Are we (possibly) white supremacists? Workshopping with Astrid Kunert.

Post by Andrea Rodericks, who facilitated the workshop as part of our designing regenerative spaces coLAB

For our third session in the ARTist workshopping series we were led by powerful and personal reflections from Astrid Kunert who is co-founder and director of Qualitative Mind Research in Munich. Astrid shared her work with public participation, peace building and democratization in East Africa. We focused specifically on the project that had emerged through a partnership with East African colleagues supported by a German Foundation. Astrid explained some of the methods used to seed a participatory civic education initiative with accompanying research, including building a cadre of local community resource persons, supporting them with knowledge on democracy and pedagogical tools such as Forum Theatre, conflict resolution, and traditional dances and songs with modern lyrics.

There was much to learn from the initiative itself, but Astrid’s reflections at our workshop were more personal, reflecting on herself as an action researcher in this context. As a white person from Europe she wondered what legitimizes her presence and perceived power in this work in East Africa. She asked:

 “Does my presence possibly trigger the prejudice that “aid from the global north” is necessary to bring about change in African communities?” She also reflected on the dynamics that triggers the flow of money from Europe to Africa. And, engaging her inner critic, she asked herself, “Do I embody white supremacy?”

Holding these questions within, Astrid wondered whether questions such as these should be discussed with project participants, and the influence that may have on building a transformative learning space. What may be the implications of addressing and/ or not addressing these issues? She welcomed the wisdom and reflection of the ARTist workshop group as developmental friends.

Astrid’s courageous and deeply personal reflection touched us all. Few people are able to get in deep under the surface of power dynamics that include themselves, and further, engage others in this reflexive thinking. Her invitation triggered many reflections and questions from participants’ own experiences and perceptions of power, powerlessness, and identity.

In the words of a workshop participant, the conversation itself “felt, well, transformational.” Some key insights follow:

Colonization and decolonization in context

  • No matter where we are from, we live and work in a world of colonial trails and paths that have framed the way we understand and negotiate power and relationships and the way we claim resources. We can help each other create new paths. What does this mean for our work as ARTists? Here are some questions and reflections that surfaced from participants’ own experiences:
  • Decolonization on all fronts needs to be a red thread in our undergrowth as change agents informing everything we do, as we are ALL informed (science too!) by colonial power
  • It may be useful to unpack the assumptions we are making about the system and our place in it
  • Engaging developmental friends ‘on the ground’ (from the local context of our work) may be a source of great support in understanding and navigating these journeys and building legitimacy
  • Signaling recognition of the patterns of inequality (even if not formally) by those perceived to have more power in a particular context can be valuable in helping to shift or grow different kinds of power (from a workshop participant reflecting on her early journey as a young person of color navigating the international development arena)

What is our relationship with guilt?

Maybe we cannot escape the guilt of colonialism, but we can befriend it, understand its roots and work with it. Given how colonization has shaped every aspect of our lives, engaging our collective imagination across diverse perspectives may play an important role in building decolonized futures

  • Context is everything – all of our reflections must be interpreted for and in particular contexts (historical, cultural, social, political). For example (responding to Astrid’s case), in many cultures, a welcome guest is seen as a gift –and understanding this will influence how we may build legitimacy, trust, acceptance.

Our growing understanding of power and identity

As one would expect, much of our conversation revolved around the nature of power and how it shifts, and the value of understanding power as ARTists trying to facilitate regenerative spaces. We reflected…

We are all not just one thing. We have many different identities and our power and privilege is intersectional and contextual. Understanding this and the multiple identities that shape all of us, can help shift power

Power is not finite or a zero-sum game where you either have power over or less power than someone else. We can draw more energy toward building other forms of power such as collective power (power with), but it requires deep engagement and time.

As ARTists look at power as a force (i.e., sometimes negative, sometimes positive) we see also our own patterns within and between ourselves (e.g., for one workshop participant, her difficulty in acknowledging her identity as elite). Our work then becomes checking how the microworlds we create in our work are being re-patterned as fractals of a “better” – more equal – world. For that to happen, those with historically less power must be welcomed in sharing their experience too

Women seem to play important roles in the complex work of shifting power. The fact that so many ARTists are women is interesting in itself! How may we build bridges for women with men to transform patterns of inequality together?

The discussion also surfaced other ideas to consider in our work as ARTists navigating power: Being attentive to the makeup of the research team; Using methods such as auto ethnography (first person reflection) to surface and navigate issues power, privilege, identity; Drawing attention to a wider framing of resources that goes beyond donor funding to recognize the different kinds of resources (knowledge, histories, relationships) that others bring to the table.

Participants reflected on how our work as ARTists can be valuable in healing the wounds of colonization and in repatterning inequality. It calls for purposeful design and critical attention to power and building trustful relationships.

Recordings and links 

In our closing reflections we noted that it takes courage, trust and compassion to engage in personal conversations around power and privilege, all ingredients of developmental friendship. We were grateful for this co-LAB space for developmental friends.

Astrid thanked the group for thinking with her – she is not so much looking for ‘answers’ as much as continuing the inquiry within and with other ARTists. Link to the recording of the plenary highlights available here to all.

Link to Astrid’s presentation (not it is password protected for coLAB members participants only).

Astrid appears in our “What is ART” documentary and speaks about her work in Kenya.