“Injustice in Our Shared Space”: A Critical Reflexivity Skill

Point of Departure

Situations of injustice – especially those related to structural violence– are often taken for granted and receive less attention than incidents of direct violence. Within organizations constituted by a variety of socio-demographic profiles, cases of structural injustice can become ‘normalized’ as part of the hierarchical or bureaucratic scenario.

In universities and research centers with programs on peace and conflict studies, the wide variety of research interests of students and professors are usually focused on conflicts unfolding in other places, external to the university space. One might expect that the further the conflict is, the less relevant it is for us, yet notions of proximity can be seen from a more complex perspective regarding our attention to structures of violence and conflict.

The university is by itself a space of where situations of injustice actually occur, but this is rarely the focus of its own academic studies. Within programs on conflict resolution, we find it particularly vital to develop a sensibility to identify contexts of conflict, no matter how close and integrated into our own spaces they are. Such capacity is an essential feature when reflecting on our positionality within webs of conflict, whether we participate by reproducing, ignoring, or resisting these conflicts. In some cases, it is not about asking how do we think of, for or with a certain group of people experiencing situations of injustice (a la Freire), but how come we don’t even think at all about the specific issue? What allows it to stay hidden? This activity prioritizes precisely this need to re-think our own space(s).

The need to re-think the way in which we relate with our surrounding space is in line with Vinicius de Moraes Netto’s reflections on space as referential to communication, as a dimension that “produce the sense of ‘world-relationality’ or structure” (2007: 4).[1] Thus, developing a critical awareness of our own space means also developing new ways of relating within the world, which includes new forms of thought, but also of communication and practice.

Goal

This activity is designed to develop critical, reflexive awareness of situations of injustice that occur in spaces in which we cohabit but that, most of the time, we do not identify as conflicts. The skill is an individual/collective capacity to ask the right questions through understanding our role within structures of conflict/violence, like:

What are my/our assumptions about conflict?

Within which organizations/spaces is it more difficult for me/us to identify situations of injustice?

How do notions of proximity play a role in my/our perceptions about conflict?

How are we constantly participating –in different ways– in structures of conflict?

How can critical, reflexive awareness promote action that will have a positive impact on such structures?

Context

The activity has been designed to address undergraduate and graduate students on peace and conflict resolution programs. However, it can be adapted to students in other programs and at different educational levels. The necessary condition is that participants share, on a regular basis, a physical space around which the reflection about conflict and injustice can be elaborated, in order for the discussion to be limited to the extreme complexity that a single case of a co-habited space can provide. You’ll want to do this with a sizable but not huge group: ideally, 8-15 students.

Implementation

Timing: 30 minutes

Materials:

  • White board or butcher paper
  • Dry erase or magic markers

Note: The instructions below are specific to the space in which we led this activity, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (SCAR). Please adapt to whatever setting in which you plan to use it.

Instructions:

  1. Ask group to create a map of SCAR. Tell them they have the two white boards in the room in which to do this. Encourage the group to represent things as they want and that they may interpret this prompt as they like. Remind them that it doesn’t have to be perfect/complete – they always have the option of adding to or adjusting their map as they go. Make sure to be clear and verbalize what you’re drawing/adding (for visually impaired folks especially). – 5 minutes

Note: Here, and throughout this exercise, the group may ask questions for clarification, do you mean this? Should we do this? Etc. Just return to the original prompt and tell them that they can take it any way they want.

  1. Next ask the group to overlay onto the map (however they see fit) all the conflicts or potential conflicts that they can think of when thinking about SCAR. Again, this is intentionally broad for their own interpretation. Encourage the group to be thoughtful about how they represent these conflicts, considering size, position, shape, etc. of their symbols/representations. You may choose to now title their map, “CONFLICT AT SCAR.” – 4 minutes
  2. Now ask the group to overlay themselves onto this map in some way, thinking about how they are positioned in relationship to these conflicts. They can think about representing this by trying to mirror the ways in which they’re involved with or part of these conflicts. – 4 minutes
  3. Lastly, ask the group to step back, take a look at what they’ve created, and give them one more opportunity to change or add anything to the map – is there anything or anyone they didn’t include but who they think should be included to make this representation of “CONFLICT AT SCAR” complete? – 2-3 minutes
  4. The group can move into open discussion, responding to the questions below. The overall aim of this time is to process the choices made in this activity, what comes to mind first, what they may have missed, and how to build a greater critical consciousness of conflicts “close to home” and a great reflexivity about one’s own positionality in some of these conflicts. Ideas for questions follow but feel free to follow the energy of the group as long as it remains on topic. – 15 minutes
    1. What were your initial impressions/reactions to the exercise? Did this change over time? If so, how and why?
    2. How did the map evolve over the course of the activity? What changed for you, if anything, throughout the process of creating it?
    3. What conflicts first came to mind when you were asked to map those? Why do you think you thought about these conflicts first? What affects our orientation around what conflict means and where it exists?
    4. At what point, if at all, did you start thinking “closer to home”/internally about conflicts that might be contained within or concerning the university/institution? What do you think prompted that?
    5. What was it like to “position” yourself on the map? How much had you previously thought about your position relating to very local conflicts?
    6. What are other ways you think people (particularly university students) can be “awakened” to conflicts that may be happening very close to them, often in unexpected places?
    7. What are the “dominant assumptions” among folks in peace and conflict resolution fields about what comprises conflict? What is this missing? Why do you think this is? How do you think this might change?

Note: Group leaders may choose at some point to share some of these questions/people/potential conflicts that the group may or may not have missed in order to deepen conversation and encourage a critical reflexivity about how we are implicated in violent, powerful, or conflictual systems within our own academic institutions.

  1. Potentially “hidden” conflicts/people at SCAR:
    1. Where our furniture gets produced – Virginia Correctional Enterprises
    2. Labor disputes/non-unionized/low-wages of workers in the building: parking, food service, custodial, maintenance, etc.
  • Adjunct faculty disputes
  1. Possible gentrification or displacement by the university
  2. Food sources/practices for our dining services
  3. University investments in oppressive/occupying governments, companies that violate human rights or mistreat workers, etc.
  • Questions of procedures relating to sexual assault on campus
  • Should SCAR take money from government/defense/military related funding?

[1] De Moraes, Vinicius, Practice, Communication and Space. A reflection on the materiality of social structures. [Thesis] University College London, University of London. 2007.

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