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On taking transformation seriously: Dreams, speculations and alternative-building in academia

Research presentation by T-Learning team in South Africa. Photo: Heila Lotz-Siskita

This post originally appeared on the ACKNOWL-EJ website.

In Rewriting the future, Walidah Imarisha says that when she tells people she’s a prison abolitionist, they look at her as though she “rode in on a unicorn sliding down a rainbow.” Envisioning a future without prisons is indeed a radical vision, but, Imarisha argues, those are exactly the visions we need to be having. She and ‘visionary movement strategist’ Adrienne Maree-Brown recently co-edited an anthology entitled Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, where they gather stories to collectively dream up a better future. Because, as they argue, organizing is science fiction. We dream the impossible, ‘mining the past’ for examples along the way, in order to build alternative ways of being.

Imarisha and Maree-Brown link into a wider international web of writers, artists and activists that use radical magical realism, fantasy, and sci-fi (or, as new climate change-related sci-fi is called, ‘cli-fi’) as a tool for transformation. In contrast to perhaps more ‘mainstream’ science-fiction, this writing, including sub-genres like afrofuturism and queer speculative fiction, centers voices and identities often absent in the utopic/dystopic/space-society stories we often see on TV or in the book stores. And the transformative potential of these radical imaginings cannot be underestimated…after all, if technological inventions are often inspired by science-fiction stories their inventors read growing up, shouldn’t we assume that our change-makers, activists, and community organizers can also invent, recreate, or defend ways of being and interacting that defy current hegemonic structures based on their own visionary stories? And what about academic researchers?

Like Imarisha’s unicorn anecdote, I suspect that many of us in the International Social Science Council-funded Transformative Knowledge Networks (TKN) projects have had similar experiences of incredulous glance-receiving in our own professional and personal environments. Recently, I represented one of these projects (Activist-Academic Co-Produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice – ACKNOWL-EJ) at our sister project T-LEARNING’s summer research school in Visby, Sweden. Participants included T-Learning’s international community of researchers and a member of the third TKN project, PATHWAYS to Sustainability. While each of our three projects are different in many ways, I believe there are many things we also have in common, including a strong belief in the need for radical transformations of current dominant structures and systems in times of climate change, a willingness to dream big, and a thirst to use our research as a transformative tool in and of itself.

What is T-learning? Photo: Heila Lotz-Sisitka.

The ‘T’ in T-Learning stands for many things, though members tend to zoom in on ‘Transformative’, “Transdisciplinary” and ‘Together’ as central to their project, with the edgier term ‘Transgressive’ increasingly being employed  Indeed, the official long version of their name is Transformative, Transgressive Learning in Times of Climate Change. Instead of just studying, and observing, and reporting (engaging in what many critically call “academic extractivism”), these researchers work to both understand and aid transformations through their knowledge-production/collection processes. Throughout our days together in Sweden, we spoke about many of the critical methodologies and theories used by the TKN project members, some of which seem to respond to Imarisha’s call for visionary future-building. Counter-hegemonic cartographer Million Belay, for example, described working with communities across East Africa to map out the past, present, and future from their own perspectives, while I shared the scenario-building and backcasting method used by ACKnowl-EJ partners in Turkey in collaboration with an activist group resisting the construction of coal power plants and other ecologically destructive activities in their region. Other members stressed the centrality of conducting participatory, collaborative research to their vision of collective, transformative knowledge-building and sharing. And as a new PhD student who often feels lost and hopeless about conducting academic research, I was so inspired to meet so many researchers dedicated to norm-breaking and envisioning and building radically different forms of academia.

Perhaps what was most inspiring to me throughout the T-Learning research school was the energy poured into alternative-building every step of the way, including the very organization of the school itself. In defiance of the norms for typical academic conferences and meetings, the school’s organizers invited us into ways of being and interacting that speak to the very transformations they see as necessary in the wider world. These included an initial silent walk and reflection led by Martha Chaves to acknowledge and invite the other into our gathering (nature, spirits, the non-human) and ask permission for our presence in a different territory from our own, incredibly creative and engaging sessions to share research methodologies and research updates, a (literally) glass-breaking group dance energizer, and collective strategic analysis of case study research using a variety of mediums.

Research presentation by the T-Learning team in Colombia. Photo: Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Our first evening together, T-Learning coordinator Professor Heila Lotz-Sisikta stressed the seriousness of the project’s work, the need to take advantage of the short, precious time the T-Learning project members could all gather together in order to engage in deep, important and fruitful discussions around their research. And yet, while in typical academic research conferences the term seriousness might manifest as something very different (often reinforcing harmful dominant structures around what is considered ‘professional’, ‘respectable’, and academic, and what isn’t), in this space it opened up room for creativity and reflection in a unique way. I left the school understanding that T-Learning members take transformation very seriously, and that includes taking transgression, creativity, and alternative ways of interacting, learning, and sharing seriously.

And so I returned home almost feeling as though I had just lived through one of the stories Walidah Imarisha writes about: a beautiful piece of magical realism and speculative fiction on academia and research for, and with, transformation. The ‘unicorn-rainbow’ glances we received from others we came into contact with, as though they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing or overhearing, opened the door for rich discussions and exchanges on who we were, why we were doing what we were doing, and how serious we were about it. And, I don’t think I am alone in feeling that this reminder on how to dream big and build as we go left me with a renewed energy and guiding vision for what transformative and transgressive academic research can look like. As Imarisha paraphrases Arundhati Roy in saying, “other worlds are not only possible, but are on their way—and we can already hear them breathing.” As researchers, we can ask ourselves: are we just listening to their breathing? Or are we helping to pump fresh air into their lungs?


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