Athena Co-Learning Collective: https://www.athenacollective.org/
In the book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, adrienne maree brown describes emergent strategy as an approach to activism that is grounded in the “building [of] complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions” (2017: 2), so we can “align our behavior, our structures, and our movements with our visions of justice and liberation” (2017: 6). brown challenges us to re-evaluate (and often change) widely held understandings of how meaningful transformation occurs by thinking beyond “constant growth, violent competition, and critical mass” (2017: 14). Genuine change, brown shows, can be found in the principles of fractals, adaptation, interdependence, non-linearity, and transformative justice, all components of being in “right relationship” (2017: 24) with each other and with the world. brown situates her work among that of social movement leaders, activists, Indigenous philosophies, healers, biomimicry, permaculture, science fiction, and more. Because we find the academy to be implicated in and connected to our most pressing societal problems, we believe our classrooms are crucial sites for liberation work, as well.
This exploration of liberatory praxis is a central part of the Athena Co-Learning Collective’s approach to teaching and learning in the academy. Building on work detailed in our 2018 and 2020 publications, we continue to explore the possibilities that emerge by putting movement principles in conversation with academic scholarship. In taking up emergent strategy, we seek to enact in our scholarship the values of the rehumanized academy we desire: an academy deeply connected and indebted to liberation movements at the forefront of the struggle against racial capitalism and settler-colonialism. brown offers us a new set of tools for challenging the violent hierarchies and exclusions perpetuated in higher education learning spaces to help us transform ourselves and resist individualism and toxic competition. In doing this, we resist the myth of meritocracy on which the university was, and remains, founded.
In this Intervention, we describe our approach to “emergent scholarship”, inspired by adrienne maree brown, as an approach to knowing and being together in the academy that has the capacity to disrupt violent logics and animate rehumanized, collective modes of inquiry. Specifically, emergent scholarship rejects the idea that any one person can transform the academy or the world by themselves. Rather, we find transformation to be a collective, iterative, nonlinear, and ongoing process where power relations can shift into horizontal, collective formations in the spirit of trust-building and transformation. The practices and experiences described here are rooted in a seminar during the Spring 2019 semester, where we developed, tested, and evolved these practices.
Fractals: “The relationship between large and small” (brown 2017: 51)
For brown, fractals reflect the interconnected arrangement between small and large, such that “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system” (2017: 53). Fractal logic is useful for understanding how even those institutions or organizations with the intention of doing justice work often fall into the trap of reproducing the conditions of domination that reify existing hierarchies. It is not enough to declare resistance work; fractals remind us that in the absence of change in everyday practice – and without modeling the alternative set of relations we desire – our capacity for transformation is limited. brown gives the example of social justice organizations that are “structured in ways that reflect the status quo” (2017: 52). We might find a similar example in departments and colleges within universities that are doing purportedly “radical” scholarship, while at the same time grading students based on Eurocentric criteria, enacting top-down teaching models in the classroom, and overprescribing in the syllabus texts written by White, heterosexual, cisgender, settler men. In emergent scholarship we must ask the question: Are the patterns we are enacting in everyday praxis, and the structures we set up for ourselves to do that work, reflective of the transformed academy we desire?
In the 2019 Athena Co-Learning Collective seminar, we experimented with ways we could embody transformative relationships with each other and our scholarship. Our seminar included 12 participants – ten graduate students and two faculty from the University of Georgia – who spanned several disciplines including geography, education, urban planning, and philosophy. Our purpose was to engage with a range of academic, activist, and artistic texts “to work together in active resistance to white supremacist heteropatriarchy and toxic masculinist practices that have underpinned knowledge production and instruction at our universities” (Athena Co-Learning Collective 2018). This started by recognizing that only when we seek to transform ourselves can we change the world. For example, we embraced a fractal logic to disrupt the logics of racial capitalism and settler colonialism by doing our collective thinking in the context of a set of co-created and shared group agreements. These agreements allow us to put into practice principles for how we believe relationships should look at all levels of society – relationships built on vulnerability, deep listening, attention to power and privilege, acknowledgment of positionality, and equity. For the 2019 seminar, these collectively generated agreements were:
– Examine your own privilege.
– Be aware of your own fragility and how it affects the way you engage in the space.
– Examine discomfort and work through fragility.
– Allow different / multiple thoughts or ideas to be present.
– Embrace ambiguities.
– Let people finish their thoughts. Allow time for silence.
– Take time to process your thoughts.
– Allow adequate time for conversation.
– Be aware of how much you talk.
– Be aware of how much you are processing out loud. Some is ok, but don’t center yourself too much.
– Recognize that we have different experiences. Don’t assume we all can engage the same way or from the same place.
– Take the time to identify your feelings and/or needs.
– Listen carefully! Do not distract yourself.
– Not every thought or question needs an answer. Not everything needs a response.
– When you are class facilitator, engage in management of who talks and how much.
– Do kind confrontation when it is needed. Be open to receiving kind confrontation. Put another way, embrace and use feedback as an opportunity for growth.
Other small, yet important, practices also helped us transform ourselves to transform our classroom. We started each class with a meaningful “check in” where every participant could reflect on their ability to participate in the day’s activities. We found intentional time to get to know one another and engage in activities outside of class that were not rooted in problematic spaces of happy hours or exclusive gatherings. Practices like these made space during class time for emotion and affect, rather than expecting one another to engage in performance for the sake of efficiency and productivity. We operate horizontally, and strive to ensure that the professors (whom we call “conveners”) do not have disproportionate power over how decisions are made in the seminar. We did periodic self-assessment of our own work and ability to fulfill our group agreements, and we built in activities during the seminar that disrupted our Eurocentric conceptualizations of how and where learning takes place.
For example, in one seminar, the facilitators unexpectedly took the class to our rooftop garden, where they asked everyone to gather natural materials to build a collage as we discussed readings on ecofeminism for that week. What felt awkward and uncomfortable for some at first, ended up transforming us into a laughing, smiling, connected group of individuals whose conversation was deepened and strengthened in the act of creating art together that captured our understanding of the texts we read (see Figure 1).
Resilience: “How we recover and transform” (brown 2017: 123)
For those of us committed to radical, anti-racist, and decolonial work, and especially for those of us systematically harmed by patriarchy, White supremacy, ableism, and classism, the academy can be a violent place. To address the violence we experience, we explored brown’s concept of resilience as a key component of emergent scholarship. This is a practice rooted in transformative justice that sets out to “transform the conditions that make injustice possible” (2017: 126). For brown, this includes acknowledging the “reality of state harm” (2017: 135) by “finding ways to transform toxic energy, hurt, legitimate pain, and conflict into solutions” (2017: 133). Exploring productive, yet healthy and professional, ways to enact this principle was the subject of much attention in the seminar.
Specifically, brown situates conversation as “a crucial way to explore what we believe and to make new understandings and ideas possible” (2017: 168). To take this seriously requires fostering the conditions that enable transformative conversation, and the group communication agreements facilitated this effort. In the context of the Athena Co-Learning Collective, our group agreements allow us to address and interrupt harm at the level of everyday discursive practice. Our group agreements establish a commitment not only to attend to how power, privilege, and fragility are showing up in our communication practice, but to also kindly confront and interrupt practices or comments that reproduce logics of domination. Further, the collective model means that solutions and strategies for how we come together in the space are co-creations that are tailored to the needs and backgrounds of current collective members, while remaining in alignment with our values based in feminism(s), decolonialism, and anti-racism. It means that we are also dedicated to re-evaluating our agreements and trajectory as needed. This adaptability is important for engaging in the sort of acknowledgment, redress, and sustainability that brown’s resilience requires.
We also challenged ourselves to build “liberated relationships” (brown 2017: 142) with ourselves and each other, an ongoing process in the service of deepening trust and facilitating meaningful collaboration. This included, for example, engaging in a guided meditation in one class, as a means of recentering our collective project during a long semester. We also attended a screening of the documentary Below Baldwin together – a film that chronicles the violent (and ongoing) decisions of University of Georgia administrators to relocate the remains of likely enslaved people discovered on campus without the meaningful engagement of the descendant community. We also wrote, together, a class paper to reflect upon a diversity of experiences of exclusion within the academy among many in the class. It is through these practices that centered relationship-building and healing that we have begun to create the level of trust and emotionality needed to transform ourselves and the world.
Conclusion: On Continued Emergence
The university within which we work was founded on land stolen from Indigenous people and produced through the embodied labor of enslaved and low-wage workers. Resistant, radical pedagogical practices are needed to counteract and stop the perpetuation of divisions based on race and other axes of difference, which so often masquerade as “merit”. This Intervention is just the beginning of a theorization of emergent scholarship that centers collective liberatory work, and we are confident that more creative possibilities will emerge as we continue our work through the Athena Co-Learning Collective. Over time, an emergent scholarship that embraces the concepts of fractals and resilience allows us to bring our human selves to the learning community and develop relationships founded on trust and care that recognize that “[w]e have to create futures in which everyone doesn’t have to be the same kind of person” (brown 2017: 57). We believe that social movement theory and praxis, such as that we have engaged here, is necessary to transform the academy into a wholly rehumanized space for collective thought and action oriented toward shared liberation.
Specific individuals who contributed to this Intervention include: Rachelle Berry, Briana Bivens, Sara Black, Danielle Carrier, Haley DeLoach, Matthew Harris, Alice Hilton, Ashley (Carmen) Kuan, Jennifer Rice, Amy Trauger, Amelia Wheeler, and Nucharee Wongsamut. Corresponding authors: [email protected] and [email protected]
Athena Co-Learning Collective (2018) A femifesto for teaching and learning radical geography. AntipodeOnlie.org 27 November https://antipodeonline.org/2018/11/27/a-femifesto-for-teaching-and-learning-radical-geography/ (last accessed 4 Janaury 2021)
Athena Co-Learning Collective (2020) Rehumanizing the graduate seminar by embracing ambiguity: The Athena Co-Learning Collective. Gender, Place, and Culture https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2020.1727861
brown a m (2017) Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico: AK Press