Remembering Ways of Knowing
A Conversation between JD Stokely and Javiera Benavente
JD Stokely: One of our points of connection is that we're both in school right now, and we're thinking about how to engage our own practices with this academic world that we're finding ourselves in. So I'd be curious if you wanted to share more about what you're up to in school.
Javiera Benavente: I decided to engage in this master's program called leadership for sustainability out of the University of Vermont. It's a two-year program that’s practitioner-driven. It's interdisciplinary and developed by a group of people who wanted to create a space for people doing organizing work in the service and the spirit of liberation. It’s really thinking about leadership in a non-dominant way, thinking about “what kind of leadership we need in the world right now to help us create the conditions for all of life to thrive.” That feels like this very powerful mantra. I was really drawn to it because it was speaking a language that wasn't a traditional academic language. It's not an MFA program, but it definitely centers creative practice and creative knowledge—or creative ways of knowing—which speaks to me as an artist. My artistic development and practice informs everything I do in the world beyond art. The other thing about the program that really drew me is that it centers Indigenous ways of knowing and our relationship to nature and to land. I'm doing a lot of learning that also involves being with not knowing, which feels also really important.
Stokely: In some ways, what I'm doing feels like such an opposite experience because I'm in a PhD program at Brown University. There, you are expected to constantly perform a kind of knowing and a kind of expertise, which often I feel really uncomfortable with. Right now, I say that I study black queer performance. But I'd say I actually look at Black queer embodiment, and I've been really drawn to ritual performance. Performances that think about spirit. I think a lot about impossibility and the imaginaries of repair. One of the things that I'm really trying to move towards in my studies is thinking about how to bring my creative practice into the scholarly work that I'm doing. My partner, Jules Pashall, is a somatics practitioner, and one of the things that they love to say when they're trying to help people ground themselves and be in their bodies is "if you can't help but be stuck in your head and your thinking, congratulations. You're doing it. You're being in your body." Thinking is an embodied practice. So I'm trying to tap into that in this new role as a scholar in my life and think about what does it mean to write and to read and to write in a more embodied way.
So, I work with my collective, Unbound Bodies Collective (UBB), which is based in Boston. We're a group of queer and trans, Black, Indigenous people of color working to create, these public space interventions that usually exist through public art installations. We invite community to help us activate those works through some form of embodiment, some form of performance. The rest of the collective just did a piece downtown that literally invited people to sit down and rest and be in a restful place. The work, through its activation with community, often is working towards some sort of communal collective healing or liberation or connection to pleasure and joy.
It’s been really powerful work that we're realizing is altar work, so we've been naming them as living altars. The last iteration of that has been this project called Roots and Futures, which is thinking about how we support our community while they're still here. How do we give them their roses while they're still with us, and with a focus on Black queer elders and Black trans contemporary artists/activists? It’s been a beautiful and humbling project—one with conversation with community, a lot of building and dreaming, collaboration with other artists, and finding ways of safely activating this work in a pandemic, which has been really intense. That has led us as a collective to realize that this year needs to be a rest year for us. We put out so much work for community to rest and dream, and now we're like, "Okay, it's time for us to take care of ourselves."
I am in a process of unlearning what has been passed on to me through the process of colonization and remembering what has been lost.
Javiera: That question of how we practice what we're putting out in the world… you're making a piece and creating the space for members of your community to come and rest and then thinking about the importance of doing that yourself.
Stokely: You mentioned how one of the things that you're working on in school are these Indigenous ways of learning and of knowing. Could you talk more about what that looks like for you?
Javiera: I'm still very much in the early days of learning about this and being in this practice. I want to begin by naming two of my teachers: Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees and Sayra Pinto. Both of them are really important members of this program and have had a big impact on my learning journey. In many ways, this feels like a remembrance practice for me as a mestiza Latina/Chilena with both Indigenous and European ancestry, though I feel like my European ancestry is the ancestry that's been the most visible in my lineage because of colonization. I am in a process of unlearning what has been passed on to me through the process of colonization and remembering what has been lost. So, that feels like an important part of my personal journey in this process.
Some of this is really about a practice of listening to, not just other people and myself, but also more-than-human beings in the world. It is about our relationship to the land and remembering that we are part of a deep interconnected web of living beings all around us. If we're able to slow down and de-center ourselves enough to listen to that web, new ways of knowing might be available to us—new information about how to be in the world and what's required of us in this moment. It's definitely not the default of the culture and society we live in. I feel like there's so much that is pulling us away from that all the time. It has to be a constant, regular practice. I love this idea of thinking as an embodied practice, remembering our bodies, and remembering that that is also part of this living system that is nature. Also, paying attention to our bodies as part of that, whether it's that call to rest or notice the ways we're holding stress or strain or pain or joy or love.
I've been learning from Indigenous worldviews that the trees are our relatives. The water is our relative. The sky is our relative. The deer are relatives of ours. So what happens when we remember that we are in relation to...You are my relative, right? We are in relation, so it's an invitation to show up with a different kind of care. It's an invitation to remember care, both the way we are being cared for by these relatives and the way we must care for them. So, that is some of what I've been thinking about and learning and working on remembering.
Stokely: I'm thinking about what you're saying around care, this invitation to be in relationship with care in a different way. I think that is at the heart of what we've been trying to do as a collective and what I think about my scholarship and my work being. This past fall, UBB participated in the In Public Festival, which is run by a group called Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI), and they're thinking a lot about what it means to be in connection in public and what we are tending to.
This is our second time being asked to activate these downtown crossing steps that lead to nowhere. There is this big public space that in theory is supposed to engage people to just sit and be downtown in a different way, and as a Black person who grew up in Boston, I know the ways in which the city has not felt welcomed or not felt inviting. Even though there's inferred invitation for a type of care, I haven't felt like the invitation was for me. This semester, someone shared a lithograph of these two Black men who were enslaved named Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims, who were fugitives. They escaped slavery in the South and came to Boston, and then they were tried because of the Fugitive Slave Act and forced back into slavery. There's this image of them being paraded by these soldiers amidst the crowd. I realized after looking at the image a lot that it was so striking that the courthouse was literally a two-minute walk from the place where we'd been doing these activations.
So, while it's not an exact connection to being in relationship with nature, I've just felt how the work we've been doing in that space really has resonances. It's within the lineage of these men who were activists fleeing enslavement to make a point and fighting for freedom of movement. The work we were doing is for that same fight of freedom of movement, of rest, of joy—just steps away from where they were. It’s a kind of care for them as ancestors, for ourselves as future ancestors, for our community and as Black people, too, because most of our work has focused on the Boston Black community. That liberation only makes all of us liberated, right?
Javiera: I think that the work that you're doing now really is also like an act of care for these ancestors. I think when you say, "Well, what's that relationship to nature?" that maybe one relationship is about a kind of listening. How do we listen? Because their stories are in the land. They're in the air and maybe in the buildings. In that space, that location, you're listening. It's like a deep listening across space and time for something that's almost in the wind. I don't know if that's too poetic, but I just feel like it's that kind of listening that is beyond what's on the written page. I mean, you saw the image. So, that's a way into that memory, and then there's a listening for the stories or the feeling. There's something about all of this kind of listening that has to do with being open to what comes through us and through the work we're doing.
Stokely: Are there any connections that you feel between commoning and this act of listening that you're talking about?
Javiera: The practice of deep listening is essential if we're going to strive towards a practice of commoning, which I would define as a practice of being in relation to one another and really attending and attuning to our collective needs and desires in all of its complexity. When we're attending to collective needs and desires, we're also needing to attune to the fact that sometimes our needs and desires are in conflict with one another.
I think maybe one of the dangers of this idea of the commons is that it's almost too utopian, as if it resolves everything, but we're literally sitting on sites of so much conflict and harm. If we're going to aspire towards a practice of commoning, we must reach for that deep listening with humility, with an acknowledgement that there is so much we don’t know, and with an understanding that there are things that others bring to the table that just aren't available to us but are essential.
I don't think it's the framework that's going to make sense for everybody. I actually think that there are other frameworks that support relational and reciprocal ways of being in the world that precede this concept of commoning. Why are we going to put commoning on top of that?
Javiera: It could feel like an imposition and actually a colonial move in a way. In some places and spaces, it really resonates and is activating in a good way. Commoning is it can be a powerful framework, but I feel like it's not one that can be imposed. Let's move with care.
What's your relationship to these ideas of commoning and the commons, and does it inspire something in you or does it feel like a useful framework?
The practice of deep listening is essential if we're going to strive towards a practice of commoning, which I would define as a practice of being in relation to one another and really attending and attuning to our collective needs and desires in all of its complexity.
Stokely: What feels useful is the fact that commoning feels like it's defined by the needs of the community that's present, and I feel that in the work that I do. I really believe in that because it allows for change and for a belief in process and not forcing and imposing some sort of structure onto a community. I hear what you're saying about this question of both “Is it too utopian?” and also “Is it too colonial?” at the same time. The thing that I've been struggling with is when I hear the word commons, I think about property—even some sort of collective ownership or governance. Is that even the right language of what we want to do?
Back to what you said so beautifully about us, our nature, our relatives… Who are we to think that we can own nature in that way? I think particularly because so much of the work I'm doing is looking at Black people in America—even the thing about that story of those two men who were considered property—this idea of ownership is so uncomfortable to me. I feel like I'm sitting within that conflict about “commoning” as a word. I wonder what other words there are to describe commoning because I feel like I've also been in the magic of commons-based gatherings and have felt that deep commitment to community and to change. Commons is not even a word that I share with my collective. As a person who's a part of the Arts, Culture, and Commoning group, it's something I feel committed to exploring, but it feels so removed from the language that we use to talk about the work that we're doing.
Javiera: I share this with you. I have questions about the commons, and yet it has offered me something that is really valuable in these times. I'm originally from Chile, and I came to the United States when I was a kid. But Chile always occupied a really important place in my imagination as a young person living in the United States. I learned about the political history of Chile, which was very much alive; my parents had been activists, and we left Chile for political reasons. So, I felt like a connection to that history even though I wasn't living it directly as a child in the United States. I always look to it as a model for how change could happen in the world. When I looked to that history, I saw people coming together in ways that seemed incredible to me, especially as somebody growing up in a small Midwestern college town in the 1980s. There weren't parallels.
When I was in college, I went back to Chile to do a semester-long internship, and I worked with this women's collective that did political organizing and also community organizing in the spirit of really trying to collectively meet community needs, and they were also a collective of really deep friends. It was one of my first experiences of like, "Oh, this is community." I had experienced community before, but this felt like a much deeper level of community with so many different layers of relationship and such deep commitment. Later, when I came across this framework of the commons, I was like, "Wow. These friends of mine, these mentors of mine, this was their life. They lived a life of commoning, and they didn't use that language." They used the language of solidarity and of just political organizing, but the way they practiced political organizing was very much resonant with commoning because they were creating their own community infrastructures to meet their needs that weren't dependent on the state or on the market. I think that's why, when I came across the framework, I recognized myself and important parts of my life in it.
Also, right now, there’s a big, political, transformational story unfolding in Chile that relates in some to the commoning framework. It’s been several years of public protest and organizing that involved occupying public space for community gatherings for deep discussions about what we want this country to look like. One of the outcomes of all of that in Chile is in the process of rewriting its constitution. The constitution that we've been living under was written during a dictatorship and was imposed during a dictatorship as a way also to privatize a lot of "natural resources" and manage political dissent. But Chile is not only rewriting its constitution; they’ve created this congress that was elected by the people, and a lot of the people in this congress are political activists and organizers. There's been a lot of participatory elements to this process that feels related to this idea of commoning. So, I guess I see that it's reflected in the world and there's something alive in it, and I have questions.
Stokely: I'm just curious about what other words people use for this practice. I don't necessarily know if I want commons or commoning to be the umbrella which we all are under, as much as I want us to be another little connection in the web of people who are doing similar work.
Javiera: I recently learned about the four R’s of Indigeneity from another teacher of mine Ms. Vivette Jeffries-Logan, and an article written by LaDonna Harris and Jacqueline Wasilewski called “Indigeneity, an Alternative World View.” So, the four R's of Indigeneity are relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution. These four R's are an interrelated set of obligations to community that keep energy flowing and in balance within community. Reading this article, I was like, "Wow. This is another framework for thinking about what we're talking about in so many ways. " I was also struck by how this framework came out of a process of dialogue and participation that included several North American tribes who engaged in a series of meetings over two decades to identify and articulate a set of shared core values.
Stokely: Another R word is ritual. I think about ritual as something that encompasses all of those things.
Javiera: What power is found in ritual? Do you have thoughts about what ritual creates or makes possible?
Stokely: A ritual that I attended that I thought was so beautiful and so powerful was a play by Aleshea Harris called What To Send Up When It Goes Down. It was talking about making space for Black people to mourn the deaths of Black folks by state violence. It didn't mean that it was an all-Black audience, but it was definitely a piece that was for Black people. The performance started with the audience, all of us, doing ritual together—speaking into the space, collective yelling, collective singing, writing intentions and naming people who have died—then watching a piece, and then ending again on this other ritual. So, the power of that piece, for me, was like adding my voice into the space whether it was in the saying of George Floyd’s name, whether it was in a yelling, whether it was in a laughing... I don't know. I wasn't leading the ritual, right? So I only had these small moments of adding my voice. But I felt like just by being there, my presence was helping feed into this vibration of healing or liberation that we were all putting our intention into. I think that the power of ritual is change. I definitely left that ritual—and all the rituals that my collective do—feeling changed.
I don't necessarily know if I want commons or commoning to be the umbrella which we all are under, as much as I want us to be another little connection in the web of people who are doing similar work.
Javiera: Yeah, it's like the connection to the alchemical. I'm also wondering about the role of the imagination in all of this because the group that we are a part of is Art, Culture, and Commoning. I feel like a really important part of art is imagination. I'm starting to think about imagination in relation to remembering. Some of the work I'm doing is about remembering things that have been forgotten, remembering things that have been lost or made invisible and denied in different ways. Knowing that imagination has a powerful role to play, I want to talk about what role imagination plays in our work.
I've been on a very personal level really reflecting on the parts of my own lineage and heritage that really have been erased. There's maybe a couple remnants, but it doesn't amount to a lot of information. But still, there's a felt sense of knowing. That, to me, has been a portal into remembering. Because I know so little, it's this fertile ground for reconnecting through my own imagination. So, in that way, I feel like remembering and imagination, as a looking back practice, feel really interconnected. The imagination is like “Where we go from here? How do I pass this on? What do I create with it?” Because I'm not remembering just to remember.
Stokely: Yeah, it's like a world-building practice.
Javiera: Where I'm headed is what that looks like in a collective, right? Like how do we engage our collective imagination in that way and in a way that also brings us back to this idea of commoning as a creative practice?
Stokely: That feels like a beautiful place to stop.
Javiera: Yeah, that sounds right. Thank you so much, Stokely.
Stokely: Yeah, thank you.