Re-thinking Diversity & Inclusion...
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Epistemic Justice: Valuing Diverse Ways of Knowing

What is knowledge? Is it knowing how to read and interpret an academic article for the important points? How about knowing how to read and interpret the waxing and waning of the moon to know when to plant and when to harvest? Is it being able to craft a well-written essay patched together by scholarly sources? Or knowing how to weave a fishing net to catch your own food? Is it knowing which pill to prescribe to bring down a fever? Or knowing which plants to collect, mix, and drink to cure a sore throat?

We believe that all of this is valuable knowledge, but that it is not all treated as such by universities. Last month, Pachaysana partnered with participants from two indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Bavoroe (A’i-Cofan) and Tzawata (Kichwa), to create a workshop on epistemic justice in higher education. Throughout both the U.S. and Ecuador, there is a growing movement of “Diversity and Inclusion” in higher education that aims to bring more students of marginalized identities into the university. 

But what happens once they arrive? Does the university adapt to their diverse ways of knowing and being and learning, or are they expected to adapt to the limited structure of the university? Are they treated as holders of valuable knowledge, or as empty vessels to be filled by the knowledge of textbooks and professors? In our time with the communities, we used art-based methodologies and decolonial education to grapple with these questions and more, aiming to explore the experiences of diverse people in education systems and reimagine how universities can be genuinely inclusive to people for whom the western university was not originally created to include. Throughout this newsletter, we hope to share and explore different concepts that came out of our workshop and research, and inspire you to join in the movement. 

Image: Local and international participants visiting a sacred Ceibo tree in Bavoroe (Summer 2019). 

There is No University Without The Community

A powerful reflection that came out of the workshop was the unjust relationship between the communities and universities and the way it manifests in both spaces-- especially in the context of researchers from the university coming into their communities. The community members spoke of experiences in which biologists came to their communities to learn about medicinal plants, taking their knowledge for research theses without recognition of the communities as the holders of that knowledge. Or groups of students who came to “learn” from a native community, but treated them as objects rather than as humans, taking photos without permission and speaking about them rather than with them. Throughout these experiences, representatives of the universities came and went as they pleased, while community members never arrived at the university gates. 

Although communities hold so much knowledge, the university often does not recognize them as knowledge-holders. Their knowledge of medicinal plants is only valuable when translated into the academic language of botany and chemistry by a graduate student. Or when this now academic knowledge is sold to pharmaceutical companies who will make millions selling a drug that mimics that plant-- without the communities receiving a single cent of compensation for their participation in the process. 

So what would a more just relationship look like? Verbal recognition? Financial compensation? Or could it be providing scholarships for students from communities to attend universities? Or granting them free access to the information the university holds, just as the university has access to the knowledge they hold? Whatever the response, it should start with a dialogue in which the communities are given a voice and their desires are heard and respected. They play an imperative role in the creation of academic knowledge, and should be recognized for it. There is no university without the communities. 

Image: Exploring the knowledge of the Amazon with community members from Bavoroe and Tzawata (Summer 2019). 

Towards a University in Which Many Worlds Fit

In the Zapatista’s Fourth Declaration, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos writes: “In the world of the powerful, there is no space for anyone but themselves and their servants. In the world we want, everyone fits. In the world, we want many worlds to fit. The Nation which we construct is one where all communities and languages fit, where all steps may walk, where all may have laughter, where all may live the dawn.” 

The Zapatistas are fighting for a more inclusive world, one in which all people and their ways of being, not just those of the people in power, are encouraged and celebrated. I ask you: what is a university in which many worlds fit? In which multiple forms of knowledge are not only accepted and respected, but encouraged and harnessed as valuable tools of social justice? What does it look like? Feel like? What would it look like to fight for such a university-- one that does not claim to define and hold universal knowledge? This week, we will present the workshop we collectively created with the communities to multiple groups within the San Francisco University in Quito (USFQ) and hope to challenge ourselves and the university to grapple with these questions. I challenge you, as well, to not just be conscious of the unjust relationships and dynamics within your university, but to call out and confront them. To fight for a university that is truly diverse and inclusive. In the university we want, everyone fits. 

Image: Exploring the relationship between the community and the university through drawing (Summer 2019). 

Join the Fight

Are you a university student or professor that wants to be part of this fight for a more just education? For a decolonial education that includes and celebrates the knowledge and ways of being of everybody? Do you know someone who does? 

Applications for our Spring 2020 semester of Rehearsing Change, our community-based study abroad program, are open now. Our priority application deadline is September 15th, but we will receive applications until October 15th. Check out our website, Facebook, and Instagram for more information on the program, and please share this information with any students who may be interested in our work. 

Image: Planning activities and themes for the workshops in USFQ (Summer 2019). 

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