First Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education 2016

An introduction by Udi & Kelly.

There is a knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, often under the radar of the media (mainstream and otherwise). This knowledge movement is an emerging network of – lets call them Ecoversities – people and communities reclaiming their local knowledge systems and imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times. Although diverse in its origins and places, this knowledge movement overlaps in not only critiquing our broken education systems but also in cultivating new stories, practices and possibilities that reconnect and regenerate local ecological and cultural ecosystems – hence the name Ecoversities.

The backdrop to our engagement with this movement began in 2012 when we stepped out of academic careers to (re/un)learn from amongst this diverse landscape of knowledges (‘autonomous’ places of higher education) emerging from social and ecological movements and indigenous communities. These places are blossoming within all corners of the world. For a little over a year, we travelled to 20+ places in 13 countries (Canada, USA, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India, Portugal, UK), meeting dozens of creative, courageous and incredibly generous innovators in higher education. For example, we visited places like Red Crow Community College a place teaching traditional Blackfoot knowledge and practices in Alberta, Canada. Places like Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca and Chiapas based on an autonomous and community engaged approach to learning in solidarity. We learned from the Escola Popular de Comunição Crítica (School of Critical Media Studies) in Rio de Janeiro that is running a programme engaging young people with the skills of critical media literacy and media production within the highly discriminated favelas of the city. We learned from Swaraj University in Udaipur, India, a self-designed learning programme for young people who develop their own learning journeys, mentorships and projects designed around sustainability and gift culture.

As we visited places across different countries, as well as writing and making films, we took it upon ourselves to transition into roles of travelling story-tellers – telling stories to people we met of the other places we had visited and what they had been doing. All the while we dreamt: – What if these places could share their experiences, knowledges, their learning approaches amongst themselves and strengthen the beautiful and important work they are all doing? What even more wondrous and powerful transformations could occur!

Now that our physical journey to many of these places has come to a temporary rest, and we are continuing to write and edit a series of films, we are also focusing our energy into that dream of connecting these places of autonomous learning. With our friend Manish Jain from Swaraj University (Udaipur, India) we made a call for an Ecoversities Gathering of Kindred Folk Reimagining Higher Education in August 2015 at Tamera eco-village in southern Portugal. Calling out to our networks and to the many initiatives and individuals we came to know on our journey, with the generous support from several individuals and organizations, we gathered a group of 55 ‘Ecoversity’ higher education innovators.

This group, like any healthy ecosystem, has a profoundly rich diversity. It includes groups that focus on a gift economy and the regeneration of our cultural and ecological commons; groups involved in learning based on indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing; groups experimenting with localized agro-ecological learning; communities reclaiming their own stories through the creation of localized and independent medias; groups of artist/activists centered around experimental learning processes; and also present in this ecosystem are individuals creating spaces of resistance within the traditional academic system. During the six days we spent together in Tamera Ecovillage we hosted a dynamic interactive process structured as an ‘un-conference’ with a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with selforganizing sessions and open-spaces. Our intention was to co-create a gathering to propel this movement forward, share stories, where creative sparks could fly, and friendships and alliances weave.

And sparks did fly! What occurred between us was not always easy, but profoundly magical and transformative for many of us in ways beyond our dreams. As many experienced at the gathering, learning can often come through ruptures, feelings of discomfort being faced with the unknown and unfamiliar. It can be hard to let go of habitual ways of making sense of the world and relating to each other. A question that we were confronted with and took away in relation to this is how ought we to care for each other through such deep learning processes?

One strong commitment we had as co-hosts of the event was that we would be open to the emergent. We considered the emergent, or unknown, as a wise non-ego and vulnerable process that would appear if given space and nurtured. This was incredibly difficult, yet powerful. Through our six days together we had many opportunities to get to know each others’ work and day-to-day lives, difficult questions and challenges as well as our individual and collective hopes and dreams.

As Edgardo Garcia from Unitierra (the Universidad de la Tierra) Oaxaca, Mexico explained: 

“The deepest inspiration I got from the meeting was HOPE, to know that many people around the world struggle daily to build other ways of living. The meeting allowed me to meet some of those people and that, gave me strength to know that we are on the right track but also to know that much remains to be done. Ecoversites gave me that strength and hope that we are not alone and that we can change this world.”

Ecoversities tamera

As co-hosts of the event with Manish, we wanted to hold the gathering in a place that was actively involved in experiments that related to the work of those called to the gathering. The setting for the gathering was Tamera, an eco-village in the arid region of Southern Portugal where 170 people live and work on a property of 330 acres aiming at establishing a ‘Healing
Biotope’ – a model for a non-vilent society. Founded in 1995, Tamera is a community experiment that emphasizes the creation of new social structures to enable the emergence of healing, love and trust between all living creatures. Tamera is experimenting with ecological innovation, technology, inter-personal relationships, peace, food, energy autonomy and
education. The philosophy and practices at Tamera at times proved challenging for the Ecoversties group, provoking new questions and conversations. Yet the beautiful re-generated landscape and hospitable living spaces provided an important catalyst for the intimacy and rich
discussions that ensued.
The great diversity of individual trajectories, as well cultural, political and theoretical orientations meant that much time was also spent in figuring out just who we were and why we were here together. As Manolo Callahan from Unitierra (California) put it:

“Our entire six days were filled with the pressing question of how we collectively claim our project - Are we a community of insurgent learners, a network of de-professionalized intellectuals, and/or an occasional un-conference made up of folks committed to advancing local projects while at the same time trying to imagine how we "hold a space" for our emergence as an effort to be in, against and beyond institutions of higher education?”

In grappling with these above concerns, we mapped our common questions and challenges and we shared many of the practices that orient our work. For instance, Dina Bataineh of Taghmees Social Kitchen from Jordan and Palestine shared a practice called taghmees a ‘social kitchen’ that combines the ingredients of people, food, and fabric to engage in community learning that honors people’s lived experience. Manolo and Edgardo from Unitierras in California and Oaxaca (respectively) guided us through an assemblea, a Zapatista approach to meeting and hearing the views of those present in the room with the purpose of making decisions. A number of other people also shared different mapping and facilitation tools. During a mela or fair (a tool for presenting projects which Manish and Reva Dandage from Swaraj University brought from India), many of those present shared their current projects. Time was allocated during each day of the gathering to ‘open space sessions’ where participants themselves hosted discussions and workshops on themes and questions they had a particular interest in to explore further with others in the group. We had sessions with titles such as: ‘Learning how to learn in a context of war’; ‘Mapping ideas of decolonization and Cartesian thinking’; ‘Accreditation and funding for learning projects’; ‘Building a solidarity economy’; ‘Building heart connections for a powerful network’; and ‘Learning how to reindigenize ourselves’; ‘Learning and rites of passage’ – amongst others. Amongst the open spaces, the discussions and various moments of sharing, the Ecoversities gathering explored common emerging themes such as learning for sustainability and social justice; unlearning and decolonizing; re-indigenizing ourselves within our local ecologies; healing; gift culture; re-engaging community and nature; the question of certification; mentoring; rites of passage; right livelihood and social/eco entrepreneurship, and many others.
We also had moments of visioning – for experiences and insights to emerge not only through the habitual mind – but also through intuition and imagination, and play. For instance Vanessa Andreotti from the University of British Columbia, Canada, guided us through a visioning session where we expressed our envisionings through a heart and spirit-driven image. We each created an image that we then mapped out on the floor alongside a more rationally-driven mapping of questions we had created a few days earlier through the guidance of Ian Kendrick from University of the Third Horizon, in the UK. The comparisons and contrasts between such different mappings were powerful, speaking to us in a myriad of ways. We also had many moments of inspiration with music and poetry, walks and swims, toasts and jokes and dancing.
In other words, we began a process of finding or inventing a language to speak to and learn from each other and many different ways of being (and becoming) together.
Our feeling is that as a group we were attempting to give birth to a possibility of a re-imagined higher education. In this re-imagined place of learning, there is a complementarity of diverse knowledges and practices (that both teach and learn from each other). The search for complementarity, rather than more often seen as hierarchy or devaluing of knowledges (especially those that we are unfamiliar with) was a key orientation and source of struggle during the gathering. Yet, these sources of struggles were the glue that enabled deeper learning processes and relationships.

As Hugo Oliviera from Schumacher College (UK) and the Global Ecovillage Network reflected:

“Redefining the way we learn, the underneath patterns that have been imposed on us through our schooling. Patterns that many times we are not aware, we all have them. The unconference platform allowed these patterns to be visible and come to the surface and be mirrored by diverse collaborative paradigms emergent within the group. To redefine the way we proceed with adult learning and allow the new holistic processes to be recreated, by allowing non-Cartesian approaches, was for me one of the most important outputs of this encounter”

In this re-imagined way of learning, there is also an emphasis on the reweaving of relationships and friendships, between each other and with the non-human, including our local ecologies. In this other way of learning together there is the primacy of an ethics and politics of care and an attention to that which is so often left out of educational institutions – the heart, healing, play, learning with and across different generations. There is also great emphasis in a learning of how to be together – to learn and inquire in solidarity with one another and in support of communities and the ecologies, we inhabit. And in this re-imagination of learning we are also co-creating, and re-creating, other ways of knowing, doing, becoming and relating.

Mike Neary, from the Social Science Centre in the UK also touched on this in his reflection on
the Gathering.

“A problem was how to connect and communicate through the pedagogy and the pain. We started to create a language that went beyond words. I felt the power of abundant friendship and its ability to confront the violence that attempts to maintain the gap between the intellectual, manual, natural, the immaterial/ spectral and creaturely life.”

Ecoversities Tamera

For many of us at the meeting the impacts of our being together are still being felt – as new questions and provocations, as changed sensibilities and practices, as reinvigorated confidence and perhaps most importantly as new friendships. Many of us who were at the meeting have deepened our friendships and conversations since we met in August 2015, visiting each other, getting to know more each others’ work and life, exploring collective projects and inquiries. As a loose network we have also continued our conversations through regular virtual conversations furthering our explorations of questions we have in common. This way we continue to share tools, skills and experiences, co-create joint projects and inquiries, and continue to collectively re-imagine what another form of higher education could look like.

Overall, what transpired during those days at Tamera far exceeded our expectations. We expected that there would be friendships and mutual learning and the start of something unexpected. We had not anticipated the depths of exploration and openness we managed to invite and experience as a group.

Alessandra Pomarico, from the Free Home University in Italy, beautifully encapsulates our feelings when she writes:

“I have many beginning of conversations I'd like to continue with others, I have a sense of warmth, a sense of trust, a more exercised sense of patience, less scruples, loads of more questions, and all the smiles I saw, and all the hugs we exchanged at the moment of departure, where I felt like when I was a child and after a long summer you separate from your best friend with whom you grew up, and you only meet in the summer and the winter will separate you, and other things and people will be in between you, but then summer comes again, every year, and for sure. We are this summer. And the winter is not separating us: in between planes, in between errands, in between continents, in between commitments, visions comes with the power of all of you.”

Our hope is that later “this summer” in Ecoversities will meet once again and our friendships, questions, mutual understanding, confidence and practices will deepen. And in this deepening and opening we may just be able to hear the sound of a Montezuma Cypress seed sprouting, or something more surprising still.







Graphic recording from Kate

Read more about this gathering here: 

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