In a time marked by the crisis of care, global pandemic, climate change, and rising xenophobia, to remain hopeful is a daring and radical act. During the pandemic, more than ever, these planetary crises have exposed many cracks, contradictions, and inequalities, which has led to numerous collective acts of political and social togetherness across the globe and specially by the marginalized groups in form of mutual aids, strikes, foodbanks, self-help groups, riots and protests etc.1 This was the context that inspired our team (Atyeh Ashtari, Cintia Martins Freitas, and Professor Faranak Miraftab at the department of urban and regional planning at UIUC) to propose a Global Intersections project which received support from the Center for Global Studies at UIUC. Our project aims to create and maintain a multilingual digital platform that uses feminist storytelling to rethink local-global intersections and urban futures at this historical moment. We argue that the upcoming generation of planning professionals and educators are convinced of the need for a different kind of planning—one that is more open to recognizing the range of important city-making practices that take place outside the invited spaces of professional planning, in interstitial spaces of everyday life as well as in the more visible street protests and contestations. These important city-making practices denounce the individual paradigms of wellbeing and look for collective approaches to knowing, being and doing. In other words, we argue for a dire need to work towards a kind of “planning that cares.''
Our growing digital platform brings together local collectives from several contexts, including Brazil, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Iran etc. These local platforms are formed by grassroots and urban movements, whose work advocates and builds on practices of solidarity, radical care and democracy. In this context, radical care refers to practices of care by women and formerly colonized people, who produce, negotiate, contest, and transform cities. In turn, democracy refers to democratic practices in the local level, which extend the right to the city to marginalized groups. The expected outcome of this project is a website that will hold digital stories of these feminist collectives to support education and research, and to encourage transnational collaboration. This platform will also act as a digital companion/resource to a new course in urban planning called “Digital Storytelling” which we (PhD candidate Atyeh Ashtari and Professor Faranak Miraftab) have developed together.
Feminist storytelling and why is it important for our transnational struggles?
Feminist critical epistemologies rest on the premise that the prevailing terrain of knowledge and knowledge-production is fundamentally unequal, biased and insensitive to the exploitative tendencies, risks & pitfalls. The methods associated with the feminist critical epistemologies, such as feminist storytelling, are in a quest to simultaneously reveal, acknowledge and encounter these inequalities. Feminist storytelling is rooted in non-Eurocentric modes of knowledge production. Storytelling originates from oral traditions, and it is maintained as a knowledge-making activity in non-western cultures, including certain African contexts In fact, the art of storytelling as an act of resistance could be traced back to an Akan folktale character, Anansi. This character originated in Ghana and was brought to the Caribbean by the enslaved people during the 17th and 18th centuries. The character of Anansi and its following adaptations pass on stories of resistance between generations, bringing hope and pride to enslaved people in their struggles. Storytelling and narratives are acknowledged as salient and valid tools of communication and thinking outside euro-centric models of knowledge production. Specifically, feminist storytelling captures the intersecting realities of women and marginalized populations in various context where they have imagined creative ways to oppose the racial-patriarchal-capitalist realities of their lives. Feminist storytelling as a method makes a conscious attempt to allow the storyteller to connect to and unsettle the audience by asking them to compare and contrast their own lived realities to what they have perceived through those stories.
Our team believes that it is critical that the knowledge we produce are shared in languages that are accessible and relevant to a broad range of audiences. It is important for socially and politically engaged scholars to produce the kind of analysis that is accessible and critiqued by different audiences across geographical, social and institutional borders. In our project, we make a collective effort to dismantle the existing hierarchies of knowledge and to validate different forms of knowledge production as defined and created by the contributions of the grassroot groups themselves. An important aspect of dismantling this hierarchy has to do with our strategic decisions about whose voices to amplify in our work whether through our methods or the resources we decide to share with our audience. Many believe that opening up the notion of what counts as theory should be the core of transitional feminist praxis. For instance, the Black Epistemology/Feminism argue that lived experiences of Black women and their life struggles is in itself a form of theorizing. Feminists like bell hooks write about the obliteration of Black women from life and the academia and emphasize the salient role of lived experiences. Feminist critical epistemologies are open to and adamantly advocate for acknowledging different forms of knowledge productions that are not usually deemed as valid but are more relevant to the present-day struggles and resistance of the marginalized groups on the ground .Feminist storytelling denounces an individualistic approach and advocates for practices of collectively producing and sharing knowledge in contrast to the prevalent Western epistemic approach where individuals acquire, create, and own knowledge as private intellectual property. There is a significant gap between academic institutions, community members and activists. We need to actively create spaces in our own institutions that facilitates such collaboration and foster an environment where we can learn from each other.
It is in the spirit of the above-mentioned commitments that our project aims to rethink local-global intersections and humane urban futures through bringing together and uplifting the voice of collectives and activists, on the ground, such as the Housing Assembly in South Africa, New Municipalism Movement in Brazil, women self-help groups in Iran, etc. in an accessible manner which aims to dismantle the existing hierarchies of knowledge and foster spaces of further collaborations both within and beyond the invited and invented spaces of academia.
The website for this project is currently projected to go public in August 2022.
1. The photo depicts the Housing Assembly grassroots organization, distributing food during the pandemic in informal settlements of Cape Town in South Africa.
If you have any questions regarding this project in progress, or if you are looking for ways to contribute, please email, Atyeh Ashtari, at firstname.lastname@example.org
For further reading on using storytelling for planning and social justice education, and the scholarly references for this blog post, please refer to the latest article by the author “The Joy of Many Stories: Zine-making and Story-mapping in Planning Pedagogy” following this link: https://doi.org/10.1080/02697459.2022.2061106
The Global Intersections Projects is made possible through Title VI funds provided by the US Department of Education. Further information could be found at https://cgs.illinois.edu/initiatives/global-intersections-student-research-and-project-grants