A decolonised approach to tackling community challenges

At the heart of the proposals the seven-member ‘Civic Engagement Futures’ group made on the final day of the Talloires Network Leaders Conference is the raison d’être of the 20-year-old network that now numbers 417 colleges and universities in 78 countries: civic engagement by students.

“The university of the future is engaged – it has no walls. It is committed to social responsibility and encourages students to engage directly with real-world challenges. In doing so, engaged universities prepare students for livelihoods that contribute to a more sustainable future,” says Nieves Segovia, president of Camilo José Cela University in Madrid, Spain, and Talloires Network steering committee vice-chair for the conference that was hosted from 30 September to 3 October.

As conceived by the 22 founders of the Talloires Network, civic engagement is much more than working a few hours in the community. And, as John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, stressed in his keynote address, although being an informed voter is a start, it is not enough.

Rather, civic engagement has two parts. First, as exemplified by The Street Store@UP, a programme founded by Paseka Elcort Gaola, a fourth-year bachelor degree student at the Mamelodi campus of the University of Pretoria, South Africa, civic engagement involves students in the warp and woof of their communities: in this case, distributing food, toiletries and clothing to students in need.

Second, by being enmeshed in their communities, students like Gaola learn about economic realities that are rather different from those covered in the traditional curriculum studied by a commerce and law major.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Vuthlarhi Shirindza, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who co-founded a company that uses drones to deliver medicines to patients in rural South Africa, is likewise immersed in the practical needs of her community – and necessarily has learned about public health problems from the ground up.

The students who presented at the conference have founded a number of organisations, including ones that:

• Connect underprivileged Ghanaian youth with higher education opportunities.

• Teach underprivileged Ghanaian youth basic computer skills.

• Advocate against violence against women in Sudan.

• Provide menstrual products to women in Kenya.

• Work to remove barriers to education for LGBTQ2S in India.

• Advocate for Indigenous land rights in Mexico.

• Develop a micro-health insurance system for students in Cameroon.

• Mentor youth in the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

Much as ‘dramatic irony’ (to borrow a term from theatre studies) dissolves the fourth wall and involves the audience in the production, these organisations dissolve the illusion that the university is a self-contained unit, a view supported in many cases by the campus gates and the enduring trope of the Ivory Tower.

Varied paths

The paths the students in the ‘Civic Engagement Futures’ session travelled to the Talloires Network conference vary widely.

Gaola’s runs through the University of Pretoria and includes a six-week civic engagement scholarship that brought him (and other students) to Washington DC; Memphis, Tennessee and Seattle, Washington. In the American capital, he studied the structure of the American government.

Recalling our emotional reaction when, about a decade ago, my wife and I visited the Lincoln Memorial, I asked Gaola about the impact it made on him. He began by referencing popular culture: “For the first time, it felt real. It’s one of the places television likes to show.”

Then, after a short pause, he added in a reverent tone: “It was quite interesting to go up the steps, until you reach the last one and then, [suddenly] you just see it [the seated 19-foot-high Lincoln statue and to his side the famous ‘Gettysburg Address’].”

Gaola’s visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, left him thinking about how the narrative of American history changes when viewed from the African American perspective.

“It always depends who is writing the story,” he told University World News.

In Memphis, he saw how his and his fellow scholarship students’ foreign accents shielded them from the racism they also saw around them. This was underlined for them when an African American came up to Gaola and told him: “‘It’s not every day that we see white folks communicate to us [black people] the way you are’. And they [the white southerners] were quite interested in knowing what we spoke about.”

In one exchange, as if on cue, some white southerners expressed surprise that the Africans had iPhones.

Claire McCann, a graduate student from Rhodes University in South Africa, is also trained in economics. Her masters thesis, situated at the intersection of economics and feminist theory, focuses on the caring economy and early childhood development or ECD: “A critical analysis of the barriers to an effective ECD rollout in South Africa, and the possibility the social economy offers in this space.”

At Rhodes University, McCann has been volunteering to design a short course in community engagement for grades 10, 11 and 12 to be delivered in local private schools. “This course serves to equip South African private school students in the discourse of transformation and development.” In the modules, “we embed reciprocal community development practices and ones that are based on assets instead of needs,” she says.

The course is designed to be self-transformational. So, it has its mainly white and well-off students look for privilege and stereotypes, and how to overcome these to build towards a transformative society.

The impact of McCann’s discussions with fellow team member Maria D’jalma Torres Sanchez, a Peruvian lawyer who claims her indigenous identity and is now studying at University College Cork in Ireland, exemplifies the Talloires Network’s belief that the interchange between students from different backgrounds and places can lead them to new insights.

“We spoke a lot about indigenous epistemologies, different sources of knowledge and the importance of oral histories,” with the last being especially important for McCann for two reasons.

First, she learned when studying history as an undergrad, like so much else in South Africa, that what constitutes ‘history’ is bifurcated between written (official) history produced mainly by and for white colonial governments and the oral history of the black majority.

The second impact of Torres’s explanation of indigenous epistemologies and spirituality highlighted for McCann the limitations of “rationalism and pragmatism for the [Global] North and West”.

The practical effect of these discussions can be seen in the methodology of the qualitative (ie, oral) research McCann is using for her thesis. Not only will her interviews not be ‘extractive’, they will be structured so that she and her interviewee are co-producers of the material McCann will use in her thesis.

As well, McCann told University World News, her work will be informed by the idea that spirituality is a “legitimate and very powerful source of knowledge”.

The day we spoke, Torres, who, in the decade since graduating from law school, has worked on indigenous issues – on litigation, advocacy and lately as parliamentary adviser for the Peruvian Congress – was a day away from starting work at the Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP). AIDESEP is one of the main national indigenous organisations of the Peruvian Amazon.

A born and bred Limeña (resident of Lima), Torres was “totally unaware of muddy roads” like the ones in Ancash, Cajamarca and Yauyos, all in the north central part of Peru, where her grandparents were from; still less was she able to speak her grandmother’s native language, Quechua.

She realised that she wanted to specialise in indigenous peoples’ rights after travelling, as part of a law school course, to the Kandozi’s ancestral territory. The indigenous people in this area of the Western Amazon suffered from hepatitis B and were abandoned by the state. Her indigeneity became important to her after five years working closely with these peoples.

In 2018, Torres was invited to participate as a speaker and as human rights defender to the Roger Casement Summer School in Dublin, Ireland. Roger Casement’s journey, from being an official of the British Colonial Service to Irish patriot was, Torres told me, personal for her in two ways.

First, in 1911, Casement wrote a report about the plight of the indigenous people working in the rubber plantations in the Putumayo, a border that Peru and Colombia share. A common form of punishment was the pillory, which men, women and children could be locked to for months at a time.

This report was written six years after his more famous report detailing the abuses – including slavery, mutilation and torture of hundreds of thousands of Congolese – on the rubber plantations in the Congo, which was the personal fief of Belgium’s King Leopold.

Second, Casement served as a model of having, to use Torres’s words, “decolonised himself” after realising “his nation was suffering” under British rule.

“Casement’s example, his discovery that his Irishness was central to his identity, is a model for me. It is why my masters thesis is on indigenous self-identification and its relationship to supporting indigenous people’s demands for self-determination,” Torres told University World News.

(In Casement’s case, he paid for his quest to support self-determination with his life. Early in 1916, he travelled to Germany where he tried to raise a regiment from Irish soldiers who had been captured on the Western Front to fight against British rule in Ireland. He was captured on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay, County Kerry, Ireland, after being put ashore by a German U-boat, and was executed for ‘high treason’ [ie against the British occupying power] in August 1916.)

Helping indigenous peoples on their land claims and realising self-determination is a central part of Torres’s work at AIDESEP.

“Self-determination in this case doesn’t mean we want our own country. It means, respect my territory. Respect my decisions and development priorities. Indigenous peoples don’t oppose mining and economic development per se. But we want them done with respect for the indigenous peoples and their territories,” Torres says.

Since arriving at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2020 to begin his bachelor degree, Fadi Marwan Salahedin has involved himself both in his physical surroundings and in the lives of refugees in Lebanon. With partial funding from the Boston-based NGO, Peace First, he organised an initiative that recycles plastic left over from the huge explosion that devastated Beirut on 4 August 2020.

Further, Salahedin has volunteered as a research intern with the AUB Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service’s Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) programme that bridges refugees whose studies have been disrupted.

In addition to helping obtain transcripts and the like, PADILEIA provides upgrading courses in mathematics, English and the sciences. More closely linked to Salahedin’s field of study, psychology is an often-overlooked area of need: psycho-social support.

Though post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most well-known psycho-social condition refugees have to deal with, it is not the only psycho-social issue facing refugees, Salahedin told University World News.

“It would be reductive to narrow it down to just PTSD, although it is an important issue, as are the subcategories of PTSD.”

Refugees are subject to the same gamut of psychological issues non-refugees are subject to, underlined the Syrian student who attends the AUB on a scholarship, and who plans to study industrial and business psychology.

“Everything a person can go through can cause them to have depression or anxiety, or suicidal ideation can be present. So can undiagnosed ADHD: Because there has been no background knowledge or psychological knowledge [where the refugee came from], no one has ever addressed it and they live in misery for the rest of their lives without ever knowing what’s going on.”

He added that there are of course other issues such as borderline personality disorders, schizophrenia and the like.

After pointing out that each of the terms he had just used can be found in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and, thus, belong to the Western (especially American) understanding of psycho-social disorders, I asked if there is a gap between this view of psychology and the non-Westernised people that make up some of the refugees in Lebanon? Salahedin said that such a barrier does exist.

“However,” he quickly added, “when you can see that the issues result in distress in the day-to-day lives of the individual, that is something that people can talk about. In collectivist societies like here and in the Middle East in general, the role of the family or the society becomes more important than it is in individualistic communities in the West where an individual might just go to a therapist to address these issues.

“This must be taken into consideration when designing programmes or initiatives to support individuals in distress.”

‘What is the university good for?’

Drawing on their own experiences and their discussions about them, the students in the Civic Engagement Futures session answered the second of the two questions that Okidi Patrovas Gabriel, a MasterCard Foundation Scholar at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, posed at the beginning of their presentation: “What is the university good for?”

In asking this question, Gabriel, who is studying statistics, pointed our attention not just toward the future but, more importantly, toward the university’s social function. “We realise,” he said, “that COVID-19 has exposed the social cracks in our society” and that it “has opened a space for us to engage with this question further”.

Telegraphing what the other six participants would say, Gabriel said that their “vision implies a paradigm shift” about how to overcome the systemic barriers that hinder students from engaging in civic engagement.

The students in the Civic Engagement Futures session called for civic engagement to be recognised as a core element in university education. Showing the influence of the several students who had economics or law training, they spoke the language of registrars when they said that civic engagement must be “evidence based” and that the goals of both the individual students and the organisation or group they work with must be measured.

When civic engagement involves underprivileged or marginalised communities, the group said that care must be taken to avoid imposing on the community what amounts to a colonial structure.

Put another way, student activists must recognise that as members of a university community they necessarily act from a position of privilege vis-à-vis underprivileged or marginalised communities. Accordingly, they must ensure that the solutions to the real-world problems that they work towards are defined and arrived at with the community in question.