This project used participatory storytelling to co-create knowledge with university student activist groups on what it means and what it takes to build sustainable communities in the context of one historically white South Africa University (The University of the Free State, UFS).
This project has changed our perception and understanding of what student activism is and why it matters in creating sustainable university communities. We have gained an acute understanding of the worldview/perspectives/realities (cosmovisions) that a selected group of student activists have reason to value and promote for themselves and others. We have learnt that these students perceive the world as full of challenges, due to individual and collective experiences of systematic oppression (of the racial, epistemic and economic dimensions) which also speaks to the experiences of communities around them (both home communities and university communities). In our early workshop discussions the students spoke of how ‘they have seen the bad in the world’ and explained that they choose to respond to different public ‘bads’ (instead of being passive or indifferent) through activism and leadership. In this way, activism (e.g. through debate and dialogue, through writing; student political representation on campus, or through lobbying etc.) and leadership (which is developed organically rather than deliberately, and availing oneself to do something) is for the students a valued way of being and doing in the world, but particularly in the university. They value being leaders and being activists or doing leadership work and doing activism, because it enables them to orient their efforts towards changing what they see as wrong and as causing suffering /oppression to communities and themselves.
We have learnt that the students’ value systems are formed mainly by four institutions: Family, Community, Education and Religion. The values that stem from these institutions are often contradictory but students negotiate and assess their individual value system as a combination of different influences on their lives. This combination of values is informed by critical lived experiences and their autonomous thinking against conventional logics of being and doing; even if certain values and ideologies inform the way they act and seek to change the world and even if they do not necessarily agree on what this change should look like.
We have also learnt that these students recognise themselves as African/Black. They have an appreciation of the idea of Africanness, often expressed in relation to ideas on Pan-Africanism, but they are acutely aware of and acknowledge how being black often situates them in positions of disadvantage across the world. Our project therefore makes a case for ‘a Pan-African approach to the contestation of institutional racism through an understanding of the collective experience of blackness and a consciousness of the impact of racism in contemporary historically white spaces’.
If you’d like to know more, you can contact the project Principal Investigator here.