Waking Irresistible Activism: Dialogue with Kamil Geronimo

Hilary: I am so glad we have been getting to know each other.  As I recall you connected with me when we first published the AR+ Cookbook.  And it’s a pleasure to work with you now on a Spanish edition which will be available by the AR+ Transformations Gathering. But today we get to talk more about what is holding your attention in your work to lead Pueblo Critico in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

KamilG: I’m focused on working with people who are themselves working on different organizations, communities and specific social campaigns with different populations. In the last year, the job has mainly focused on Hurricane’s Maria aftermath. It’s a time for big questions. We are asking ourselves how are we shaping what’s new in these surroundings? How do we plan on transforming them? Can we start with our own subjectivity, our own experience? So, this place [greets a colleague, shows a new sofa] is a place for such people, organizers and facilitators, to have a political home, to have meetings and reflect. It’s a space where people from different spaces and university students, as well as professors, can come and chat about work about how they are somehow changing or contributing to transformation. That is Pueblo Crítico’s goal, our organization. For the people we work with, and their own reflection processes.

Hilary:Love the sofa! I believe I am seeing the headquarters of Pueblo Critico. How did you come into this work, Kamil?

KamilG: The sofa is a recent donation. Yay! [Kamil introduces Hilary to Pueblo Critico colleagues.  We chat together a bit before continuing the interview, one one one.]

I started this work specifically, a few years ago, in 2007. I was becoming a young political activist in a leftist organization that fought for Puerto Rico’s political independence from USA. The difference between this and other existing organizations was its focus on working with marginalized communities. Their methodology was Popular Education and with that framework I started. I was also a university student and by 2010, we co-organized the longest university strike in our country. Although I participated from Popular Education perspective, I perceived that the common cultural practice when it comes to activism, was about marching through the streets and creating banners. It was us vs. the university system and the government. We learned a lot and we are still learning on our ways to do the what we do, collectively. By 2017, a second strike was voted. By then I was in my master’s and had a new perspective on learning, the rhythm of our learning curves and the value of reflection for transformation purposes. I had a sense that we could do something other than just the traditional strike. We needed to work on but at the same time start by living some of the core values we were aspiring for another world possible. Nowadays, we call that walk the talk, or caminar el discurso. Relational space and all the healing that need to be done between us, cannot wait for tomorrow’s anticipated victory. Of course we have achieved some victories with the way we are more conformable working. But we still have another issue that needs to be tackle thinking outside the box. For example, how to build healthier relevant relationships between the university sectors, e.g. allied faculty and administrative staff. I am no longer a student there, but from Pueblo Crítico we help-out to figure how to accompany organizing processes for these and other issues. Such tensions not only cannot wait, let alone subsist, if we constantly leave them to be magically scheduled till afterwards.

Hilary  Am I right in thinking that your day job is in social work in healthcare? And some of your colleagues are in different fields. So, is there a sense that this way of working, this reflective, this relational way, is helpful for all endeavors around transformation society at this point?

Kamil G: Multiple activists are asking themselves the same kind of questions nowadays, regarding how to resolve internal conflicts, how to work with our differences and trough bad experiences. So, what about our own ways of relating with one another? Somehow, we reproduce the very system we live in and that’s a contradiction. It happens every time we discriminate, oppress silence and exclude our own selves and others from common spaces. With that, we lose the opportunity to build a different climate. And worse, we promote transformation that is not radical. Just aggressive.

Hilary:  I very much share your concern with this more transformational below the surface work. You know, there’s been so much emphasis on the above the surface, the material way that we change things and that’s important, right? But the process by which we do that feels really important. I’m curious how it strikes you when I invite a conversation about liberating the ivory towers mentality. And endeavoring to advance a more whole learning process by which we learn and transform toward a more sustainable even regenerative world? So, I see you as an example of already doing that.

Kamil I think education and learning need to be connected to our own life experience. So, we might say in this line of thinking that when people are born they start to experience reality. Reality itself is the school.  This reality is to be read, way before we start to formally read and write. In a way, reality is THE school.  If we are born to read, or interpret and respond to our surroundings, then why do we ever need a formal educational process? We would answer, well because even when that reading of reality is an ongoing activity, we might be reading it through naive glasses. A reality that is not questioned or problematized, can be read naively or superficially. That does not necessarily help in transforming what we face as a society. We have to read the problems down to the roots. To the place where our contradiction of interests is rooted. It means deciphering what have we have made seem “natural” or assumed as a given unchangeable reality. Education is to revisit that notion collectively. Organizations might aspire to transform our social order, but often does not take the time to acknowledge people and community’s life experiences, how have they shaped their power notions, their validations, their wants, feelings and needs.

Hilary So, how do we interweave political aspirations/intentions with what we experience is happening around us?

Kamil: For example, in communities we practice organizing. But we speak of it as organizing communities instead of accompanying communities in their organizing processes. We’re part of it.  So, we do not put outside the inevitable barrier regarding the outsider, but we still can figure a way to challenge that power dynamic in the way we perceive ourselves within the process. When we can perceive ourselves as learners we can co-design reflection processes and then systematized our joined efforts. This can prevent people and organizations to just go, set the rules, impose the processes, exercise power and most of the time, improvise with the future. This not only reproduce what we criticize but also set a working pattern where people’s wisdom is not acknowledged, recorded, systematized or shared. In these processes, the skills that the academia provide, depending on their own framework, can enlighten or bury the whole pathway to transformation; it’s a double sided knife blade. It all depends on how and for whom, you use what you know and whether you believe ordinary people have the potential to transform their contexts. We don’t all need a four year degree to do so.

Hilary: What you say about organizing our communities has meaning for me in our efforts here to – in your language – accompany the organizing process of participants, like you, who reimagine the future of learning more democratically.  And back to the value of universities – it also seems to me that universities at least provide a place and a space and there’s an agreement we’re here to learn. Whereas ordinary life now, in our ordinary communities, we rarely have that. We all have the need to learn, but not the space or the agreements for it. Which is why I find it so delightful that you literally have the space in your own house. With a beautiful sofa!

KamilG: I think of homes and communities and families as groups of lifelong learning spaces. And it has been sometimes devalued, in other times lost and of course relegated to schools and universities. It has not always been like that. I think families originally were sources for learning. I can surely say that for Latin cultures, and not only on moral issues from a religious perspective, but also as a space for heathen discussions about roles and expectations for its members. Nowadays other values are occupying our attention span and smart phones along with big screens are the principal drainers. This addictive technology makes it harder for other real-life issues to be irresistible and thus the long for to just analyze our reality together and think about another possible world becomes second placed.

Hilary: I’m curious. I guess I don’t believe we can go back to these reflective families. Some families are so dysfunction, but maybe that’s only in America! So, I imagine a world in which the best of schools, its systematic processes, its critical information, can go together with ordinary life be it in friendship communities or professional reflective practice away from work. For me it’s more a future we need to consciously create. Rather than a past we need to recapture.  Am I too negative about the past, perhaps?

KamilG: Yeah. Sometimes it’s just about who asks good questions and how can we facilitate that. When we see such expressions that involves the very people that are confronting problems, a light turns on. But todays researchers see subjects just for their research value. They might think they are the ones bringing the when intervening in a given situation or social issue. More often than not, such light dims right after another thesis is published. Of course we need light when reality and solutions seems incomprehensible, but we also need to be able to conceive such light through sustainable engagement and committed connections in more horizontal approaches.

Hilary: In your vision for future learning communities, how do we tackle this issue of the split between formal and living learning?

Kamil G:  We can develop new narratives. These narratives help create spaces and we trust the ability and the imaginary of the people. Sometimes, they might just need a premise and a single sentence with three points at the end. That can spark a thought that you’ve never thought of. We have to make that question irresistible to the people that might need that reflection process. Then a dialogue can spark a whole new process.

Hilary: Tell me about being irresistible? [laughter]

KamilG:  For example, a local organization contacted us at Pueblo Crítico for a workshop with Youth to be facilitated about sexually transmitted diseases. Their goal was to prevent adolescents from getting pregnant at premature age, for example. We accepted the challenge, but were super clear at that point that we can’t just adopt that linear goal. We doubted it would truly reach to the youth involved, being that their decisions were infantilized, and their culture was being overlooked. So, our team came up with the idea to design a board game about love and life itself.

Hilary Yes, life and love is irresistible!

KamilG: Life and love are subjects that people like to talk about in their families, in their friendships. So, in our game we present “fictional characters” whom are confronting different experiences. For example, friends meeting at a bar and seizing where do this encounter will lead on from that point. STD’s [sexually transmitted disease] are a subtext, but the conversation is about much more. It flows from how you are responsible for your body and your health, up to how we are conflicted when desire and arousing emerges. Since we work from an intersectional framework, other issues such as body image, gender, sexual orientation, class and race are involved in this “fictional” situations. Of course, there is no fiction in anything that is proposed to be analyzed. That’s why we approached the context first, talking with this towns people to create such board game. But to them, to the players, that might not know everyone else’s dramas, the information might result new or not. Odds play a big role in this matter.

Hilary.  In games as in life there is improvisation?

Kamil: We do not plan everything – we allow and encourage that improvisation. We consider that a way to gain wisdom, if a participant turns out to be aware of something they might not know about previously. They just can’t help themselves to react to what’s being discussed. The vulnerability doubles, since we are also oblivious as to where are their responses coming from, and if they are fictional solutions as well or not. The important thing is not fiction or reality. It is all about scenarios, reflections, decisions taking place and positioning. What we did was put this game on the floor and, us included, started rolling dices. We all faced premises with just three points at the end. Every person that read, reacts. We formed this irresistible environment were STDs were covered but so much more was too. We facilitated a space where people could talk about their funny relationships and also share family stories. Such inputs are our stock seed for later reflections so the process is not only enjoyed but long for.

Hilary: That’s a wonderful example. Also, of your organization Pueblo Crítico. Also, for our writing [Kamil is leading the next AR+ Cookbook. In Spanish, called Cocina Popular]. And because it’s so irresistible to me, I wonder how we might bring a community board game to Chalmers. A game of “knowledge creation transformation.” Who wouldn’t want to play that?! Maybe snakes and ladders format. Our goal, fundamentally, so as a participant can use your own insights for co-design, we want to help organize the global community of action research and those close in spirit to us. Not everyone will take on the action research paradigm in its wholeness. And anyway, we also have conflicts in the communities that have stopped people being creative together.  So, I invite your thoughts about that, your advice about that and also your sense of whether it’s interesting for Pueblo Crítico to be involved with this. What would be useful to you?

Kamil. The mere existence of AR+ is useful, it woke up something that I’ve been thinking of for many years. It started when I had to propose my thesis. My approach was so difficult for the IRB to manage. It was a nightmare.

Hilary Let’s make IRB a snake on our board game. To the degree they are gatekeepers of the conventional way rather than partners. I must say I find leverage when IRB people are invited to be partners, though this likely means having to educate them first on their terms.

KamilG: I love research and I love community work. I want our knowledge and experience to be organized so that we can learn from it. And the university I studied in wasn’t providing the right tools or facilitation processes for me. So many, so many obstacles.

Hilary We learn to teach best from those places we suffer in ourselves, no?

Kamil I would say that if you come from a community that has a particular need and you have to face all of these obstacles, along with facing a whole of other kinds of situations in your life, you don’t necessarily have the strength to fight it back, to learn from it. You just let it roll over you. Flatten you. I have come to peace with how hard it was. So when I think about confronting the ivory tower I refer in my mind to an essay I read while I was studying in Brazil for a semester. By David Harvey. On how think about academia from a revolutionary perspective. This will would require a new narrative.

Hilary We probably agree that reforming universities is a waste of time. It’s a very old and successful feudal system. I am often surprised by how many brilliant people inside it don’t see it for what it has become. However, some too. I want to gather those. And people like you. And I remember that without the university you and I wouldn’t have met. We wouldn’t be writing together about transformation. That’s not what normal people do unless they are activated by learning, often through the obstacles. We could make it less of an obstacle course and more of a collaboration with communities. I see it happening. And there is such a huge set of resources
Kamil Paid for by the tax payers,

Hilary Yes, yes. I’d love to see parents revolt at the revolting cost of education. Or better. Demand that their kids do action learning and action research. And I do think that some very, very few universities are on a more and more transformational path. Some are inside AR+ as you know. And as exciting, are the new contemporary design universities e.g., using the cooperative model. I try to keep an open mind about what’s possible in terms of space between the university and community. That is very interesting to me.

KamilG:  There’s important potential there to partner around writing and having a systematic quality of learning which is different in a local community effort.

Hilary I am concerned, and that is why we’re innovating with the Cookbook form, that learnings get washed away because communities do their learning and then everybody forgets it because nothing is ever published. And even more so with connecting up the stories into other places, other countries. I may be naive, but I believe that something is possible, but we haven’t got the right narrative, in your terms. We don’t have the right image yet for what it is. And I want to see more experiments and linking up what works.

Kamil I do believe that society’s resources must be used because in peoples favor, also because we are the one paying taxes, if we want to see it from an economic perspective. I would agree that some sort of meeting spaces is needed where the power relationship between researchers and communities are balanced. This space can be itself a place where action research processes develop.

Hilary So how do we help each other accomplish something irresistible together? At our Chalmers Gathering and beyond?

Kamil Well. When I first encountered Svante’s work [the first chapter] in the Cookbook, something about it sparked and resonated with me. That was irresistible for me to explore. I read that chapter and I wondered… who are the ones who could re-shape healthcare reality? The Swedes asked a radical, simple question. They asked about patients’ experience.  They said, “lets map the patients experience”. Wow.  That sparked for me. Include the patients. Yes! We need not be worried that people may not understand the full complexity. Because it’s a shared reality, each has different part of the picture. The same situation for example, can be analyzed by an 8 year old or an 80 years old. It doesn’t have to be way simplified nor made it more complex. It works both ways. When I think about that work in our context we have to see how much colonialism impacts us here. In all the institutions you have to prove yourself, because this system was not made for or by you. Within academia you get to feel like you have to prove yourself. In Puerto Rico we have that vis a vis the USA. So, to feel that you’re in your own island, in your own place of knowledge is powerful. But in universities for example, to prove yourself, to always validate yourself in front of people that are so used to other ways, other kinds of research and knowledge makes it hard.
In the pathway to Chalmers, a whole other possibility has already been nurture, like the whole version of the book in Spanish and English, another board game. I cannot even begin to imagine what would happen there and afterwards if more people get inspired to work together.

Hilary: Here’s my invitation to you. I would love you to help us bring some kind of game into the gathering itself. Everybody’s coming in from very different places, on the planet, professionally and in terms of their knowledge of action orientation. So, lets play with knowledge creation and the transformation of education. And who knows, perhaps the transformation of IRB. Like in Monopoly, you don’t go to jail you go to the scary IRB officer. [laughter].

KamilG: Let’s do it. And let me tell you, people won’t stop talking. After people warm up in discussion we will need to have a bell to balance time-based participations. I think this would be a great case for game design. We’ll think about the design and mechanics and some topics and then touch base with you to contribute to the questions

Hilary: Let me invite us to take a moment to reflect and ask is there anything else to talk about? Anything else on your mind?

KamilG:  I’m very excited. I think of the possibility of contributing to the dynamic. I’m very excited to share this with the team and see what ideas might arise.  Well as ever it was a pleasure. Speaking of which I read a great book you will like, it’s called the Emergent Strategy. By Adrienne Maree Brown, inspired by Octavia Butler’s work. It’s related to what is called pleasure activism. I know you are drawn to what is irresistible and are interested in the Eros of organizing. This also connects with what’s irresistible to us as humans.

Hilary I hear this as another aspect of the feminine rising and offering a new direction of relatedness and dialogue for moving forward to a more beautiful world. Which is a gift that is very much needed. All right my friend. Good night and thank you to you and your colleagues. We will be in touch.

Kamil Okay. Bye. Bye.