Author: Maggie Huang
Editors and Reviewers: Leslie Chan, Kanishka Sikri, Rayna Sutherland, George Chen, Matthew Lefaive, Daniela Mallarino, Myuri Komagiri, Elisa Chang, Denisse Albornoz, Sigrid Roman, Karen Villaneuva
On July 9th, friends, partners and collaborators working on various projects advancing knowledge equity participated in a Collective Visioning workshop for the emerging Knowledge Equity Lab.
The Knowledge Equity Lab (“KEL”) seeks to be a trans-disciplinary and inclusive space that challenges forms of exclusion within the unequal structure and socio-technical conditions of knowledge production and exchange. Based out of the Centre for Critical Development Studies (“CCDS”) at the University of Toronto Scarborough, KEL seeks to do this by enabling collaboration and partnerships with community members who share the goal of greater knowledge inclusion, epistemic diversity, and the centering of marginalized and underrepresented knowledge as a means of social justice and social change.
The purpose of the workshop was to use participatory and arts-based research methods like muralling and visual storytelling, to co-create the visual identity and collective themes of the emerging Knowledge Equity Lab. Graphic note-taker Guilia Forsythe, a long time advocate and partner in the movement for knowledge, was also invited to help visualise the fruits of our conversation.
Our plan for the process was to not only enable collective learning about the Lab’s diverse and multifaceted values, themes, and project areas, but also provide designer Emilia and her team from Cooperativa De Disenio with some visual inspiration for the Knowledge Equity Lab video, which will be used for the promotion and launch of the lab.
While ideally, we would have been able to meet for an in-person workshop to experiment with these creative, arts-based methodologies, to care for each other during the Covid-19 pandemic meant that we needed to respect social distancing, and get creative about virtual ways to collaborate and co-create.
So, we decided to make use of the digital whiteboard Miro and video-conferencing software Zoom, which in some ways enhanced our ability to connect with people from around the world, and share our inspirations drawing from the rich collective resources hosted on the internet.
The overall agenda of the workshop was as follows:
Over two hours, we planned to:
- Review the Purpose and Agenda
- Co-develop Group Processes and Agreements
- Engage in a collaborative Land Acknowledgement
- Co-create and present at the Knowledge Equity Show and Tell
- Review Guilia and Emilia’s Visual Note-Taking and Video Storyboarding work, and
- Provide Reflections and Feedback on the workshop
Group Processes and Agreements
To set group processes and agreement, participants were invited to contribute to a virtual 3M chart paper by adding sticky note suggestions.
Collectively, we landed on the following group agreements:
- Be open to questions, especially given the language diversity in the workshop, to help clarify concepts between the English and non-English speakers if need be
- Lean into awkwardness and silence, recognising the value of allowing people to think and reflect in silence
- And lastly, welcome accessibility requests, especially given the technical tools we were using were new to most folks, and could be a barrier to inclusive participation. Ideally, accessibility and other accommodation considerations would be addressed prior to the workshop, but since several participants joined at the last minute, it was a useful and important reminder in case unforeseen challenges arose.
We also used this time to seek consent about recording the Zoom workshop, as well as breakout rooms; so we would be able to review and capture the insights generated from the session.
Collaborative Land Acknowledgement
Given the virtual nature of our workshop, and the fact that our participants were hailing from across the globe, we wanted to try and creatively acknowledge the diversity of indigenous lands we were on, and situate ourselves in our own histories and contexts.
We first watched and listened to this land acknowledgement by Sara Roque and Selena Mills, who provided an oral history of Tkaronto with illustrations by Chief Lady Bird. They acknowledged the University of Toronto was situated on land previously home to the Petun, the Huron Wendat, the Haudenenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg, the Metis, and the Mississaugas indigenous peoples; and continues to be the home to many indigneous peoples today.
Participants were then invited to use virtual push pins, and locate three (or more) places on the maps, which corresponded to the following questions:
- Origins — Where were you born? Where are your ancestors from?
- Influences — What other places, cultures, and land have influenced you?
- Settled — Where have you settled? Where do you live now?
These questions were partially inspired by Cat Criger, UTSC’s first Indigenous Elder who KEL Lab Coordinator and Workshop Facilitator Maggie, had the privilege of learning from and working with. She recalls attending his learning circles, where he would always introduce himself by his lineage — as a member of Cayuga Nation, Turtle Clan with German and English ancestry — and encourage others to do the same. He often emphasised the importance of connecting and reconnecting with our ancestral and cultural roots, since “we are all indigenous to somewhere”.
Participants were also encouraged to identify the indigenous land they were on, using the mapping project conducted by Native-Land.ca, which seeks to revisibilise the original territories prior to the borders constructed through the process of colonialism.
As people shared stories of their ancestry, origin, places of influence, and current place of residence (and indigenous land settled), we were reminded of the importance of positionality — of being deeply reflective about the ways our familial history, cultural upbringing, and various places we’ve lived and were educated in deeply shaped our experiences and worldview.
Many participants grappled with the reality of colonisation and ongoing imperialism within their countries of origin and upbringing, raising questions around legitimacy and identity, in terms of whose voice and perspectives they were representing. This was coupled with the acknowledgement that much of our dominant educational and political institutions have deeply embedded colonial legacies, which conditioned the way we understand the world. Relatedly, several participants spoke of the active work of decolonisation, learning to re-value their own cultural traditions and teachings which were excluded from the Western education system.
Lastly, many participants shared the positive influence of multicultural and multigenerational communities, which they experienced through personal travel, and the development of life-long relationships and friendships with those who exposed them to different ways of living, knowing, and being.
Seeing everyone spread across the map, and hearing about the diversity of experiences and influences was a wonderful way of getting to know a slice of each other’s backgrounds and lived experiences. It felt like a gift and privilege to have voices and lenses from so many different parts of the world and walks of life, informing the co-creation of this Lab.
Knowledge Equity Show and Tell
The main highlight of the workshop was the Knowledge Equity Lab Show and Tell, where participants were asked to reflect on and share 1-3 pieces of art, music, videos, murals, poems, or more, that could answer the following questions:
- What does Knowledge Equity mean to you?
- How does your project/work address Knowledge Equity?
Participants pasted their select pieces on the Miro board, and shared stories of what knowledge equity meant in their life and their work. Several themes came up during this shareback.
Linguistic diversity and language preservation
The importance of language diversity, translation, and preservation was raised as a knowledge equity and accessibility issue, particularly given the dominance of the English language. In reference to the world of open access publishing, Linguistics graduate Matthew Lefaive and Project Manager of Bioline International noted that even if research articles were made “open and free”, it would remain inaccessible to communities without English language education.
Simultaneous to the dominance of English is the disappearance of minority languages — both written and non written, which without active preservation can result in the loss of not only the linguistic tradition, but the knowledge that exists only in those languages, forms, and people.
Matthew spoke to this theme alongside this image of Western Cree syllabics, an aboriginal community in Canada. He was inspired to share this given his grandfather’s history of working as an English-Inuktitut translator, exposing him to the importance of linguistic diversity and language preservation.
Indigenous Knowledge and Ways of Knowing
Indigenous Knowledge and Ways of Knowing was also a consistent source of inspiration for participants reflecting on knowledge equity. This was closely tied to language preservation, given much of indigenous knowledge is passed on through oral traditions and non-written forms like stories, ceremonies, land, and other modes of knowledge and expression.
Knowledge for Change mentor and Community Knowledge and Learning Hub (CKLH) community partner Karen Villaneuva shared this painting of a spider by Nyle Miigizi Johnston of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. Having indigenous roots herself, she explained that spiders in many indigenous cultures are deeply symbolic, embedding many different stories and teachings. For Karen, it represented the grandmother’s wisdom and ability to bring people together, weaving a web of relationships, connections, and ultimately, collective knowledge.
CCDS student Rayna Sutherland also shared her learnings working with indigenous communities in Southern Africa, as an intern for Natural Justice. Through advancing governance tools like the Biocultural Community Protocols, the organization seeks to resist exploitation of indigenous knowledge systems by honouring a community’s right to mediate external engagement with their Traditional Knowledge.
Specifically, Rayna spoke to the resilience of the Philippi Horticultural Association (PHA) community, reconnecting to their ancestral knowledge to innovate regenerative, small-scale farming techniques. Sharing these techniques with other landless peoples and farm workers in the Cape Flats to promote the health of their collective environment and community was given as an example of knowledge equity. Through this, we are also reminded of the importance of contextualising openness, and considering differential power and benefits when it comes to knowledge ownership, control, accessibility, and possession.
Positionality and Representation
Positionality and representation was also a recurring theme raised by participants. Whose knowledge do we consider valid and important? Whose knowledge are we learning from? Whose voices, stories, and experiences are being represented?
Kanishka Sikri of CCDS and the Open Praxis Forum raised the issue of positionality in the context of post-secondary education. Alongside this artwork by Yvette DeChavez, Kanishka emphasized the importance of decolonizing the syllabus and education at large, while being critical and aware of the positionality of those deemed by the institution to be experts, with authority over a particular subject matter. Essentially, as critical students and educators, we must ask ourselves: whose knowledge do we care about and legitimate, and what roots, education, and ideologies underpin and inform those beliefs?
Closely related to positionality was the importance of representation of diverse voices and perspectives, particularly on the internet given its bias towards knowledge produced by those with power and privilege. CCDS graduate and K4C Partner Elisa Chang spoke to this alongside her drawing of the Women in Red project, which seeks to redress gender bias in Wikipedia. The project was named after the phenomena of women’s biographies being under-represented on Wikipedia, as shown through red hyperlinks, as opposed to blue — highlighting one of the many invisible barriers and inequities embedded in the culture of many open knowledge communities.
Re-embodying Knowledge and Pedagogy
The legacies of a Eurocentric western education which valorises the mind over the body was also a recurring theme, highlighted by this representation of the Boxhead student. This image was produced by education researcher and artist Vanessa Andreotti (2016) in her piece ‘(re)imagining education as an un-coercive re-arrangement of desires’, who used storytelling, metaphors, and poetry to convey the invisible values and assumptions of modernity embedded in the majority of education systems. Maggie Huang felt this image also highlighted the devaluation of embodied knowledge, given the disproportionately large boxhead with the text “I think therefore I am” in comparison to the small body carrying it. Many participants noted there is often a very disembodied interpretation of what knowledge is — a purely cognitive set of abstract ideas, often divorced from living and being, from the full self.
Building on this theme, Myuri Komaragiri of CCDS and CKLH shared these pieces by artist Romana Kassam, who created these paintings of a brown woman, with parts of her mouth and body taped off and scratched out. For Myuri, it represented her desire to resist the colonising impacts of Western education, and serve as a reminder to bring her full self and knowledge into her spaces of work, learning, and life.
Cultivating Care and Conditions of Trust and Safety in Knowledge Sharing
The importance of developing relationships, trust, and a deep sense of care was also raised by several participants as crucial to advancing knowledge equity. These were emphasised not only because knowledge sharing involves making connections by bringing communities together, but also because the process of doing so requires a safe environment to enable authentic knowledge sharing and exchange.
OCSDNet Research Associate Denisse Albornoz shared this image from the Bathroom Research Project, which sought to provide a safe and collaborative space for people to engage in conversation about gender, identity, and safety in bathrooms. Having worked on gender based violence for a number of years, Denisse highlighted the importance of ensuring the embodied knowledge of victims can be shared in a way that is safe, reduces harm, and potentially, even leads to healing through the process of sharing their stories. These ethical considerations are critically important if people are asked to share traumatic experiences to inform research and/or policy. Denisse asks, ‘How might we create processes in which the breadth of lived experiences — grievances, hopes, and fears — can be shared safely?”
The power of art, music, stories and more as ways of knowing and showing
The appreciation for diverse forms of knowledge and expression, particularly conveyed through varying kinds of artistic modalities, was also a recurring theme in the workshop.
The work of Colombian activist and clay artist Edgar Humberto Alvarez was presented by CCDS student Daniela Mallarino, who shared her admiration for the artist’s ability to tell stories and encourage conversation about complex political issues in an engaging and accessible way. In this piece, Alvarez portrays a girl from the Embera community in the Pacific of Colombia, who was the victim of sexual abuse by military soldiers to highlight the broader issue of sexual violence against indigenous women.
Karen Villaneuva posted the song and music video Underdog by Alicia Keys, whose lyrics and video documents the stories and lived experiences of the working class in America — often facing many barriers to opportunities with little visibility in traditional media or pop culture.
Dr. Suzanne Sicchia of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health and Society Professor and CKLH shared her love of film to convey issues, highlighting the documentary Whose Streets, which tells the story of the Ferguson shooting, filmed and produced by activists on the ground. This was motivated by the desire to counter media propaganda, and was a way for activists to own the ability to tell their stories from the perspectives of those living it.
Sigrid Roman of CKLH revealed her talent as a painter, and shared this abstract painting which represented the layers of light entering a forest. For Sigrid, this was a visual representation of knowledge containing multiple layers, intricacies and complexities. It also served as a reminder for the role of, and our relationship to, land and nature as ways of knowing and being.
Power and Control over Modes of Knowledge Production
Questions around the power, ownership and control of the modes of knowledge production, distribution, and access was a cross-cutting theme raised by many participants.
George Chen and Alejandro Posada of the Knowledge GAP collective spoke to this through the graphic findings of their research on mergers and acquisitions by academic publisher Elsevier, demonstrating the corporate capture of products across the lifecycle of academic knowledge production.
George spoke to the ways these systems are captured by corporate gatekeepers, and how their ability to control and define the standards of knowledge legitimacy leads to reinforcing feedback loops of influence and further dependency, such as in the case of Elsevier owned and controlled academic content, platforms, and metrics analytics tools impacting publication, promotion, university rankings, and more. He reminded us that one must critically consider how these tools of production condition what’s being produced.
George paired the more explicit corporate mapping with this abstract piece portraying different coloured shapes and sizes enclosed within a circle. He encouraged us to reflect on which of these forms and representations of knowledge are considered legitimate? How might we move towards environments that are inclusive and can encompass these diverse forms? How might academia recognise knowledge beyond the publication of a peer-reviewed journal article?
The “Ecosystems” of Knowledge Production
In response to corporate control and capture over current systems of knowledge production, CCDS Professor and Lab Director Leslie Chan used the metaphor of a tree to demonstrate alternative ways of envisioning healthier knowledge systems.
He first shared the Elsevier logo, which features the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ — a symbol of Western knowledge systems portrayed by an ‘esteemed’ old white man harvesting the fruit of knowledge — something to be taken rather than to help cultivate and take care of.
Graphic notetaker Giulia Forsythe had also worked with Leslie previously to illustrate how Elsevier fails to cultivate a healthy ‘ecosystem’ of knowledge, given their role as gatekeepers locking up access to the tree via visible barriers like the paywall, as well as hidden barriers like editorial decisions, metrics, funding flows to already powerful/well-resourced groups, and their exclusionary standards. This graphic note also highlights the invisible roots that bred this unhealthy system, which grew in conjunction with colonialism, capitalism, and other ideological, political, and economic drivers. Outside of these gates grow a diversity of plants and flowers demonstrating the epistemic diversity that have been excluded and made invisible by the gatekeeping of what is legitimate and illegitimate forms of knowledge.
To contrast these unhealthy systems of knowledge, Leslie shared the cover of Arturo Escobar’s book, Pluriversal Politics, which portrays an indigenous representation of the tree where the roots are made of people, land, and animals — intimately related and working together to co-create the tree. This highlights a different relationship to knowledge, one that is grounded in care and co-cultivation, as opposed to the harvesting and extraction of knowledge common in dominant conceptions of academic knowledge production.
Leslie reminded us that historically in academia and elsewhere, what has been cultivated is what Vandana Shiva called a monoculture of knowledge, where only a very standardised and homogenized form of knowledge is recognised as legitimate. Drawing on Escobar’s book advancing indigenous views of a pluriverse (the co-existence of multiple worlds), Leslie suggested that to challenge forms of exclusion, and advance knowledge equity and justice, we must work towards expanding and enabling different systems of knowledge to co-exist.
We concluded the session by reviewing Giulia’s incredible visual synthesis of the themes and concepts that emerged from the session, and sharing some reflections about the workshop experience overall. Participants remarked how the collaborative Miro board and arts-based prompts was one way for the Knowledge Equity Lab to ‘walk the talk’ of diversifying ways of knowing (and showing) in a participatory, collaborative, co-created way.
While it would have been ideal to gather and share physical space, food, and conversation (which can be the seeds of which authentic relationships grow in a full and embodied way) we were able to make do in a virtual space by sharing our art, inspiration, experiences, and stories. Participants also shared an appreciation for being able to meet people from all over the world, working in different sectors on a wide variety of projects, but very much allied and aligned around shared themes and values. While the technical platform, Miro, had a slight learning curve, the workshop felt fun, interactive and engaging — a nice change of energy from the countless Zoom meetings which have become a common feature in people’s lives. Several also commented on their ability to envision using the collaborative whiteboard for future visual and otherwise creative, virtual events.
Overall, we were thrilled to have such active participation and support from all the participants. Given the difficulty of expressing such nuanced, complex ideas in an accessible and engaging way, Emilia summed up our sentiments exactly through her enthusiastic appreciation and gratitude for the brilliant creativity of all those who contributed in co-creating the visual identity of the Knowledge Equity Lab. Leslie concluded by reminding participants that this is the first of many iterations of the shared values of the lab and the vision will continue to evolve as we engage in further learning and collaboration. Thank you to everyone that was involved!