We gather in the presentation room above the Viadrina library. Our organiser Kirill introduces the panel: Stefan Selke (public science advocate), Oksana Potapova (community theatre practitioner with conflict-affected communities in Ukraine, also a Viadrinicum participant) and Nils-Eyk Zimmerman (cross-sectoral interaction advocate). So, they're asked, do you have any opening remarks on the nature of trans-sectoral collaboration?
He wants to remind us about the pitfalls of science, and particularly when there are particular success markers that define whether or not research is good enough. This can happen sometimes when science combines with politics. There was a time when they were hired by some government-connected organization to do research about how effective they were at protecting consumer interests – it turned out that, after the research was done, Stefan's group found out that the group never felt threatened or in need of protection in the first place. The company who hired them then accused them of having produced useless knowledge. But really there were two different goals at play: a) proving the organization's usefulness and b) investigating the claim itself.
There are stories like this too when we hop between different areas of science, or between science and civil society. But there are also opportunities – he once had a ton of interview material in the area of poverty in Germany. He didn't know what to do with it all, so they converted it into a creative 'chorus' of a text. Over 70 pages. It was just as much art as it was research and it was beautiful. So when it comes to potential cross-sectoral collaborations there are pitfalls and then there are opportunities to be navigated.
She would like to draw attention to the tools that art provides in producing knowledge, as well as other tools we might not immediately think about. She doesn't come from an academic background, and even though she's quite firmly placed in the arts the tools she uses in her practice wouldn't necessarily be considered in some circles to be real art. They don't have a lot of investment in aesthetics as such, but she feels like they're certainly on the edge of critical knowledge.
If we want to bring theory into it, one main idea she turns to is how knowledge is a social construct, and we can assign certain roles in the process. Which person knows/teaches and which person learns, for example. It's a relationship that's built deep into the education system (and many people have a hard time imagining any other model) as well as in the way we manage resources and make decisions. It creates a system of empowerment or disempowerment.
She mentions a Brazilian thinker named Paolo Freire (writer of Pedagogy of the Oppressed
, a central text for critical pedagogy) who suggested that, with whatever we're talking about, we put the topic of investigation at the center. And that the relationship between the teacher and student be horizontal – there's a topic we want to discover and we do it together. So, in her experience, there's you in the room and maybe you want to talk about poverty, gender equality, the environment, and you do it together with everyone and everyone looks at things through the lens of their own experience.
What the facilitator can offer is a way to guide the learning process, ask questions, help the group bring out their collective experience and reflect upon it. The people involved in the learning experience can be both subject and object – no one is exclusively the one studying or being studied.
She went to a school or workshop in Canada once and went there expecting to, by the end of it, learn what feminism is or whatever. But all the facilitators did was ask them questions and promote discussion. At first she was wondering if this was all bullshit but, halfway through the process, she realized that she wasn't learning from three teachers so much as twenty five women from all over the world. And they were learning from her. This felt very different.
The same philosophy can be used to create a theatre play or a theatre process. Theatre engages the senses and other ways of seeing reality – we have many different ways of learning and knowing, she says, and everyone uses them in different ways. When they make a piece they try to take this into account by making a play that's based on the stories of people in the room and includes their experiences. The play in itself is a form of knowledge that takes a concrete shape.
There's usually a link made between individual experiences and broader social issues, and after each play there's a discussion with the audience. Some people might challenge the content; they might say "well, no, that's not true, people aren't like that." But then you can engage that person and say, okay, maybe that's not true for you but it was true for someone on the stage. You can challenge a fact but it's harder to challenge an experience. This creates a kind of legitimacy.
He says we're talking here about empathy, about constructive conflict resolution. It's emotion, connecting to other people and processes. It's also about our practical abilities and, crucially, the mindsets we inherit when it comes to proceeding to other people or diverse forms of knowledge. We need a holistic knowledge generation approach, a combination of all these different skills, attitudes and so on. A cognitively-produced knowledge.
Emotion isn't generally appreciated as a resource, or it's suspected to secretly underlie the agenda. Which it does. And processing all this requires emotional learning. So we need to see facilitators assisting learners, and learners need to be supported and often guided. But this is difficult in an environment in which we're evaluated by hierarchy or obedience or output. But assisting learners can mean engaging with their agency, with what their purpose is or where they want to connect. It sound simple but it's not. [ Kirill interrupts: but what if a student doesn't want this? What if a student wants to be a passive learner instead of prompted to be active in the process? ]
Nils says there are often unspoken rules or limitations in people's experience of university – sometimes that passivity is encouraged or constructed for them. Maybe if the system was different from the start they might feel differently. For him, it's about laying it open, talking openly about these things, identifying the needs and desires and making the most of them. Coaching them to identify diverse solutions and be able to make those kinds of agency-building decisions. But of course you can't force anyone to do anything.
Mobile phones are a good indicator if someone's not listening. "Of course, unless they're using them to take notes, like I am" she laughs. But if they're looking at a screen it means we've lost them. It's an indicator that something's not right.
She can think of an example: organizations like UN Women are doing empowerment and advocacy initiatives for human rights, and education is a big part. Talking to women to inform them about the framework is a big part of this. But when they talk to women about the documents and give them a powerpoint, participants just go on their phones.
What if the facilitators do something different? Maybe they look at the title of the document (Women, Peace and Security in this case) and ask the participants: what does peacebuilding mean to you? What does security mean to you? What about being a woman? And here they talk about their experiences and are drawing from their lives before even touching the legislation.
All of a sudden there's investment in the conversation. Maybe someone mentions a problem and someone else gives a response about how they've solved it. Just from this people might start looking into it, engaging with the topic, but they might not have seen the presentation yet. Everything's been, all the same, connected to their life experience. [ Kirill: So it's like there's a subjective epistemology (academicese for 'personal/other way of doing this knowledge thing') arising from the arts, but how does it work with integrating this into academia? ]
Wait wait, he says, we keep talking about knowledge but we don't have a lack of knowledge. We have a lack of motivation. The problem isn't a lack of theory – theory is everywhere. It's a lack of action. More than anything else we might have overproduction of knowledge. We are overtheorized and undermotivated. So how do we motivate people to act? [ question from the audience: Is it just me, or what if I really enjoy authoritarian, top-down learning situations from time to time? Am I just nostalgic for problematic socialization, or is there a place for this in the world you guys are building? ]
TED is still very much what you're talking about, and it's a wonderful format. What needs to happen, for him, is empowerment. The university needs to become a place of active citizenship. The learning process can be authored by someone else for the purpose of helping people become interactive, independent learners. [ continuation: I like all this but I have no idea how to reconcile this with my own experience ]
What resonates with her in this is Freire's concept of at least two types of being and knowing. One is intuitive where someone knows how to do something, they just do it and that's how they get experience. The other is a kind of critical knowledge where they reflect on their experience make some kind of analysis and generalize it.
When she listens to people who have structuralized knowledge she's grateful because what they've done is help her organize her own experience through someone else's already-organized way of looking at the topic. She didn't have the time to do that and someone else did and happened to share it. And if she can connect it to her own experience, great.
The problem is when, in the process, she couldn't imagine taking the place of the instructor. If a person can't, that means there's a power structure, some kind of hierarchy, one where someone always listens and someone always teaches and you can't imagine any other system. This is a kind of disempowerment and it creates a gap between us. Knowledge, in this case, is political. There's no problem with using a more traditional education model so long as we do it in a way that doesn't disempower people.
A taboo was touched on here: the link between the character of a person and the way a person teaches or learns or does research as a scientist. There's a survey done among scientists and the results took the form of a typology – four basic types of scientists according to the way they relate to publics, to inner science, outer science and the way their personality is structured.
In all this the most important thing is finding one's own way, and the political question is if the system realized we can't standardize things. There's a need to take the scholar's personality into account. Everyone has to find a proper position according not only to their subject or skills but also to their type. Scientists are also human. [ Kirill asks about how to transfer knowledge to civil society ]
The true resilience of a community against authoritarianism or populist politics is the ability of regular people to self-organize. He doesn't advocate for NGOs specifically because this is an open thing and up for grabs. He's arguing for self-organizing citizens, and for them to see this self-organization as a learning space for themselves (in the best sense of the word 'self-empowerment').
These organizations, if they want to make their organizing a learning space, need to fulfill criteria to do this. The first is voluntarity, people need to want to do this themselves. The second is (especially if they want to advocate for democratic solutions) to create a democratic constitution inside the organization itself. If you want to foster peaceful civic culture, you need to practice dialogue and conflict skills. But this is certainly ambitious. Building bridges and all that.
We need safe spaces for this, yes, but we also need people who practice dialogue. Reaching out even when it hurts, going out to people who think differently and who risk losing some social relations in order to refresh them with a democratic attitude. Responses to hybrid threats have to come from the societal level and from civic self-organization.
Thinking about politics, some parties have no relations to citizens at all. No membership culture. Being a member of a party is a career thing, similar to unions who see people as clients and not members. There need to be more organizations that are themselves hybrids, that invite this kind of active citizenship. When we talk about democratic transformation, we need a civil society that's engaged these issues. We need to face the complexities of political situations and train ourselves to face it. Plus dialogue.
This is something she think about often, especially in terms of the effectiveness of what she does. Just like with education, there's an assumption that a pedagogue is a political position, that you can't avoid politics, and if you are then you're probably in denial or promoting the status quo. Art is also political, and someone who is involved in reflecting certain narratives to society, or producing them, does so from a political perspective. So when people are involved in education or science or the arts it's important to ask yourself: what is your position? What is your ideology? As for herself, she doesn't want to pretend that she's neutral.
Applying these principles of learning to yourself isn't easy because there are structures of hierarchy, or in her case structures of internalized misogyny. Different oppressions are ingrained in us and we might not reflect on them. What we transfer through whatever process we work with is part of the message.
Maybe many of us ask ourselves: are we working for peace? Are we addressing that on an individual level? When we do there can be a risk of a certain perfectionism (nothing we do is good enough and so we paralyze ourselves), she doesn't want to do that, but it's important nonetheless to engage our process as a process, think about what spaces we create, whether or not we are hierarchical, and if so then why. One way or another we choose frames that we put around material or knowledge we want to produce. It's better to be aware of what else we're doing than unaware.
One play they produced a few months ago was a simple story of a woman getting into a BlaBlaCar. Other people were co-sharing and the driver was hinting, harassing her, and other people did nothing. At the end of the discussion the facilitator asked the people on stage to close their eyes and imagine a world in which men didn't objectify women. To position their bodies as if this world existed. For the people in the room, we're trying to envision this other world. We can ask ourselves: what does it feel like?
From his point of view we need to stop separating art and science and other fields. He recalls a German artist who said everyone is an artist – not with producing art, but in the sense that everyone is responsible for sculpting their environment and their lives. We have it, but we keep shifting it from citizenship to the arts to science and so on. So everyone uses these boundaries to escape responsibility.
He would like to add that this is what active learning is – a co-operative sculpting. Some people might feel alienated by this kind of language, so we can also talk about it like a lifelong learning mode. We should be more flexible with terms.
Before we go to the questions she'd like to use her position of power (she laughs) to say something she didn't say in the reflection session we had earlier. We can ask ourselves questions about the space of the group this week. For her she picks up ideas here and there, like time being a resource or space being a resource. Like, think about who speaks, for how long, what's said, what's not being said – imagine if our group takes responsibility for the space itself. We don't have to wait for others to create a space for us. We can co-create this space together. [ someone asks: isn't this cross-sectoral approach already here, like with political parties? Shouldn't we tap into what's already here? ]
We can either consume what's already there or produce something completely new. Consumption is the right word here, and he also warns against consuming the mere attitude of transformation and not actually engage with transformation. We can walk right into this trap as intellectuals. [ Kirill: It's an interesting that that university is supposed to produce these independent thinkers. It's also interesting if education isn't actually making these complete people, complete thinkers. Maybe we walk out of uni equally vulnerable, equally incomplete as someone who doesn't complete higher education. Maybe it's better to be aware of this than to pretend otherwise? But is this kind of critical attitude even possible? ]
The university pretends to be this transformative space but it is also a hegemony. If we think we're all self-confident researchers and explorers we may not see that the outcomes we produce can be fuzzificated [not sure if this is the exact word he used].
But this is what, for him, lifelong learning could be: different styles of learning, resisting these forces. The more a person is aware of these gaps/incompletenesses, the more they can reflect and take responsibility. We can be confident in our incompleteness and still move forward.
If you think about the things already happening in the parties, she says, you can't really mistake what goes on there with what it is that we're talking about now. At least in Ukraine things are highly hierarchical, there's money, shady sources, and anything involving critical learning or subjectivity or analysis is just something completely different. It's not the politics of the party. These are politics of transformation.
Coming back to Kirill's question she remarks that, when she was invited to be here, she wasn't sure if she had the credibility to be here. She thought about what she would do here, speaking with these men – there's an ingrained reality inside her that influences the way she sees herself and her place in hierarchy and knowledge. But this self-awareness is important. Institutions that create people who are active and at the same time humble about their own limitations are spaces in which we can think about alternatives. Maybe there was hierarchy, but now there's space for dialogue and connection. These things dismantle hierarchy. [ Kirill: how can we bring conflicts into the process, maybe as a positive element? ]
From a sociological perspective (he hates saying things like this, as they encourage thinking about these subjects as separate things) conflict is inevitable and we shouldn't avoid it. We can learn a lot from it. The conception of conflict is quite important – they happen and are necessary. We can grow when we talk about learning from conflicts.
For her there's a difference between conflict and violence and she's still exploring this. One of the necessary conditions for violence is the imbalance of power as well as resources and structures of authority. If she tries to create a space where people can have as much equality as possible in terms of what we discuss and what value can be given to different positions, what gets represented and how, and if we go through this with an awareness of everything in the room, we can be present to conflict without it being a traumatic experience.
If people have a space to share and be heard then it's something quite healing. Maybe some people have something to say and they feel like they can't say it without violence, without oppression, even without killing. So how can we create a space for everyone? Because when we do, then conflicts can be enriching without trauma and without just reproducing the status quo.
We need complex solutions, and science is helping people arrive at complex solutions – this is partially why we need public science. It's not taking place in Germany yet, not entirely, and certainly not in Ukraine. There's corruption, conflicts, and we don't find solutions that are satisfying to everyone.
We need to tackle this on a person level as well as in groups – we need to pacify these conflicts. This involved something he calls robust civility – and the robust part comes in with us having tolerance with people who don't have the privilege to speak and may use violence as a tool of expression. But the basis needs to be a pacified way of fixing things together.
As for conflict, we need to expose ourselves to as much complexity and as many dilemmas as possible. This will help us find sustainable solutions.