Friday, November 25, 2016

Culturally centering dialogue: When conversing across differences is the only way out

I have been struck by how often we call for dialogue only to silence difference.

The call to dialogue is usually from power. Dialogue, or the performance of it, thus is a strategic tool for the powerful in such instances.

As a strategic tool, dialogue is inherently un-dialogic.

It is un-dialogic because it is strategic.

Cultural centering of dialogue is a radical departure from this strategic notion of dialogue as a tool of the status quo.

To culturally center dialogue is to open to the idea of dialogue as difference.

Dialogue as difference is articulated "from" or "with" the margins, recognizing the human agency of those at the margins as participants in production of truth.

The recognition of margins as legitimate sources of producing truth claims inherently turns dialogue as a site of difference.

Rather than serving as an instrument of the status quo to reproduce truth claims as seen from the vantage point of those in power, culture-centered dialogue begins with conversations at the margins of social systems.

To dialogue in the spirit of the CCA then is to open up to conversations across differences.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Of Safety Pins and Solidarities

In the post-Trump U.S., following from post-Brexit U.K., the safety pin has emerged as a symbolic declaration of solidarity, the declaration of a safe space.

In the face of the rise of bigotry and hatred in public discourse, the safety pin signals a clarion call to stand by those in U.S. society feeling the brunt of the climate of intolerance. We could certainly use more solidarity at this juncture of U.S. history.

Wearing a safety pin is also a material marker of standing by the marginalized in public spaces, where bigotry has been making its appearance.

As much as the symbolic show of safety pins points toward an entry point for solidarity, it is important interrogate the symbolic nature of solidarity.

The sudden expression of solidarity marked by an event (election of a bigot as the President of the U.S. whose campaign has anchored itself in a narrative of hate) declares that event as the moment of crisis. The marking of the election as a crisis moment obfuscates the histories of on-going racism experienced by people of colour.

The narration of the election as the moment of crisis does violence to the lived experiences of the many communities of colour who have lived with the violence of racism in the U.S. on a daily basis.

The safety pin as a liberal marker of solidarity also obfuscates the very racism that underlies liberalism and liberal notions of multiculturalism.

The liberal White feminist whose heart is bleeding for the brown Muslim man today is also the one that four years back looked at the Muslim man and branded him as chauvinist.

The show of solidarity in such instances does not really perform the difficult act of solidarity, of "being with," instead working quickly as another marker of identity politics, as a self-affirming branding tool like the "Pink Ribbon."

If solidarity were to truly work, if my White friends who feel so angry about the racist U.S. were to truly feel an opening for the racisms that people of colour witness, they might begin by simply listening to the many marginalized voices that express scepticism toward the displays of solidarity.

To feel solidarity is to first and foremost sit back and listen, to allow oneself to experience the pain and suffering that mark the lives of the underprivileged. To find solidarity is to begin with patience, patience with being challenged, patience with one's privilege being critically interrogated.

To articulate solidarity is to fundamentally recognize the impossibilities of solidarity amidst inequality that marks everyday life.

Unless you want your safety pin to simply be your self-branding tool, listen.

Listen to the voices of the margins that stand witness. Listen to the voices of the margins that express scepticism at your white liberal performance of solidarity.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Notes from fieldwork: Who is the bureaucrat accountable to?

In conducting fieldwork with communities living in poverty, I have often had to interact with bureaucrats in a variety of countries.

Although these interactions are contextual and culturally constituted, one feature that tends to resonate across the interactions is the impermeability of the bureaucrat.

For most community members, the bureaucrat is intimidating.

Usually selected through some kind of a grade-based/exam-based system, in a number of these countries, the bureaucrat is identified by his/her pedigree.

Strong academic performance. Strong performance on entrance exams.

While these qualities prepare the bureaucrat well in analytical thinking, they alone are not sufficient.

Without humility and compassion, the bureaucrat becomes the impermeable face of the State, disconnected from everyday people, their lived experiences, and their struggles with making a living.

Without the exposure to the reality of the everyday struggles of the people, the bureaucrat becomes a far removed instrument of the state structure, perfecting the rote-learned mechanisms of the bureaucracy. Too busy saving his/her job, the bureaucrat is mostly incompetent, too quick to discard grievances from communities, and too far removed from community life to understand the challenges community members, particularly the poor, face.

Thus, one of the striking features in the interaction of bureaucrats with the poor is often the dismissal of the lived experiences of the poor.

A well performed bureaucratic veneer is both impermeable and inaccessible to the poor.

In our culture-centered work then, one of the early lessons we learn in working together with communities at the margins is this: in a state-driven system, the bureaucrat is just the servant of the state. Here to serve. Paid by tax payers. The strengthening of state structures and public services can only be accomplished when the bureaucrat is held accountable.

Once this point is well ingrained in community life, community members know to hold the bureaucrat accountable to them, as a servant of the public. Their relationship with the bureaucrat thus changes, as one of expecting the bureaucrat to be responsive to their challenges, and to be driven by the fundamental mission of serving them.

The culture-centered approach inverts the traditional top-down logic of bureaucracy by making open spaces that are held accountable to the participation of everyday citizens.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Listening to voices of the poor: Academic freedom and policy making

The work of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) has applied the tenets of the CCA to work in communities across the global margins.

The poverty and communicative inequalities projects that are carried out by CARE reflect the overarching theme of the CCA, theorizing the communicative constructions of poverty in the global mainstream, and creating spaces for the voices of the poor in these mainstream and elite platforms through collaborations in solidarity with the poor.

Comparing the discourses of poverty in mainstream  and elite networks with discourses of poverty as voiced by those living in poverty across countries offers a conceptual framework for examining the ways in which communication of/about poverty works in mainstream/elite constructions, the gaps in these constructions, as well as the possibilities of transformative change when  these stories are grounded in the accounts of the poor about their lived experiences.

Essential to this work then is a commitment to empirically work in contexts of poverty. The CARE team and I spend countless hours conducting participant observations, in-depth interviews, focus groups, surveys etc. to arrive at the empirical constructions of experiences of poverty. A CARE project is minimally a product of two to three years of rigorous, field-based empirical work, with strong CARE projects spanning over a decade.

However, more importantly, the communicative turn of actually listening to the voices of the poor ensures that we spend many hours collaborating with advisory board members, shaping our research instruments, reflecting on them, and most importantly, undoing and redoing them when and where necessary. The actual lived experiences of collaboration in academic-community partnerships teach us about the mechanisms of communication that work toward generative frameworks that address the needs of the poor as envisioned by them. In this sense, a well conceived culture-centered project becomes one of the poor, turning the tools of research into the hands of the poor, and working through these tools to challenge the misconceptions around poverty that circulate in the mainstream.

Reflecting this overarching tenet, the "Voices of Hunger" projects that have been carried across seven countries spanning North America and Asia reflect the value of stories from the margins as shared by the poor in challenging the overarching stereotypes about the poor that are often misguided and factually incorrect.

Of course, the sanctity of culture-centered projects rests on the pillar of academic freedom. Moreover, the usefulness of the projects depend upon their ability to engage with policy making. The voices of the poor often offer vital lessons that policy makers ought to pay attention to. Take for instance the narratives of the poor in our fieldwork in India that point to ways in which the Aadhar card, an ID system implemented across India to supposedly streamline the delivery of public services actually fails to deliver these services because of faulty technologies, inaccess to technologies, and the interplays of poverty and technology inacess. As a result, those who are the poorest are often the ones that are being unserved. This narrative emerging from the grassroots not only interrogates the power of a monolithic story, but more importantly, offers a framework for redoing policy. Such lessons are only enabled by a sufficient commitment to academic freedom. Academic freedom enables the inconvenient but empirically grounded stories to emerge. Academic freedom offers in this sense of the CCA an opportunity for thus ultimately developing policy frameworks grounded in the lived experiences and struggles of the poor.

Because the narratives of and by the poor fundamentally disrupt the dominant assumptions held by elites, the power of the work of culture-centered approach lies first and foremost in keeping intact these spaces of academic research that are anchored in a steady commitment to authenticity and truth. Rather than telling stories of and by the structure, framing these stories in symbolic artifacts that appeal to the elite, culture-centered stories engage empirically the very bases of these dominant narratives.

The CCA has worked, however contingently, across global spaces because the tenets of academic freedom retain the spaces in academe where this work has been carried out and where it continues to be carried out. It is after all, an overarching commitment to the broad ideas of academic freedom that makes possible the continuous search for truth, grounded in the lived experiences of the have-nots in a highly unequal world.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Social impact: Accountability to communities

Universities live in communities. Universities breathe in communities. Universities are legitimized because communities afford them the legitimacy.

The work we carry out as scholars therefore is founded upon the fabric of community life. Based on the taxes paid by everyday citizens. And much more importantly, on the goodwill of communities that give universities land, trust, legitimacy.

Yet, it is often the community, the immediate context of University life, that remains ignored in objectives, mission statements, and statements of strategy crafted by University leaders.

For a large number of faculty, university life goes on, walled from the everydayness of the communities we live in. Disconnected from the spirits of community life. And ever so alienated from the spirits, ebbs, and flows in our immediate communities.

You can have academics spend their entire career in communities and yet be completely disconnected from community life. You can have academics who don't really see the community they live in, residing in their walled spaces.

The conversation on social impact is an invitation to fundamentally transform this alienated elitism of university life. The social impact conversation must begin by considering the immediate community and context that constitutes the University. The conversation on social impact then has to begin by considering what is the role of our missions of teaching and research in contributing to community life.

To turn to communities as entry points for conversations on social impact then suggests a necessary restructuring of university life, of what we value, and of the metrics that we use in evaluating our work. The turning toward community suggests the necessity of reworking benchmarks and criteria that begin by considering the role of knowledge in contributing to community life, in improving the lives of citizens, and in addressing the felt needs of communities we are embedded in.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Social impact and its role in Universities

Social impact has secured its legitimate place in University conversations across global spaces.

In the face of the global challenges we face, Universities both feel the pressure from taxpayers as well as see an opportunity in generating knowledge directed at addressing social impact.

Some form or the other of the rhetoric of social impact is a part of the branding strategy of most Universities today.

Yet, I worry that the conversation on social impact often ends up in empty sloganeering, devoid of accountability to the various stakeholders that a social impact conversation would hold the University to.

Slogans such as "We change the world," and "Making a difference" are so widely used that "change" and "difference" have become commonplace words, devoid of meaning and value, and devoid of mechanisms for holding Universities accountable to these slogans.

In other words, like bad advertising campaigns, they have become selling propositions, often signifying "feel good" emotions but disconnected to difficult and fundamental questions of value of university life.

For a large number of Universities, the rhetoric of social impact is far removed from a commitment to generating knowledge that makes a difference. For most universities, academics have been trained to feel comfortable in the ivory tower, to disconnect themselves from the everyday threads of community life.

For the high priests of academia, elitism serves to both produce as well as maintain power. More importantly, the power of academia as a site of knowledge production is reproduced through this fundamental disconnect from community life.

Modern universities thus are often in spirit antithetical to a commitment to social impact.

To commit to social impact is first and foremost to change the way we think of our work as academics, to transform what counts as academic work, and to find ways of valuing impact across the various spaces of academic life.

For a University to move toward committing to social impact calls for a continued commitment to opening up the processes of production of knowledge to communities, establishing frameworks of accountability in local, national, regional, and global community frameworks. In this sense, the conversation on social impact also democratizes universities by setting up parameters for evaluating academic life that are grounded in the day-to-day elements of everyday life of communities, societies, eco systems.

And this is precisely where the conversation on social impact is difficult, essentially threatening to the status quo of academic life.

As elitist structures, Universities have historically worked on setting up walls and barriers. To commit to social impact then is to first and foremost break down the practices of elitism that safeguard and perpetuate academic privilege.

Now this transformation in academic life is threatening to the status quo, to the usual way of doing things.

A University that commits to social impact thus has a long and difficult road ahead of itself.

The journey ahead begins with undoing the Brahminical elitism that forms the basis of academic life.

A socially committed University has to begin by actually committing itself to this arduous journey of undoing what it has known to be the basis of academic life. This means it has to align its values to social impact. This fundamental transformation of values then must be reflected in every layer of University life, in the practices of academe, and in the ways in which evaluations are carried out in academe.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Your White Progressivism

When your White status quo
Wants to internationalize
Under your oh so
Progressive banner
I shudder.
At the thought of
Your pox, malaria, syphilis, cholera
That you will bring
With your civilizing mission.