Forging Solidarity – What does it mean?

I’m sitting at the airport in Johannesburg and I’m feeling slightly guilty that I’m taking another flight to another research meeting in another part of South Africa. The excitement of going to meet with the ‘popular education’ crowd in Cape Town is slightly subdued by the fact that I will once again be contributing to the burning of a mass of fossil fuels. I am currently not displaying actions of solidarity with our planet.

Over the last few days I have begun to slowly teeter around the stories I want to tell as a Phd student. Suprisingly it has been an emotional process. I find myself writing pieces and feeling a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. At times I have felt sunk deep into my body with my eyes watching the world from within a heavy mass of matter. The words and thoughts in my mind have taken over and demand attention. It is not a comfortable place to be. When I sit in front of my computer with the lump in my throat or the body mass of me feeling many times heavier. It is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is not even the right word. It is a feeling that says this is not just an intellectual activity you are about to embark upon. It is, once again, the time of telling and the time of telling is sometimes a painful and vulnerable time when the voices of the people I have worked with, the books I have read begin the long, slow process of meaning making and intention setting. Once these thoughts start forming they will not be stopped until they are said and sometimes what is written is not what I wished to be written or expected to be written. Out of unexpected places the thoughts arise while my body acts as the raw conduit for this mental activity. Yes, I sit infront of the fire or infront of my computer but as the thoughts dance and frame so the emotions rise and fall. My little body sits silent but inside there is another world, another process playing out and I am no longer in control.

Now that I am traveling I have a slight breather from this intense space and I ask, why does anyone write if it is so completely and utterly all encompassing and emotionally taxing. Or rather is it the space where all the emotions of action come to rest and find a place of expression in words that race across the page like little ants following each other home.

I have also been thinking about what to say at this colloquim that Thabo (one of the Changing practice participants) and I find ourselves going to. We have been given 10 minutes and have been sent a request to focus on our pedagogy. The conference title is called forging solidarity and since I’ve submitted the abstract I’ve been wondering what this means.

Forging brings to mind a labour. It brings to mind hard work, a push. It also brings to mind that there is something that needs to be forged a force that we are working with or against. Finally it feels like a moulding and shaping.

Solidarity is another huge word. It is a popular word amongst activists. It is not much used amongst academics who prefer the words ‘participatory’ or in collaboration with. Solidarity demands something more, well more solid. It demands no distance. It is, like the writing process, a vulnerable engaging and it also feels that inbetween the letters there lies a human fraility and a human strength.

So in the context of this colloquium can Thabo and I stand up and say that the pedagogy we have adopted has been an act of love and thus an act of solidarity. That it has been a collective labour around what matters.

And how can we say that this solidarity has been forged? Well first I can say that the solidarity of the South African Water Caucus has been forging long before the Changing Practice course arrived. The SAWC has been around since 2002 in various forms and with various bodies of people. What is core to the group is a deep affection. This is apparent when sitting with the coordinating committee or standing amongst the members at the AGM. It is this affection that is the equaliser between academic and activist and between the priviledged groups amongst us and those that have suffered the consequences of prejudice and oppression. Affection does not remove these contradictions that stand between our lives but it softens them. It makes them workable and real.

The Changing Practice course was brought into this space with it’s core principles of starting with what matters for people. It is the Freirian mantra of starting with the material of people’s lives and of their histories. It introduces stories as evidence and our own eyes and ears as our research tools. Our bodies are our evidence builders. At a recent research school on transgressive learning I was asked to briefly present our little project and I started by saying that in South Africa activists do not have many resources to throw into changing the world. We don’t have a lot of resources. We often don’t have the money for transport to get to meetings that are held for us to participate in. What we have is our knowledge of what we know is happening in our communities and in our lives. This is our power. We know this well. I thought afterwards that the other thing we have is our bodies which are living, moving documents of what we see and what we know to be. As we move our bodies in and out of spaces we bring with us the stories of our past and the reimaginings of our futures.

Which is another thing this small course introduces. The idea that our beings exist within networks and that these networks are the pathways along which knowledge and knowing travels. Instead of having to know it all, like the banking model that Freire so beautifully debunked we can see ourselves as fluid movement within a landscape of networks some of which are currently available to us and others which we can seek out and enter. We are not building our individual knowledge we are building ourselves into knowledge networks which both enhance us and to which we add our bodies and minds as valuable entities in the network. This is described by one participant who talks about tentitively entering the network of the University and seeing this institution that is in crisis as containing people and spaces where solidarity can be build or strengthened.

[As civil Society] Society we now tend to judge, as this is academic, this university does not represent us you know. But the journey has taken us to say there is a space of learning from both sides. (Changing Practice Participant)

Building strong cases, finding our voices, being embodied by our informing has also lead to other dialogues that have been unexpected but potentially meaningful. The cases that came out of this course became the catalysts for conversations with government that are now ongoing and, if we can hold them with integrity, may lead to meaningful processes of change or even, if we can be bold, places of healing and imagining. At the moment we sit around a table unsure of our allegiances like small cats with territory but because of the humanity brought by the cases themselves and the people that embody them this can’t be banished from the dark and sunless room we find ourselves in, sitting across from each other in the warren of a building that is the DWS headquarters in Pretoria.

And then a final contribution is about the delicate dance of shifting the power of knowing which Visvanathan calls cognitive justice. If we are to build solidarity and partnerships there needs to be an understanding and a space where our knowing is seen as a strong tree rooted in our cultures with our branches and leaves stretched out to the sky. Visvanathan argues that a non violent science is a science that recognises people as inventors of knowledge and not consumers of knowledge and where nature is not an object to be explored but is a mode of thought. We understand this to mean that we need to work with learning and knowing as an authentic expression of people and the landscapes out of which learning emerge. This is why we start with our stories and then our stories intertwined with people’s stories, and then these stories intertwined with the stories of the landscapes through which we walk and act. We learn to see these landscapes anew and understand the movements of people within these landscapes because it is only from this rooted place of knowing that we can begin dialogue and begin reaching our branches out to intertwine with others.

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