Who are you? – Welcoming words Lesvos Symposium 2021

This is not going to be any kind of theoretical discourse now, I want to rather share with you a bit of the political and consequently emotional journey, which brought myself with a group of students, to Lesvos, and why this summer school has been designed the way it unfolds these days.

When I visited Lesvos in 2019 for the first and only time with a group of students, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this place and the human disaster happening at the same time. Lesbos is a place, where contrasts of life could not be stronger and more obvious. A wonderful small lively town, Mytilini, which residents seem to be generally kind, guest friendly and historically attached to own migration histories. Their life was suddenly hit by European Migration Policies coming from Brussels and Berlin, which financially drained Greece could not reject, even during a moderately left-wing party regime. I do not think it was the refugees turning the life around of citizens on Lesvos, but the divisive European migration policies, that could only construct further divisions and conflict in a generally open spatio-historical place such as Lesvos. And with these policies came UN workers, NGO workers, volunteers and missionaries, researchers and policy analysts, even humanitarian tourists, all creating a difference between them and as a group of others a difference in relation to the residents of Lesvos and of course the refugees they are supposed to help.

Consequently, myself and other summer school participants in 2019 asked ourselves, who am I, who are we as a group of summer school participants, in all this? What is our motivation to be on Lesvos? Are we here because the weather is nice and there is good Mediterranean food and wine? Surely, someone cannot deny that all this is part of this summer school so why not enjoying it?

However, essentially, this Summer School in Greece is thought to be a process that aims to create a pre-disposition to “retrace the itinerary of our prejudices and learning habits (from racism, sexism and classism to academic elitism and ethnocentrism), you are expected to stop thinking of yourselves as better and unlearn dominant systems of knowledge and representation” (Spivak 1999).

This process involves ‘unlearning privilege’ and in this concrete case, it implies “working against the grain of your own interests by contesting the authority of the academy and knowledge centers at the same time that you continue to participate in them” (Beverly 1999). Not an easy undertaking.

Unlearning then becomes the “imperative to reconsider positions that once seemed self-evident and normal” (More-Gilbert 1997) – for example, the European values of democracy, freedom and protection of human rights.

Unlearning for students and lecturers may also mean “stopping oneself from always wanting to correct, teach, theorise, develop, colonise, appropriate, use, record, inscribe, enlighten” (Kapoor 2004). Use this time on Lesvos and reflect about who you want to be in this world, as a private and political person, as a priest or missionary, as a sociologist or anthropologist, or as a social worker.

Clearly, identities are constantly constructed and reconstructed in interactions that take place in the different social groups to which you belong. This summer school group, but also society is composed of different groups with quite diverse personal backgrounds, all with their own enwritten social and religious contexts. What each of you knows and how you will assess experiences like this summer school at the end, will be marked from where you are coming from. However, you can all participate in constructing a new group, a new political community and reconstruct who you are, by re-writing through your experiences already gained.

I almost encourage you to ‚rebel‘ during and after this summer school…

…and to choose to be somebody different than you have been before. You can create perceptions and relationships that are different from those you had nourished before. Try to distance yourselves from the colonial notion that difference is defined as deficiency and embrace the collective experience ahead of you.

On the good side and knowing the programme ahead of you, there will be plenty of time to walk and interact, not least the walking spiritual exercises organized by the Jesuits. Whilst this might be a new way of learning for some, and of course, visually spoken, you cannot simply take off your own shoes and walk in others, I hope you can open your minds to these experiences. Recognize that you lack other people’s experiences, languages and concepts and realize that can you learn from them. These exercises, the engagement with the residents of Lesvos, with refugees and all kind of short-term visitors, the interviews and discussions, might help you to understand a bit more about you in a place where you will develop many questions about the respect of life, making a living, having a professional life whilst letting die a great number of people that want to reach Europe for various reasons. How you ask your questions emerging out of all this at the end are again certainly identity- and context-bound. However, by engaging actively with your own life histories, despite the difficulties of having them, you understand better, where you are coming from and where you might be leading to, in order to check if you are happy with the paths you walk, privately, politically and professionally.

Please, have a look at this handout; have a look at the different roles and life perspectives that are described and take 5 minutes to reflect on them. Maybe this reflection can frame some of your personal questions that you will ask yourself during the coming days.

  • “Missionary: frames engagement with otherness or difference around the motif os ‘salvation’ and increased priviledge for the ‘savior’.
  • Teacher: franes engagement with otherness around the motif of ‘enlightenment’ and increased priviledge for the holder of knowledge
  • Tourist: frames engagement with difference around the motif of ‘consumption’ or ‘entertainment’
  • Anthropologist: frames engagement with difference around the motif of ‘preservation’.”

    (Cf. Andreotti, V. & de Souza L.M.T.M. 2008)

What are the essential differences you see between the different roles or lenses through which people look at the world?

The first two interventions favour positive change defined by those which are intervening. The third and fourth roles favour „preservation“ defined by those who observe. All the different lenses or we might call them perspectives or identities, I believe, tend to block possibilities for equal grounds and for meaningful dialogue where the self is open to challenge and be challenged by difference.

What I would hope could happen with you all during this summer school is that you enter a kind of hermeneutic circle with the potential to develop a dialectical relationship between yourselves as a diverse group with various interests. Accept that questioning of the entire dehumanizing situation that refugees find in a beautiful place such as Lesvos is needed, in order to enter another new, perhaps a „third space“ (Mignolo 2000), and develop your capacity to change the foundations of „hegemonic“ knowledge through the questions that you will ask. Attacking and rebelling against hegemonic knowledge is something fundamental that Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political philosopher and founder of the Italian communist party, has asked us to do already about 100 years ago. Since, many new imperial, colonial and neo-colonial projects have emerged and our task to understand and stand or position ourselves against them, in the name of humanity, has not become smaller.

After Gramsci, educators such as Paolo Freire and Martin Ignacio Baro, have followed a similar path. All of these critical thinkers gave us theories and reflective tools to understand our past and present and the imbalanced power relations in the distribution of resources and in the worth attributed to knowledges, cultures and individuals. They invite us to be learners and to think about the epistemic violences inherited from colonialism and its implications in places like Lesvos, where refugees suffer most based on their ex-colonial histories and the European project of enlightenment, colonialism and slavery attached to it. Their concepts also highlight the complex negotiation of power on the part of the excluded from the life chances they also deserve. This raises the question of what can be learned from different ways of knowing and acting and how can we engage into this in a meaningful and just way.

I am especially grateful to know that the Munich School of Philosophy, my friend Barbara, and her engaged colleagues Stefan, Christoph and the entire group of Jesuits, as well as our partners from the SchlauWerkstatt Munich, are with the FHWS social work students. The entire composition of this summer school is not a coincidence. I truly believe that we can become some kind of a social movement, others may join, that collectively, through our project idea of political education for refugees, can move from theory to action.

Tanja Kleibl Profilbild
Prof. Dr. Tanja Kleibl is Professor for Social Work, Migration and Diversity at the University of Applied Social Science Würzburg Schweinfurt. She initiated the Summer School on Lesvos in the year 2019 and collaborates closely with the Center for Social and Development Studies.

Literature

Andreotti, V. & de Souza L.M.T.M. (2008): Translating theory into practice and walking minefields: lessons from the project ‚Through Other Eyes‘. In: International Journal of Development Education and Global Learning. Vol. 1(1), pp. 23-36.

Beverley, J. (1999): Subalternity and representation: arguments in cultural theory. Durham NC: Duke UP

Gramsci, A. (1971): Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers

Kapoor, I (2004): Hyper-self-reflexive development? Spivak on representing the third world ‘other’. Third World Quarterly 4, p642.

Mignolo, W. (2000): Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton NC: Princeton University Press

More-Gilbert, B. (1997): Postcolonial Theory: contexts, practices, politics. London: Verso.

Spivak, G. (1999): A critique of postcolonial reason: toward a critique of the vanishing present. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.


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