold of consciousness.


I was not studying ‘environmental education’ but I was in an educative space learning about the environment – about the varied interests and coinciding philosophies underpinning these interests. From there, my path was put on a slight hold for a couple of years as I dallied in the corporate world as a paralegal and then as a waitress in New York City looking for work. I ended up having a primary school teaching position (located in the Bronx) fall into my lap and from that point, it seems, there was no turning back. I have been either working in or studying some aspect of education and learning ever since.

Photo of the Bronx and Manhattan, taken from New York City (shot from above the Bronx) published on flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/dandc/2836519688/

Photo of the Bronx and Manhattan, taken from New York City (shot from above the Bronx) published on flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/dandc/2836519688/

Teaching year 6 is great because you teach all subjects to the same children. For 2 years I had the responsibility of teaching 25+ 11-12 year olds math, social studies, reading, science, spelling, health and religion. The best part was that I could combine these into inter-disciplinary projects. I did this very often. It made learning and teaching much more fun – for the students and for me. I also incorporated quite a lot of environmental ‘knowledge’ and ‘experiences’ into it. I felt there was a need to bring these students out of the intense (and often hostile) urban environment they were living in, to learn about different plants, biomes around the globe, environmental issues such as deforestation and water pollution – and to experience being outdoors in beautiful open places. In addition, I became acutely aware of the perversity of environmental and social injustices experienced in the day to day life of my students living in an area of the South Bronx where enormous quantities of waste is held and incinerated (more than 80% of my students each year had asthma which is directly linked to incineration smoke).


Simultaneously, during the second year of teaching, I enrolled into a Masters program at New York University called ‘Environmental Conservation Education’. During those years of study, I took several Environmental Philosophy courses which opened my mind to new world views of the ways in which we as humans relate to the environment, what in fact the ‘environment’ is and how our perceptions of it can have profound effects on how we treat the world around us, including each other. I also took courses in Environmental Health, Environmental Justice, Botany and Environmental Journalism.


Although I had explored some of this in my undergraduate years, this took it a step further, opening up yet more pathways to engaging with the complexity of inter-disciplinary and systemic issues – particularly how they related to education and communication.



I then worked as an environmental educator for an environmental non-profit organization in NYC, working with secondary schools across the city, teaching in various science and social studies-related classes and designing semester-long projects with different students and teachers. These projects brought everyone outside, engaging with not only the non-human environment of NYC, but also learning about the treatment of sewage (I think I visited all of the sewage treatment plants in NYC), the transfer of the city’s water, the health of the river and creek systems. We became more politically active – doing tabling events, holding seminars, inviting local politicians and media sources – and speaking with local businesses.


During all of this time, my engagement with the world, human and non-human expanded. I began to see myself more and more embedded within the environment in which I was living my day-to-day life. Yet, I still struggled to merge these worlds together in my work. It was not learning that I had experienced through my university studies – rather it was learning I was developing independently through a non-profit framework.  And, it was still somehow a ‘special’ and ‘extra-curricular’ activity to get students and teachers outside of the school building to learn first-hand about various aspects of the world outside and about how their basic needs were met (i.e. sewage, waste, water and food) and how this connected to where they lived.


What I discovered with those students, was the all of us felt more alive, more connected during the hours that we explored and learned outside the walls of the classroom. We were all somehow more ‘home’ during that time.


Over the next 13 years, as I entrenched myself further and further into the academic/university world in the UK (after leaving NYC), I felt an increasing alienation from any sense of ‘home’. This was not just because I was living even further away from southern Oregon by staying in England. It was because I felt myself becoming more and more of a slave to the expectations of what it meant to stay working in academia. Which, is essentially to be disconnected and disengaged – from the local surroundings, from the passions that drove me to work in academia in the first place, from the people I was working and learning with – basically, from myself.

Photo taken by Udi in Rio de Janeiro at one of the public universities (January 2013).

Photo taken by Udi in Rio de Janeiro at one of the public universities (January 2013).

The vast majority of universities have been imposed onto the land on which they exist ( in other words, they did not arise from that particular local context). They are environmentally-orientated in that they exist on the land. Yet, for the most part, the learning is completely dis-engaged and detached from the environment, from that local context. Learning is about making your brain bigger – as well as your hands (to type) and your bum (to sit for longer periods of time). It is not about enhancing your heart (emotions) and the rest of your body for learning – moving, making and creating.


The purpose of the university these days is fundamentally about contributing to the global knowledge economy – that which is measurable and therefore profitable. This core purpose is now universal. The connection is about economic growth, disconnecting us for what makes us most human.  The concept of ‘localization’ is just a mere concept that might be encountered, but beyond that, there is no practice of localized learning and action as such.


I yearned for connection – to my deepest self that makes me a human being, to learn and grow from that perspective, rather than contribute to the growth of the knowledge economy. So, I finally made the move. I found the courage to step out, to exit and move forward, to learn to let go of that alienation which had rooted itself into my soul and to go down the path of re-connection and unlearning on this Enlivened Learning journey.


As time has passed, moving around as much as we have (we have not unpacked in months), I feel in many ways ‘back home’ regardless of where we are visiting. Perhaps this ‘back home’ sense is because our intention is to connect – within ourselves to where we are – and also because we are simultaneously learning about how others are so creatively connecting themselves through the learning they are doing as part of these higher education initiatives. All of these places of learning that we are visiting, are emerging from the context they are in. They are organic, deeply rooted and connected intimately to the cultural, ecological and historical past and present within which they are a part.

Symbol for Enlivened Learning designed by Udi, 2012.

Symbol for Enlivened Learning designed by Udi, 2012.

It is relatively easy to see each of these places as environmental education, environmental learning – or even better, learning that is embedded in the environment. And this is evident in a myriad of ways. Learning is essentially about connecting to who we are as human beings – separately yes (in terms of connecting with your ‘inner’ self), but most importantly, how we are connected to each other and to all aspects of the world around us. The environment comprises everything – it is not just ‘extra-curricular’.


For example, in Alberta, Canada with the Blackfoot, we learned about the simplicity and profound impact of committing time to a specific place, to learn the land or through a better explanation that Ryan and Adrienne described, to ‘let the land learn you’.


In Terrace, British Columbia, with the First Nations carvers at the Freda Diesing Northwest Coast Art School, we learned about the stories, symbols that have been documented through carving as forms of literacy that are intimately inspired by, and connected to non-human beings and relationships existing all around. As outsiders, we might refer to this as ‘art’ whilst for thousands of years, carving was, in fact, localized forms of literacy.

Totems in Kitselas canyon, British Columbia, taken by Udi when we visited the Freda Diesing Northwest School of Art, October 2012.

Totems in Kitselas canyon, British Columbia, taken by Udi when we visited the Freda Diesing Northwest School of Art, October 2012.

At Unitierra, in Oaxaca, Mexico, we learned about the fluidity of learning needs and desires coming together through groups of individuals working as a community — committed to collective autonomy centred on food, water, shelter, waste, communication and festival.


With PRATEC in Peru, we learned about Quechua indigenous forms of agricultural practice that are inseparable from their spiritual cosmology which animates relationships with all non-human beings.


In Brazil, with ESPOCC, the School of Critical Media, we learned about how people living in favelas, or shantytowns, are taking control of their own image and identity – by becoming more deeply acquainted with their local cultural, social and ecological surroundings and portraying these to the local and outside worlds through various forms of media – of their choice and through their authority (rather than it coming from the outside).


Also in Brazil, we visited the Landless Movement University that brings together individuals and communities living within Landless Movement camps (that were settled to occupy and use unoccupied land) or belonging to kindred social movements or organizations engaging with issues of social and ecological justice.


All of these places of learning we have visited so far – and the myriad of places we are visiting post-Brazil all offer an incredible richness of opportunities to learn about different forms of education and learning. Education is inseparable from context – completely embedded within all aspects of ‘the environment’. It is not just learning about the environment or for the environment. They are one and the same. There is no separation.  Whatever is needed and decided to be learned about is directly connected to the world around that particular learning space.

Sunset just outside of For MacLeod, Alberta, Canada, taken by Udi September 2012.

Sunset just outside of Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Canada, taken by Udi September 2012.

To me, these inspiring places of learning mirror the true purpose of education – to be fully realized through and within all that we are a part of – ‘the environment’.


The full quote by David Orr reads: “all education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that phyics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong.”


For the most part, conventional schooling at all levels, helps us learn how to be further apart from the natural world. To me, this deprives us of the capacity and potential to live as more fully responsible, ethical, passionate, disciplined, generous and loving human beings.


If we are to become more fully human as the Blackfoot are trying to teach at Red Crow Community College – we must learn to adapt ourselves to our environments as indigenous people have done for thousands of years – to learn through reciprocity – rather than the other way around – through this sense of detachment.


Significantly, after so many years of schooling and education, I realize now, that I’ve only just begun to really learn…

Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada (inside Banff National Park), taken by Kelly, October 2012.

Bow Lake, Alberta, Canada (inside Banff National Park), taken by Kelly, October 2012.

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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.

Sao Paulo, ENFF

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.

Sao Paulo, MST, poster of school

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.

Sao Paulo, MST, garden

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.

Sao Paulo, MST, kids feet

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.

Sao Paulo, MST, dinning room

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:


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

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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.

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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.


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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).

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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.

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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.

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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:


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


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



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