Sowing Earthseed: Toward an Abolitionist Framework for Community Education and Organizing

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

In this essay series, my objective was to make the case for school abolition, in recognition of the fact that schools are the primary sociopolitical apparatus responsible for creating, reproducing, and maintaining the relations of domination within the greater society. My argument was built on the long history of schooling as an engine of domination and control, the subordination and assimilation of Black and Indigenous people to capital and the state. Because schools have no substance beyond this project of domination, otherwise only concerned with the reproduction of their own internal conditions, the bulk of my work here has been an analysis of these larger systems of domination, through the lens of enclosure — defined as physical or ideological partitions that divide a larger whole, for purposes of commodification and/or control — of land first and foremost, but also time and space more broadly, the community, the body, knowledge, experience, interaction, learning and labor, and ultimately, life itself.

More importantly, I advanced a novel definition of abolition, as “the dissolution of enclosures so as to liberate the movement of bodies, cultures, knowledges, resources, and/or energy, across space and time, along collectively self-determined pathways.” Recognizing the dual nature of abolition, as both a destructive and creative force, logic, and praxis, it was not enough to merely — even if exhaustively — lay out a case for an end to schooling. I had to also offer, or at least propose, something in its place. To do so, I conducted a survey and analysis of Black and Indigenous pedagogies of resistance, and attempted to distill and synthesize a theory and praxis of liberation from settler colonial, white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy— a Red, Green, and Black ecology of learning and living in right-relationship each other, and to the land.

It is from that premise that I now attempt an initial sketch of a framework for education and organizing — living, learning, resisting, dreaming, creating — to resist the physical and ideological enclosures[1]Luykx, A. (1999). The Citizen Factory: Schooling and Cultural Production in Bolivia. State University of New York Press.[2]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.[3]Schnyder, D. (2010). Enclosures abound: Black cultural autonomy, prison regime and public education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 13(3), 349-365. which dilute the power of collective struggle and mediate people’s access to fundamental needs such as healthy food, clean environment, and thriving communities.

I am giving this nascent framework the name “Earthseed”, borrowed from the work of legendary science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler[4]Butler, O. E. (1993). Parable of the Sower. Four Walls Eight Windows[5]Butler, O. E. (1998). Parable of the Talents: A Novel. Seven Stories Press, whose Parables series foreshadowed a world much like our own, different only for the fact that the death rattle of our global capitalist economy has yet to ring with the same undeniable clarity. Butler’s grasp of the human condition and our social and political worlds made her work seem prescient, but in truth spoke to her rigor as a researcher and historian. In her own words:

Writing novels about the future doesn’t give me any special ability to foretell the future. But it does encourage me to use our past and present behaviors as guides to the kind of world we seem to be creating. The past, for example, is filled with repeating cycles of strength and weakness, wisdom and stupidity, empire and ashes. To study history is to study humanity. And to try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet.[6]Butler, O. E. (2000). A few rules for predicting the future. Essence, 31, 166-166

The scope of Butler’s work, spanning a continuum from the ancient past on Earth to a perilous future among the stars, evoked the cyclical nature of human struggle, obscured at each turn by a failure of collective memory. This failure is not the result of benign neglect or ignorance, but yet another manifestation of enclosure — of history, the continuum of experience, generational knowledge — and simultaneously the product of a boundless contempt for people and planet, sacrificed to the mechanisms of production for capital accumulation.

Just as the Earthseed in Butler’s Parables series laid the foundations for a new world, an Earthseed framework encourages a praxis of world-making, to build and scale models for a better world, fleshed out with respect to local social, political, and ecological contexts. An important divergence from the religion of the Butler’s parables is that an Earthseed framework, if it is to contribute to the larger project of abolition, would not, and cannot, emerge a priori from the mind of a teenager — not because of her age or (in)experience, but because it must be a collective project. And so, the most pressing question becomes, where neither capital nor the state are reliable mediators in the social and political dynamics between people and communities, what organizational structure or praxis might allow people to live, learn, and labor together, and to collectively govern and maintain internal accountability and responsibility to each other and the land? In the absence of an esoteric religion or charismatic leader, what might a practical, materialist, secular (if also spiritual) Earthseed look like?

Four Dimensional (Eco)systems Thinking

I propose that the work be guided by three deceptively simple questions: 

  • Who are we?
  • Where do we come from?
  • Where are we going?

These questions resonate with the Pueblo metaphor pin peye obe, translated as “look to the mountain,” and refers to gaining a higher perspective and understanding “where we have come from, where we are, and where we wish to go”.[7]Cajete, G. (2000). Indigenous knowledge: The Pueblo metaphor of Indigenous education. Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision, 181-191.

Resisting enclosures of space and time to situate ourselves past, present, and future, in relation to our communities and the environment, the underlying logic of an Earthseed Framework would be “four-dimensional (eco)systems thinking”, in alignment with the pan-Indigenous principle of Seven Generations — meaning “one’s actions are informed by the experience of the past seven generations and by considering the consequences for the seven generations to follow” [8]Blackstock, C. (2011). The emergence of the breath of life theory. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 8(1), 1-16. and the Akan concept of Sankofa, which encourages us to seek the wisdom of the past as we move toward the future. 

A diagram of “4-D (eco)systems thinking”

Within intergenerational cohorts, we could explore personal and family backgrounds, historical, social, and political context, and within these, the relationship to land, vis-a-vis the natural and built environment. From there, we could imagine, theorize, write, design, prefigure and/or literally build prototypes for the future. The goal would be to get people thinking about themselves dynamically, within complex webs of correlation: action, reaction, and interaction within a continuum of time and space.

The Tree & The Sawmill

While tree as metaphor for lived experience may be something of a cliché, it feels particularly salient in discussing enclosure and abolition. Where the roots are a person’s past, the trunk their present, and the branches the many possible futures, the soil represents our sociopolitical context, the other trees members of our communities, and the surrounding ecosystem our greater ecological context. In considering the various depredations of enclosure that the framework aims to intervene against, also consider the metaphor of the sawmill. 

Within enclosures of time and space, facilitating a sense of spatiotemporal alienation, the tree is pulled up from the land, removed from its community and divorced from historical context. Its roots, trunk, and branches are separated, and processed into lumber — representing the enclosures of the body and the alienation of labor. Even the sawdust, residual to the modes of production, can be commodified and operationalized — as glue, or as particleboard, a mere simulacrum of real wood, just as social media technologies only pantomime real community — using Big Data collected through enclosures of knowledge, for purposes of profit and control. 

The goal of an Earthseed Framework would be to re-anchor the tree to the land — to create healthy, self-sustaining, regenerative systems that allow for thriving futures. Equally important, it would aim to build capacity for long-term resilience as we contend with emergent and cascading crises such as global pandemics, warfare, and climate change.

Soil, Seeds, Roots, Shoots: Establishing Context

Forming strong relationships is essential to any revolutionary praxis, and so the project would need to create safe space — physical and social — for engaging in community-building activities. Within such spaces we might be able to develop a culture of co-working and co-learning; by volunteering together toward common goals and sharing resources, whether material, intellectual, or the time we need engage with each other in authentic ways, removed from the mediating influence — the meddling — of capital. 

Building the Soil: Creating Community

Grounding our work in the material means remaining cognizant of our embodied experiences — what I call “somatic grounding”. Taking the time to acknowledge where we carry stress, conflict, and trauma, helps us push back against the false mind-body dichotomy. This also means being mindful and intentional in how we share space across ability and disability. Tending to our physical needs with respect to food, shelter, and mitigating pain, invokes the work of the Black Panther Party, whose organizing started with self-defense, not just against police brutality, but hunger, injury and disease, and manufactured scarcity. I use this term, “manufactured scarcity” in rejection of so-called “poverty” which is not some natural or inevitable state people find themselves in; but rather is imposed upon people as a result of extraction, exploitation, and the relations of domination that characterize enclosure and capitalism. It is a condition that can be ended immediately at any time through abolition.

An old idiom says “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. While this is true, there’s no reason why we can’t do both. Teach people how to produce and prepare their own food, but also feed them during that process, so they even have the energy and healthier mindset to participate. But in the end, without ”access to fishing poles and water holes”[9]Whitfield, E. [New Economy Coalition]. (2013, July 29). “Teach a Man to Fish” Parable is a Lie – Ed Whitfield Explains Why. [Video], without control of the means of production, without land and food sovereignty, all the teaching in the world will not allow the community to thrive. 

Providing for people’s material needs collectively also invites them into a conversation about how to co-construct the modes and the means of self-determination. The ultimate goal is to cultivate strong relationships, which are essential to collaborative, reciprocal, horizontal learning and labor formations, as well as effective and sustained organizing. 

Planting Seeds: Grounding in Identity

In getting to the question “Who are you?”, an Earthseed framework would take inspiration from Red and Black pedagogies (refer to the work of the AIM survival schools, the Black Panthers’ Intercommunal Youth Institute, and the Pan-African liberation schools) which emphasize the importance of self-knowledge — who we are mind, body, and spirit — and in relationship to our communities and the more-than-human world. Reflecting on race, ethnicity, gender, and other salient identities, and any intersections that feel resonant, we identify both the assets around which we form community and the specific challenges that unite us in struggle. 

While grounding our work in identity is important, we must also recognize how enclosures of body and community weaken the power of collective struggle. Taking a cue from Amilcar Cabral, we must remember that “beneath the global fallacy of race lay the reality of imperialism—the material basis of oppression”[10]Rickford, R. J. (2016). We are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. Oxford University Press., and that the same dynamics are at work at other nexuses of identity. There are countless agents of the State and Capital who have cloaked themselves in the discourse of “equity” or “inclusion”, using a shallow politics of representation to signal allegiance, when theirs is really a strategy of symbolism, or at best temporary enfranchisement, which seldom has lasting material impact on the lives of those whose identities they invoke.

We resist enclosures of community, and knowledge, by creating safe and regenerative space, where people come together, grounded in their own identities — their work necessarily informed, but never restrained by them. We navigate, negotiate, and communicate across differences, acknowledging our respective power, privilege, positionality, as we chart our collective path forward. Through the crafting of personal narratives and collective storytelling, these explorations of identity and positionality allow us “to create and strengthen ties of friendship and support,”[11]Duval-Diop, D. (2016). Unveiling the Bias Within: The Power of a Single Narrative to Oppress the P in Participatory In Black Participatory Research (pp. 159-178). Palgrave Macmillan. and begin a process of authentic community building.

Digging Roots: Exploring History and Positionality

Asking “where do we come from?” situates our family backgrounds within the broader historical context and helps us understand how critical events shaped our individual and collective trajectories.  For young people in particular, this is intended to prompt conversations with parents and elders, in opposition to the Western cultural norms of individualism, nuclear families, and intergenerational antagonism. This is an intervention against the enclosure of community, enclosure of time and space, via spatiotemporal alienation; the enclosure of experience which fragments our own lived experience and divorces it from the broader historical context, allowing cycles of domination to persist.

An Earthseed framework would build our collective understanding of life and personal trajectory as a continuum, one that is influenced by sociopolitical context past and present. These activities look at not just who came before, but where they came from, how and why they moved through time and space. Who we are, after all, is informed by the movements of our ancestors and parents influencing the here and now. 

In Parable of the Sower, the lived experiences of Earthseed community members informed how they entered the collective. Their lives before the Pox, their parentage, their trauma; all of these were essential for Olamina and the others to understand and grapple with in order to be in community, and come into full awareness of how they were shaped by it. Olamina’s “sharing” crippled her with physical pain, but likely operated on a subconscious emotional level to allow her to connect and empathize with others. The sharing went both ways, with Olamina conveying her openness and willingness to be vulnerable, which in turn allowed the members of the community to build solidarity.

Vital to this exploration is an understanding of our relationship to place. Are we indigenous — which I define as being able to trace one’s ancestry in a place to precolonial times, as well as having an intimate relationship to the land. Are we native, meaning that we were born here, even if our ancestors came from elsewhere? Have we resettled, or come to call this place home for some time, and planning to stay? Are we itinerant, coming and going for school, work, or some other temporary purpose? Or have we been relocated, forced by economic or political circumstances in our homelands to migrate to this place, as a matter of safety or even survival? 

These questions encourage robust discussion between people, to build empathy, understanding, and a sense of shared humanity and common roots of struggle. An Earthseed framework could inquire into where and when our family histories connect to the land, as stewards, as learners, as relations. Land, after all, is the origin of real wealth, and a foundation of community identity — particularly for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people — but also for white people, in spite of their relationship having long been mediated by scarcity.

It is important not to view history exclusively as a series of abuses and deprivations, but also as stories of resistance and resilience in the face of domination. We must explore historical context, and ask how people rose to meet the challenges of a given moment. And in viewing history as a continuum, rather than isolated events in the past, we ask ourselves what we can do now to honor and build upon the work of our ancestors. Present efforts to reclaim land, to build food sovereignty, and climate resilience, gain power and momentum when situated within the continuum of history and its projection along future trajectories.

Black Studies scholar Saidiya Hartman, well-known for the deep research she conducted into her own family history, has also made a point to challenge the narrative of the Archive — the “official record” that consists mostly, if not entirely, of people’s encounters with the state. While records of birth, marriage, incarceration, death, and other such “official” accounts can provide important information and context, they constitute an incomplete narrative of life and history. For Black and Indigenous people, the relationship to the state has often been characterized by hostility, violence, dispossession, and domination. One might say that the state is an “unreliable narrator”.

Following Hartman, an Earthseed framework might use critical fabulation[12]Hartman, S. (2020). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton. to make a “double gesture” — tapping the archive for information about our past lives, and using a close reading to fill in narrative gaps, to honor our ancestors, our communities, and our places in history. Such work “strain[s] against the limits of the archive” while creating counter-histories “at the intersection of the fictive and the historical”.[13]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14. But we must be cautious, because sometimes these counter-histories merely validate legacies of domination and exploitation in the present, in the form of continued racial terror and oppression, which might otherwise fade into the background as status quo, and be dismissed as illegitimate grievance. As Hartman asks:

Can the creation of a collective memory of past crimes insure the end of injustice? Can monumentalizing the past suffice in preventing atrocity? Or does it only succeed in framing these crimes against humanity from the vantage point of contemporary progress and reason, turning history into one great museum in which we revel in antiquarian excess?[14]Hartman, S. (2002). The time of slavery. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(4), 757-777.

This “antiquarian excess” allows the white liberal establishment to muse on “how far we’ve come”, and to situate itself on the “right side of history”.

White people like to juxtapose the sheer brutality of slavery against the less visible, less conscious, more subversive systems of inequality today, thereby giving themselves license to downplay or dismiss the latter. After all, we’ve come so far, what is there really to complain about?[15]Kermit O — 12 Years a Slave: Black Suffering for White Consumption.

Where counter-histories are mere ”simulations of the past that substitute for critical engagement”[16]Hartman, S. (2002). The time of slavery. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(4), 757-777., all they do is center whiteness — or other constructed embodiments of Power — establishing it as the spectrum between opposite poles of “good” and “bad”, and in the process erasing the actual experiences of marginalized and oppressed people, historically or at present. 

As Lomawaima & McCarty write, “finding the overlooked, recovering what has been suppressed, and recognizing the unexpected requires excavation, rehabilitation, and imagination.”[17]Lomawaima, K. T., & McCarty, T. L. (2006). “To Remain an Indian”: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. Teachers College Press. Critical fabulation is a means of disrupting the tyranny of linear time, allowing people to exert a force on the past, which in a temporal feedback loop, reshapes our identity and positionality in the present. In order for counter-histories to have any actual value, they must establish a continuity, not just of struggle, but of triumph, resilience, and thriving.

Growing Shoots: Exploring Social and Political Context

Within an Earthseed framework we could share knowledge, stories, and practices, speaking to our experiences with identity and as members of communities. Building on the work of family and community history, we can explore how our backgrounds have influenced who we are today. The creation and sharing of personal narratives and artifacts allows us to resist enclosures of knowledge and community through a rejection of Western hyperindividualism. As G.H. Smith writes, “Individuals do not hold knowledge for themselves; they hold it for the benefit of the whole group”.[18]Smith, G. H. (2000). Protecting and respecting Indigenous knowledge. Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision, 209-224. 

To expand these collective narratives, we would explore and reflect upon how our experiences are informed by social and cultural context: how our families, communities, and cultures affect how we move through the world, and how the world, in turn, responds. If we are members of the dominant culture, how does our positionality affect those who are not? If we are members of marginalized or oppressed groups, how do we maintain the integrity of our cultures and identities while gaining mobility and fluency within a different context? How do we remain resilient against exploitation and violence?

Our history of place naturally leads to a reflection on our current relationship to this land, both how we shape and how we are shaped by it in turn. Have we maintained our historical connection to our ancestral land? Or how have we connected to our new home and its indigenous people? This goes beyond simple land acknowledgment to a question of positionality and responsibility with respect to the local community and environment: “to give thanks, consider our individual and collective role in the stewardship of Mother Earth and in building relationships between Indigenous people and communities and the rest of the country”.[19]Robinson, D., Hill, K. J. C., Ruffo, A. G., Couture, S., & Ravensbergen, L. C. (2019). Rethinking the practice and performance of Indigenous land acknowledgement. Canadian Theatre Review, 177(1), … Continue reading

Are we party to the legacy of colonial domination, our wealth and security built upon the murder, displacement, or exploitation of indigenous people? Are we the descendants of displaced people, or displaced ourselves, forced into an extractive relationship with land, and within our own bodies, as manufactured precarity forces us to sell our labor? What is the cost to people’s lives and livelihoods, and to the natural world for us to maintain our current standard of living? What, then, is our responsibility to people and place? We embody these circumstances whether we choose to grapple with them or not, but by exploring these questions together, we can facilitate a process of collective healing from generational traumas. Looking ahead, we can decide what commitments we will make to this land and its people.

These questions invite us to explore the local political context in which we are all situated. Engaging in collective study and examination of recent social movements helps us consider how the current political atmosphere affects our lives, our relationships with each other, and our positionality. Furthermore, if we have made some commitment to the land or its people, what roles should we play in our current political moment? Whatever our passions, and wherever we see a place to contribute, there many others with a shared vision, with whom we can join in community and common purpose. 

Resisting enclosures of time and community, this work must be intergenerational, and horizontal, in recognition of the fact that “we are not merely inheritors of a culture but its makers“.[20]Kelley, R. D. (2002). Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Beacon Press. Drawing upon Red pedagogies, we can connect to ancestral memory through storytelling, which can take the form of myths, music, ceremony, dance, and play — these stories possessing multiple layers of interpretation. There are no “correct” answers, for we must respect the co-creation of knowledge.

As adults, we must not speak from a place of objective knowledge or authority, but grounded in our in our own identity and subjectivity, which gives young people “permission” to do the same. The story of Binoojinh reminds us that even the youngest amongst us have some wisdom or experience to share. And as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson explains, even Nishnaabeg elders position themselves as learners, their ideas as interpretive, rather than as truth, informed by their own lived experience. To do otherwise is “arrogant and intrusive with the potential to interfere with other beings’ life pathways”.[21]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press.

Cycles of Domination and the Power of Collective Memory

In the essay Red Pedagogies: From Decolonization to Resurgence I discuss how the historical cycles of domination — oppression, resistance, reconciliation, backlash — which I believe depend on a failure of collective memory. 

The Cycles of Domination are reinforced by the loss of collective memory

I believe there is some correlation between this failure and the shift from oral history to written. The premium placed on the written word corresponds to the divide between wealthy/landed classes and the working/peasant/enslaved class, and also between Western and Indigenous societies. At the same time, where Western individualism, generational alienation, allotment, and various other processes of enclosure broke up communities, the oral tradition broke down with it. The power of the written word, backed by class and institutional power, became the dominant medium for the propagation of information. 

Where literacy (narrowly defined as the ability to read and write the dominant language) was the province of the wealthy/landed/elite, many voices were excluded and suppressed, and even as literacy became more widespread, the written word mostly reproduced and “rationalized“ the relations of domination: white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism. The transcription of Black and Indigenous cultures and histories, “[locked] its interpretation in a cognitive box delineated by the structure of a language that evolved to communicate the worldview of the colonizers”.[22]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press.

Works written in resistance have always been marginalized or excluded from mainstream discourse and publishing, due to racist and misogynist myopia with respect to how knowledge is or “should be” constructed, and the overarching goal of reinforcing domination. At the same time, individualism and generational enclosure deteriorated the integrity of the oral tradition — and with it, the continuum of sovereignty, dignity, self-determination, and resistance of subordinated classes from past to present.  

Perhaps collective memory is better preserved through oral and embodied traditions — storytelling, song, dance, play — which invite interaction, exchange and interpretation within community, as opposed to writing, which often privileges the perspective of the individual. An artist may die and their work burn up in a fire, but its themes and narrative are resilient against historical erosion where they are “carried on by the nervous system”[23]Jafa, A., & Campt, T. (2017). Love is the Message, The Plan is Death. Eflux Journal. — through verbal, aural, and embodied engagement.

It is important to acknowledge that this work is difficult, and that although the intention is to build and strengthen communities, this does not mean all people will come into agreement, all harms will be reconciled, or that we will all share some common perspective. On the contrary, collective memory depends upon difference and diversity of perspective. In the ancient Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant, it is only through a synthesis of perspectives that the men are able to gain understand a holistic understanding of the elephant. In the same way, any experiences, explorations, and reflections we share, are clarified and enriched when engaged through multiple lenses, at the intersection of multiple trajectories from past to present. Building collective memory assists a given group in consolidating a collective identity.[24]Hirst, W., & Echterhoff, G. (2008). Creating Shared Memories in Conversation: Toward a Psychology of Collective Memory. Social Research, 75(1), 183–216. 

An Earthseed framework would encourage us to consider our work within the continuum of struggle, to question how we can build upon those legacies, sharing common experiences in order to restore, build, and reinforce collective memory, which cultivates a “sense of temporal entanglement, where the past, the present and the future, are not discrete and cut off from one another”.[25]Hartman, S. (2018). On Working with Archives: An Interview with Writer Saidiya Hartman. Interview by Thora Siemsen. The Creative Independent. There is a tension between history, as some objective account of the past, and the collective memory we hold, and which informs our identities.[26]Bausell, S. B., Staton, T. A., & Hughes, S. (2020). Out of Site, Out of Mind: The Evolving Significance of Race in the Story of an Early Quaker-Freedmen School. American Educational Research … Continue reading Reflecting upon our experiences and sharing our perspectives with each other “allows the memories to converge upon a shared representation.[27]Hirst, W., & Echterhoff, G. (2008). Creating Shared Memories in Conversation: Toward a Psychology of Collective Memory. Social Research, 75(1), 183–216. The building of collective memory “contributes to a sense of community, transmits culture, and informs social identity.[28]Bausell, S. B., Staton, T. A., & Hughes, S. (2020). Out of Site, Out of Mind: The Evolving Significance of Race in the Story of an Early Quaker-Freedmen School. American Educational Research … Continue reading

Blossoms, STEMs, Branches, Fruit: Designing a Process

The question of “where are we going?” initiates the participatory action research (PAR) process, using our personal histories and narratives to identify major issues impacting our communities. Grounding the problem or concern in personal and group identity positions us as the experts of our own experience.[29]Akom, A., Shah, A., Nakai, A., & Cruz, T. (2016). Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) 2.0: how technological innovation and digital organizing sparked a food revolution in East Oakland. … Continue reading As Kelley points out, “the most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression”.[30]Kelley, R. D. (2002). Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Beacon Press. 

Knowledge Blossoms: Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) extends the previous interventions against enclosures of body, mind, time, space, community knowledge, experience, learning, and labor. By grounding education in personal identity and positionality, recognizing lived experience as expertise, and considering historical context, encourages a collective process, and puts our work in service of identifying and addressing community concerns. 

Modern educational research points to participatory action research (PAR) as one of the most culturally relevant pedagogical models [31]Walsh, D. (2018). Youth Participatory Action Research as Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy. Theory Into Practice: Imagining Sites of Possibility in Immigrant and Refugee Education, 57(2), 127-136.[32]Yull, D., Blitz, L. V., Thompson, T., & Murray, C. (2014). Can We Talk? Using Community-Based Participatory Action Research to Build Family and School Partnerships with Families of Color. School … Continue reading, in part because it gives people agency, which is different from the kinds of “choices” common to neoliberal education, pointing toward the same outcomes. PAR allows communities to pursue their own line of inquiry, positioning them as experts of their own experience, and “engages them in the design and implementation of sophisticated social science research projects”.[33]Walsh, D. (2018). Youth Participatory Action Research as Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy. Theory Into Practice: Imagining Sites of Possibility in Immigrant and Refugee Education, 57(2), 127-136.

PAR shares an ideological lineage with the work of the Black Panthers, who were “constantly on the streets interacting with residents, asking questions, conducting surveys, and seeking feedback from the community”.[34]Dyson, O. L. (2013). The Black Panther Party and Transformative Pedagogy: Place-Based Education in Philadelphia. United States: Lexington Books. It was also foreshadowed by the “groundings” of Walter Rodney, who turned the relationship between the Academy and the everyday citizens of Jamaica on its head, centering the latter as valuable co-constructors of knowledge.[35]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.

Building on earlier work, around identity, history, and positionality, within an Earthseed framework we could identify particular concerns within our communities, emerging organically from their earlier reflections on assets and challenges. Using a systems-thinking approach, we can contemplate the various factors that affect and are affected by the problem or concern, and identify the relationships between these variables. Collectively we can then flesh out the contours of the problem and deepen our understanding from multiple perspectives.

Through group study we might engage in a critical review of existing literature and other texts, and conduct new community-driven research using various methodologies, including field observation, interviews, surveys, focus groups, asset mapping, and photovoice. Once again drawing on the expertise of the community, we could begin to brainstorm possible interventions.

Where the Earthseed framework is used for community organizing or political mobilization, urgency may demand immediate action to address the needs of the community. While the foundational work around identity and community building is essential to productive and enduring co-learning and co-working, it would also maintain thematic consistency for the action research “axis” of the project to be iterative. The work should involve a continuous process of critical assessment, informed by personal and group reflection. This helps participants remain present and aware of individual motivations and capacities, and to reinforce collectivity. 

Extending the STEM: Material Skill Building

Parallel to the research process is the development of various material skills which attend to the lived realities of people in the community. While the popular discourse around “STEM” is predisposed toward workforce development[36]Smith, C., & Watson, J. (2018). STEM: Silver Bullet for a Viable Future or Just More Flatland?. Journal of Future Studies, 22(4), 25–44. [PDF], and an “appropriation of science to corporatist ends”[37]Weinstein, M. (2016). Imagining science education through ethnographies of neoliberal resistance. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 23(3), 237-246. to increase capital accumulation for companies, or the military power of the state, an Earthseed framework would intervene against these enclosures of learning and the subordination of labor to the demands of capital accumulation.

An Earthseed framework might instead engage in a direct transformation of labor power to material benefit for the community, such as using permaculture to create closed loops of food and waste, [38]Luna, J. M., Dávila, E. R., & Reynoso-Morris, A. (2018). Pedagogy of permaculture and food justice. Educational Foundations, 31, 57-85., building solar microgrids to localize energy production and place it under community control, and ensconcing the practice of local water catchment. It would also build and apply skills toward the preservation and regeneration of the natural environment, with a particular intention to “foreground Indigenous presences and relations” to place.[39]Nxumalo, F., & Villanueva, M. (2019). Decolonial Water Stories: Affective Pedagogies with Young Children. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 7(1), 40-56.

In Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents the Earthseed community had to develop fundamental skills such as hunting and foraging, growing and processing food, carpentry, and self-defense in order to live in the world of the Pox (Apocalypse). Although people valued reading literacy and were even willing to pay for it, this seemed a residual ache for the world that was. For Olamina, the literacy of her community was utilitarian to her purpose of spreading Earthseed as a philosophy/religion. And while it was true that building material skills improved the community’s odds of getting outside work, it was more essential to their ability to maintain self-determination, relying as little as possible on external inputs, which were subject to the turbulence, whimsy, and violence of the Pox. In the same way, an Earthseed Framework would be concerned with life-affirming practices like carpentry, gardening, or agriculture, which are not only applicable to the material needs of community but build capacity toward the ultimate ends of autonomy and self-determination — by better enabling us to control the means of production and to manage our surplus, whether in the form of waste or material benefit, in ways that attend to the well-being of people and the environment.

Skill building and sharing should be interdisciplinary and relational, rather than enclosed into separate, hyper-specialized domains. For example, through urban agriculture, people can learn about plant and insect biology, soil chemistry, and local ecology, while at the same time collectively producing food and entering into a more symbiotic rather than the “extractive, human-centered ways of learning about the more-than-human world”.[40]Nxumalo, F. (2020). Place-based disruptions of humanism, coloniality and anti-blackness in early childhood education. Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning (CriSTaL), 8(SI), 34-49. 

To be able to grow our own food, build our own shelter, to control the flows of water and energy, means being untethered from the system of capitalist extraction and exploitation. It means a direct conversion of labor calories into food calories, into the energy that heats our homes and provides physical and social warmth to our communities. This aligns with the approaches of the AIM survival schools, which “applied math and physics concepts to the construction of model sweat lodges and a full-sized birch-bark lodge”[41]Davis, J. L. (2013). Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities. University of Minnesota Press., not only addressing material needs, but rooting the students’ work in their own indigenous culture. Yet, while the material is vital, communities must also control the means of knowledge production, tell our own stories, and challenge harmful “master narratives”.

Branching Paths: Collective Dreaming

By extending our collective narrative building process into the future, we acknowledge many branching possibilities, echoing the Red pedagogical practice of “visioning” — dreaming, theorizing, prefiguring — as well as Black freedom dreaming. Science fiction — particularly by Black, Brown, and Indigenous authors, for whom dystopia is both past and present, and utopia an expression of resistance — can inspire our own speculations on how to design and build toward futures in which we are free and self-determined. Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurisms are particularly useful as a design lens[42]Winchester III, W. W. (2018). Afrofuturism, inclusion, and the design imagination. Interactions, 25(2), 41-45., and enable us to imagine futures in which we not only survive but thrive.[43]Streeby, S. (2018). Imagining the Future of Climate Change : World-Making Through Science Fiction and Activism. University of California Press. Reading and writing science fiction not only expands our imaginations, but can break the stagnancy of cynicism as we address seemingly intractable problems. An Earthseed framework would have us engage in “critical speculation” — the work of setting our sights on the stars, while simultaneously remaining grounded in our social, political, and historical context. As Martine Syms laid out in the Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto:

There are “no portals to the Egyptian kingdoms, no deep dives to Drexciya, no flying Africans to whisk us off to the Promised Land”. Dreaming — speculating — alternative, liberated, self-determined Black, Brown, and Indigenous futures is not a frivolous conceit or a thought experiment. It is “an awakening sense of the awesome power of the black imagination: to protect, to create, to destroy, to propel ourselves […] beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination”.[44]Syms, M. (2013, December 17). The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto. Rhizome. 

Neuroscientists theorize that dreams are formed from disparate memories, our mind’s propensity for meaning-making and storytelling stitching them together into narratives of variable coherence. Harvard psychiatrist David Kahn takes the idea a step further by suggesting that dreams are products of emergence, that they “transcend and are different from the elements that made them up”.[45]Kahn, D. (2016). The Dream as a Product of an Emergent Process. Emergence: Complexity & Organization, 18(1). Refusing enclosures of possibility is a process of collaborative meaning-making, our collective dreaming of a better world. The struggle for liberation is asymptotic, ever approaching but never reaching the ideal. I do not say this to be fatalistic or to surrender anything, but to suggest that there is always the potential to do more, and to do better.

In Butler’s Parables, Olamina speaks of “the Destiny”, which is for the Earthseed community to “take root amongst the stars”, which is both a literal aspiration, and a philosophical horizon, encouraging the members of the community to dream beyond their current spatial and temporal limitations toward the creation of new worlds. The power of dreams and imagination are essential, because how else would we know liberation, having never experienced it? 

By continuously growing “hard skills”, as in agriculture, carpentry, or engineering, and combining them with “soft skills”, such as critical inquiry, systems thinking, and multimodal research, we can not only dream and theorize, but prefigure healthier, more sustainable ways of living, learning, and working with each other in community. Collective dreaming entails grappling with our past, restoring, strengthening, and creating collective memories, in order to break free of cycles of domination. Even where the cycles seem intractable, it is our ability to dream which elevates our perspective from two dimensions to three — or is it from three to four? — to view the cycle as more of a spiral than a circle, and build on the momentum of past victories toward a new conception of reality.

Fruit of our Labor: Launching an Intervention

In planning and executing an intervention to address the concern(s) of our community, our work may culminate in something concrete and tangible, but more important is the process, and the development of relationships, strengthening of community, cultivation of new skills, and the honing of critical lenses.  For this process we leverage design thinking and the inquiry cycle, collecting data for use in iterating upon our initial approach. 

We establish a clear and concrete articulation of how we should measure progress, drawing upon community feedback and our own reflections to determine next steps and how to sustain any momentum and build resilience toward long-term resolution. Where the work may be driven primarily by a smaller, close-knit group, the broader community must be brought more directly into the design process, to ensure that it is truly participatory, and representative of community needs.

Reaping the Harvest: Assessment & Reflection

Using participatory methods as its core epistemologies, an Earthseed framework would prompt reflection, collective discussion, and the sharing of knowledge at every stage, which necessarily includes feedback on the process itself. The framework would need to be flexible, adaptable, responsive to the context in which it is used and the needs of the very communities who use it. Like the indigenous epistemologies that inform it, a proper Earthseed framework would be an “internally consistent system” that “does not need external validation.[46]Cajete, G. (2000). Indigenous knowledge: The Pueblo metaphor of Indigenous education. Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision, 181-191. It would continue to shift and change and grow along with the collective wisdom of those who use it.

There are multiple possible metrics of success, these again determined the the community or group using the framework. Yet fundamentally, the guiding ethics of an Earthseed framework would be to reposition people in relationship to each other, and the land, in alignment with the deeply rooted and interconnected principles and values of a Red, Black, and Green ecology. Ultimately, its purpose would be to overthrow systems of oppression, extraction, and exploitation — a goal which may lie just beyond the vanishing point, but which is only possible through establishing, or re-establishing more regenerative relationships between people and planet.

Reflection on our processes and the work we’ve done should be steeped in community conversations and reciprocal exchange. The value of our work should not be determined by “content or data or even theory in a Western context” but rather “through a compassionate web of interdependent relationships.[47]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press. Learning and working together — especially in addressing difficult problems, and over the long-term — requires opportunities for levity, recreation, and deepening community bonds.

Appropriate to the analogy of moving from seeds to harvest, and the continued work of collective world-making, time and space must be made to reflect on our relationships with each other and with the land, developing an understanding through celebration, the sharing of food, and of ourselves, sharing “those things that are important and that give us life and generate love in our communities and our families.[48]Cajete, G. (2000). Indigenous knowledge: The Pueblo metaphor of Indigenous education. Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision, 181-191. It is also a time to reflect on what we’ve learned, honor our accomplishments, and to make plans for the future — prompting the start of a new cycle of learning, building, and growing.

My goal in sketching out the contours of an Earthseed framework, has been to contemplate a means and a set of relations for communities to engage in shared struggle, the collective construction of knowledge, mutual support, freedom dreaming, and building power. Using enclosure as both a lens and a discursive frame, the unifying thread within diverse conceptions of abolition becomes visible and legible. It is my hope that this work serves as a starting point — sows the seeds — for a revolutionary praxis which can contribute to the larger project of world-making. It is also an invitation to future thought partners, collaborators, and comrades in struggle to connect with each other, share theory, knowledge, skills, and lived experience, and to dream together.

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