Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly for Knowledge Democracy: Part 1
The image I offer for this essay is intended to disturb. Although the visual system, as it does when invited to view an image, searches for a resting place or focal point, here there are myriad directions of travel. Overall, the viewer will start noticing that it depicts communication and connectivity in a disorderly urban setting. For me, there is a wider conceptual focus which attracts my attention and settles from my initial disturbance into the idea of complexity.
To me this piece of writing is an act of research. In any research act, complexity – and its counterpart, contingency – cannot be foregrounded, but nonetheless call to be acknowledged (Winter et al., 1999). Sumara and Davis (2012) observe that:
‘complexity thinking compels researchers to consider how they are implicated in the phenomena that they study – and more broadly, to acknowledge that their descriptions of the world exist in complex (i.e., nested, co-implicated, ambiguously bounded, dynamic, etc.) relationship with the world.’ (p. 3)
To convey what it means for me to have ‘visited Cartagena, Colombia’ in 2017 for the ARNA (Action Research Network of the Americas) Conference and within this visit to have taken part in the day called ‘The Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy’ is therefore a challenge that must acknowledge complexity, and so is fairly daunting. I immediately find that it cannot easily be extricated from my wider entanglement in an intense few days of immersion not only with the two events, but also in the city of Cartagena, Colombia, and its wider continent. I found myself experiencing both overlapping and glancing relationships of knowledge production through my encounters with people, with performances and displays, and with the embodiment of these in the micro and macro cultural landscapes of this extraordinary city. Most stridently, I found the reflection of its colonial origins and heritage staring at me everywhere and taking me back towards the colonising project of my home (Great Britain) and the wider continent of Europe. Cartagena’s very name and geographic organisation proclaim colonial Europe, its layout of fortified port and harbour protecting a condensed ‘Old Town’ in replication of its Mediterranean origins. Its Spanish counterpart itself was even founded as a colony, of the Roman Empire.
To write within the echoes of imperial grandiosity seemed to demand grounding. At an event designed to honour the work of Orlando Fals Borda, attending to my feelings offered a direction. In any case, my feelings foreground the process of remembering and are what shaped the stories I now reference as ‘my recollections’. But Fals Borda invited us to become ‘feeling-thinkers’ (Sentipensante), to act based on knowing and feeling. And so I offer a nested set of vignettes, arising from some of the profound feelings my visit to Cartagena inspired in me and hoping to invite some lines of further travel and inquiry into knowing.
My recollections of the Global Assembly and the whole visit remain vivid if a little unstable. My normal tendency as a visitor is to focus on the visual delights of a new landscape and its non-human life-forms (my greatest – quickly satisfied – desire was to view a sloth). But in Cartagena this pre-occupation rapidly shifted aside, supplanted by the excitement of encountering such an extraordinary diversity among its inhabitants and visitors that it extended my cognitive-emotional spectrum of possibilities for human appearances, presences and presentations. It was a joy just to witness such a range of humanity. And so many impressions compressed themselves into my ten days in a continent that I’d only glancingly visited before. Indeed the event itself has become difficult to extract from the ARNA Conference, where the knowledge democracy (KD) project was also actively and creatively pursued. And during the same ten days, significant events were taking place in my home Great Britain – I was able to follow them as they unfolded.
Taking part in an international conference situated in a tourism magnet inevitably positions one somewhat uncomfortably. I myself am so uncomfortable in the ‘tourist’ role that I actively resist it, normally organising my travels so that there’s a purpose behind them other than ‘vacation’, and avoiding the magnet’s ‘attractions’. And aware as I am of the environmental – and human – degradation that mostly accompanies tourist development, the argument that I am supporting a local economy feels disingenuous. But my position in the global scheme of things involves such privilege that I can, and do, attempt to live a life-affirming balance: lacking material luxury I can travel the world by drawing on my abundant cultural capital. Being part of the international action research community is an important part of that capital, and I was also lucky enough to be funded by that community to travel to Colombia.
Such personal tensions of my own seem now to illustrate some wider contradictions embodied in the Assembly itself, and our attempts to draw productive engagement with each other within it. I’d been involved in some of the preparation, and the project to engage with one of these contradictions – that of access to the Assembly – by enabling groups within our network, the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN), who couldn’t attend in person to take part – along with others – in pre-Assembly regional workshops (Wood, McAteer, & Whitehead 2019). The initial purpose of these workshops was to feed insights in to the Assembly event, but this was logistically impossible due to time and other constraints. These difficulties point to the need to explore the means for delivering forms of distributed participation if the KD project is to further develop its inclusivity.
I found that Feldman and Bradley (2019) have usefully depicted the tensions embodied in the KD project as an orthogonal pair of axes, the vertical between the Global North / Privileged Knowledge and the Global South / Marginalised Knowledge, and the horizontal between the production and dissemination and use of knowledge as Controlled as opposed to Unrestricted. Like them, I find the horizontal polar types themselves problematic, referencing as they do too unhelpfully static ideas – of the complete control of knowledge, and of a total lack of restriction, both chimeras offered as ‘reality’ through the commodification of information across the world-wide web. But the depiction of knowledge as inhering in procedures and processes (the horizontal axis) does point usefully to the idea of democratically framed practices of knowing, of generating and using knowledge, which find themselves at cross-purposes with the vertical depiction of dominant hierarchical discourses of authority played out between global north and south. As Feldman and Bradley and others argue, this north-south divide operates – and its contradictions are experienced – between dominant and marginalised humanity and human discourse at local and inter-personal levels everywhere. Susan Noffke (2021) takes this further, arguing that
‘Localities are always diverse in terms of ‘race,’ gender and social class and a whole range of differences. Those who seem to be absent physically are always present, nonetheless’.
I’d arranged my visit so that most of my free time would occur before the Conference and the Assembly. Three events which moved me profoundly in this free time are dominant in my memory. All of them reflected the depth of these tensions between dominant world views and democratically inspired practices of knowing, and I offer the following vignettes, concluding with a response to the Assembly.
- a visit with other members of the CARN Co-ordinating Group, organised by Mary McAteer, to the Palenque de San Basilio, a unique society of escaped African slaves founded in 1619 and designated a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Basilio_de_Palenque)
- spending an evening at an outdoor restaurant following the incoming results of the 2017 UK General Election, and
- following the news of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London
The Palenque de San Basilio
To be welcomed, fed and entertained by residents of the Palenque in their homes and around the village was an enormous privilege, a sustainable tourist experience that I had not imagined possible, but could relax into quite easily. This is a society of around 3000 people who know and celebrate the central events of their 400 years of history, a history that has sustained a unique creole language and is rooted in resistance to slavery. Their greatest impression on the world at large is through music, and we were treated to a performance at his home by one of the members of the internationally regarded Sexteto Tabala, a vocal-percussion band grounded in African musical tradition (https://www.elespectador.com/colombia-20/paz-y-memoria/sexteto-tabala-de-san-basilio-de-palenque-y-la-resistencia-desde-la-musica/). It’s important, as a matter of note for knowledge democracy, that it was through this music, rather than the Palenque’s political significance, that Mary had identified the village as a place worth visiting.
Photo 1. Palenque gathering place and commemorative plaque
Photo 2. Palenque de San Brasilio: our local hosts and tour guides
Photo 3. Our tour guide and one of our hosts, as we wait for lunch to be served
Photo 4. Sexteto Tabala placard
It is hard to convey the thrill of connecting with a place and its people that embody, in such a culturally rich diversity of knowings, the real possibilities of resistance towards, and of escape from slavery. The mere fact of it shone bright beyond the hints we discerned from our hosts’ willingness to talk openly about difficulties within the society itself, which operates a gendered division of labour involving absence for work in the city on the part of women, and is grappling with increased opening up to indigenous Colombian arrivals. As a living society that continues actively to celebrate its own stories of resistance through diverse cultural and political practices, it offered to us a case-study of global south ways of knowing and of positive encounters with the global north through UNESCO recognition, the international profile of its musicians and the low-key gemutlich approach to visitors.
The UK General Election
This General Election took place on Thursday 8th June, a few days before our visit to the Palenque. I’d been campaigning at home for the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, an MP I’d respected for many years as someone who grasped both the urgent need for social democracy and the scale of the opposition to it among those for whom wealth alone directs their energies. Being in Colombia 6 hours behind the UK provided a unique opportunity to witness the results being announced during the course of an evening meal instead of the usual small hours of the morning (polling stations close at 10 pm and the count starts straight away in the UK). Most of us felt that having observed the majority of the media working against us, the Labour Party’s prospects were poor, but we also knew of many friends and colleagues who had joined the call to help the campaign. As the results came in, the popularity of a socially progressive programme became an undeniable fact of British life.
Labour was the only major party to increase its vote, gaining 30 more seats and 40% of the vote. Yet today, Jeremy Corbyn has been expelled from a Labour Party which has changed from being the largest mass-membership party in Western Europe to a tightly controlled enterprise in the image of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’, and we have witnessed a significant silencing of the thirst for social justice and horizontal connection in the political life of the UK. We have also witnessed the eradication of this expression in our national consciousness. It is as though it never happened. Giroux’s (2014) phrase ‘the violence of organised forgetting’ is something I feel about it, and the reason I include it here, to counter that violence and to celebrate the millions of people in the UK who want a just society but are denied the voice to express this wish collectively.
The Fire at Grenfell Tower
A few days later, during the ARNA Conference on June 14th, a fire broke out in one of the parts of the UK I call home – West London – in a 24 storey block of flats, Grenfell Tower (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grenfell_Tower_fire). The young Labour MP who had just overturned a very long-standing Conservative seat in Kensington & Chelsea by 20 votes (there were 4 recounts) found herself centre-stage at a huge disaster, the deadliest structural fire in the UK for 30 years. Accountability was complex because it was managed at arms-length from the Council, who had originally built and owned it. But residents had been raising concerns through the Grenfell Action Group (GAG) about its safety, including fire hazards, for some years. Two of its leaders, Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair, were young women of colour who had argued in a blog that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence’ of its management, predicting ‘that it won’t be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt’ the management. They were threatened with legal action over these words. It later emerged that a cheaper and less fire-resistant cladding had been used in renovations in 2015-16, and this enabled the fire to progress so swiftly that 72 people lost their lives, including Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair.
The fire is still, 5 years later, the subject of a public inquiry, which while it continues, obstructs any possibility of prosecution. I knew that I’d know of people in that block and when I arrived home discovered that one of the youngest residents to lose his life was a friend of my grandson’s at nursery school. Not only had knowledge about the safety of people’s homes been silenced, but now so has the opportunity to call to account those who were responsible. Not even the new MP could successfully advocate as the constituency representative in parliament for social justice.
Here was an example of solid practice-based evidence (Hong & Rowell, 2019) gathered by residents and offered to the landlords and the Council which was generally not acknowledged, and when it was, countered with legal threat. Yet it was such strong evidence that it predicted a disaster due to poor fire hazard control. It seems to me that the global south situated within the global north could not be more clearly represented in the Grenfell fire, and nor could the violence of the threat to practice-based evidence.
The Global Assembly
The event was designed for dialogue, once we had heard from distinguished opening speakers. I felt my heart lift when Rajesh Tandon announced this day to be one that is dedicated to domestic workers across the world: a chance to pay respect to a huge female workforce often working far – in geographical distance, but even further in cultural distance – from the place they know as home to sanitise a place the wealthy wish to display as ‘home’. Budd Hall described having recently taken part in a conference at the source of the Nile in Africa bringing together a group of indigenous leaders. All of these leaders were male and for me the presentation raised important questions about gender. Boaventura de Sousa Santos referred to the Assembly as a Preparation, not as an Assembly in itself and pointing to the contradiction that 80% of participants were women yet the panels were dominated by men. He argued for horizontal forms of educational practice outside the university, and a re-conceptualisation of the global south to the geo-political south, and I found this resonating with my own attachment to and participation in popular movements and popular education. Gender disparity was foregrounded and problematised in the suite of addresses, yet it was not done by women.
We proceeded to move out of our ‘audience’ positions and circulate around the spacious room to choose a dialogue group to work with. I have always valued the transformative potential of such groups, where sustained conversation within a stable group is often both deeply engaging and productive. The group I joined was the place where the comment in my title was expressed – and not just once. As we (maybe 8 of us) were around a large table diligently addressing a series of well-designed questions, we became aware that a large group of participants had split away from the tasks at hand and were animatedly discussing in Spanish and Portuguese behind us, and scribing on a large paper on the wall. This would never happen in Harvard! exclaimed one of our participants more than once. But they were using different languages from English and it was only possible to guess at the nature of their project from the text appearing on the wall. We continued our task, feeling energised and productive; feeling that we belonged to its requirements, yet all the time aware that the breakaway group perhaps did not share these feelings.
The questions we had been offered were engaging, starting with the question of what we each personally might have to offer, and moving outwards to think about what we could offer the Assembly. Their framing enabled me to share more deeply than I’d previously ever had the opportunity to do in an action-research context, aspects of my parallel life as an environmental campaigner. Being able to present oneself as ‘whole’ is in itself a worthwhile project. But it can be far from straightforward, especially when, as in my case, my campaigning has been in direct conflict with one of the most powerful hegemonic forces on the planet and in my locality: the nuclear industry, an industry which specialises in silencing its opponents. I felt as though I could begin to review my official academic biography to embrace other aspects of my life, and this activity at the Assembly represented a first step in so doing (Sharp & Balogh, 2022).
For the wider project, I felt an immediate connection to de Sousa Santos’s explication of horizontal forms of educational practice and introduced the idea of Free Universities which had begun to spring up in the UK, eg, in Brighton (www.freeuniversitybrighton.org). I also wanted to share my distress about the fire at Grenfell Tower, which was just beginning to produce some of its most shocking news. But in this I held back, maybe because it was too raw, but also because I felt that here in Colombia such disasters are so much more commonplace, and I was aware of the fragile nature of the peace agreement that had recently been reached between the FARC and the government. Danger and disaster in the global north and south are not equivalent, except in terms of the human lives they claim.
The way the breakaway group was enabled to re-connect with the rest of the assembly has been documented (Seeley, McAteer, Sanchez & Kenfield, 2019). Despite my feeling clumsy at first, not quite grasping what was happening, I was moved by our collective procession around the room in an act of ‘feeling-thinking’ (Sentipensante), gently tapping our hearts with our fists. The addresses in Spanish were frustrating to a non-Spanish speaker though I felt I could guess at their thrust and could discern some of their phrases. It felt appropriate that the global north organisers should be put in the position that people in the global south experience all the time, uncomfortable though that was. It was disappointing that the connection between the two groups seems to have been lost. Yet switching position from one of marginalised opposition to one of equal dialogue is not at all straightforward, and depends on the time-consuming work needed to establish trust. The fact that ‘this could never happen in Harvard’ seemed to me testimony enough to the energising and inclusive nature of the Assembly. And the events of the day also indicate to me that exploring how to move from opposition to dialogue emerges as an important element of the KD project urgently in need of exploration.
One of the threads that runs through these reflections is Susan Noffke’s three dimensions of professional, personal and political, dimensions which Noffke argues are not separate, not hierarchical, but enable us to explore interconnectedness and complexity.
The varying feelings which led me to share the three vignettes are undoubtedly personal, yet all are manifestly political, and all of them touch on what it means to practice as a professional and to take part in civic life. The open disclosure of party political allegiance is a rarity in educational discourse, yet concepts within knowledge democracy have provided me with an epistemological framework – and hence, I believe, permission – to do so here in my second vignette about the UK General Election.
Noffke also argues that these dimensions have to be understood as sites of struggle. At the Global Assembly our diligent pursuit of dialogue as visitors from abroad was actively being questioned by local activists, thus presenting the event itself as a site of struggle. To me this distinguished the Assembly as a dynamic and open event, and I felt that the seemingly opposed parts of myself, as professional and as the (usually hidden) activist were being represented here in a way I connected with.
Noffke’s observation that ‘Those who seem to be absent physically are always present’ applies to the fragments of our ‘selves’, affected as we always are by intersectionality, and I valued the Global Assembly for providing a ‘locality’ where it was possible for me to feel able to present a more extended version of myself in a safe and welcoming space. The observation that ‘it could never happen in Harvard’ distinguished the Assembly’s open ethos in this way from the conventions of the academy.
The knowledge democracy project needs more spaces of this kind for dialogue to take place. But in the increasingly time-starved and hostile environment of our life-worlds, opening up such spaces seems difficult. One of our small group’s messages to the future Assembly organisers was for a more egalitarian (horizontal) space instead of the elite Convention Centre where we were located. But in fact there was no other indoor space in Cartagena that could accommodate such numbers. And the outcomes of the Assembly show that sustaining such spaces brings problems too. However, the values of action research embodied in the Assembly do – in contrast to conventional academia – allow for spaces where struggles can be expressed and yet contained. Our experience of a recent virtual CARN conference suggested to us the value of virtual action research meetings in helping to break down perceived hierarchies and enable intimate interactions between participants at widely differing levels of experience and at great geographical distance from one another (Sharp & Balogh 2022).
Returning to the complexity theorists Sumara and Davis, they note that complexity also embraces the simple. Perhaps we need to take more seriously the potential contribution to knowledge democracy of myriads of small acts. Sumara and Davis opened up for dialogue a potentially fractured space in their school simply by inviting parents to read a book.
Feldman, A. & Bradley, F. (2019). Interrogating ourselves to promote the democratic production, distribution and use of knowledge through action research. Educational Action Research, 27(1), 91-107
Giroux, H. A. (2014). The violence of organized forgetting: Thinking beyond America’s disimagination machine. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books
Hong, E. & Rowell, L. (2019). Challenging knowledge monopoly in education in the U.S. through democratizing knowledge production and dissemination. Educational Action Research, 27(1), 125-143
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Basilio_de_Palenque Accessed 5 April 2022
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grenfell_Tower_fire Accessed 5 April 2022
https://freeuniversitybrighton.org/ Accessed 5 April 2022
Noffke, S. E. (2012). Revisiting the Professional, Personal and Political Dimensions of Action Research. In S. E. Noffke & B. Somekh (eds), The Sage Handbook of Educational Action Research, pp 6-24. London: Sage Publications
Seely, J. McAteer, M. Osario Sanchez, C. & Kenfield, Y. (2019). Creating space for global dialogue on knowledge democracy: Experiences from the inaugural global Assembly for knowledge democracy. Educational Action Research, 27(1), 22-39.
Sharp, C. & Balogh, R. (2022). Encounters with the participatory imagination in the UK action research community: interplays and silences. https://www.participatorymethods.org/resource/encounters-participatory-imagination-uk-action-research-community-interplays-and-silences
Sumara, D. & Davis, B. (2012). Complexity Theory and Action Research in Susan E. Noffke & Bridget Somekh (eds) The Sage Handbook of Educational Action Research, pp 358 – 369. London: Sage Publications
Winter, R., Buck, A. & Sobiechowska, P. (1999). Professional Experience and the Investigative Imagination: The Art of Reflective Writing. London: Routledge.
Wood, L. McAteer, M. & Whitehead, J. (2019). How are action researchers contributing to knowledge democracy? A global perspective. Educational Action Research, 27(1), 7-21.
To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Balogh, R. (2022, May 20). ‘I want to know what’s going on over there! This could never happen in Harvard’. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/i-want-to-know-whats-going-on-over-there-this-could-never-happen-in-harvard/