Global Learning for Obama – an open letter to the American president

Maybe you saw the victory speech of Barack Obama after winning the US elections. He proved again to be a charismatic and inspiring speaker, but he seemed a little, hm, obsessed, by “the greatest country in the world” – America of course. Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti, professor of global education in Oulu, Finland, wrote an open letter to Mr. President to point to the missing global dimension in the speech. This is Vanessa’s second guest post on this blog (after the HEADS UP checklist). Thanks Vanessa, and tell us if you receive an answer!

Dear Mr Obama, 44th President of the United States,

I would like to congratulate you on your election tonight. For the past few months I have acted and watched friends and family from (literally) all over the world and across generations campaign for you, grounded on a sharp recognition of our global interdependence. However, it was this recognition that I believe was lacking in your first speech as re-elected president tonight. I acknowledge the pressures you were under to focus on ‘the American people’, who you called ‘ your own’ and ‘your family’, after all, you are ‘their’ president. However, other people who have campaigned for you may have done so because they realize that for ‘our family’, which is much larger than America, dismemberments and forced artificial separations (be it in nationality, citizenship, religion, gender, race, sexuality, identity or ideology) have caused enough damage and trauma already. Therefore, in my professional capacity as an educator and in what you may call ‘wishful idealism’ or ‘blind optimism’, I urge you to do something I know is impossible in your polarized political climate: to change your speech a little to make it a bit more globally sensitive.

First, I noticed you nobly emphasized the need to reach out (to the opposition in this case), I urge you to direct your reaching out to the global sphere by prioritizing the poor and the vulnerable not only at home, but everywhere USA leadership has (historically and continuously) contributed to the impoverishment and oppression of ordinary people – let this be driven by an idea of  justice based on complicity in harm, not on ethnocentric and depoliticized charity.

Second, please do not offend our intelligence with the slogan that ‘America is the greatest (and richest) country in the world’ as this can be interpreted as patronizing, arrogant and out of line, given USA’s world impact and record, and the shadow of local and global violence in the source of its wealth: I noticed that Native Americans were not meaningfully mentioned in your speech, please acknowledge the enormous sacrifices and wounds of indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere – again, offer them justice, on their terms, not only ‘inclusion’, listen and let them teach you.

Third, please introduce the notion of ‘radical hope’ by daring to speak of the possibility and necessity of a much more ethical economy that does not rely on fossil fuels (national or foreign), rampant consumerism (and unrestrained waste production), profitable militarism, (subsidized) competition, the commodification of life, the financialization of the globe, the relentless destruction of the environment, the exploitative division of labor at home and abroad, siege consciousness, or the elimination of dissent.

Last, please choose a song for your next speech that does not invite parochialisms and dangerous forms of patriotism, but that fuels our internal drive to build bridges of solidarity, to reach out to others beyond geo-political borders, to expect and act towards bright prospects for ALL children (and elderly people, and adults) EVERYWHERE (regardless of place of birth, faith, biological differences, inherited circumstances or life choices), a song that may remind us of the power and indispensability of plurality as an integral part of collective futures we share – together in one finite and fragile planet.

I, and the millions of people who were not born and who do not live (or aspire to live) in America, who have supported you in this campaign, understand that you are only human and that there is only so much you can do within the difficult constraints of your political and existencial context. So we wish you well and expect you to take the privilege and responsibility of your mandate with the recognition that, at this point of our inter-connected present, you are not just accountable to your country, as, with you, we ‘rise and fall together’ – all of us, not just America.

All the best, Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti, professor of global education

HEADS UP checklist
By Vanessa de Oliveira (Andreotti)

Vanessa de OliveiraWe proudly present the first guest post on this Blog: Vanessa  de Oliveira, Global Education chair at the University of Oulu, Finland, writes about a new educational tool – HEADS UP – which was created as a response to the Kony2012 discussions (see also previous post “Kony2012: The devil is on YouTube“).
Big thanks to Vanessa for sharing this inspirational text!

HEADS UP checklist
Hegemony
Ethnocentrism
Ahistoricism
Depoliticisation
Salvationism
Uncomplicated solutions
Paternalism

by Vanessa de Oliveira (Andreotti)

HEADS UP is an educational tool to help people engage critically with local and global initiatives created to address problems of injustice. It is based on the principles that, if we want to work towards ideals of justice, we need to understand better the social and historical forces that connect us to each other.

For example, if people saw many young children drowning in a river, their first impulse would probably be to try to save them or to search for help. But what if they looked up the river and saw many boats throwing the children in the water and these boats were multiplying by the minute? How many different tasks would be necessary to stop the boats and prevent this from happening again? I suggest there are at least four tasks: rescuing the children in the water, stopping the boats from throwing the children in the water, going to the villages of the boat crew to understand why this is happening in the first place, and collecting the bodies of those who have died – honoring the dead by remembering them and raising awareness of what happened. In deciding what to do, people would need to remember that some rescuing techniques may not work in the conditions of the river, and that some strategies to stop the boats may invite or fuel even more boats to join the fleet – they may even realize that they are actually in one of the boats, throwing children with one hand and trying to rescue them with the other hand. Therefore, I suggest that education, more than the media, should help people in the task of learning to ‘go up the river’ to the roots of the problem so that the emergency strategies down the river can be better informed in the hope that one day no more boats will throw children in the water. Going up the river means asking questions such as: What creates poverty? How come different lives have different value? How are these two things connected? What are the relationships between social groups that are over-exploited and social groups that are over-exploiting? How are these relationships maintained? How do people come to think and relate like this? What are the roles of schooling in the reproduction and contestation of inequalities in society? What possibilities and problems are created by different stories about what is real and ideal in society? When do institutionalized initiatives, such as the human rights declaration or military interventions, become helpful in promoting justice and when do they help reproduce the problems they are trying to address? If people believe in the human rights declaration, does it mean they are good people and not part of the problem? How would people respond if they realized that bringing justice to others meant going against national/local interests? Why and for whose benefit are relationships among people framed through and mediated by the Nation States identified in their passports?

HEADS UP was designed as a possible entry point to these types of questions. It proposes that if education is to prepare people to engage with the complexity, plurality, inequality and uncertainty of our inter-dependent lives in a finite planet, we need to ‘raise our game’ and expand the legacy of possibilities that we have inherited:
– we need to understand and learn from repeated historical patterns of mistakes, in order to open the possibilities for new mistakes to be made
– we need more complex social analyses acknowledging that if we understand the problems and the reasons behind them in simplistic ways, we may do more harm than good
– we need to recognize how we are implicated or complicit in the problems we are trying to address: how we are all both part of the problem and the solution (in different ways)
– we need to learn to enlarge our referents for reality and knowledge, acknowledging the gifts and limitations of every knowledge system and moving beyond ‘either ors’ towards ‘both and mores’
– we need to remember that the paralysis and guilt we may feel when we start to engage with the complexity of issues of inequality are just temporary as they may come from our own education/socialization in protected/sheltered environments, which create the desire for things to be simple, easy, happy, ordered and under control

HEADS UP aims to support people in moving from naive hope towards skeptical optimism and ethical solidarities where we learn to face humanity, the world and our place in it without fear and with courage and strength to go through the difficulties and discomforts of confronting our past legacies and current inequalities in order to pluralize the possibilities for living together in the present and the future. Ultimately, this is about remembering how to love, to be open, and to be taught in a plural world where justice starts with the forms of relationships we are able to create.

HEADS UP is a checklist that can be used to start conversations about local/global initiatives (documentaries, campaigns, articles, teaching resources, etc) that may inadvertently reproduce seven problematic historical patterns of thinking and relationships:

HEGEMONY (justifying superiority and supporting domination): 1a)does this initiative promote the idea that one group of people could design and implement solutions for everyone? 1b) does this initiative invite people to think about its own limitations and insufficiencies?

ETHNOCENTRISM (projecting one view as universal): 2a) does this initiative imply that anyone who disagrees with what is proposed is immoral or ignorant? 2b) does this initiative acknowledge that there are other logical ways of looking at the same issue?

AHISTORICISM (forgetting historical legacies and complicities): 3a) does this initiative introduce a problem in the present without reference to why it is like that and how ‘we’ are connected to that? 3b) does this initiative offer a complex historical analysis of the issue?

DEPOLITICIZATION (disregarding power inequalities and ideological roots of analyses and proposals): 4a) does this initiative present the problem/solution as disconnected from power and ideology? 4b) does this initiative acknowledge its own ideological location and offer a robust analysis of power relations?

SALVATIONISM (framing help as the burden of the fittest): 5a) does this initiative present people ‘in need’ as helpless victims of local violence or misfortunes and helpers or adopters as the chosen ‘global’ people capable of leading humanity towards its destiny of order, progress and harmony? 5b) does this initiative acknowledge that the desire to be better than/superior to others and the imposition of aspirations for singular ideas of progress and development have historically been part of the problem?

UN-COMPLICATED SOLUTIONS (offering easy solutions that do not require systemic change): 6a) does this initiative offer simplistic analyses and answers that do not invite people to engage with complexity or think more deeply? 6b)does this initiative offer a complex analysis of the problem acknowledging the possible adverse effects of proposed solutions?

PATERNALISM (seeking affirmation of superiority through the provision of help): 7a) does this initiative portray people in need as people who lack education, resources, civilization and who would and should be very grateful for your help? 7b)does this initiative portray people in need as people who are entitled to disagree with their saviours and to legitimately want to implement different solutions to what their helpers have in mind?

Questions type ‘a’ aim to identify the reproduction of the patterns in the checklist, questions type ‘b’ aim to identify awareness of and challenges to those patterns. It is important to acknowledge that many initiatives may do both at the same time (in different ways). It is also important to recognize that in any initiative/resource it will be very difficult to move completely beyond those patters – and this is due to our historical conditioning, specially when it comes to mass communication or institutional politics. For example, if a media campaign was to break with these patterns all at once, it will probably become un-intelligible for most people, and therefore it would be an ineffective campaign. The aim of HEADS UP is not to find a perfect ultimate solution for engaging with global issues, but to support people with the on-going wrestling with concepts and contexts, choices and implications, that we face every day as teachers and learners working towards deeper and more ethical ways of relating to others and to the world.

I hope HEADS UP can be useful in your context and I look forward for your comments. Vanessa de Oliveira