4 ways of co-creating right relations

Learn more about how to undo the colonial relations at the root of the climate crisis through deep listening, self-reflexivity, creating space, and being in action.

Climate change is both a form and product of colonization. To co-create sustainable futures, we must work to undo the colonial relations at the root of climate change. As those benefiting from colonial relationships, white people have a distinct responsibility to contribute toward building ‘right relations’ with Indigenous people.

We offer an entry-point for how non-Indigenous folks, and especially white people, can engage actively in decolonization. Embodying ‘right relations’ is an active and long-term commitment to decolonize yourself and the world. This work is therefore a continuous process of becoming with no end point.

“‘Right relations’ draws on the Indigenous notion of ‘all my relations’ and is a way of being that is grounded in respectful reciprocity with all of creation.”

While the idea of ‘right relations’ comes from Indigenous thinking and activism, these ways of being are relevant to all relationships, not least with other groups that are often marginalized, such as Black people and People of Color.

About the authors and their reserach: Irmelin Gram-Hanssen, Nicole Schafenacker & Julia Bentz, a group of non-Indigenous sustainability researchers working with Indigenous communities across the northwestern parts of Turtle Island (Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta). They offer four ways to create ‘right relations’ based on their open-access article “Decolonizing transformations through ‘right relations’” published in the journal Sustainability Science. This research and outreach is part of the AdaptationCONNECTS project, funded by the Research Council of Norway (Project 250434)

About the artist: Theda Mimilaki (@theda_mimilaki) is an illustrator living in Athens, Greece. She loves drawing humans and animals in natural and surreal environments. Theda values respect for nature, diversity and all beings.

Engaging actively in decolonization

Embodying ‘right relations’ both involves the ‘inner work’ of deep listening and self-reflexivity, as well as the ‘outer work’ of creating space and being in action to actively contribute to the dismantling of colonial systems and relations.

1 Deep Listening

Embodying ‘right relations’ means repairing colonial relationships. Deep listening and present, felt, engagement are being called for as practices to build capacity for ‘right relations’.

‘Non-actions’ of bearing witness and listening deeply make space for Indigenous voices to be centered and for the weight of their experiences to truly be received by the listener.

Deep listening is different from active listening in that it goes beyond listening to the words spoken; it enters into an engagement with Indigenous paradigms, and ways of knowing and understanding the world, in a meaningful effort to think, feel, and act differently.

Rather than attempting to evaluate and translate Indigenous paradigms based on Western understandings of knowledge, an alternative is to truly relate to and learn from them. Deep listening can provide a means of doing so.

2 Self-reflexivity

It is necessary to confront and disrupt mythologies of colonial benevolence and to meaningfully engage as listeners willing to be affected by the truth-telling of Indigenous peoples, Paulette Regan asserts in her book “Unsettling the Settler Within” about Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. This involves critically reflecting on Euro-Western hierarchical belief systems, including the emphasis on individualism.

Being reflexive about which stories we tell individually and as a culture can also be a response to the call for accountability. The act of telling or receiving a story can extend itself into fostering new enactments and ways of being. When coupling deep listening with self-reflexivity, stories can inspire action.

3 Creating Space

Creating space is not only about making room for Indigenous voices in one’s own work, but rather using one’s position to create space for the people behind the stories and voices to step forward.

Often the labor of raising awareness about marginalization and oppression falls on those who are experiencing it. Therefore, amplifying the voices and stories of marginalized peoples, as well as the particular knowledge systems underpinning them, can be one way of creating space and engaging in right relations — recognizing that making space for others implies giving up some of the space we currently hold.

In a more collaborative vein, space can also be created through transcultural learning via art, story and activism where Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can share knowledge and imaginaries of a decolonized reality. Related to this, the act of sharing a story itself is a means of creating space.

By centering and amplifying Indigenous voices and acknowledging Indigenous language and metaphors we open ourselves to deeper knowledge of our world and contribute toward dismantling the current colonial relations.

4. Being in action

By responding to the call for members of the dominant group to educate ourselves on structural injustice produced by colonization we open space for personal agency in helping to enact decolonial change. Non-Indigenous people may work to embody ‘right relations’ by fostering relationships within our communities that allow for healthier connections, generative dialogue and teaching/learning practices on inequity and systematic oppressions so that we may collectively work towards a decolonized humanity.

Practices such as land stewardship and the experiential learning of frontline activism are ways of being in action. Many traditional territories across Turtle Island have become sites of decolonial activism in the face of extractive industry. The act of bearing witness to a struggle or more directly, placing one’s body within sites of struggle in solidarity, may enact change on a material level.

These sites have the potential to become spaces where ‘right relations’ are formed and decolonial ways of creating community can begin to be enacted, however imperfectly. In short, presence matters in affecting transformative change.

As many Indigenous scholars and knowledge holders have asserted, decolonization is not just a perspective or a metaphor that informs theory, but is deeply unsettling and requires an active repair of ‘right relations’.

Resources for further learning

This is a selection of specifically relevant sources from the open-access article “Decolonizing transformations through ‘right relations’”. You can find more resources by accessing the article.

Specifically for aspiring allies

On colonization and climate change

Other writing on decolonization and Indigenization

Specifically for researchers and educators in academia

Special Feature edited on the “How” of transformation

Act now! But act how? 

Over the last two years I led the Edition of a Special Feature of the journal Sustainability Science on “The ‘How’ of Transformation – Integrated Approaches to Sustainability“! This Special Feature was first envisioned at an international symposium organized by the AdaptationConnects University of Oslo research project in 2019. In it, the editors and the authors provide diverse and integrative perspectives on how to move beyond “blah blah blah” and work deliberately to generate transformation. 

Check out this Special Feature

The editorial of this Special Feature entitled “Beyond the blah blah blah: exploring the how of transformation” (Bentz et al. 2022) gives an overview on the 15 articles of this Special Feature and argues for integrative approaches to sustainability transformations that integrate both the means and the manner of transformation.

Find out more and read the Editorial

Learning through the body about sustainability transformations: article published

Research is emphasizing more and more the importance of connecting disparate ways of knowing, including scientific, artistic, embodied and local knowledges to better understand environmental change and to foster community resilience and engagement. This paper argues for an integrative approach to sustainability transformations, one that reconnects body and mind, that fuses art and science and that integrates diverse forms of knowledge in an open, collaborative and creative way.

This article published in Sustainability Science draws on the experience of an arts-based project in Lisbon, Portugal, and explores embodied and performative practices and their potential for climate change transformations. It puts forward and enlivens an example, where such forms of engaging communities can provide new insight into how equitable, just and sustainable transformations can come about.

Link to open access article

Transformation through art? – Podcast with students of Freie University Berlin (in German)

There is still a huge gap between what we know about sustainability and climate and how we act on an individual and collective level. It is clear that we need a profound change, a transformation. But how do we do that? And what exactly does transformation actually mean? The negative scenarios are well known, but how do I imagine a future worth living in? And how can I shape it actively and creatively?

These are questions that the students of the seminar “Shaping Sustainability – Transformation through Art” investigated. In groups they designed projects that dealt creatively with the topics of urban agriculture, creative activism, art and new ways of thinking, architecture, mobility, urban planning and nutrition.

In the podcast you can hear how they imagine a sustainable future and what are their ideas to actively contribute to that future with creative yet concrete projects. Check out the blog and enjoy listining!

Concept and idea: Dr. Julia Bentz, Projekt www.artforadaptation.com
This podcast was recorded and produced by www.kitmusicproduction.com/ with the support of Freie University Berlin, Unit for Sustainability and Energy Management.

Decolonizing transformations through ‘right relations’ – article published

Back in 2017 and 2018 I interviewed artists and knowledge keepers in Canada BC about the power and potential of art and story in contributing to equitable and sustainable transformations. Back home I shared my experiences with my two colleagues Irmelin Gram-Hanssen and Nicole Schafenacker and we saw there were commonalities with their research but also open questions that we wanted to explore together.

Below you find the result of this exploration with them. This article was just published with the title “Decolonizing transformations through ‘right relations'”. It is part of a special Feature: On the ‘How’ of transformation: Integrative approaches to Sustainability. You can access it with the following link: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11625-021-00960-9.pdf.

In it we highlight the intimate connections between climate change and colonization and argue that decolonization will be an integral part of equitable and just transformations toward sustainability. We engage with the idea of ‘right relations’ as a way of decolonizing transformations research and practice and offer four characteristics for transformations researchers to embody: listening deeply, self-reflexivity, creating space and being in action. While we acknowledge the acute need for decolonizing relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and societies in particular, we extent the idea of ‘right relations’ to all people and all places in an effort to co-create a decolonized humanity.

I am so very thankful and grateful for the insights I received to how we might engage in sustainable and equitable transformations. 

Learning about climate change in, with an through art – article

How does one engage young people with a topic that is perceived as abstract, distant, and complex, and which at the same time is contributing to growing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety among them?

In a new paper, published in Climatic Change, I argue that although the important contributions that the arts and humanities can make to this challenge are widely discussed, they remain an untapped or underutilized potential. I present a novel framework and demonstrate its use in schools. Art can play a central place in climate change education and engagement more general, with avenues for greater depth of learning and transformative potential.

The paper provides guidance for involvement in, with, and through art and makes suggestions to create links between disciplines to support meaning making, create new images, and metaphors and bring in a wider solution space for climate change. Going beyond the stereotypes of art as communication and mainstream climate change education, it offers teachers, facilitators, and researchers a wider portfolio for climate change engagement that makes use of the multiple potentials of the arts.

Continue reading

Learning through the body about climate change and sustainability transformations – video

The whole adventure started back in 2017 when Sara Dal Corso and I, developed the idea of a community theatre project on climate change. After two years of applying for funding, we could finally start in the beginning of 2019 with a very limited budget. Over a 3,5-months period we engaged 15 project participants in weekly interactive art-&-science workshopsInspirations were endangered species, climate fiction, historic events, utopian visions and many others. From these inspirations small performances started to crystallize and the play was created. The public performance took place at Festival de Telheiras, Lisbon, 26 May 2019. We had three sold out shows! To us it was moving, special and inspirational. It showed the power of community and the importance of meaning-making to create climate action. Luckily Guilherme Ornelas was there to film it to capture the moment and later Elisa Purfürst could edit it.

ART FOR CHANGE: transformative learning and youth empowerment in a changing climate – article published

What’s the potential of art and transformative learning to empower young people to address climate change?

In this new article, Karen O’Brien and I explore how climate-related art projects in education shift mindsets and open up imaginative spaces where students explored and discovered their role in addressing climate change and sustainability challenges.

Read the open access article at: https://www.elementascience.org/artic…/10.1525/elementa.390/

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Young people represent a powerful force for social change, and they have an important role to play in climate change responses. However, empowering young people to be “systems changers” is not straightforward. It is particularly challenging within educational systems that prioritize instrumental learning over critical thinking and creative actions. History has shown that by creating novel spaces for reflexivity and experimentation, the arts have played a role in shifting mindsets and opening up new political horizons. In this paper, we explore the role of art as a driver for societal transformation in a changing climate and consider how an experiment with change can facilitate reflection on relationships between individual change and systems change. Following a review of the literature on transformations, transformative learning and the role of art, we describe an experiment with change carried out with students at an Art High School in Lisbon, Portugal, which involved choosing one sustainable behavior and adopting it for 30 days. A transformative program encouraged regular reflection and group discussions. During the experiment, students started developing an art project about his or her experience with change. The results show that a transformative learning approach that engages students with art can support critical thinking and climate change awareness, new perspectives and a sense of empowerment. Experiential, arts-based approaches also have the potential to create direct and indirect effects beyond the involved participants. We conclude that climate-related art projects can serve as more than a form of science communication. They represent a process of opening up imaginative spaces where audiences can move more freely and reconsider the role of humans as responsible beings with agency and a stake in sustainability transformations.
continue reading:

Young people’s call for action – video

Being part of the Organising Committee of the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference 2019, which took place 28-30 May in Lisbon, one of my tasks was to involve youth in the conference. I produced a video with young people and with my sister Johanna Bentz.

The idea was to meaningfully and creatively engage young people and give them a voice to express themselves about climate change and possible responses. The video was co-produced with and about young people and their views on climate change. Students of Antonio Arroio Art High School and St. Julian’s School, Lisbon were interviewed about their perceptions of climate change responses. The film project aims to raise awareness and climate change​ engagement. The video was displayed for the first time in the Closing Plenary of ECCA and is currently being distributed in social media.

Worldwide, there are few young people participating in public decisions around climate change. These same young people are disproportionately affected by disasters and climate change hazards: they have limited voices in the decisions and policies related to disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and community resilience despite calls for their empowerment as important stakeholders in these issues. In addition, young people will grow to fill leadership roles in decision-making organisations, while inheriting the consequences of climate change, policies and actions that are co-constructed today. Actively engaging and empowering children and young people to address the complex problems of climate change is a critical step to achieving resilience at local, regional, and national levels.

Art and climate change education – book chapter (in Portuguese)

Thanks to the collaboration with the project ÁGORA, I published a book chapter about artful climate change education in the beautiful e-book CRIAR CORPO CRIAR CIDADE. It discusses preliminary results of the collaboration project with Antonio Arroio Art High School and shows some art works of the involved students.

Have a look. Free download.

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