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Ecoversities Gathering in Portugal
There is a powerful knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, often under the radar of the media (mainstream and otherwise). This movement is an emerging network of Ecoversities– people and communities reclaiming their vast local knowledge systems and cultural imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times. Although diverse in its origins and places, this network overlaps in not only critiquing our broken education systems, but also in cultivating new stories, practices and possibilities that reconnect and regenerate local ecological and cultural ecosystems – hence the name Ecoversities.
The backdrop to our engagement with this movement began in 2012 when we stepped out of academic careers to (re/un)learn from this diverse landscape of autonomous places of higher education which are are blossoming within all corners of the world. For a little over a year, we travelled to 20+ places in 13 countries (Canada, USA, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India, Portugal, UK), meeting dozens of creative, courageous and incredibly generous in novators in higher education.
For example, the Red Crow Community College teaches traditional Blackfoot knowledge and practices in Alberta, Canada. The Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca and Chiapas is based on an autonomous and community engaged approach to learning in solidarity. We learned from the Escola Popular de Comunição Crítica (School of Critical Media Studies) in Rio de Janeiro about engaging young people with the skills of critical media literacy and media production within the highly discriminated favelas (shantytowns) of the city. We visited Swaraj Universityin Udaipur, India, where young people develop their own learning journeys, mentorships and projects designed around sustainability and gift culture.
As we visited places across different countries, as well as writing and making films, we took it upon ourselves to transition into roles of travelling storytellers – sharing stories to people we met of the other places we had visited and what they had been doing. All the while we dreamt: – What if these places could share their experiences and learning approaches with each other and strengthen the beautiful and important work they are all doing? What even more wondrous and powerful transformations could occur!
While we continue to write and edit a series of films, we are also focusing our energy into that dream of connecting these places of autonomous learning. With our friend Manish Jain from Swaraj University (Udaipur, India) we made an invitation for a Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education in August 2015 at Tamera eco-village in southern Portugal and gathered a group of 55 ‘Ecoversity’ higher education innovators.
This gathering had a profoundly rich diversity. It included groups that focus on a gift culture and the regeneration of our cultural and ecological commons; groups involved in learning based on indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing; groups experimenting with localized agro-ecological learning; communities reclaiming their own stories through the creation of localized and independent medias; groups supporting social entrepreneurship, sustainablity and localization of economies, groups of artist/activists centered around experimental learning processes. Also present in this ecosystem were individuals creating spaces of resistance within the traditional academic system. There were co-creators from India, England, Mexico, Jordan, …
During the six days we spent together in Tamera Ecovillage we hosted a dynamic interactive process structured as an ‘un-conference’ with a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with self-organizing sessions and open-spaces. One strong commitment we had as co-hosts of the event was to be open to the emergent. We did not want to reproduce the typical academic conference format. Our intention was to co-create a gathering to propel this movement forward, share stories, where creative sparks could fly, and most importantly, to weave friendships and alliances.
And sparks did fly! What occurred in this intercultural dialogue was not always easy, but profoundly magical and transformative for many of us in ways beyond our dreams. As many experienced at the gathering, learning can often come through ruptures and feelings of discomfort being faced with the unknown and unfamiliar. It can be hard to let go of habitual ways of making sense of the world and relating to each other. A question that we were confronted with and took away in relation to this is how ought we care for each other through such deep learning processes?
In grappling with shared concerns we mapped our common questions and challenges – and many of the practices that orient our work. For instance, Dina Bataineh of Taghmees Social Kitchen from Jordan and Palestine shared a practicecalled taghmees a ‘social kitchen’ that combines the ingredients of people, food, and fabric to engage in community learning that honors people’s lived experience. Manolo and Edgardo from Unitierras in California and Oaxaca (respectively) guided us through an assemblea, a Zapatista approach to meeting and hearing the views of those present in the room with the purpose of making decisions. A number of other people also shared different mapping and facilitation tools. During a mela or fair (a tool for presenting projects which Manish and Reva Dandage from Swaraj University brought from India), many of those present shared their current projects. An important question emerged about how to share these different tools with each other, and how to re-appropriate them in our own local contexts.
There was formal and informal time each day of the gathering for ‘open space sessions’ where participants themselves hosted discussions and workshops on themes and questions they had a particular interest in to explore further with others in the group.
We also had moments of visioning – for experiences and insights to emerge not only through the habitual mind – but also through intuition and imagination, and play. For instance Vanessa Andreotti from the University of British Columbia, Canada, guided us through a visioning session where we expressed our envisionings through a heart and spirit-driven image: What did this land and gathering want from us? We each created an image that was then mapped out on the floor alongside a more rationally-driven mapping of questions we had created a few days earlier through the guidance of Ian Kendrick from University of the Third Horizon, in the UK. The comparisons and contrasts between such different mappings were powerful, speaking to us in a myriad of ways. Further, inspiration came with music and poetry, walks and swims, toasts and jokes and dancing. In other words, we began a process of finding or inventing a language to speak to and learn from each other and many different ways of being (and becoming) together.
As a group we were attempting to give birth to a new story of a re-imagined higher education. In this re-imagining there is a complementarity of diverse knowledges and practices (that both teach and learn from each other). The search for complementarity, rather than hierarchy or devaluing of knowledges we are unfamiliar with, was a key orientation and source of struggle during the gathering. Yet, these struggles were the glue that enabled deeper learning processes and relationships.
As Hugo Oliviera from Schumacher College (UK) and the Global Ecovillage Network reflected:
“Redefining the way we learn, is also about being aware of the underlying patterns that have been imposed on us through our schooling. Many times we are not aware of these patterns, yet we all have them. The unconference platform allowed these patterns to be visible and come to the surface and be mirrored by diverse collaborative paradigms emergent within the group. To redefine the way we proceed with adult learning and allow the new holistic processes to be recreated, by allowing non-Cartesian approaches, was for me one of the most important outputs of this encounter.”
In this re-imagining, there is also an emphasis on the reweaving of relationships and friendships, between each other and with the non-human, including our local ecologies. There is the primacy of an ethics and politics of care and an attention to that which is so often left out of educational institutions – the heart, healing, play, learning with and across different generations. There is also great emphasis in learning how to be together – to inquire in solidarity with one another and in support of communities and the ecologies we inhabit. And in this re-imagination of learning we are also co-creating, and re-creating, other ways of knowing, doing, becoming and relating.
Mike Neary, from the Social Science Centre in the UK also touched on this in his reflection on the gathering.
“How to connect and communicate through the pedagogy and the pain was a problem. We started to create a language that went beyond words. I felt the power of abundant friendship and its ability to confront the violence that attempts to maintain the gap between the intellectual, manual, natural, the immaterial/ spectral and creaturely life.”
For many of us, the impacts of our being together is still being felt – as new questions and provocations, as changed sensibilities and practices, as reinvigorated confidence and perhaps most importantly, as new friendships. Many of us have deepened our friendships and conversations since we met in August 2015, visiting each other, getting to know more each others’ work and life, exploring collective projects and inquiries. As a loose network, we have also continued our conversations through regular virtual conversations. This way, we continue to share tools, skills and experiences, co-create joint projects and inquiries, and to collectively re-imagine what new forms of higher education could look like.
Many projects continue to struggle financially to survive so a very strong question is: What new resourcing models or organizing frameworks can support this work? Even more fundamentally was the question of do each of our projects see and relate to the money system and to capitalism?
Overall, what transpired during those days at Tamera far exceeded our expectations. We expected that there would be friendships and mutual learning and the start of something unexpected. We had not anticipated the depths of exploration and openness we managed to invite and experience as a group.
Alessandra Pomarico, from the Free Home University in Italy, beautifully encapsulates our feelings when she writes:
“I have many beginning of conversations I'd like to continue with others, I have a sense of warmth, a sense of trust, a more exercised sense of patience, less scruples, loads of more questions, and all the smiles I saw, and all the hugs we exchanged at the moment of departure, where I felt like when I was a child and after a long summer you separate from your best friend with whom you grew up, and you only meet in the summer and the winter will separate you, and other things and people will be in between you, but then summer comes again, every year, and for sure. We are this summer. And the winter is not separating us: in between planes, in between errands, in between continents, in between commitments, visions comes with the power of all of you.”
Our hope is that later this summer in 2016 Ecoversities will meet once again and our friendships, questions, mutual understanding, confidence and practices will deepen. And in this deepening and opening we may just be able to hear the sound of a Montezuma Cypress seed sprouting, or something more surprising still.