Creating Spaces of Freedom for Unlearning

Mille Bojer <>

I could not stop reading as I went through the stories of resistance and unlearning one by one. My first reaction was, what an incredible demonstration of the power of human narratives! I identify with each story because they are written from a very personal perspective, I feel I am invited in, and there are similarities to my own life, and the questions I ask. The empowering feeling of understanding that "I am not alone" and "so many others are thinking this too" invoked by these stories is indisputable. At the same time, they are diverse enough for me to understand that there is of course no one mold to fit into or a standard to live up to in being, in living, oneís own story of resistance and unlearning.

A friend here in South Africa started reading the stories as well, but still hasnít made it through even one of them because each time he embarks on it, it sets him off thinking about his own story and he starts writing himself. They have had this effect on me too - a real push to write, to narrate, and to invite others to do the same. But the stories are not just a reminder to start writing oneís own story. Perhaps more importantly, they are a call to be more conscious of how we live our stories, how we pay attention to what happens to us in our life and what we do with those happenings. To look out for what the world is trying to teach us. To act on our cynicism, our critiques and our questions and recognise disaffection as an opportunity for activation, as Yusef says.

One of the clear messages that stands out for me from the stories is that unlearning is not about replacing one one-sided worldview with another. It is not about tearing down and critiquing the dominant system and then planting nice ready-made answers about the clear alternative into our emptiness. It is about unlearning one-sidedness altogether and becoming comfortable with multiple realities, with uncertainty, with openness. It is not about unlearning the information content of one specific paradigm or lesson but about engaging in a process of becoming active learners, prepared to always question our assumptions, to take ownership of our own learning and decide on principles we wish to learn by.

This may all seem obvious, and yet it is a fear that I have that we too soon come up with the right answers. It is interesting that several of the contributors wrote towards the finale of their stories, that the reader must now be expecting an ending! On the contrary, the more openness and questions the story ended with, the more genuine I felt it was, for how can someone who has started a path of unlearning and created this space of freedom possibly end their story with answers?

As stated in several of the stories, there is no one alternative to the dominant system. There is a multiplicity of them, that need to be appropriate to different contexts. We will only discover these alternatives through asking questions and taking risks, through doing the work, running many small diverse experiments, making mistakes, learning from each other, and listening to our intuition. As many of these stories show, part of the path must lie in regenerating those systems and wisdoms that have unfolded over hundreds or thousands of years in Africa, India, the Islamic world and elsewhere, to suit a certain context, but which have been delegitimised by modernity over a very short period of time. Systems based on humane values, which as Isaac says, millions and millions of people still remain deeply connected to. I had a conversation recently with a friend who called this "turning back time". To me it is clearly not that. It is about recontinuing an unfolding that has been wrongly stunted. This is part of the work I am currently engaged in, with a programme entitled African Treasures.

My question for further research would be how do we create the spaces of freedom for the experimentation and openness that is needed? One of the tones that I felt somewhat uncomfortable with in the stories was some stereotypical critiques of the others, who are still stuck in the system. I feel it is important for us to trust the people, while criticising the system. We donít know when someone might have a realisation like Kate did aboard the ship. Many more people than we realise may be carrying these questions, may be unlearning but donít have the freedom to let go of their assumptions because they are not a part of a community that welcomes unlearning. There is an element of privilege in these stories, but I donít think it is about the material capability to make sacrifices, rather about the relationships we have been in and the love we have received to feel secure enough to let go of what we have been taught, to not need to cling to anything, to not care about traditional measures of success or what we think is expected of us. What were the conditions for our unlearning, and how can we as a learning community create these conditions for each other? And for many others?

I was very fortunate to find a space of freedom at the time when I started most seriously questioning the field I had been preparing myself for eight years to enter upon leaving university. Having lived in different countries growing up, and with a passion for alleviating the worldís inequalities, I saw myself as a global citizen and thought the United Nations was the only organisation where I would feel at home. I studied development economics, development politics, rural sociology, and African studies and I participated for 6 years in high school and college in Model United Nations, a simulation exercise in which students take on the roles of international negotiators. I went on an internship in Burkina Faso and wrote my mastersí thesis on the role of the UN Population Fund in institutional capacity-building. All in all, the perfect preparation for a UN career in development.

While in Burkina Faso, of course I saw many of the same things also mentioned in these stories which made me question deeply whether I really wanted to return to Africa as a "development professional". I was asking questions, but I couldnít believe that the development field was necessarily all a sham, I wondered if I might be able to change the UN from within, I didnít know what my other options were, I was confused, nothing was black and white. At this time, I was very fortunate to have a group of close friends from different countries and working in different sectors, who shared my questions. Our conversations helped to bring what I had been seeing into a much wider perspective of what is really going on in the world. Of how human beings have started to organise in all sectors too much like machines, out of tune with their humanity, their values, their passions, and their callings.

These conversations could have ended in cynicism and powerlessness if we hadnít also been in touch with elder mentors, visionaries who were engaged with a whole network of authors and future thinkers, and who had successfully created their own educational organisations working on systemic change and corporate responsibility. They encouraged us to ask more of the questions we were asking, told us we had an incredible potential to create something new because we had not yet been "contaminated by the system", and supported us to start Pioneers of Change. This was to be an international learning community that could serve as a counterforce to the dominant system in our lives, a platform for being ourselves, doing what matters, engaging with each other, and asking questions. That was my space of freedom to decide not to work as a development professional, to feel comfortable with my uncertainty and to feel a part of a larger influential whole without working for a huge bureaucracy. I am intent on continually developing Pioneers of Change as such as a space for others, to work with my peers in creating different choices.

Related to my earlier point about providing answers, one of the co-founders of Pioneers of Change recently said that her greatest fear is that we should ever stop being critical of ourselves and at some point find that we have become "moral fascists." We currently have an ongoing conversation in Pioneers of Change called the "Hypocritesí Club" where we take a look at the ways in which we ourselves are each still dependent on the very same systems we are trying to change, and we share ideas about how to work with that reality. Each person names their own hypocrisy not that of others, and although some may be living more "sustainable" lives than others, some may work in more "responsible" fields (and that is something we can all discern), this is a space for self-examination and learning, not for finger pointing.

For me personally, the Hypocritesí Club has become a part of my daily consciousness, it is part of the motivation for thinking more about my consumption patterns, and part of why I am now looking into things like solar heating and rainwater collection for my house. But perhaps more profoundly, the hypocrisy I am really trying to work on is about how systems get reproduced through our conversations and through networks, and how often I nod or let statements slide that reinforce the dominant system, when I donít have energy to take them on or to try to redirect them. It is about moving from hypocrisy to consistency, to paying more attention to how small day to day conversations and behaviors reinforce or shift certain mindsets. Most important to remember is, you cannot attend the Hypocritesí Club if you are not a hypocrite! I find that this culture of always taking a critical look at ourselves before dismissing the Other is crucial to creating spaces of freedom for both ourselves to continue growing and for the Other to become "one of us."

Finally, I would like to say that clearly, sharing stories of unlearnng is a part of creating spaces of freedom. I want to thank all the contributors. Many of you have written that this was not an easy exercise for you, but youíve taken a first step that will have ripple effects for many of us, in making us more aware of the story we are creating with our life and of the need to share that story as one path to constructing new realities.