Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thinking through International Understanding in the UWC movement

Jo Hunter Adams

As many of you know, I was privileged to attend a United World College in Wales during my final two years of school. Here I want to think about how the UWC experience relates to imperialism-- imperialism with a small i.*

It's one of ten such United World Colleges in the world, and the students are from an extraordinarily wide range of backgrounds-- economically, socially, geographically and ethnically. There I met some of the people I respect and love most in the world even now, 8.5 years after I left for AC.

One idea driving the UWC movement is that, in order to incubate international understanding, you really have to live with the person you consider most unlike you. An Israeli student said that it was a miracle not to like a Palestinian and that dislike be personal, and not based on identity. We were literally in each others' pockets, forced to really understand and enjoy one another's quirks, languages and cultures.

Since UWC I've been studying and struggling through the concepts of colonialism and imperialism-- in books and real life. My masters degree in South Africa focused on how, after apartheid, a hegemonic discourse persists, and I was thinking about this related to the UWC movement. You're thinking, what on earth is hegemonic discourse!? Or maybe you're not, because you know already. Either way, it's the idea that the way that people in power in a society think and express themselves becomes the way that everyone in that society speaks. For example, a group of people may be valued for the great dances or food they offer the world. Others are valued simply because of where they stand in the world. Hilary Clinton might have to prove that she's a leader then prove that she's a human in two breaths, when Obama simply is.

I think that the UWC environment was truly amazing for addressing overt racism in an unpretentious way. For me it also may have made space to think about more subtle racism later-- to think what it meant to value speaking up, becoming articulate, being open-minded.

Yet it also created a sense of values that was related to success-- perhaps this is the 'imperialism with a small i'. It made me feel particularly excellent-- something mirrored in Wellesley and beyond. It also made me feel independently excellent, and perhaps pretty proud of what I could bring the world because of my unique experiences.

Maybe this sense is inevitable- what do you think? It's not even a bad thing, necessarily. But I've been thinking how important it is to feel that people-- all people, particularly those you seek to serve-- contribute to your life and your perspective, and not only that you have a contribution to make to the world. The attitude that I am there to contribute something can make relationships incredibly frustrating.

I like what Jean Vanier of L'Arche repeated frequently: "Jesus did not say 'Blessed are those who care for the poor' but 'Blessed are the poor.'" Beyond how we think about the poor, maybe it's also how we think about all people less valued in our society. I certainly don't have it figured out, but it's good to reflect on.

*particularly the ideas in Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism and Gramsci's concept of hegemonic discourse.

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