Community Engagement · Reflections · Social Justice

Beyond Diversity

I continue to work through issues of difference and diversity. A couple of years ago I posted on difference as a resource, and I still agree with that principle. But especially this past year as I read through books like Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s Braiding Sweetgrass and Thomas King‘s The Truth About Stories, and have conversations with people who bring to the table very different ways of knowing, I am increasingly struck with just how challenging working across difference can be, and how critical it is that we develop the necessary skills to do just that regardless the difficulty.

As a case in point, Thomas King describes how in Iroquoian language there is no word that distinguishes human from animal. Instead, when a noise indicates an approach, it is always someone who is approaching. When closer, that someone may be further identified by species.

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how while the English language is primarily noun-based, the Potawatomi language is primarily verb based.

Joey looks out towards Thunder Bay from Isle RoyaleA bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa–to be a bay–releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise–become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too (pg. 55).

In a conversation at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium in Edmonton, Canada, with Dale Saddleback, a Cree scholar, this past October, he spoke of the encouragement he’s receiving from elders to perform his scholarship in Cree instead of English specifically because language determines so much of how we think about, and what we know of, the world. As we considered the challenges of sharing research in such cases, he further pointed out that Cree is primarily an oral language, and that it cannot be fully understood without also understanding Cree ceremonies, at which point he kindly invited me to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, something I hope someday to take him up on.

These examples bring to light for me the deep importance of working across difference if we have any hope of coming to fully appreciate the interdependence of, and work in harmony with, our local biome, or naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat. Aldo Leopold, in the section on the land ethic in A Sand County Almanac, describes how ethics demands that our concept of community must expand to include the land or biome. And only in so doing will we be able to further appreciate how different biomes intersect and are interdependent.

English-based philosophy, theology, and science brings to the fore certain aspects of these biomes, while the philosophies, theologies, and ways of knowing of other cultures and languages bring to the fore other aspects.

Real progress isn’t fostered when we force everyone to speak in English and know through a western civilization philosophical, religious, and scientific lens. Such modern imperialism may speed along creation of more consumables to address a limited understanding of needs.  But just as someone who is near-sighted cannot appreciate the full world around them without additional lenses, so too will we remain limited in our knowing of the world. And so too will be our approaches to addressing the challenges and opportunities around us be limited.

Real progress will happen as we develop the skillsets needed to allow us to engage across difference in ways that preserve and prize the differences for their unique lenses–that is, pluralism. This is not a retreat into relativism, where there are no truths to be known. But instead an appreciation that we each chip away at the truths from our different ways of knowing.

Perhaps what is needed are boundary-spanners who are comfortable in multiple ways of knowing and being to serve as human bridges between. Perhaps we need to prioritize time to travel and dialogue across difference by learning different languages and ceremonies.

Whatever the approach, I think this is the real bleeding edge of innovation, the place where the greatest struggle and potential revolutionary change will come, and not in the technical realm. Personally, I hope I live to see the day when I, an English-speaking scholar, and Dale as a Cree-speaking scholar, and Judd, as a Māori-speaking scholar, and still many others come together to gain emergent insights because we communicate from our cultural frames without the colonization of forced English hegemony.

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