This post was written by Nadia Chaney, a Dialogue Associate at the Simon Fraser University Wosk Centre for Dialogue and a social artist who empowers community voice through radical dialogue.
Education is a meaning-making venture. The content of a curriculum is always important, and, it is always housed in its own context. When context changes, meaning changes. So what happens to the meaning making operation of education when it crosses borders? I am interested in the complex relationships and nuanced interrogations of the question of identity that arise in particular as education moves across borders in the bodies of diasporic people. Of both historical and current importance, this question of identity in education confronts diasporic people here and around the planet. My own interest in this question comes from being a first generation Canadian with multi-faceted Indian roots and working as an educator in Bangalore, India. My arts-based empowerment work with PYEGlobal.org has been brewing on the Pacific Northwest Coast for 9 years. In 2009, when PYE partnered with Dream a Dream (.org) in Bangalore, I had an opportunity to explore some of these questions for myself.
The English word “education” comes from a Latin root, ducere, which means to draw out, or to lead forward. From a certain perspective, education can seem like a necessity, almost as important as food, water or family. It can offer access to work, security, and even personal fulfillment. In relation to this perspective and to what education offers, the context of leading and following is important to note: it raises certain questions about relevance and responsibility.
Images and metaphors come with and are embedded in curriculum and methodologies that are “exported” across borders. It is thus important to think about the assumptions that accompany these exported curriculums and how they affect the relevance and effectiveness of educational work in development.
“A is for Apple”
This is the way that a contemporary of mine learned the English alphabet as a child in Nigeria. There were no apples native to the region of his birth. What is the effect of this image when students cannot have a sensorial experience of the apple and have no cultural context for this originary metaphor in their process of language acquisition? The reality of this educational practice is dislocated, and the simplicity of the phrase (and thereby its function) is distorted. Through my own reflection, I have attempted to uncover the assumptions present in such educational moments and to uncover the potential opportunities for improvement that this kind of reflection can offer the educational practices of diasporic people working in the development sector.
These assumptions may appear in numerous forms. They may be in the content of the curriculum itself, as in A is for apple; they may be carried in the bearing and body of the teacher; they may exist in the location, building and furniture; or they may exist structurally in the changing methodologies that are used to teach (for example, a Canadian educator today may be repulsed by rote-learning, whereas an Asian educator may find it highly effective).
What makes education relevant? What makes it empowering? Empowering education in the development sector is self-reflexive, self-critical, and always returns to the lived realities of the communities. This is the only way to maintain its direction and momentum, while simultaneously offering opportunities for collaborative new directions and creativities. Otherwise, even the best intention runs the risk of dislocating power and identity and creating a sense that traditional or local knowledge is less worthy than an imported ‘otherness’.
Education can happen in formal settings or in the most informal, sometimes even accidental, moments. Wherever education happens, relationships are involved, in various combinations of student, teacher, state, community, and family. Education happens for many different reasons, and with different intended outcomes. Whether someone is being educated into a specific way of thinking, in order to leverage that education for power, or in order to empower themselves and their communities, there is always some kind of transfer of meaningful information. The manner in which this transfer takes place is at the core of education, under the auspices of what we call development.
Some of the questions we must ask when we are talking about change-making or empowering education are:
How is the history of the place and its inhabitants (human and non-human) taken into account by educational practices? For example with English-language instruction, people’s choices are broadened in terms of access to employment, travel and higher education. However, traditional knowledge and indigenous languages can also be lost in this process. How can these risks be brought to the forefront of curriculum decisions in order to mitigate cultural disintegration? How can power differentials (i.e., between student’s communities and state-sanctioned institutions) be acknowledged and transformed, if not balanced?
Does education attempt to make people “more like us”? Cross-border education carries presumptions with it that can be hegemonic and overwhelmingly value-laden. When do teachers and educators actually learn from their students? In the case of cross-border education, are educational practices returning to the country of residence? If not, what assumptions and practices prevent this direction of learning and knowledge transfer? How can an exchange of educational practices (traditional, grassroots, trade-oriented, as well as formal) be emphasized, so that the learning is multilateral?
In a truly educational relationship, the learning is mutual: all parties involved bring their meaning-making apparatus and collaboration occurs. Understanding grows between people as cultures interact and intersect. Sadly, many educational relationships refuse or fail to honour this co-learning, and education is tainted with status-based values and the hierarchies of permission they engender. Too often education is condescending and uni-directional, rather than empowering and visionary. In an empowering scenario, neither party would be presumed to have less, or be less worthy than the other; neither would have the “answers” and both would be open to learning and transforming as the encounter of education happens. In a cross-border interaction the learning of each other’s languages is one way to facilitate this.
When diasporic people return to their country of origin after years or generations, some of these questions are nuanced in interesting ways.
I recall my Hindi lessons at a rural campsite at Ramanagar, in Bangalore, Karnataka. A young man and myself had a mutual desire. I wanted to learn the language of my ancestors’, to reconnect myself to a past that had been out of reach. He wanted to learn the “mother” tongue that had been implanted in me, English. We held keys to each other’s empowerment. Our interaction happened in a large group, and was entertaining for hours. There was a German volunteer at the camp. Her interaction with learning Hindi was very different.
I am hungry for a language that is somehow mine-and-not-mine—that lingers on my tongue but resists expression, the language of grandmothers I never really knew. For her, the language learning is technical, functional. There is a different quality when educating in a place that has been imagined as home versus a place that is foreign or exotic.
The lessons between myself and the young man at the camp were hilarious, as both he and I were vulnerable in our struggle to learn in front of the group and equalized in the goals and contexts that created that vulnerability. Teasing, jokes, laughter, helping and alliance washed over the field, but something else was there, too, more subtle: the intimacy between student and teacher flowed between us like a kind of music, and was freely given and taken.
This is the gift that diasporic, especially first generation emigrant educators, like myself, can bring. The need to learn is as strong as the desire to teach. Some power, in this sense, is rebalanced. It is a humbling and stunning experience to return to the place you are from, where the stories of your grandmothers live, but where you have no place, no access, and no language. The migrant stories come back with you, and the place rises up to meet them—there are intense negotiations in this moment. In other visits, with family or as a tourist, I did not receive the kind of inception that I required in order to make sense of this tumult of sensation, these questions of identity that have raged in me since birth. But in the world of education the negotiation of relationship is the matter at hand.
Diasporic people may have more embodied access to the historic realities of the local cultures. But, there is always the danger that we essentialize the diasporic educator and assume that sensitivity, which may also not be the case. The key is to look for this impetus in diasporic development workers and encourage it. The stories of diasporic people are stories extracted from the past and are often disconnected from the lived reality of people living in their country of origin. Similarly, the stories of the country of residence may include hegemonic agendas that are unconscious to the diasporic person.
The question of identity negotiation is of paramount importance for all educators. This question should not be left out when thinking of diasporic peoples in development.
Change- or choice-making education requires that the choice of what and how to learn remain ultimately in the hands of the people being educated. What role do diasporic development workers have to play in ensuring that this relationship-based educational work is possible for education in development? Can diasporic development workers spearhead a change towards more mutual educational practices in the sector in general? The conversation must continue.
Nadia Chaney is a social artist empowering community voice through radical dialogue. Much of her work focuses on issues of identity, diversity, participatory process and non-violence. She works as a poet, emcee, musician, arts empowerment facilitator and educator, social justice activist, text editor and writing coach. She is also a dialogue associate at the SFU Centre for Dialogue.