specificity and subjectivity, a reflection

by Tesni Ellis

“We have been driven away from knowing that what we feel is as important as what we think.” – just one of the moments of clarity that Rina provided this morning, for me at least.

Well, team, we’re wrapping our sixth week together and I feel like this week really solidified us as a community. This morning, I heard you each express what you have learned and grappled with so far in this project and placement. You each engaged in the story-writing activity with an approach that was uniquely yours, and it reminded me ever more of the power of subjectivity, the power of personal narrative, the power of “I”. I turn again to adrienne maree brown who cites Grace Lee Boggs: “Transform yourself to transform the world” and then explains “This doesn’t mean to get lost in the self, but rather to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet,” (from Emergent Strategy p. 53). The way many of our exercises have asked you to turn inwards is intentional – I do this in hopes that you explore the power of these activities and questions first so that then you can offer them to our participants. And then they will feel the power of the “I”. And they will experience the power of being asked, for perhaps the first time, what it means to pursue an education, what the value of it is, the ways in which relying on financial assistance affects their educational experiences, and what those experiences reveal about the complex, historically oppressive system of OSAP and higher-ed.

This is why being specific, and seeking particular experiences rather than generalizations from our participants, will be key for us. The systems map of OSAP provides the macro, the overarching, the complexity – we are offering the micro, the nuance, the personal. These two play with and fuel each other to create a narrative that has not been told.

brown writes, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.” (Emergent Strategy, p. 52). I believe that by practicing arts-informed methods, we help ourselves and our participants express that which can reverberate on that larger scale; by asking questions that haven’t been asked and by practicing deep listening, we might create the conditions for transformation internally and in community.

I have been thinking also about this project’s design and how iterative it has been. I’ll admit that as I built the project’s foundation independently last term, while it gave me authority and control, I felt alone in the work. Making decisions by myself about the methods, the questions, and the structure of this research protocol without the input of team who would execute it felt strange and contrived. Even as I left space for the gaps I knew you would fill and focused my energy on what I would teach you so that you could lead, I wasn’t sure how it would go. I had met each of you individually, but I didn’t know if I had assembled a team or a group of individuals. I concerned myself over the tight time constraints we would have, the challenges of creating and working during a pandemic, and the way my desire to enact an adaptive and emergent strategy felt at odds with the pre-determined needs of the project and your placements.

While of course I’m still concerned about creating and working during a pandemic, today and in some of our creative sessions in recent weeks, I saw us as a team who trusts each other and has a common purpose. I hear your questions, see your careful dedication to the project, learn from your perspectives, and appreciate your critical approach to this work. It has deepened the quality of our project in countless ways.

As we shift from learning and practicing to hosting research events and then as we engage in analysis together, I am grateful for your attention, patience, and energy throughout the project. I am very confident that the shapes it takes over the coming weeks will be fruitful, full of meaning, and ultimately will contribute to a powerful account of students’ experiences.

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