“We don’t want to come across as people who have figured it out. We face a momentous task,” said Kgomotso Moshugi. “We have institutionalised hierarchies that will be hard to change. But, we have to recognise we have power as individuals. We can carry out justice in our spheres of control and be equitable in what we can influence.”
The #JustAndEquitableNow team members who presented at STIAS included Brett Pyper and Nicola Cloete of the University of Witwatersrand; Kgomotso Moshugi of Tshwane University of Technology and soon-to-be lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand; and, Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi, Blanche Barnett, and Chelsy Monie of Emory University. The team of South Africa- and US-based thinkers is “reflecting on what it means to make, teach and research the arts when communities have been and still are protesting against longstanding injustices and demanding better futures”.
Pyper explained that he and Gagliardi initially met while the 2016 #FeesMustFall demonstrations were taking place in South Africa, realised they shared a need to reflect more deeply on demands for justice in their respective countries, and later established a collaborative research project. “We saw the STIAS theme on University and Society: Disruption, discourse and new directions and particularly its core question: ‘Is it possible to sketch out the past and the future of South African higher education and can the current disruption and discourse be translated into new directions and practice?’ We found it resonated with our ideas. This became a point of departure for our work.”
At STIAS, the team has been reading pertinent publications, visiting historical sites including Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, and listening to different ideas and perspectives.
The group’s intention is to put theory into practice. Citing Majd Al-Shihabi’s 2022 Broken World Thinking, and Maintaining the Commons, and specifically focusing on Broken World theory, as first outlined by Steven Jackson, Pyper explained that the theory offers one conducive way of thinking about how to pursue justice and equity in universities now. Pyper said: “It invites us to take the constant requirement for repair as a starting point for our analysis. To do this, we require values that extend our epistemologies.”
Gagliardi considered the obligations scholars have to realise a just and equitable world, citing STIAS Fellow Charlie Samuya Veric, who during a previous seminar said, “We [scholars] exist not to be liked but, rather, to transgress, even if that means offending the self-righteousness of others.” Gagliardi also drew on the thinking of US-based Black feminist scholar Tina Campt, who in her 2017 book Listening to Images advocates for “the power to imagine beyond current fact and to envision that which is not, but must be.” Campt explains: “It’s a politics of pre-figuration that involves living the future now—as imperative rather than subjunctive—as a striving for the future you want to see, right now, in the present.”
“Pursuing justice and equity means recognising the full humanity in the totality of ourselves and each and every person,” Gagliardi added. “We are trying to collaborate, to listen, to pay attention, to support each other, and to live our fullest selves as people.” The approach requires the team to bring vulnerability into academic spaces. Drawing on the research of US-based sociologist Brené Brown, Gagliardi emphasised that vulnerability does not equal weakness or oversharing and that being vulnerable requires courage, especially in spaces emphasising perfection.
In this first phase of the project the team is considering materials by thinkers from various disciplines and subject positions to inform their research-based action within their institutions and other communities.
Monie provided a summary of the group’s literature review, focusing on an in-depth encounter with four works:
Sara Ahmed’s 2007 Phenomenology of Whiteness, which emphasises the ways in which “[s]paces acquire the ‘skin’ of the bodies that ‘inhabit’ them.
Katherine McKittrick’s 2006 Demonic Grounds, which Monie explained highlights the “intentional and unnatural ways that spaces are informed and produced around constructed racial categories, with whiteness being prioritised”.
Tema Okun’s 1999 White Supremacy Culture, which identifies characteristics of a white supremacy culture including perfectionism, urgency, and defensiveness, to name but a few. Okun warns that characteristics of white supremacy are normalised in our institutions and can be adapted by people irrespective of their racial backgrounds.
Lastly, Tricia Hersey, the writer of 2016 Rest is Resistance, and founder of The Nap Ministry “centres the revolutionary practice of rest around Black liberation, womanism, somatics, and Afrofuturism,” to alert us about the importance of rest in our work.
Experiences and reflections
In the spirit of living the future now, the group also attends with care to the joys and difficulties that come with attempts to forge new practices for learning, teaching, and creating. Group members shared some of their personal experiences and reflections.
Monie highlighted her passion for pole dancing, in which friendship, community, and support are grounding factors. “Pole is incredibly challenging, painful, and also generally dangerous. But it is these same challenges that encourage growth and […] force me to question what it means to enjoy and feel fulfilled in my work,” said Monie. Monie also pointed to the importance of showing up as a whole person, which for her, involves being vulnerable and being able to ask for help.
Barnett spoke of her experiences of visiting a jazz community group in South Africa. “People made sure we had something to eat,” she said. “We were strangers but became family, friends, connected. Just and equitable is for all of us. It’s about how you make somebody feel. It’s important for everyone to feel seen, heard and appreciated.”
Pyper spoke about building relationships with care and provided as examples some of his work in the arts sector, which he also brings into academic spaces. These efforts include his previous organisation of work at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, his current contributions to the Sound Praxis Music Exchange Project between music appreciators in South Africa and Brazil, and his current involvement in the Cosmopolitan Jazz Collective and the Mamelodi Arts and Culture Forum’s Heritage Working Group. “Care is at the heart of curation,” he added. “You have to foster genuine spaces of encounter. It’s an opportunity to speak across disciplines, practices and fields – emphasising the importance of practice within the space of academic work.”
Cloete referred to #FeesMustFall, saying that the movement “made me realise the need to acknowledge student experience and make space for it.” Cloete’s recent work with #JustAndEquitableNow has left her thinking about how to “shift some of those traditional roles I have been occupying and think about what else is possible given the growing question of inequity that we are encountering in our institutions.” The project has given Cloete space for her own humanity to show up. She said, “I have been pushed to think about what it might mean for the full extent of me to show up in the research context to imagine something new.”
Moshugi emphasised that his professional work straddles administrative and creative roles, with his creative work beautifully demonstrated by his singing during the presentation. His ability to manage different roles provides him with networks, opportunities and challenges that shape his teaching and research. Instead of seeing creativity as the mark of a lone genius, Moshugi explained that he views it as a system involving numerous roleplayers. The value of collective contributions is not always recognised through conventional ways of studying creativity as only a cognitive process.
The team also spoke of the challenges of such intense group work. According to Moshugi, group work is work in and of itself. The team further highlighted the need to pause and observe how they practice the values that they identify as important. It is not an easy process but can be rewarding. If sincerity underscores the work, then vulnerability is protected and not violated.
“The idea that [as scholars in universities] we are supposed to become authorities… it is a position that resolves conflict and contradiction,” Gagliardi said. “We have to find ways to rest with contradiction and different voices and different perspectives. … It’s a big ask when we have been trained to stand up and command authority.”
Moshugi concluded the presentation by summing up the group’s vision, saying that the group places importance on figuring out how to “share deliberately and generously, listen actively, play with all possibilities, hold off limitations and logistics even if for only a while, let embodied knowing inform what we bring and with what we leave, acknowledge the full range of human emotions when they happen, and seek fulfilment in our work and in all activities.”
The group will take their ongoing learnings to Accra, Ghana, and Atlanta, Georgia, USA during 2024 in order to test, expand, and refine their insights and findings.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer