Sara Ahmed’s book Being the Change is a book I could’ve written.
But no author wants to hear that.
Actually, no one wants to hear that. It’s like looking at an abstract painting and declaring, “I could have painted that!”
Or my sister-in-law telling my mother years and years and years ago that Holly Cole, a Canadian jazz singer who was all the rage then, wasn’t a big deal. That she could do what Holly Cole was doing. The thing is, my mom said, Holly Cole is doing it; you’re not.
Sometimes artists’ work—visual art, dance, music, writing — explores and articulates ideas that resonate so deeply with our own that we think to ourselves, “Ya, I could paint that painting, dance that dance, sing that song, and yes, write that book”.
I love reading books like this one because I am not writing a book. But I am teaching my heart out, every day in my classroom. And books like Sara Ahmed’s can both affirm that work and challenge me to re-examine it.
So let me dive right in.
In the opening section of Being the Change, Ahmed sets the stage for teachers who want to build social comprehension with their students. Social comprehension is “how we make meaning from and mediate our relationship with the world” (xxv). What happens if our relationship with the world is damaged? How do we approach the world then?
I teach First Nations students and their relationship with the world is as varied as it is with all people, but First Nations people have had (and continue to have) a particularly difficult time generally and with education specifically. The history of cultural genocide in Canada is now well documented through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that produced a report with 94 calls to action. These calls are meant to spur Canadians-from the national government to the individual citizen-into a journey towards reconciling the past and building a more just and equitable future for all.
I cannot here go into the range of responses from the Indigenous communities some of which have created opportunities for non-Native Canadians to personally engage with Indigenous people, art, books, music, and knowledge like #Next150
and some of which are focused on developing opportunities for Native and non-Native youth to come together because “youth are at the heart of redefining relationships between Indigenous & non-Indigenous people’s on this land” (CanadianRoots).
But there are other voices that articulate the depth of the work and ask the tough questions that are in no way rhetorical. Billy-Ray Belcourt, writer and academic from the Driftpile Cree Nation, articulates a response to the TRC report in 2015 that demands a response:
What of the deeply stubborn traces of a governmental enterprise that lawfully desired our elimination, that corralled and still corals Indigenous peoples in prisons and cemeteries in order to disappear us and the ancient legal and political orders hidden in our breathing?
Reconciliation is an absolutely historiographic project, one that forces us to ask: in what way will we — the nation — relate to the past, and how will it give way to a future that might better contain our feelings in the good? Indeed, how might it re-distribute the good life to those for whom that fantasy has hitherto been outside arm’s reach?
Reconciliation is a contradictory object: it emerges out of bad feelings but, at the same time, stalls in the face of them in the present. It only wants to collect the good public emotions it needs to keep going, to push itself outside of History, to narrate a present bereft of legislated pain. But ours are bodies that still shake, that traffic in the bad because we know that a world reconciled is not necessarily a world decolonized.
In a world that wants you to constantly accumulate things — ideas, objects, capital, apologies — at the expense of literally everything else, not wanting emerges as a sore point, slowing things down and getting in the way, so to speak. It’s heartbreaking: knowing that this world didn’t want you in the first place, but that it nonetheless doubles as your condition of possibility, your everything, the only thing you have.
*italics my emphasis
This excerpt illustrates the troubled relationship that my students may have with the world. Trusting the world to hear them and see them for who they are is a huge leap, and it’s made wider because, through the act of disappearing a people, cultural knowledge and identity is stripped away, and re-discovering that lost knowledge is heartbreaking work.
What then is the role of the teacher?
What I decided many years ago was to get close to the stories of the students I teach (129): stories of their lives, their families, their history, and their culture. We explored our own identities by creating digital stories, word snapshots, “I am” poems, Our Image stories, and blackout poems. We explored other perspectives and cultures through the texts we read, in particular, using events like the Global Read Aloud. And we built knowledge of our identities through collaborative projects with other schools. But since the work of social comprehension is as Ahmed reminds us “a constant recalibration of one’s relation with the self and with others” (xxx), it is important for me to now get close to the work itself and reflect on its current relevance and authenticity. Is the question “What does it mean to be Anishinabe in the 21st century?” that I have posed to students over the years, still relevant, meaningful, fair?
Being the Change has come to me at the right time, not because I am unfamiliar with social comprehension, but rather because I have been so immersed in this work. Reading this book now reminds me that now is the time to reflect, reassess, and renew.
I hope the #cyberpd community will confront and provoke my thinking, work, and pedagogical approach throughout this book study.