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Grappling with Anti-Colonial and Decolonial Futures


Image source: Zan Chandler


’ll state it from the get-go. I’m a British-born, Black futurist who settled in Canada as a youth, and whose parents came from countries that experienced the colonial forces of the British Empire (Barbados and the Republic of Ireland). I speak from my perspective and experience of the Canadian context because that is where I live and work. I may speak about the experience of others but, I do not speak for them, which is why I’ve tried to provide a bunch of links for those who want to delve more deeply.



I’m fascinated by the movement to decolonize futures. Partly because it is intellectually stimulating, and partly because I have such difficulty envisioning what they might look like. I know I’m not alone here. But I also believe it may be vitally important to the future of our planet to explore and create futures grown from different epistemologies and ontologies.


So, what does it mean to decolonize the futures?


Well, as I have learned, it’s complex. Decolonization can mean different things to different people. Perspectives and desired goals coincide and diverge depending on who you are, where you live and how your people may have been impacted by colonial forces. And that lack of clarity is perfectly okay. It is a process and not a product. Futurists need to know how to hold space for complexity and ambiguity.


Conversations about decolonization in Canada are directly linked to the goals of achieving Indigenous sovereignty in a context where Indigenous people are viewed as a minority group to be assimilated into the Canadian settler colonial state. For some, it is a means to embed Indigenous history, languages and cultures in the education system, affirm and celebrate artistic practices that have been historicized and to revive languages that have lost most of their native speakers. For others, decolonization is intricately linked to the land back movement.


Questions of decolonization are made more complex when you consider this country is home to “settlers” who are descendants of enslaved Africans brought here against their will, or who migrated here from the United States, and immigrants whose homelands were also colonized. They too are seeking to “decolonize” their futures. Through this lense, anti-coloniality might be a better term as it doesn’t place decolonization in the position of being a metaphor for social justice efforts. Not surprisingly our understanding of anti- and de-coloniality must also grapple with important related concepts such as colonialism, settler colonialism, modernity, imperialism, and capitalism, Indigenization and reconciliation.


LIVING IN A COLONIZED PRESENT

You know the joke about the two fish who live in neighbouring tanks? One day, one shouts over to the other, “Buddy, how’s the water today?” Confused, the other fish replies, “Wait, water? What water?”


In Canada, like elsewhere, we live in a colonized present. European ways of thinking and doing, including its customs, practices and value systems, are treated as universal, -- the norm -- while knowledge and values systems indigenous to this continent and other regions of the world are generally viewed as inferior, primitive or even quaint. We view the forward marching of time as progress, fetishize new knowledge and inventions, and disregard the ancient wisdoms gleaned from millennia observing the cyclical patterns of our planet. We imbue objectivity with strength and equate subjectivity with weakness. We see time as transactional and complain about those whose conceptions of time expand or contract in relation to others. We privilege quick decisions over careful consideration. We focus on the short-term and ignore the impacts of our actions on generations to come. We value our individual rights and conveniently ignore our collective responsibilities. We value our role as landowners rather than as stewards with a responsibility to the community and the planet. The list goes on. So, it becomes clear that in order to create anti- and decolonial futures, we must engage in a process of unlearning old paradigm and learning new ones.


ANTI- AND DE-COLONIAL FUTURES AT OCAD UNIVERSITY

In OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation (SFI) Master’s degree program (where I teach), we encounter graduate students who work across a broad range of professions, industries, domains and sectors.


Over the years, the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program has attracted emerging and seasoned changemakers from around the world. Not surprisingly, the interaction of perspectives and lived experience from such a diverse group of learners has often resulted in questioning the dominance of Western ways of knowing and doing.


Increasingly, students arrive in the program with an understanding of issues around Indigenous sovereignty, racism, poverty, and climate change. They are keen to explore futures that challenge mainstream images that so often ignore or tokenize Indigenous, Black, queer, racialized, disabled, and neuroadivergent people. To support their explorations, in addition to presenting the Western cannon, we also introduce the works of futures creators and thinkers active in the spheres of Indigenous futurisms, Afrofuturisms, Queer and feminist futures and try to present methods that aren’t centered or strongly reliant on Western principles and perspectives.


For me, the works of SFI graduates Pupul Bisht, Prateeksha Singh , Liin Nur, Mathura Mahendren, Dr. Richard Norman, as well as Jackie Shaw and Samantha Matters (of Future Ancestors Services) have been important contributions to this ongoing conversation in our program.


This dialogue is only deepening as we study more thinkers and creators exploring futures from more perspectives around the globe.


SURFACING DOMINANT WORLDVIEWS

When exploring anti- and/or de-colonial futures, it’s important to consciously shift our perspectives to examine the dominant worldview in which we are swimming.


I’ve been inspired by readings from the anti-oppression, anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion space, as well as Indigenous philosophies, and find the following advice useful:


RECOGNIZE:
  • you may be working with communities experiencing inter-generational and lived trauma -- try not to harm people further;

  • Western conceptions of time (linear, past, present, future) are distinct to other conceptions (cyclical, for example);

  • non-Western cultures and knowledge systems existed before, during and will exist after the colonial period;

  • decolonization in North America is not the same and anti-colonial or social justice efforts;

  • it is insufficient to place Indigenous, Black and People of Colour in white contexts -- avoid tokenism at all costs;

  • the importance of conducting research with a team possessing a diverse set of viewpoints, perspectives and worldview, and seek feedback from different community perspectives;

  • the need to bring an intersectional lens to your research.

LEARN FROM AND WORK WITH:
  • decolonial and anti-colonial thinkers and thank them profusely for their time and energy;

  • Indigenous, racialized and other equitydeserving communities to develop your methodology. Open yourself to learning what is appropriate for their communities.

CHALLENGE:
  • your assumptions about who is an expert;

  • your mental models about what is valid data; and

  • the futures and foresight methods you use. Whose aims do they serve? Whose experiences do they centre? Whose do they exclude? For what purposes were they created?

RESIST THE URGE TO:
  • romanticize pre-colonial societies -- they were not perfect -- learn the lessons they have to share;

  • assert your foresight expertise -- your desire for “methodological rigor” may be at odds with your collaborators’ aims;

  • assert your timeframe and schedules and adapt them to those of your partner communities. What’s urgent for you may be irrelevant to them; and

  • ignore this work because you can’t see the result before starting.

My decolonial and anticolonial futures journey has gifted me with a long list of engaging and helpful resources, some of which I list below. You may find them useful too:


 


Zan Chandler


Zan Chandler (she/her) is a foresight practitioner and educator based in Toronto, Canada. She is passionate about bringing the power of foresight and futures thinking to new audiences and creating space for inclusive futures to thrive. Her background includes training in strategic foresight, innovation, media production and linguistics. She complements her practice by teaching Strategic Foresight in OCAD University's Strategic Foresight and Innovation Master’s degree program and Futures Thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

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