Pedagogies of Resistance: Blurring the Boundaries of Activist-Teacher in the Classroom

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This is the fourth post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

Water is fundamental to life and required by all beings on Earth. Humans die within a few days without it. In teaching, I have found water to be a way to introduce students to concepts of environmental justice and injustice, challenge binaries of human versus environment, and interrogate how access to “resources” is gendered, racialized, classed, and also determined by geographic location. My own positionality as a white, cis woman researcher and organizer from the United States informs my research methodologies on social movements fighting for water and challenges the (false?) boundaries between researcher/organizer/teacher. This in turn informs my pedagogy in the classroom and how I teach students about water justice, knowledge production, and change.

I first learned about corporations such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and their subsidiaries, bottling water, and then selling it for a profit in 2008, when I went to Brazil as part of my undergraduate studies. I visited the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam in the state of Pará and had various experiences where I saw firsthand some of the environmental and social devastation caused by mining and dams. When I returned to (what is now called) the United States, I organized on my campus against water privatization and bottled water. After college, I worked as a community organizer for four years on social justice issues not directly connected to water. In 2015, I moved to Pittsburgh to begin a PhD in Sociology, following a MA in Latin American Studies where I had examined resource and environmental conflicts and movements in Brazil. In 2016, the Pittsburgh lead crisis broke. I felt personally connected to it (my own house tested at 100 ppb lead level) and convicted that I had a responsibility to fight for clean, safe, public water in my city. These experiences inform how I approach teaching and forge connections between how we put theory into praxis, both in our campus communities and the world.

Here, I reflect on the blurring of the boundaries between researcher/teacher/organizer and how that influences the pedagogy of teaching about water in the classroom. In my research, I explore questions related to whether water is something to be held in the common (or public) good for all, or a commodity that can be bought or sold and assigned an economic value. I also position myself within my teaching, writing, and research as an organizer writing and teaching about the movements with whom I work, not as someone observing research subjects from afar.

My job is not to tell students what to think. Rather, my responsibility is to provide information and knowledge, facilitate an environment where students can begin to see the world through different lenses and create a space where students are able to interact with each other to piece it together. In teaching, I ask students to consider whose voices are represented and whose are not, and why that matters. I am a strong advocate for interdisciplinary learning, and I pull materials for my syllabi from multiple disciplines and perspectives, including popular, advocate, and activist sources.

In the study of sociology, I explain that we are also a part of the subject matter. This means we think critically about ourselves, our communities, and the world through various lenses and points of view. I also understand that all students learn differently, and so I aim to incorporate a variety of ways to learn material that spans beyond readings and lectures. One way I do this is through something I call “film viewing guides.” Typically, for approximately half of the class sessions, I will show documentary films (or portions of films), including those produced by social movements, and create film viewing guides. The assignment helps students put theoretical concepts in conversation with real-world experiences. The films also provide an opportunity for students to hear from the perspective of people directly impacted by a problem, including water crises.

As a specific example, for a class session on “Water, Oil, and Power” I assigned short films about social movement struggles in the Niger Delta in Nigeria; Flint, Michigan; and Pittsburgh. The films discussed the environmental and social devastation caused by oil and water companies and profiled activist resistance. They provided a forum to have discussions about corporate power, social movement resistance, connecting the global with the local, and histories and presents of colonialism, capitalism, racism, and environmental injustice. They also connected tangible and present struggles to material students had previously read and learned. Some of the questions the guide asked students to answer include: 1) What do the community leaders say about the problem with the oil pipeline? 2) What is meant by the statement “water is the new oil”? 3) What is water privatization? And 4) Do you see the fight for clean, safe, accessible water as a local struggle, global struggle, or both?

After students had viewed the films, we discussed these questions in break-out groups and as a collective. The discussion connected a previous week’s focus on “Ecological and Social Crisis,” where students read about struggles around hydro dam projects and viewed a film produced by Brazil’s Movement of People Affected by Dams, with whom I work. The film is called Arpilleras Bordando a Resistência, and tells the story of ten women affected by dams in five regions of Brazil who, through an embroidery technique that emerged in Chile during the military dictatorship, stitched together their stories of life, pain, and resistance. Some of the questions students grappled with included questions about who the dam and energy production benefits and who it does not. Who uses the energy? Who is displaced from their home to build the dam? What does sovereignty mean? Who is in control of water and energy resources?

My work as an organizer and activist also informs how I facilitate class discussions. My experiences have taught me that without praxis, theory is meaningless. This understanding helps direct conversations to connect what is learned in class to tangible and lived realities, as well as to ongoing social movement struggles. It has also taught me that tension or momentary silence is not always negative. We learn by grappling with things that push us out of our comfort zone.

I have found the film viewing guides and discussions are an effective way to teach about topics that seem far away and that might be seen as controversial, and at times, uncomfortable. Further, while anything I teach or share with my students is of course filtered through me—a point that I share, and discuss—the films allow for truths, knowledge, and stories to be shared by activists, organizers, and communities facing crises around water and energy. I position the knowledge of the movements, activists, organizers, and militants with whom I work at the centre of my work. My own history and present as an organizer informs my research, and in turn my teaching pedagogies, and guides how I think about water pedagogies of praxis beyond the academy and how to put them in conversation with—and at times challenge—pedagogies within the academy. I believe that education can be liberatory; but too often it is a tool to maintain the status quo. Early in my academic career I grappled with how to negotiate my different identities: teacher, researcher, organizer, political militant. Too often the academy tells us that we must be neutral. But neutrality is also a political stance. I have learned—through my experiences working with social movements, organizing for social change, and working as a teacher and researcher—that these different pieces of my work are all inextricably interrelated. When I teach, including about water, it is not my job to be neutral; it is my job to present information, and to act as a facilitator of information so that students might engage with the material and with each other, and to learn, grown, and form their own ideas.

Feature image: Sahalie Falls, Oregon. Photo by Ethan Grey on Unsplash.

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I hold a PhD in Sociology from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. My research coalesces around multiple areas of social inquiry, including environmental sociology, resource conflicts, the human right to water, political economy, and transnational social movements, using feminist and anti colonial research methodologies. My primary line of research is based on extensive fieldwork with two movements fighting against water privatization, one in Brazil and one in the United States. I come to academia from a background in organizing and activism, and have over 16 years of experience in community, political, environmental, and labor organizing.

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