“We need to expand our understanding of the word environment,” says Dr. Jean Kayira, a scholar of sustainability and Indigenous Knowledge. “In my view, environment is really about interconnectedness and the interdependence of everything.” Jean directs Antioch’s PhD in Environmental Studies, and she is a leader in this interdisciplinary field that tries to deepen our understanding of the world – and to keep the world from changing it so much that it’s no longer hospitable. In this episode, Jean shares with us why multiple knowledge systems are better than just one, how dancing on mountaintops can be part of rigorous scholarly inquiry, her passion for the Malawian concept of umunthu, and the importance of planting seeds (sometimes literally) in your own community.
More about Dr. Jean Kayira:
Jean is the Director of Antioch’s PhD in Environmental Studies. An expert on community-based education, socio-ecological justice, and Indigenous Knowledge, Jean grew up in Malawi before coming to North America. She holds a PhD from the University of Saskatchewan, where she wrote her dissertation Re-Learning our Roots: Youth Participatory Research, Indigenous Knowledge, and Sustainability through Agriculture. Jean’s research involves working with youth, educators, and community members around issues of sustainability and environmental justice.
Learn more about Community Garden Connections.
Learn more about the PhD in Environmental Studies at Antioch University.
Recorded April 7, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released April 27, 2021.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University, co-hosted by Jasper Nighthawk and Simon Javan Okelo, and edited by Lauren Instenes. Guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
[00:00:06] Simon Javan Okelo: Thank you for being here with us today. You are listening to The Seed Field Podcast, presented to you by Antioch University.
With every episode of The Seed Field, we celebrate and share stories of those who embody the spirit of our founder, Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. My name is Simon Javan Okelo and I am supported here by my cohost, Jasper Nighthawk. Jasper, I would love for you to share with us more about today’s show.
[00:00:46] Jasper Nighthawk: Thank you, Simon. I’m so happy to be here with you today. This week, I had the privilege of doing an interview with a great teacher and thinker, our own Jean Kayira. At our New England campus, she directs the PhD in Environmental Studies. I think you’re really going to enjoy this episode. In part because like you, she’s an African who came to the US as an adult. In her case, she’s from Malawi.
[00:01:11] Simon Javan Okelo: Oh, wow. I’ve actually lived and worked in Malawi, especially on the southern tip of Lake Malawi.
[00:01:20] Jasper Nighthawk: What were you doing on the shores of Lake Malawi?
[00:01:22] Simon Javan Okelo: I was just doing a lot of different things. I worked with the Malawi Children’s Village. Malawi is just a place close to my heart.
[00:01:33] Jasper Nighthawk: That’s so wonderful. Well, I think you’re really going to love this episode. Jean has also returned to Malawi as part of her environmental research.
[00:01:43] Simon Javan Okelo: Wow. That is fantastic. That is actually amazing. I am ready to listen in.
[00:01:57] Jasper Nighthawk: This week, our guest is Dr. Jean Kayira. Jean is an expert in environmental education and she serves as the Director of Antioch’s PhD in Environmental Studies. Jean’s research has involved working with youth, educators, and community members around issues of sustainability and environmental justice.
One of her research areas is indigenous knowledge and the ways that indigenous knowledge can be incorporated into education and community decision-making. In the Environmental Studies program, she actually teaches a course on citizen participation and sustainable communities.
To all of this, she brings her background. Jean is Malawian and grew up all the way to finishing her bachelor’s degree in Malawi, a small nation in Southern Africa. It was only when she went for her master’s degree, that she came to North America and she continues to return to Malawi for her research.
This background connects Jean to indigenous African ways of understanding the world, which she brings both to her academic work and to her students. Jean, welcome to The Seed Field Podcast.
[00:03:06] Jean Kayira: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Jasper. Glad to be here.
[00:03:10] Jasper Nighthawk: We’re so glad to have you here. I want to ask you about so many different things, but I thought we could start by laying out some of the challenges and opportunities in Environmental Studies today.
We’re talking in the first months of a new administration in Washington and a lot has changed as far as the United States environmental policy. We have our first indigenous American cabinet secretary with Deb Haaland. We’ve rejoined the Paris Accords, shut down the Keystone XL pipeline, and a proposed infrastructure bill would put hundreds of billions of dollars into cleaning up our electric grid, transforming transportation, and removing lead pipes and other toxic infrastructure.
With something as giant as climate change that is threatening us on a national level, but also just on a species level, there’s so much that’s left for us to do. Jean, I wanted to ask you from your position as a leader in Environmental Studies, what changes do you see that we need to make on the national level and also on the worldwide level?
[00:04:14] Jean Kayira: Wow, that’s a wonderful question, Jasper. Thank you for laying out what the new administration has done. I am encouraged. I feel like what has been put in place gives us hope to be closer to where we need to be, but like you have said, there’s a lot that we have to do.
The first thing I feel is that we need to recognize that one way of thinking is not going to make a difference. It has not. Also, we need to expand our understanding of the word environment. What are we talking about? What does that mean?
In my view, environment is really about interconnectedness and interdependence of everything whether it’s animate and the more than human. What does that mean? It means that no species is higher than the other. We operate in an equal system where everything is connected, where everything depends on each other, and that alone, comes with the expectation, one would imagine, that we need to respect each other. We need to respect everything that makes us who we are, and that comes with respect but also mutual reciprocity between us as human beings and everything that surrounds us.
[00:06:02] Jasper Nighthawk: I love that. That’s such a re-understanding of human’s place in the world. At least here in the West or under Christian-based ideas, there’s such an idea of humans, man, stands aside from nature. This idea of the interconnectedness of everything is a kind of radical re-understanding of that.
[00:06:25] Jean Kayira: Come to think of it, you would think that it should be natural, but then we don’t. There’s this separation between who we think as people, as human beings, as being higher up and everything is supposed to act as resources, or we are the masters of everything. That’s not correct. That’s not right.
In my view, I feel like we need to get back to the basics. Look at how do we survive? How this clean air that we breathe, the water, the food, the land, our relationship to the land. If we only shifted our understanding to think that we are here because of everything, we are not the masters of this earth. We are a very small species actually, and we need to understand that and have respect. Learning from the land, learning from the interdependence and the interconnectedness, and being respectful.
I will say one more thing, Jasper, that I started by saying one way of thinking is not going to take us where we need to be. If you come with this understanding that we’re all interdependent and interconnected, we realize that there’re other ways of coming to know, other knowledge systems that need to be respected in their own right.
I feel like if we center, if we come with that understanding, issues of justice, issues of equity, issues of diversity, issues of inclusion, will be easier because there’s that mutual respect amongst each other. Issues of climate change, issues of social and environmental justice, biodiversity laws, all those things I think if we frame and look at them with this understanding, I feel that it will be more authentic and it will be easier for us to deal with these challenging times and challenging issues.
[00:08:47] Jasper Nighthawk: I love that. I like that the question is, “What do we need to do as a species to tackle this crisis?” Your answer is, “Oh, nothing more than change our entire outlook on how we approach the world.”
[00:09:00] Jean Kayira: I feel like that’s a start. That’s a starting point because if our framing is that, then whatever actions we take that is going to center in the way of when we think of solutions to climate change. It means we’ve been learning from the ways of being that have not been privileged in the past.
[00:09:26] Jasper Nighthawk: Yes. I want to ask you about that a little bit later in our talking. First, as we’re talking about changing the ways that people understand the world, you work as Director of Antioch’s PhD in Environmental Studies, based out of our New England campus. Environmental Studies has really come into its own as an area of study, in part, because of Antioch.
Antioch was one of the first PhDs in Environmental Studies in the nation. As there’s greater interest from students to study this from universities, conferences as Environmental Studies just continues to grow as a field, I was hoping that you could look back a little bit. I’m curious, how has the field of Environmental Studies expanded our ability to understand environmental problems? How have the ways of responding to those problems been changed by Environmental Studies?
[00:10:19] Jean Kayira: Yes. That’s a very great question, Jasper. The Environmental Studies PhD program itself started in 1996, but the department itself started earlier than that. I think one thing that I can point at what our program has done to enable us to understand these issues is that our doctoral program focuses on systems thinking, and interdisciplinary approaches to anything.
We are Environmental Studies, and the difference there is that we draw from: natural science, so we have ecology-related courses as well; social sciences, you mentioned policy, we cover those and other ways of collecting data, for example, qualitative research methods, quantitative research methods as well; environmental history is in the humanities, so we also draw from humanities.
A PhD student in the Environmental Studies Department will have foundational understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Their dissertation work may be specific, perhaps, fully, maybe in the natural science, or fully in the social science, or fully in the environmental humanities side. However, they have gone through taking courses that are looking at environmental related issues through the lens of natural science, social science, as well as the humanities.
I will mention that a number of the doctoral research that students end up doing, they actually draw from these multiple disciplines, of course, there are some that are purely natural science, that’s there. A majority are mixed, drawing from the natural science but also from the social science, and then there are some– I can remember that there was a dissertation that was mostly in the environmental humanities and dancing. We have Mount Monadnock right here in the region very close, and one student did her research up there. She had participants up at the mountain dancing and taking images of the landscape and stuff like that.
[00:12:50] Jasper Nighthawk: That’s so beautiful. It reminds me of what you said in response to an earlier question about, we can’t just have one answer, we need multiple approaches. We need multiple ways.
[00:13:01] Jean Kayira: Absolutely.
[00:13:02] Jasper Nighthawk: Maybe we need people dancing on the top of the mountain and also digging deep into the science research.
[00:13:09] Jean Kayira: Yes, absolutely. Yes. Even paying attention to say, “Well, we need more than one way, and let’s acknowledge these other ways.” I know that, for the most part, we have been culturized to value or privilege one form or some forms of coming to know. The natural science, for example, has been privileged for the longest time.
If someone says, “My dissertation is going to involve creating these images and my participants are going to dance and be creative in a way to show this environmental activism, for example, through art,” some folks would wonder like, “Wait a minute, really?” But why not? The question becomes why not? Is that not a valid way of coming to know, but also showing environmental issues or an environmental topic that is of interest?
I personally feel that’s why I led with that, that we need to have a shift in understanding that we need to entertain more than one way of thinking and really authentically acknowledge, not to tokenising, authentically acknowledge other ways of coming to know.
[00:14:34] Jasper Nighthawk: Yes. That’s so beautiful. I want to draw you out about one specific other way of coming to know, which is indigenous knowledge. That’s the specific phrasing that you use in your own PhD dissertation, Re-Learning our Roots: Youth Participatory Research, Indigenous Knowledge, and Sustainability through Agriculture, which is available on the internet. I was happy to download and read. Just a really fascinating piece of scholarship.
A central pillar of this work is the idea of uMunthu, which is a Malawian word. An idea that you say is captured in the saying, “I am because we are, and because we are, therefore I am.” Reading that, I felt like this interconnectedness, not acknowledging hard barriers between the self and the other or between man and nature, kind of what we were talking about before, that seems so important today. We are really interconnected and interdependent and this global pandemic, maybe more than anything, shows how much that’s true.
I love this one line from your dissertation. You write, “The loss of indigenous knowledge comes with a loss of relationships to place and ways of engaging with the earth in more sustainable ways.” Can you tell us a little bit about how uMunthu, and other layers of indigenous knowledge might be highly important and transformational for your students and for me, for everyone, for our listeners, too?
[00:16:11] Jean Kayira: Well, thank you so much for bringing that up. You summarized it well. I grew up with that myself. That was the principle that guided all our dealings at home. One thing that I need to say is that the “I am because we are, and because we are, therefore I am”, is not just about relationships amongst people. It’s about relationships with everything, among people as well as the more than human. Anything that makes us who we are, which means the earth, the land.
That is an essential aspect in terms of– If you look at the world, we say that, “Wait a minute, it’s not just me alone, but it’s my relatives, but also, not just my relatives, anybody that I come across with, but wait a minute, it doesn’t end there, but with my connection to the land and everything else that provides for me.” That is a principle of indigenous knowledge systems.
I will say that there are many indigenous knowledge systems out there. We cannot generalize to say, well, the indigenous knowledge system of Malawi is the same as the indigenous knowledge system in America or let alone in Keene where I live here. No. Indigenous knowledge systems are really place-based. They are very contextual.
However, there are certain principles about indigenous knowledge systems that are general. It doesn’t matter where you are in the part of the world, one characteristic of indigenous knowledge system is this idea that you are looking at a world view that looks at it based on as a whole person. The physical, the emotional, the spiritual, the intellectual is all connected. It’s all part of a person and the interconnectedness to the land and the relationship to others like I was saying, be it family or community as well as the land itself.
This aspect is ingrained into the principle of uMunthu. You asked how that might be important and might be transformational for my students. I will share this with you that in the courses that I teach, you mentioned citizen participation and sustainable communities, I have a section on knowledge systems and where we look at Western knowledge, as well as other ways of knowing, and I bring in indigenous knowledge systems.
Also, just this semester, actually, for the first time, I’m teaching a course on indigenous knowledge systems. I will say this, when I present– Well, we are not saying Western knowledge is bad. That’s not what we’re saying. Not at all. What we are saying is that Western knowledge is only one way. It’s not the only way. This is only one of the many ways of coming to know knowledge systems, and indigenous knowledge is a valid knowledge, so to speak, in its own right.
When we say that and when we talk about what indigenous knowledge system is about, and we give examples of where indigenous knowledge systems or how it has operated and it continues to operate because it’s not a knowledge of the past, it’s here. People are still applying their ways of knowing in solving environmental problems, for example.
I will say that I have heard students say, “Oh, wow, I had no idea. I had no idea, you’ve opened my mind.” In fact, last semester, one student said in the citizen participation class, she said, “Oh, my goodness, it seems to me that I have been living in one room in a house, but I have been stuck in one room not knowing that in that house there are more rooms and that not only that, but that I can even go outside.” I was like, “Oh, wow”.
[00:20:46] Jasper Nighthawk: Yes. It’s almost, there’s a liberatory aspect to it.
[00:20:49] Jean Kayira: Yes. That’s the part of the transformational. “I see it.” That, “Oh, wow. I didn’t know that.” I said, “I like your metaphor.” “I’ve been told that this is one way of coming to know. This is how you go about collecting and knowing and doing research and stuff, but now, I didn’t know that there are other ways and that dreams and intuition and the qualitative way of coming to know is a valid way and spiritual is valid.”
[00:21:23] Jasper Nighthawk: Yes. That’s so beautiful. I want to draw you out on it a little bit more because I think some people when confronted with the idea that we should take into account indigenous knowledge systems or also just our own spiritual knowledge or other ways of knowing, they feel like that’s anti-scientific.
If I’m understanding your work correctly, you don’t advocate for abandoning the tools of the scientific method. You’re instead taking this idea of hybridity or a third way. These terms which are coined by the theorist Homi Bhabha, that you can exist with both indigenous knowledge and Western science and other approaches even.
You use this phrase in your dissertation of moving the center. I love how you describe it. You say, “This new third space is a liminal space, where both the indigenous and non-indigenous epistemologies, like ways of understanding the world, coexist in a way that does not privilege one over the other.” I was hoping you could talk a little bit about what the third way means and how you integrate these two different approaches or plural approaches.
[00:22:30] Jean Kayira: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much for that question. To start off, you said scientific method. Well, one might unpack that, “What is scientific method?” The assumption is that there’s this scientific method and then there is the, for example, there’s the indigenous knowledge.
In my discussions with the students in my classes, I say, “Okay. Well, what is science then? Is indigenous knowledge science?” There’s debate there. “Well, no.” “Okay, wait. Okay, fine. It’s not science, so what is science? What is the scientific method?” Come to think of it, what is the scientific method, really? What do you do? What do people do? What do scientists do?
They have something that they want to determine or to know more about, what do they do? They observe, they try it out, that they tweak the procedures, and then they do it again, and then at the end, “Okay. Yes, so this leads to this and whatever it is”. Now, what is indigenous knowledge? How do elders go around making sense of their world? They observe, they make changes. “Okay, well, we tried this, no, this doesn’t work. Let’s try it again.”
I’m saying this just because of this notion that maybe indigenous ways of knowing is not considered science, but if you think of a scientific method as involving observations and tweaking and redoing it again and making changes, that is what indigenous knowledge does, too. That’s what elders, community members, that’s what my grandparents, that’s what we used to do.
The fact that indigenous knowledge the way it is presented, is like something that has happened in the past and it’s gone. No, like I said earlier, it’s really contemporary. People are still practicing their ways of knowing and making changes and adjustments like that.
Now, to the question of this third way. I really love Homi Bhabha’s hybridity or third space, because it really gives the opportunity to, I would say, de-centers’ binaries or dualistic nature of things. Come to think of it. Life, Jasper, life is not about either this or that. Life is more nuanced, is more complex. It’s not black and white all the time, never.
The idea of having a third space, the way Homi Bhabha theorizes it, is a really productive space in a way that in this third way, so to speak, nothing is privileged. There is nothing that is better or higher in the hierarchy than another, but this is an area that entertains nuances and complexities and really multiplication of anything. Indigenous knowledge is there. It’s not privileged. Western knowledge is there. It’s not privileged. It’s not accepted without critical consideration. It’s this space that I find very productive in a way.
[00:26:13] Simon Javan Okelo: Hi, this is Simon speaking. I don’t know about you, but I’m having a great time listening to this episode. Before it’s over, I would love to let you that the Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Let’s make the world better together. Complete your bachelor’s and your master’s or study for a doctorate degree with us here at Antioch University and join a community with 160-year long commitment to social justice. Win one for humanity. Learn more at antioch.edu.
[00:27:01] Jasper Nighthawk: As we’re nearing the end of our time, I wanted to ask you about taking these larger questions and putting them to work on a more local scale. We could talk all day about hybridity and third way and I would love to, but at a certain point, the rubber needs to hit the road. I wanted to ask because you are very involved in the Keene Community, you’re one of the leaders in Community Garden Connections, a community garden in Keene. I was just hoping you could tell me about Community Garden Connections and also why this kind of local work is so important.
[00:27:43] Jean Kayira: Thank you so much. I thought, I was like, “Okay, are we going to be theoretical all the time?” Thank you for bringing us down to earth, so to speak. I should say that I am really privileged to be working on this initiative. It’s a project that was started by my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Libby McCann. She started it with students, I believe, in 2011. We are actually in the 10th year. It’s our 10th anniversary.
The idea– First of all, I should say why the local matters. I think it comes to the fact that we need to make a difference where we have agency. While making systemic changes to systems broadly might be a goal, maybe we don’t have agency to make that change, but let’s see where we are at in our vicinity. What can we do locally?
This initiative is a food justice initiative, and the idea is that we work with local service agencies in town and we assist with installation of raised garden beds, where community members can grow their vegetables. The raised beds are paid for but also we have educational workshops based on what the community would like. Just to give you an example, in the past, we have offered workshops on best management and also companion planting, for example.
When I say “we”, [chuckles] is really, we work closely with the students so that, in the 10-year span, we have had over 40 student leaders working as coordinators of this project. Libby and I are co-directors. We are a PhD program, but the difference is that we believe that theory and practice go hand in hand. While we focus on theories, we take a step further and bring in the practice.
We are one of the few programs, PhD programs, that focuses on service. We have a required service project that every PhD student has to do and that gives an opportunity to say, “Oh, wait a minute, this is what we were talking about in our classes, but how does it look like on the ground?” Most of the research work that our PhD students end up doing, they are research that are addressing practical issues.
With the pandemic, last year, we had to leave it. Our county in Keene, Cheshire Conservation District, they have given us a land, which is, I think, an acre size plot. We grow produce there. Everything that we grow there gets donated to the Community Kitchen in town and I can say that, so far, we have donated about 7 tonnes of fresh produce, but with the pandemic, we couldn’t do that.
We rely on student volunteers as well as volunteers from the community. We still had that, that plot based on– It was just few people working there, but in town, we offered container gardens. We had some vegetables planted in big buckets as containers and we distributed those to members of our community that needed. I can say that over 150 container gardens were distributed.
[00:31:48] Jasper Nighthawk: That’s such a nice thing for people who were trapped at home or sheltering in place.
[00:31:55] Jean Kayira: We have done virtual lessons, for example, because of COVID. Instead of having face-to-face meetings, we did that virtually.
[00:32:07] Jasper Nighthawk: For teaching people about how to garden?
[00:32:09] Jean Kayira: Yes, exactly. Through the library, we have our local library, so we have a good connection, a partnership with them, and so we organized workshops through them as well. I feel like this program has really helped society in terms of trying to bring this idea of theory and practice working hand in hand but also addressing environmental challenges, looking for solutions to climate change, to biodiversity loss, and stuff like that.
[00:32:47] Jasper Nighthawk: That’s so sweet. Those are such tangible ways that community comes together. We always like to close our show with an action or two that our listeners can take into their own lives and days. I was hoping you could tell us a few things that you recommend our listeners could do that would help heal our planet, understand it in a more holistic way and make it a better and more just place.
[00:33:10] Jean Kayira: Yes. I wish I would have more wisdom, but– [laughs] I think starting, do what you can from where you are. Individually, we know that most of us try to live more sustainably in our homes. Continue doing that individually, but also, in your community, participate in the local events, volunteer, engage with local representatives. Write your representatives to advocate for environmental friendly laws.
One thing, though, I would just urge folks to pay attention to issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Let’s educate ourselves. We can try to be allies as best as we can, engaging in difficult conversations. It’s hard, but we have to do it. Also, I would say because this is hard, but I would say give yourself grace. This work is not easy. It’s a process. It’s not a destination and we all have room to grow. Just give the best you can and keep moving.
I feel like justice, equity, inclusion, diversity is going to lead us to be where we need to be, be it an environmental friendly way or socially, that’s the work that we have to do. That’s all I could say, Jasper.
[00:34:52] Jasper Nighthawk: That’s beautiful. I feel like that is wisdom and such great advice, do the work, but also give yourself and those around you some grace. That’s lovely. Thank you so much for being here with us today. It’s been a real pleasure to talk.
[00:35:05] Jean Kayira: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:35:14] Simon Javan Okelo: You can find out more about the PhD in Environmental Studies by following the link in our show notes. We also have a link in the show notes to Community Garden Connections. You can also find this show notes along with transcripts, links, and prior episodes by visiting the seedfield.org.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. Guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
[00:35:54] Jasper Nighthawk: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time, and don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been the Seed Field Podcast.