Race, Inequalities and Global Change: A conversation between Vanessa Andreotti and Cash Ahenakew at the close of Vanessa’s term as Canada Research Chair

I was appointed Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Indigenous Peoples Wellbeing in 2020 and when Vanessa and I held Canada Research Chairs simultaneously we had the idea of creating a humorous podcast called Bannock (Indigenous fried bread) and Pão de Queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), which would feature a conversation about the complexities, paradoxes, harsh realities, and sometimes comic absurdities of initiatives of decolonization, Indigenization, and EDI in academia.  With Vanessa having to resign from her CRC at the end of December 2022 in order to start the transition to her new job as incoming Dean of the Faculty of Education at UVic, we realised that the podcast series was no longer in the cards. In December 2022, we started a conversation about her transition and decided to share parts of this conversation publicly. Full disclosure: Vanessa and I were once married; we are still family and live and work very closely.

Cash (1): When I told Kokum (my mum) that I had been awarded a Chair in Indigenous People’s Wellbeing, my mum thought the university had given me an actual living room chair and she wanted to know what the chair looked like. Even within academia, both of us have experienced a lack of awareness about what these chairs entail. How would you explain the Canada Research Chair (CRC) national program, the story about its “equity targets” and the push backs towards these targets, to colleagues who are not aware of it? 

Vanessa: As Kokum’s response reveals, the value of honorific academic titles in society is contextual and also changing in tandem with the changing role and value attributed to academic knowledge. As social constructs, these titles also have contested value within academia. To a colleague who does not know about the CRCs, I would say that the CRC program was created in 2000 as part of the Government of Canada Innovation Strategy with the expressed intent “to help Canadian universities attract and retain the global research stars of today and recruit Canada’s research stars of tomorrow” (Government of Canada, 2000), but the economic intent of the program was to stop the outflow of Canadian researchers to more financially rewarding academic job markets, like the US. In 2003 the program was challenged by a group of women academics through a human rights complaint over the discriminatory distribution of CRCs. The first response of Canadian officials was to pit “excellence” against “equity” and to create the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program (see this interesting history here). Through a settlement in 2006, a requirement of equity targets for the CRC program was mandated for women, persons with disabilities, visible minorities and Indigenous peoples (groups who are protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act). However, it wasn’t until 2017 that more robust efforts to “name, shame and penalize” universities that did not meet equity targets were put in place. Because of these penalties, universities have prioritized preferential hires for CRCs and this has received push back from white male academics who feel the program is now putting them at a disadvantage. There is little recognition from these scholars that the equity targets are a small (important but deeply insufficient) effort to interrupt decades of systemic disadvantages experienced by equity-deserving groups precisely because of the “preferential hire” that has been in place for at least 150 years, privileging a very narrow demographic. So on the one hand, the targets are only a small starting point for a much wider and deeper conversation that is needed about equity and institutionalized racism, sexism, colonialism, and ableism, and yet even this small step has received significant pushback.

Cash (2): You have been a CRC for 9 years now. How has the program supported your research and what was the best thing about it?

Vanessa: I started as a CRC in 2014 and had my term renewed in 2019 for 5 years, but I had to resign from the Chair on December 31, 2022 as I started my transition as incoming Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria.  The CRC works as a type of secondment (around more than half of your salary is covered by the program) that increases your research time allocation through course buy-outs. As a Tier 2 CRC, I also received a stipend of $10K a year as discretionary funding for research and knowledge translation and mobilization activities, which I used as seed funding for many different initiatives. While expectations of research productivity and performance for CRCs are high, the protection of my research time was definitely invaluable for me. Also, confirming what research into the CRC program shows, holding the Chair created some problematic institutional dynamics, and, paradoxically, at the same time, the Chair also offered me a level of protection in relation to departmental/Faculty politics.  I believe that the highlight of my term as a CRC was the video that you and I collaboratively created with 13 other CRCs in support of the campaign for Indigenous people’s rights and the protection of the Amazon Forest in Brazil in 2021. This video showed me what is possible when we integrate research and collectively mobilize academic prestige around a cause of global importance. 

Cash (3): What was your CRC research program about?

My CRC program was about Race, Inequalities and Global Change. This program problematized approaches to education and social change that reproduce paternalistic forms of relationship with marginalised groups and that promote simplistic solutions to complex challenges and ethnocentric ideals of sustainability, equity, justice and change. Through this program, I also researched possibilities of education “otherwise” in collaboration with Indigenous educators and knowledge keepers in Latin America and Canada and co-founded a research/arts collective called “Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures” (GTDF). Numerous other collaborations across disciplines and sectors emerged from this work, including work with arts organizations that led to the Towards Braiding book. The work we did with GTDF was partially funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant, for which we received UBC’s nomination for a SSHRC Impact Award. The findings and trajectory of this educational inquiry are documented in the book “Hospicing Modernity: Facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism” published in 2021.

Cash (4): Throughout your career, you’ve fought so hard for everything and went through hell and back. And when things were really good for you as a researcher and for your research team, and you were being recruited for excellence research chairs that are extremely well funded, you turned around and decided to become a Dean. What the heck were you thinking? Why did you make that choice?

Vanessa: There are at least three layers in my response to this question. One, I got to a point where I felt I had said what I wanted to say as a researcher. There was increasing demand for me to say the same thing (in different ways) over and over again, to different audiences, and while I believe this demand is a positive sign, I also know that the challenges that we need to address together, such as the unsustainability of our current systems,  climate destabilization, social polarization and the intensification of social inequalities and violence, require much more than intellectual engagement. Addressing these challenges will require all hands on deck and people doing many different kinds of work. In particular, I have long emphasized the fact that we need a very different approach to the challenges than the approach that is currently employed, and a different approach to cooperation itself, and this can only be “rehearsed” in practice. Therefore, I felt moved to focus the next stage of my career on “walking the talk.” Two, I realized that it was time to take a step back from the visibility of the research-intensive “stage” of my career. Incoming generations of scholars need more space to express their specific needs, to do their work, make their own mistakes, and take the conversations in new directions. Three, there was a question of generational responsibility: I am part of the “sandwich generation”, between those close to retirement and those either just starting or still building their career and I felt it was time to show up to do the academic leadership work that very few people wanted to do, but to also try to do it very differently. 

Cash (5): Tell me more about “walking the talk”: How is your research related to the work of a Dean? In what ways do you hope to “walk the talk” in your position as a Dean?

My work with the GTDF research collective has been about inner, social, global and institutional change. Through our knowledge translation and mobilization efforts, the collective has worked with many organisations in different sectors that are seeking educational support to face the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of our current times. Through our research and community work, we have developed a public pedagogy for activating basic dispositions and building stamina that can support us to face difficult issues without relations falling apart and without people feeling immobilized, overwhelmed or demanding quick fixes or rescue from discomfort. This pedagogy combines: ontological critiques of modernity/coloniality coming from postcolonial, decolonial, Black and Indigenous studies; complexity and systems literacies; and a non-Western mode of psychoanalysis that attempts to interrupt the colonization of cognitive, affective and relational inner- and outer-scapes. We are provisionally calling this pedagogy “Depth Education”. We have started to test this approach in higher education settings like the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC and it is going really well. I would like to see if it is possible to create collective support for experimentation with this approach at the Faculty of Education at UVic and beyond. 

Cash (6): Confronting colonialism in academia is a huge challenge because, colonialism underwrites everyone’s comforts and, as the saying goes, it is not “the elephant in the room”, it is “the room.” Part of the problem is that not everyone is on board with the need to confront it, nor do they all move at the same pace or in the same direction when they do.  What do you think has changed from when you started working in this area more than 20 years ago and what you experience now?

Vanessa:  Twenty years ago, when presenting postcolonial and decolonial critiques of modernity or critiques of Euro-American-centrism, it would be common to hear responses like: “We have never been happier, healthier or wealthier, what are you complaining about?” or “Modernity has given us schools and aeroplanes, without these advancements you (emphasis on “you”) would not have been educated or able to travel here.” Today knowledge about the violent processes that have underwritten the single story of progress, development and civilization of modernity (i.e. colonialism, slavery, militarization, ongoing exploitation, expropriation, epistemicides, genocides and ecocides, etc.) are much more legible to the wider public, especially for younger generations. I would say that it is much easier to argue that, although modernity has given us certain benefits and comforts, it has also shaped our modes of organisation and behaviour in ways that: 1) have profoundly harmed our relations (with our own selves, with each other, with other species, with the land and with the planet at large); 2) have severely restricted possibilities for individual, collective and ecological wellbeing; 3) have caused and are driving the climate and biodiversity catastrophe; and 4) have placed humanity on the path toward premature human extinction. However, the conversation around where we go from this acknowledgement (towards something else) has become more complex and volatile because: reality is much more complex and more materially precarious for most; there is a heightened sense of urgency; change is happening fast and differently from before, there is more uncertainty, and there are more people involved and more diversity at the table where many different ideas of “forward” compete for hegemony (even between and within groups that have historically been at the receiving end of systemic violence). The challenges we are facing are “wicked” and our typical problem-solving approaches are obsolete and inadequate to address them. We need a different approach to these challenges that can be more effective and that can go beyond the modernist responses of “solutionism” (naive hope placed on technical or moral solutions) and “doomism” (desperate hopelessness, apathy, nihilism, misanthropy) and that can create the cognitive, affective and relational stamina, agility, and coordination we will need to approach these complex and multi-layered wicked challenges differently. I have recently written about this in an OpEd.

Cash (7): There is an Indigenous story that Kokum used to tell us that compares how herds of cattle and buffalos approach storms differently. I am not really sure about the scientific objectivity of this comparison from a Western perspective, but I am sure that the story holds Indigenous relational objectivity in its figurative potential. So, as the story goes, cattle herds try to find ways around a storm, walking away from the wind, trying to avoid the worst of the storm, but getting caught in the zone of high winds for longer and getting hit by debris. The buffalo herds instead, face into the storm because they know it is the fastest way through, whether they are going as a group or individually. They know intuitively the right angle to approach the winds so that they can keep moving, even in a blizzard without being immobilised or killed. For me you have always had an affinity with the buffalo, going straight into storms, despite my cattle advice. Today there are multiple storms that we are facing both in society and in higher education. How do you think a complexity approach to decolonization will help us weather these storms?

Vanessa: I believe I have used both cattle and buffalo approaches to storms, but I recognize that the ability to choose a buffalo or cattle approach is an ephemeral privilege. This choice is gradually removed as the number and intensity of storms increase. Thus, if we use the cattle approach, as we try to go around one storm, we will be headed directly into another one. In this context, the buffalo approach becomes more important for our collective survival. I believe that the complexity approach to decolonization opens up the possibility of the buffalo approach for institutions where the cattle approach in your story has been normalized but is no longer working (e.g. approaches to EDI that do not take account of the complexities and consumption of diversity). My approach to decolonization is not about shutting anything down or proposing a dialectical synthesis of the most progressive path forward, but about inviting people to take several steps back (from their conditioned investments and ways of doing, thinking, relating and being) in order to step forward with deeper forms of sobriety, maturity, discernment and accountability. This is an invitation for people to show up differently in the world, to hospice with care, dignity and integrity what is dying and to offer prenatal care to what is being born. Colonialism may be the cause and driver of the mess that humanity finds itself in (as the IPCC report suggests in relation to the climate and biodiversity catastrophe, and as Indigenous peoples have pointed out for a long time), but unless people realize in their “guts” the extent of the damage that it has caused all of us, the extent of the dis-ease, and how it restricts healthier possibilities of coexistence, we don’t have much chance of changing. I do not approach colonialism as a moral problem that can be fixed with more manifestos, but as a metabolic, neurobiological one that impairs our capacity to see, feel, think, hope, imagine, relate and exist differently. Colonialism also impairs our collective capacity to secure our own (human) future as part of the metabolism of a finite planet. In this sense, the storms we are facing are our teachers. It is by facing and moving through these storms that we have a chance to confront the dis-ease and the harm that it has done to and through us. The storms also offer us a chance to feel the pain of the land, of ourselves, and of other species, to confront and shed our arrogance, our vanity, our greed, our indifference, our hyper-individualism and lack of responsibility, to unlearn and to learn to grow up, step up and show up differently, to live and to die well at the end of the world as we have known it. This connects directly with your own project on ageing and eldership.

Cash (8): In Dr. Joanne Archibald’s book there is a story called “Old Man Coyote” which is Joanne’s adaptation of a story originally shared with her by Dr. Eber Hamptom of the Chickasaw nation. Joanne’s version is the story of a coyote who has lost a needle in far away bushes, but Old Man Coyote keeps incessantly looking for the needle around a campfire, far away from where he actually lost the needle. When an owl asked Old Man Coyote why he was looking for the needle near the fire instead of in the bushes, where he actually lost it, Old Man Coyote replied that he was searching near the fire because that was where there was light and he could see better. Like in the story, in colonial institutions, EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) or JEDI (justice, equity, decolonization and Indigenization) initiatives tend to focus on what is easy and convenient, rather than what is difficult and painful, but that could actually bring genuine institutional change. How does this reflect your experience in higher education here and internationally? 

Vanessa: I love the story of Old Man Coyote as a way to explain hopes of change within modernity/coloniality as a whole (as a meta-framework), not just in relation to EDI/JEDI. Another figurative way to think about it is that people say they want change, but usually they just want a change of clothes – something more comfortable, smarter, more fashionable, easier to clean… Getting naked, becoming vulnerable, facing discomfort as you learn to shift your relationship to your body and the cold and the heat is generally not what people would willingly choose to do. But what if this is what would be necessary for genuine change to happen? EDI in higher education follows the same pattern. Despite the best intentions of people who work in this area, institutions tend to only want a way to maintain business as usual without the reputational liability of accusations of racism and they will bend backwards for that and risk breaking their backs before they “get naked” by confronting the naturalisation and normalisation of white supremacy and colonialism. Sara Ahmed’s work is really useful for understanding this dynamic – you have also written about it, Cash. I have seen this pattern in different contexts, internationally, but what is particular to this place we call Canada is the trend of responding to critiques of racism, colonialism, and white supremacy by “celebrating diversity” (with a more recent focus on Indigeneity), and offering aspirational or celebratory statements about the institution while (or so that) the racism, colonialism, and white supremacy remain naturalized and normalized. This is similar to attempts that try to mitigate the effects of climate destabilization through capitalist markets (e.g. carbon trading, net zero, etc.), without interrupting the hyper-individualistic and hyper-consumptive ways of being promoted by capitalism that have caused the problem in the first place.  For Indigenous, Black and People of Color (IBPOC), this “celebration of diversity,” as business goes on as usual, translates into specific, stacked toxic challenges, the crushing weight of which often leads to serious burnout and chronic ill health for those who try to challenge it. I am co-designing a board game about this in collaboration with colleagues, students and artists that aims to visibilize the risks, the costs and the health impacts of IBPOC people navigating these toxic challenges in academia. I talked about the stacked weights and the boardgame in a masterclass I recorded on my last day as David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education.

Cash (9): I have seen you over the years wrestling with questions related to your own Indigeneity. You have Indigenous ancestry through your mum who is Guarani. You came to Canada married into my family, which is Cree and Blackfoot, and despite us no longer being married, you are still very much part of the family and have honoured your responsibilities towards us. You are also versed and initiated in Indigenous ways and ceremonies, and yet you never talk about this publicly and you mostly choose to identify as a racialized settler in Canada. I have never quite understood those choices. Can you explain why you have made them?

Vanessa: This has indeed been an ongoing conversation between us. As Sarah Hunt suggests, Indigeneity as a representation strategy of legibility within Western contexts, is complex, ontologically ambivalent and always requires contextualization.  I choose to identify as a racialized settler in Canada in order to show deference and reverence to First Nations, Metís and Inuit Peoples, who, like you, are on the frontlines of the struggles here. In other words, that frontline is not a place/space I want to or think I should “occupy”, but I will do whatever I can to support in the backstage and the background, as a way of addressing my indebtedness to the Indigenous Peoples of the lands where I currently live, and the work of Indigenous Peoples around the world in protecting lands, forests, waters, air and biodiversity. I believe this is the most responsible thing for me to do as a researcher, educator and family member, in the current circumstances here. In Brazil, I do not have the same choice because if I use a similar strategy, Indigenous Peoples there express concern that I am ashamed of my origins and ancestry and double down on convincing me to embrace it. It is a different context, but that context is also changing rapidly. Personally, although I recognize the force and political importance of identity markers in the current political context, I believe we are also already reaching the limits of what this form of politics can do, as you have also pointed out.

Cash (10): As Kokum illustrated before, an academic chair is a social construction that, nowadays, only makes sense, or gives leverage and recognition, within academia. In activist circles or Indigenous communities, one’s credibility depends on other things. Through our CRC research collaborations we both ended up closely involved in international movements for the protection of the Amazon and for centering Indigenous rights in the climate agenda. We also advocate internationally against false solutions to the climate catastrophe and against colonialism in climate change mitigation. In this process, we started to work with questions related to social and ecological collapse, which Chief Ninawa Huni Kui refers to as “mass extinction in slow motion”. These are all difficult and complex topics that also prompt significant resistance and require a lot of pedagogical dexterity to be addressed in a good way. Can you talk about how your research and activism complement each other and how you find the time and energy to get so much done in the midst of the difficulties that you mentioned in response to my previous question? 

Vanessa: As you know, around 2015, I was very close to quitting everything: I was facing several mega-storms at home, in my extended family, at work and within myself and I was completely disillusioned with academia and academic labour. I remember you asking me a very important question in a moment that I really needed that question to be asked: “What illusions are you mourning?” My path of recovery from this difficult time involved two things: 1) being taught stamina, steadiness of mind and responsibility through Indigenous ceremonial practices, and 2) finding people interested in the same inquiry and co-founding an arts/research collective to work and play with. I am not exaggerating when I say that these two things saved my life. Once I stopped mourning my own idealizations of and dis-identifications with the university and with academic work, I found the energy and inspiration to inhabit academic spaces and use academic knowledge differently, taking counsel from Indigenous advisors to mobilize academia in service of the needs of Indigenous struggles and the planet at large. From that point on, it became easier to reconcile my responsibilities as an academic and as a human being accountable to human and non-human future generations – it was no longer about me and what I wanted, but instead about what I could mobilize through my privilege as an academic. 

So to return to your question: I find energy and inspiration in walking with Indigenous peoples, like Chief Ninawa Huni Kui, Adriana Tremembé, and Mateus Tremembé, who are putting their lives on the line to protect forests and mangroves (see photo at the top of the page) that are essential for our collective survival. I find energy and inspiration in working with members of the GTDF collective on the embodied inquiry around how education can rearrange harmful desires and activate visceral responsibility, which is the kind of responsibility that moves Chief Ninawa, Adriana and Mateus to not be afraid to die in their fight to protect our collective future. I find energy and inspiration in experimentation: facing failure as a site for learning and unlearning, including learning to emphasize the integrity of the process of making a new path together, rather than focusing on agreeing on and arriving at a final destination. Finally, I find energy and inspiration in the thought that the storms themselves will help us figure out either how to turn this around and (co)exist differently or how to live and die more generatively and wisely at the end of the world that we have known. Although this work is sometimes exhausting, overwhelming, and frustrating, I am extremely grateful I have people, like you, in my life that can coordinate experiments and rehearse different futures with me.

Cash (11): You talk about how the traditional role of the university has been fundamentally and irreversibly changed by neoliberalism and the massification of information technology: the university has lost its monopoly on the production of knowledge of most worth. In this sense, as you have said before, the university is no longer the ivory tower, but a designer outlet mall, where different high street brands sell competing ideas, and where students can act as consumers who demand that we meet their criteria of customer satisfaction. We hear from many of our colleagues in other universities how faculties and departments are becoming dysfunctional environments under these and other pressures. Do you think this can be turned around? 

Vanessa: I don’t think this can be “turned around” in the sense of us going back to what existed before, which is often also romanticized. But I do believe that we can figure out a way of collectively navigating the current challenges with artistry, dexterity, ingenuity and integrity if we activate new (and/or forgotten) capacities and dispositions, that can, in turn, also create different possibilities for workplace health and wellbeing that are unimaginable within the current context. Within modernity, we tend to think that it is necessary for us to imagine change as a precondition for it to happen, however many Indigenous understandings point to the fact that the future depends much less on the images we have in our heads than on our capacity to repair relations, to weave relations differently and to compost literal and metaphorical “shit” transforming it into new soil. The images of the future we have in our heads are projections that serve different purposes, but quite often prevent us from doing “the work” that is needed in the present. For example, different people have different projections of what they want the university to be: some people want it to revert to an idealization of what it was in the past, some people want it to live up to an ideal placed in the future, some people want it to live up to its current “strategic plan” promises, and so on, but often we lose track of what the university “can be” at different points in time. The ability to sit with what is real (the good, the bad, the ugly, the broken and the messed up) is not something that is formally taught in education— we are actively encouraged to find “hope” in idealizations rather than in working through the difficulty and discomfort of what is in front of us. The first step in order for us to effectively attempt to respond dexterously and responsibly to what is happening in our own context is to develop the ability to sit with what has gone wrong, what we do not know, and what we cannot control. Only once we learn to do this will we be able to discern how and where to take the most responsible small next step; and so it continues, one step at a time.

Cash (12): I want to talk a bit more about your strategies for navigating academia. At the personal level, you have beaten extraordinary odds. It is public knowledge that you are a survivor of domestic violence, you were a mother at 16 and you have raised two decent human beings without the support of their biological fathers, working (not always in academia) as a racialized immigrant from the global south. As an academic, you have worked in universities in 5 different countries. You were promoted to full professor and became an EU-Chair of global education in Finland when you were only 35. At that time you also led a major research project with more than 20 universities across all continents. You spent the last 9 years in Canada as a CRC in Race, Inequalities and Global Change and last year you held the David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education. You have also been inducted to the college of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada and been nominated for several awards, including the SSHRC Impact Award. You have been a high achiever in all metrics of academic excellence and success, including national and international keynote invitations, research funding and bibliometric citations.  Your work is in high demand both in academia and beyond and being translated into several languages. Your next gig is at Harvard, for Pete’s sake. And yet, I have never seen you using the Chairs or other accolades to elevate yourself above other people, or as a symbol of academic prestige, capital or higher status. You don’t seem to have incorporated these achievements into your identity, even when I have encouraged you to do so. You achieved so much and yet I have never seen you publicly brag about it. I have often wondered if you have chosen this approach because many people saw your achievements as threatening as they raise the bar for all of us. Can you talk about why you have chosen to keep mostly “under the radar” so to speak? 

Here again, there are three layers to my answer. The first layer is to do with the fact that I have been socialized into cultural teachings that go against self-promotion and the instrumentalization of accolades to put yourself above other people. The problem is that in order to be legible in academic contexts, we have to develop a personal academic “brand” that does the opposite of what we are expected to do as relations in Indigenous communities. This discongruence has led me to dis-identify with my academic identity for a long time. Every time I had to write a personal bio showcasing achievements I would feel sick to my stomach and deeply resentful towards the self-celebratory and self-serving colonial culture of academia, and sometimes I would be immobilized by these feelings. I know many other IBPOC people who feel the same. So part of my answer has to do with past dis-identification. In recent years, I have learned to change my relationship with the function of academic bios and brands: I have learned to prioritize the strategic use of bios and brands to mobilize things that I want to see happening, rather than focus on whether or not they genuinely represent my self-image “accurately” (the way my ego projects). As I mentioned before, I have realized that this is not really about “me”. The second layer of the answer is to do with the fact that as a IBPOC person, being seen as “raising the bar” indeed becomes a liability in your local context of work as it touches the nerve that activates the insecurities of non-IBPOC people, and when these insecurities are activated, the demand for IBPOC people’s emotional labour and appeasement, as well as the occurrences of micro- and macro-aggressions, rise exponentially. In this context, keeping “under the radar” (locally) has been a good enough self-preservation strategy for some time. The third layer of the answer is to do with internalized oppression that has manifested as self-doubt and, occasionally, the imposter syndrome (which, as many people have now pointed out, is itself a product of systemic discrimination). Having experienced a disproportionate amount of gaslighting in my life has led me to be obsessively analytical, extremely self-critical, and prone to catastrophic thinking. I have been working on composting these patterns with the support of the family and of a coach for IBPOC leaders.

Cash (13): As you mentioned in your response to an earlier question, white people tend to think that once IBPOC people are in positions of authority, for example, when they are tenured, or full professors or chairs, that they become immune to systemic discrimination and they no longer experience racism. I have witnessed you experiencing systemic discrimination at every stage of your career, including very recently where you raised an issue of systemic discrimination and were met with gas-lighting, tone policing and swift disciplinary retaliation. As an internationally recognized expert on racism and colonialism, what is your analysis of where we are at in terms of race relations in higher education institutions in Canada?

Vanessa: I think we are at the stage where patterns of systemic discrimination are being documented in public institutional reports without the usual sugar coating, like in the report of the UBC President’s Task Force on Anti-racism and Inclusive Excellence. As these articulations gain traction, they also expose that there is a real conflict of interests between those invested in and historically and systemically benefiting from the unconscious normalization and naturalization of colonialism and white supremacy and those invested in interrupting these patterns. It has become more difficult for institutions to promote diversity while promising the harmonious continuity of the status quo. As the number of IBPOC people rises (in proportion to the number of equity complaints), faculty who have a vested interest in sustaining the status quo will feel more accountable to each other in defending and protecting the “traditions” of the institution. They will activate white solidarity to protect their collective interests and they will recruit IBPOC people as allies and alibis in defence of this agenda. Given the precarity of IBPOC positions, the complexity and diversity of IBPOC aspirations, the benefits and protections being offered, and/or the real and perceived threats and risks to our survival within the institution, many IBPOC people will (willingly or not) accept this conscription. In fact, most of us will fall hostage to an impossible situation, between a rock and hard place, and it will be almost impossible not to be complicit or crushed by the rock, at least to some extent.

Cash (14): This conflict of interests may explain why, despite so many EDI efforts,  institutional change is so difficult. Institutions want to change culture through policies and statements that encourage and celebrate diversity without acknowledging that this does not guarantee the interruption of historical power dynamics that have been sanctioned and normalized and naturalized for a long time. How do you think this could be done differently?

Vanessa: Drawing on different strands of postcolonial cultural psychoanalysis, I work from the assumption that systemic discrimination is not primarily a problem of ignorance, that can be solved with more knowledge, but one of unconscious investments in white/Western cultural supremacy that, as you said, have been socially sanctioned for a long time, and still are. I usually define White/Western cultural supremacy as a habit of being that is characterized by four perceived entitlements: 1) the entitlement to universal epistemic and moral authority; 2) the entitlement to unaccountable and unrestricted autonomy; 3) the entitlement to uninterrupted arbitration of truth, justice, lawfulness and common sense; and 4) the entitlement to enjoy the intergenerational social, political, and economic benefits derived from slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and segregation. These entitlements are sanctioned through the single story of seamless progress, development and civilization carried out by the project of modernization/colonization, where white people, in particular, are socially conditioned to see themselves as leading humanity “forward”. And this story is backed up through force, coercion, and various other forms of power that keep hegemonic social, political, and economic systems in place. 

There are also denials that are socially sanctioned in this modern/colonial project and habit of being: the denial of our systemic complicity in harm (the fact that our comforts and “advancements” have happened at the expense of other people, beings and the planet itself); the denial of the unsustainability of our current social and economic forms of organisation (the fact that the planet cannot sustain the levels of consumption that are necessary for sustained economic growth); the denial of our entanglement with the metabolism of the planet (the fact that we are putting ourselves on the path to premature extinction by seeing ourselves as separate from nature) and the denial of the magnitude and depth of the mess we are in (the tendency to look for comfort in solutions that feel and look good rather than sit with the harsh realities of the problem and our complicity in creating it). The modes of education that can interrupt unconscious imprints and foreclosures (denials) are completely different from modes of education that aim to impart knowledge to address ignorance. I believe we still have a long way to go in the work of interrupting the unconscious normalization and naturalization of racism, colonialism, white supremacy, ableism and cis-heteropatriarchy in higher education, and this work will require us to learn how to relate substantially differently to our own selves, to each other and to the planet at large.

Cash (15): You are becoming a Dean at a time of economic recession after a global pandemic where we are just starting to feel the short and long term effects of these ongoing crises in universities. At this point, it is probably difficult for you to assess the pressing demands, challenges and uncertainties of your job as a Dean. And you have been recruited with a specific mandate that is embedded in your contract: you are probably the first Dean that is contractually mandated to lead in the areas of decolonization, Indigenization, EDI/JEDI and climate change, all areas that can prompt a lot of resistance. You may be heading into multiple storms. Are you prepared for that? Can you even prepare for that? What are your priorities and your concerns?

Vanessa: I was lucky to be able to negotiate a period of transition where I have been preparing myself for the job and its accompanying storms. This preparation has entailed a lot of inner work, but also deepening my knowledge of university administration through the UBC Academic Leadership Development Program and a coach who specialises in social justice-oriented IBPOC leadership development. These opportunities have been invaluable. In the transition period, my priority is to listen to my colleagues at UVic and their current perspectives on what I presented as a vision before I was hired. I already know that the next 5 years will be a period of change for UVic, and to what extent we will have choice or control over wider institutional change is unclear at this point. These changes will be perceived differently by different people either as an opportunity or as an existential threat. This would have been difficult for anyone in this senior leadership position, but as an IBPOC leader I have extra accountabilities and extra challenges added to the job description (see the glass cliff phenomenon). It is well documented that the bar is set much higher for IBPOC leaders in comparison to non-IBPOC leaders: they are expected to be “everything for everyone” (they are seen as a “servant” of all agendas); they are under the microscope (their work faces higher levels of scrutiny); they are held accountable for injustices that they did not create but also often receive resistance when they try to address them; they need to continually prove themselves as competent leaders; they are expected to comply with “model minority”  expectations and “respectability politics” and they are punished when they do not meet them; critiques of their work tend to become personal and dehumanizing attacks; and they are expected to over- and outperform in order to justify their place and role as leaders – they are penalized when they fail to do so, and also when they succeed  (The New School, 2022). I am working with a coach on my capacity to set boundaries and diffuse harmful and/or unrealistic expectations, but I do hope I will find the community and the support that will be necessary to overcome these challenges and to bring people together to co-create a pathway through which to collectively weather these storms in ways that expand possibilities for health and wellbeing for everyone involved.

Cash (16): You mentioned the glass cliff phenomenon, where women, especially IBPOC women, are promoted to higher positions during times of crisis or duress when the risks of failure are much higher than usual. What was your experience as an interim director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS), which has lost its core funding and could be closing? Do you think this was a glass cliff scenario? Can you also talk about what you did in your term as director that was different from previous years and how was that received?

Vanessa: With the support from colleagues in my leadership team, I believe we have turned what could have been a glass cliff situation into a hospicing and midwifery process. In the last year of the PWIAS, the Institute was set free from its historical restrictions and could be opened up to supporting the prenatal care of new life: the experimentation of/with new ways of doing things and of bringing people together. Instead of only supporting a cohort of 12 scholars from different disciplines, we expanded the program to also include students, artists, Emeriti/ae and staff. We have around 70 people working on the theme of the Climate and Nature Emergency and we have funded an additional 15 collaboration projects in this area to date. We also introduced decolonial guiding principles that were embedded in selection, adjudication and decision-making processes this year. The guiding principles are: 

  1. Ethical Collaborations: Transdisciplinary, intergenerational, and community relationship building grounded on trust, respect, reciprocity, consent, and accountability;
  2. Intellectual Depth: (self)Critical and relational rigour in moving beyond common patterns of simplistic solutions, paternalistic forms of engagements and ethnocentric ideals of sustainability, justice, and change;
  3. Reparative Redistribution: Allocation of resources prioritizing populations most affected by the Climate and Nature Emergency and precarity, and research areas of greatest urgency and impact guided by principles of reparation;
  4. Engagement with the UBC Indigenous Strategic Plan: Deepening understanding of settler responsibilities and supporting the aspirations of Indigenous scholars and communities.

As for how these were received, there were mixed responses, specially in the beginning, but we are now (mid-program) at a stage where we can see some results and extremely positive outcomes, particularly with students. We underestimated how the principles would help us start and sustain difficult conversations about different possible futures of research, teaching, community collaboration, and the future of institutions overall. It’s clear that amongst the many other systemic crises universities are facing, we are also facing a crisis of relevance. These conversations will become increasingly important if we want to demonstrate our commitment to serving something beyond our own individual, disciplinary or institutional agendas.

Cash (17): What message would you leave to colleagues at UBC, in particular early career IBPOC faculty? 

Vanessa: To early career IBPOC scholars, I would say that you have a long, difficult road ahead. There will be many challenges, and much difficult learning. You may have been promised that the university is changing, and that it is finally ready to receive and support you, but in fact many obstacles still remain. If you invest in this institutional aspiration, then you might end up frustrated and burnt out. Find ways to protect your health and well-being as you navigate an institution that was not founded to support you, and that in most cases is not yet prepared to do what would be needed in order to actually offer you that support today. Identify people and cultivate relationships that sustain you, intellectually and otherwise. Find the cracks of the institution where you can do what you came to do, and what is needed. Learn the policies that may be used against you, the ones that might help you, and the ones that need to change – but remember that policies alone will never be enough to interrupt systemic harm. Remember that your existence is not defined by what others think of you, and your worth is not defined by your academic accomplishments. 

This conversation is dedicated to Nancy Mabel Pratt (our Kokum), Cash’s mum and family matriarch who passed away on August 29, 2022. Kokum is the Cree/Nehiyawak word for grandmother, but it is also the honorific title that matriarchs carry to represent the weight of their wisdom and their importance as Eldership guides in Cree/Nehiyawak culture. Kokum was a member of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation. She  was a source of reality-checks, unbound generosity and laughter. She absolutely loved chickens (both live and ceramic), sticking family photos to the fridge, and adventures to garage sales and to her own garage, which was full of treasures she had found in almost a century of garage sale adventuring. She taught us to see both what is hidden in the shadows and the smallest miracles around us and to mobilize patience to balance sadness and joy in our commitment to living and dying well. We both miss her dearly.

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