Living decoloniality, practical examples of decolonial

re-existence through the aid sector, a podcast by Carla Vitantonio

with the support of the Center for Humanitarian Leadership.

Welcome to a new episode of Living decoloniality.

My name is Carla Vitantonio and the sounds and noises you hear in the background
are from the city where I live and work, Havana, Cuba, including the morning rooster.

Today you will hear from Karishma Shafi. Karishma and I met roughly one year ago

while I was looking for experiences of decoloniality to produce the first season of this podcast.
I was still not very sure I would make it. Many of the people I had originally planned to interview
dropped out at the last minute. A couple of them even ghosted me.

Recording was challenging, but then I had the first conversation with Karishma.

Her narrative was direct, clear, transparent, interacting with her with easy and energizing.

While listening to Karishma sharing her experience and knowledge,

I perceived she had no fear that by disclosing her wisdom she might lose something.

By sharing her knowledge with me, Karishma was already practicing decoloniality.

I was inspired by Karishma and I decided that I should record and publish a episode at any cost.

You can listen to it by going on my channel in your favorite podcast platform

00:01:45,120 –> 00:01:49,200
and looking for Living decoloniality, season 1, episode 2.

There was so much that we could not include in that first episode

that I asked her to participate also in the second season.

And here she is, Karishma. Would you like to introduce yourself for our listeners?

Hi there. My name is Karishma Shafi, my pronoun is She and Her and I’m a researcher and young

professional from Udipur in India. My work combines feminist research with innovative advocacy

and communication strategy. I am here today to represent my organization, One Future Collective,

where I work as a senior program manager in the Just Institution vertical

One Future Collective is a feminist social purpose organization with the vision of a world

built on social justice led by communities of care. We fight for the right of each person

to live a life of safety, dignity and belongingness by catalyzing people’s power and building

just institutions. We do this work by facilitating leadership communities and access to justice

and through research and advocacy and institutional transformation. Our approach to this work is
intersectional, power critical, participatory and social justice focused.

Karishma, you know that my second question is always, how did you meet Coloniality?

But in your case, as you have already answered to this question in the past

I would like to talk about how you met and relate to a specific form of Coloniality.

Coloniality of knowledge, the hierarchy that colonial beliefs and systems

created among different knowledge, giving credibility to some and naming other with words like

superstition, folklore, tradition, etc.

I think the process of decolonizing knowledge in particular and the relationship between

knowledge and power more broadly is one that I’ve had to think about quite deeply given the nature

of the work that I do not just at OFC, but in general as a researcher and through communications.

Now there’s a lot of different aspects to this that I’d like to touch upon.

The first of these is just that I’d like to problematize the idea that simply because we’re

concerned with Coloniality, we fail to consider the complex systems of power that predate

colonization and which we’re further consolidated or depend as a result of it.

So unequal power has always been a feature of the Indian social culture landscape.

Let’s consider here the caste system, the relationship of which with colonization and

knowledge and power is an entirely different and important conversation on its own.

But let’s consider that India has historically been organized in social structures that foster
inequalities and imbalances of power where knowledge, real knowledge from books and the kind that
gives you power is the concern of only a specific class of people and that others A do not have access
to knowledge or B, do not have the means to validate their knowledge and systems of knowing as
important or useful or correct. So then caste still figures really strongly in the ways in which
educational systems in India are organized despite increased caste based reservations due to
a structural lack of access. And if you were to take a bit of a more non serious example,
I’d love you to introduce you to the figure of the maarsaab, which roughly translates to male
teacher or teacher sir, so the maarsaab is historically a deeply respected figure in most
Indian societies. They may not earn a lot of money but they’re deeply respected socially even if, you know,
if made fun of in private rooms. But the maarsaab introduces you to the imbalance of power that’s
inherent in most Indian classrooms which are the very first places where we are met with what is
the colonial understanding of knowledge. Now maarsaab knows you do not. Maarsaab can hit you for
not knowing the answer but you cannot hit him for misspelling the question. Maarsaab speaks the
loudest. Maarsaab must also be heard with lower heads and in complete silence. You know, you see what I
mean? Where no wonder, the imbalance of power in knowing becomes easy for us to accept and understand
over time. Another factor is age. Elders are wise. They know things. They may not have read books or

lived the world that you’re living in but they know everything and they know more than you. And so
you should be ashamed of yourself. You know trying to teach them things. Of course again,
intergenerational leadership and power sharing is a larger topic for another time and while I do
understand that, you know, the knowledge that our elders hold are deeply important in living
shared systems of knowledge, but the point that I’m trying to make is that there’s an imbalance of
power in the way that age is held over our heads in and the way that age has been held over our heads
historically in the Indian context. And so all I’m saying is that specifically for South Asians,

age is just an axis along which there’s an imbalance of knowing. So then you know what I mean when

I say that we haven’t gotten all our inequalities from colonizers, this pre-existing understanding
and acceptance of inequality could in fact be one reason why it became easy for those of us
in the Indian context to justify and make sense of the colonial nature of knowledge and knowing.
Because there’s no innocent, egalitarian, native way of being which we can go back to. There’s no
going back to a world where things were different. There’s always been an imbalance of power in knowledge.
So for most of us  this is just how it is. And so doing the work of decolonization of knowledge

such as you know by questioning in research the subject/ object relationship, or the emphasis
on researcher objectivity on issues that honestly very much cannot be remained objective on.
Or the power of certain sources to validate knowledge, it’s all deeply complicated by what
predates colonization and which sometimes I find even myself relying on to make sense of the world.
Which is to say that my relationship with decolonizing knowledge from myself and in my work
although it’s rewarding it’s been deeply frustrating and quite challenging honestly. I mean you tell me
how do I help populate my bibliography if my source is my aunt who recorded it in textile and then
told me about it but she did not read English because she wasn’t allowed to go to school so there’s
no email from it aside. Right? What I’m trying to say essentially is just that well I’m deeply passionate
about preserving and popularizing shared living systems of knowing and just and problematizing
colonial understandings of knowledge. I’m also deeply aware that these systems don’t exist in isolation of unequal power relations and that in itself right unequal power that predates

colonization or that exists alongside colonization is a very real problem for us to deal with as we
discuss the decolonization of knowledge or decoloniality of knowledge in general.

With this response Karishma opens a new chapter that we hadn’t touched upon in this podcast.
History shows us as many times during the colonial time occupiers found their allies in those groups
that were already dominating in the occupied society. India is not the only place in the
world where the occupation strengthened the system that was unfair and based on an unjust
distribution of power and resources. When studying colonization and coloniality too often
we run the risk of thinking that the world before it was an idyllic place but this is not true.
Societies before colonization had their own flaws and some of them grew stronger and more structured
during the colonial time. Karisma also beautifully summarizes the question and doubts of many
researchers that struggle in paying all knowledge the same respect because some knowledge is
organized in ways that are not compatible with what we usually consider, say, a scientific report.

With all this introduction could you share with us one or more practices of decoloniality within
One Future Collective?

At One Future Collective like I said we use a social justice lens which pushes us
to an anti-oppressive practice in our work on building and sharing knowledge and skills in particular.
Anti-oppressive practice is an approach where we work with a deep understanding of the structures
of oppression that act on the people who occupy a certain space and in it we actively work on
addressing implicit and explicit bias and discriminatory behaviors to create more inclusive spaces.
Really another complete example I can give you of this work on decolonizing knowledge
in action is through our fellowship. Part of our work on leadership communities is the one future
fellowship which is a flagship initiative focused on germinating rights based social justice leadership
in geder minorities in South Asia. Now since its inception the fellowship has had a youth focus
but recently in consultations with our communities and in sessions of feedback
and as a result of our own work on intergenerational leadership we realize that by choosing

chronological age as an entrance criterion for the fellowship we were working with the understanding
that all people experience life and learning in the same chronological order which is not the case
and so starting this year we’ve lifted that age criteria. The fellowship also uses a participatory
learning approach which centers the individual and collective experiences and knowledge of learners
rather than the knowledge of experts. We start by understanding and contextualizing the experiences
of our learners who we understand to be experts of their own social socio-cultural and political
lived worlds and then introducing application based knowledge and skills that can support them in
analyzing these experiences and develop strategies for action. I know we’ve discussed this
methodology before but still the methodology itself centers practices like collective ideation resource
building feedback etc and all of these help us design our leadership building spaces to be more
inclusive and more learner centered. We’re also careful about keeping our work iterative and
learning from our own experiences and those of our communities. For example the way we’ve designed
and executed the fellowship has evolved over time to best suit the needs of our communities and the
context in which we operate.

For example be subject our curriculum to really rigorous review every
hour and adding themes that are becoming increasingly relevant to our fellows in their work on social
justice and it’s not just our fellowship either right we are currently working on a research study
to document the experiences of fatness in urban India of which a core component is a set of
recommendations that we’ve co-created with the participants to make norms policies, infrastructure more
inclusive for fat folks.

So this is us trying to shift the discourse on fatness or on occupying bigger
bodies from a medicalized view of the evil of obesity which is seen as a personal failing to the
experiences of fatness which is a form of experiential knowledge that comes from you know perceiving
as Crenshaw puts it social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual.

I mean here particularly of course we’re talking about the social determinants of health and how
fatness is in experience that for a lot of the people that we worked with, a lot of fat people in general

is very much a function of the spaces that we occupy socially. Finally another key means for us to
decolonize the knowledge which we produce and critique is to question how we build narratives
around marginalized communities right. Are we centering a particular experiences and then reading
marginalized lives as existing away from that center or are we able to present marginalized
people’s narratives in ways that are comprehensive respectful and transformative. I mean also centering
them specifically right. The only limitation to our existing work is that because we’re a small
team a lot of our work is limited to being in English or in Hindi but we’re hoping with time
to be able to translate most of it and customize it for a range of different Indian languages because
a critical inquiry of the language that we use to make it accessible and inclusive is a crucial
first step in the project of decolonizing knowledge right. And so just to quickly summarize we use
anti-oppressive practices by centering marginalized voices to build our work to be most effective.
We de-center ourselves by opening our work up to feedback. We rely on multi-stakeholder
consultation for the design of our programs both internally and externally with other institutions
and we use an intersectional approach to understand people as whole individuals within multi-led
oppressive systems rather than in case studies waiting to become footnotes in a research paper.

So many of the things Karisma shared with us can be so easily applied to the work of every
humanitarian and development worker. I personally found especially inspiring the circle of continuous
learning that One Future Collective applies to its actions. In our wolrd we are often asked to
produce learning documents but only rarely are we able to apply the lessons we learned.
I know that an increasing number of organizations propose more flexible actions that have the
potential to adapt to the project cycle we no need to wait for the end. But I also know that for
many donors agencies this is a challenge. Is it possible to imagine together actions that have
the potential to remain relevant in changing scenarios?

You listened to living decoloniality. Practical examples of decolonial
re-existence through the eight sector. I am Carla Vitantonio and you can reach me through my
Spotify and speaker channels or through my Instagram Carla Vitantonio. This podcast was deliberately
recorded with minimum technical equipment trying to preserve as much as possible the feelings and
intentions of those who participated. If you liked it please subscribe and share it through your
network. Living decoloniality was produced in partnership with the Centre for Humanitarian
Leadership. The logo is a present from Eugenio Nittolo