How can we dismantle the racist structures of knowledge production that see, reward, and reproduce knowledge in extractive forms? What does it mean to the academe? Over the past two decades, beginning with my activist-academic journeys with Santalis, an Indigenous community, in Jangalmahal, West Bengal, I have experimented with, journeyed alongside, and placed my body in solidarity with the struggles of communities at the margins. These experiments have often worked with diverse forms of knowledge that are meaningful to and embedded in the lives of Indigenous and local communities. The culture-centered approach, a meta-theoretical framework I have been working with over the past two decades, seeks to co-create voice infrastructures. These voice infrastructures are also infrastructures for articulating knowledge claims, building registers for listening in dominant discursive spaces. Currently, I am Dean’s Chair Professor and Director of the Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand. Under the umbrella of CARE, I have had the opportunity to work with community organizers, community researchers, activists, advocates, and academics in building embodied interventions.
Decolonizing Method as Social Justice: Imagining Modalities as Resistance
These embodied interventions have taken the form of building community spaces for narrating, performing, and teaching cultural practices, led and owned by Indigenous communities. These cultural spaces for Indigenous storytelling and learning Indigenous languages and cultures practices disrupt the hegemonic forms of erasure scripted by the colonial state.
In Aotearoa, among the Maori community of Ngati Kauwhata, occupying the land against ongoing settler colonial theft emerges as the site for generating knowledge claims. The embodied occupation of land is scripted and narrated through the “What we say matters” 360 degrees campaign, reproduced on digital platforms. The digital resistance is complemented by media advocacy and outreach, decentering the whiteness of the media coverage by locating it in Maori voices.
In Singapore, placing our body in line alongside the struggles of hyper-precarious low-wage migrants seeks to disrupt and dismantle the invisibility and erasures crafted into the hegemomic structures of neoliberal authoritarianism. The expert-driven knowledge claims about smart urban policy-making are inverted through the voice infrastructures co-created with foreign domestic workers and migrant construction workers. Advisory groups, co-created with workers at the margins, emerge as spaces for decision-making, generating knowledge claims, participating in developing solutions, and in implementing the solutions.
These voice infrastructures take the form of 360 degrees campaigns. Foreign domestic workers co-create the script and storyboard of the “Respect our rights” campaign, discursively placing the language of labour rights in the registers of the authoritarian state. This discursive act of resistance powerfully disrupts the silence around the language of rights, shaped by the authoritarian state’s deployment of “Out of bound” (OB) markers. Voices of foreign domestic workers at the “margins of the margins” bring forth a linguistic architecture for conversations on the labour rights of hyper-precarious migrants. Placed across digital platforms as well as through media buys, on the mainstream media channels (both print and broadcast), the campaign is mobilized around the participation of hyper-precarious workers in decision-making processes.
The foreign-domestic workers co-scripted a documentary that I directed. The documentary, rooted in the narratives of the foreign domestic workers, voiced knowledge claims that interrogate the discursive tropes circulated by the state.
Voicing their everyday struggles with hunger as the fundamental challenge to health and wellbeing, advisory groups of migrant construction workers in Singapore foreground access to decent, quality food as both a human right and a labour right. The advisory group participate in designing an in-depth interview protocol and a survey, which then shape the co-creation of an advocacy campaign “Respect our food rights.” The 360 degrees campaign includes a white paper drawing on the qualitative and quantitative data, a documentary, and video-based stories crafted by the workers. In addition, the advisory group members put together a scripted cooking challenge to demonstrate the good quality of cooked food is adequate infrastructure is built form them to cook in the dormitories.
The digital campaign was accompanied by message placement on traditional media, with ads placed on buses and MRTs.
The worker-led, worker-owned advocacy built discursive registers in mainstream media, resulting in coverage in Singapore’s newspaper of record, The Straits Times. Public conversations emergent from the campaign generated sustained media interest, engagement by politicians, and the raising of the issue in Singapore’s parliament by the opposition.
Amidst the outbreaks in dormitories housing low-wage migrant workers, advisory group members have documented the poor housing condition that led to overcrowding, contributing to the outbreak and the poor food delivered to the workers, that exacerbated the challenges to health. The voices of the workers shaped white papers and photogtraphic displays, resulting in national and global media coverage of the poor infrastructures for housing workers and exploitative work conditions in Singapore. Amidst the public conversations generated by the outbreak, the Singapore government committed to bringing improvements to the infrastructures for migrant worker housing.
The community of researchers and activists at CARE have carried out over fifty community-led multi-modal interventions across seventeen countries.