Office of Inclusive Excellence

Good Teachers

October 29, 2021

By Sara Salazar Hughes, Assistant Professor of Global Studies

From a young age I have felt that how things are isn’t right. It took longer for me to articulate the massive, massive wrong that is capitalism/colonialism/white supremacy—interlocking structures that disproportionately, and widely, render people disposable, slaveable, killable. I have felt from a young age that we could do better if we chose to. In her book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), Leanne Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) calls on us to “continually ask ourselves how we replicate these systems in our own lives and in the lives of the organizations and movements we are part of” (2017: 54). I believe that the antidotes to these violent, extractive, murderous structures are found in refusal and in generating movements and communities that center care and love.

Anti-racism entails conscious and deliberate actions to identify and oppose structural racism. Decolonization means the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Abolition is building the world that we want, a world where everyone has what they need. I am not an expert in anti-racism, decolonization, or abolition. But I am learning. I have learned that to practice allyship and to be in right relationship with others I have to be open. I have to be a holder of space rather than a taker of space. Practicing abolition, Mariame Kaba says in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us (Haymarket Books, 2021), demands healthy ego checks so that we don’t confuse our feelings for policy or politics. In Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017), adrienne maree brown says that the path of doing meaningful social justice work requires humility—“enough humility to learn, to be taught, to have teachers” (2017: 10). And I have good teachers. As my friends, colleagues, and teachers in the Abolitionist and Decolonial Education Collective (ADEC) remind me through our community agreements: “No one knows everything. Together we know a lot.” So I’ll share just a little of what I have come to know, and some of the questions this growing knowledge raises in me.

Process. In creating a new world, the process is crucial because as we work we are experimenting, building, and learning how to live in more sustainable ways against the dominant social relations imposed and enforced by capitalism/colonialism/white supremacy. As Simpson says about her work in Indigenous resurgence: “It became clear to me that how we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world—the process—not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation” (2017: 19). Similarly, brown describes her method for change, “emergent strategy,” as “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for” (2017: 24). She says: “I would call our work to change the world ‘science fictional behavior’—being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations” (2017: 16). Abolitionists also assert that how we get there matters, that changing the ‘how’ is at the root of the transformation we seek. And as Kaba tells us, we have to start where we are, connect to the people already doing the work, and experiment. Are we getting there the right way? If we aren’t, we’ll never arrive.

Love & Reciprocity. From Indigenous scholars like Simpson and Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi Nation) I have learned reciprocity. That healthy, nourishing relationships are reciprocal and come with responsibilities. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2013), Kimmerer says that “indigenous peoples share the understanding that we are each endowed with a particular gift, a unique ability” and that “a gift is also a responsibility” (2013: 347). She describes reciprocity as “a matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving,” noting that the value increases as the gift is shared (165). brown identifies our gift when she says: “Perhaps humans’ core function is love” (2017: 9). She describes how a focus on love and relationship opens up inside us “the generosity of time and gifts that is necessary for movements to grow” (2017: 22). She also calls on us to examine how we as humans “earn a place on this precious planet, get in the ‘right relationship’ with it” (2017: 5). What if we thought of love as our responsibility to the earth and to each other? What would our community look like if our goal was to increase love and reciprocity? Both Kimmerer and brown remind us that what we pay attention to grows, so let’s pay attention to love.

Collectivity. Kaba repeatedly shares something her father said to her: everything worthwhile is done with others. Decolonization means repatriating Indigenous relationships to and on the land. Abolitionist practice means getting to know your neighbors. Building relationships. Practicing reciprocity. brown asserts: “the strength of our movement is in the strength of our relationships, which could only be measured by their depth” (2017: 10). Simpson likewise insists that movement building is relationship building, that we need to know each other. Kimmerer reminds us that in nature harsh conditions lead to teamwork: “In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival” (2017: 272). And though survival is a step along the path, abolitionists urge us to imagine a world in which everyone has everything that they need, and then to bring that world into being. As Kaba asserts: “Being intentionally in relation to one another, a part of a collective, helps to not only imagine new worlds, but also to imagine ourselves differently” (2021: 4). We have to imagine the relationships, the community, the world we want, and then we have to start doing it. In closing, Kaba notes: “None of us has all of the answers, or we would have ended oppression already. But if we keep building the world we want, trying new things, and learning from our mistakes, new possibilities emerge” (2021: 4).