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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 55, Number 1 Winter 2022

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Council for Cultural, Ethnic, and Racial Affairs

Abolitionist Research: Developing Reflections, Actions & Embodiments Toward a Praxis of Decolonial Epistemic Justice-Liberation 

Written by Jesica Siham Fernández, PhD, jsfernandez@scu.edu, Santa Clara University

Transformative justice, liberation and decolonization are not synonymous, nor are they to be metaphorically associated with utopia. Yet there are key fundamental similarities among these words that resonate with/within me and why I use them. And when and how I use them, I strive to be intentional and purposeful about their meaning. These words, to me, have one common denominator; they all strive toward what I describe as an abolitionist praxis. To be more precise, and what I am currently thinking-writing-working through: abolitionist research. In this humble reflection and contribution to the Council on Cultural, Ethnic & Racial Affairs (CERA) column for The Community Psychologist, I reflect on this developing praxis of abolitionist research. Abolitionist research as more than just a framework, but an actual praxis, has been permeating my reflections on the goals, values, orientations and paradigms toward research. That is, my actions as a community-engaged researcher/educator/organizer, and my body -- the what, how and where it feels to be human. 

In the wake of recurring manifestations of structural violence, disenfranchisement and the trespassing of communities’ dignity, rights and humanity/humanness, I have questioned how community psychology has served to affirm, or undermine, a collective radical consciousness of our shared humanity. In thinking through this framework of abolitionist research, which builds on the work of critical decolonial feminist scholars -- from Eve Tuck, Linda Tuhiwai Smith to Chela Sandoval to Maria Lugones and Ignacio Martín-Baró, Frantz Fanon and others -- I am approaching research, the writing-thinking, from a palace of refusal, radical hope and decolonial dreaming-imaginations. Before I proceed, however, I ground my understanding of abolition in the writings of adrienne maree brown -- a movement-builder, scholar-thinker-activist, doula-healer and American writer. Brown, in her book, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice (2020), underscores the following: 

Abolitionists know that the implications of our visions touch everything -- everything must change, including us. In order to generate a future in which we all know we can belong, be human, and be held, we must build life-affirming institutions, including our movements (p. 1).

With these words, brown affirms the imperativeness of practicing what we preach, of walking the talk, and visualizing abolition through our actions/acts and relationships -- the ways we come to be, are and exist in the world, in this time and moment, and moving forward.

Research, while predominantly centered on uncovering and rendering visible social issues, inequities and systemic problems in society -- can and must also serve a greater purpose. To me, this purpose must be to transform, liberate and heal our herida abierta, the “open wounds” that Anzaldua (date) names. Thus, in consideration of this longing for a research praxis that can fuse transformative justice, liberation and decolonization, the word abolition has been circulating my mind. Abolition -- a word that has come to mean different things in popular discourse and has made it way in social media especially in relation to calls for the abolition of police and more broadly the carceral state -- at its very core means to me to be engaging fully in practices, actions/acts and relationships that are humanizing. Abolition is a verb. It is the actions/acts that are life affirming, and oriented toward cultivating and sustaining the dignity, thriving and sovereignty of communities on the peripheries. Specifically, abolition is about radically engaging in decolonial love movements grounded in transformative justice, liberation and decolonization that chip away at the structures of violence, white supremacy and colonial power. The chipping away, while becoming dust in the wind, materializes into living particles that re-fuse to create something otherwise. 

In this brief reflection I offer definitions for research frameworks and paradigms that when taken together have come to inform my reflections, actions and embodiments toward a praxis of decolonial liberation that I describe as abolitionist research. Abolitionist research aligns with transformative justice, in the ways that brown (2020) describes it: 

“Transformative justice [is] addressing harm at the root, outside the mechanism of the state, so that we can grow into the right relationship with each other.” (p. 5)

Thus, I end this reflection with a series of questions and invitations-strategies that are not my own but are those that brown (2020) has proposed and offered as essential strategies toward living-loving and evolving/involving ourselves in abolitionist movements and visions-in-action.

On Refusal & Desire-Centered Research

Tuck and Yang (2014) theorize refusal not just as a “no” but as a way of approaching research, the researcher and “the researched.” The approach begins from a stance of rejection to dehumanizing logics aligned with the coloniality of power. Thus, from a humanizing approach, refusal is characterized as a multidimensional practice and process that aims to make colonial knowledge visible. Approaching research from a place of refusal determines what can be asked, documented, written and circulated. Refusal is about desire, not romanticizing research or the researched. Instead, refusal is hope and possibility, imagination, redirecting ideas, resources, and shifting “the gaze back upon power.” As Tuck and Yang (2014) purport in their writings: 

“Refusal, and stances of refusal in research, are attempts to place limits on conquest and the colonization of knowledge by marking what is off limits, what is not up for grabs or discussion, what is sacred, and what can’t be known.” (p. 225)

Refusal is active not passive; it is relational as it challenges and unsettles power, and questions or troubles theories of change, while simultaneously placing limits on research/the researcher.

Centering Methodologies of the Oppressed

To ground my orientation toward abolitionist research, I want to acknowledge and underscore a quote by Chicana feminist post-colonial scholar, Chela Sandoval, who emphasized the importance of knowledge rooted in communities -- the funds of knowledge, resources and strategies with which they have engaged in movements and methods to resist and thrive. In her book, Methodologies of the Oppressed, Sandoval (2000) cautious us to attend to the methodologies -- the tools and mechanisms -- the weapons of wisdom and forms of knowing-doing that communities hold. She writes: 

“It is also imperative that we not lose sight of the methods of the oppressed that were developed under previous modes of colonisation, conquest, enslavement, and domination, for these are the guides necessary for establishing effective forms of resistance under contemporary global conditions: they are key to the imagination of “postcoloniality” in its most utopic sense.” (p. 9) 

In imagining abolitionist research specifically within community psychology, and then working toward the actualizing of an approach that aligns with this vision, one paradigm that I engage in is participatory action research. PAR is aligned with an abolitionist vision. One that explicitly centers community voices, lived experiences and collective agency in fomenting sociopolitical power, determination and sovereignty, along with community wellbeing, dignity and thriving.

When engaged from a decolonial standpoint, PAR can help disrupt hegemonic knowledges by fostering opportunities for critical relational dialogues anchored in shared power, radical relationality and transformational justice-oriented community-determined actions that draw from local knowledges, Indigenous cosmologies and affective-embodied subjectivities. Theories in the flesh, as Cherrie Moraga (Anzaldúa & Moraga, 1981) has taught me to embrace, can guide the participatory methodologies of the oppressed in resistance, resilience and refusal before the logics of colonial power.

Decoloniality/Decolonization & Decolonial Love

      Consistent with an abolitionist research vision and praxis, decoloniality is fundamentally a rehumanizing and life sustaining project. It involves the production of counter-hegemonic narratives and discourses that challenge, deconstruct and recreate knowledges and stories that are amplified and elevated with twofold purpose. One to dismantle coloniality or the coloniality of power that reifies structural and epistemic violence. And, two open up possibilities -- radical and revolutionary ones -- that are oriented toward liberation, transformative justice and thriving. Decoloniality, as Dutta (2018) suggests, is about actualizing possibilities and bringing radical dreams into being in the world. In alignment with this notion of decoloniality Maldonado-Torres advances the following definition on decoloniality as an intentional and active process-practice: 

“Decoloniality is about making visible the invisible and about analyzing the mechanisms that produce such invisibility or distorted visibility in light of a large stock of ideas that must necessarily include the critical reflections of the ‘invisible’ people themselves” (Maldonado-Torres, 2007, p. 262). 

Decoloniality therefore renders visible the invisibility, human/humanizing the dehumanization, and emancipatory the oppressions. In other words, decoloniality is an outcome of consistent and persistent actions-efforts of purposeful engagement in an abolitionist praxis. To engage abolition in word and in deed is to embrace, enact and embody an ethic of decolonial love.

Decolonial love, in alignment with an abolitionist praxis, draws from the work of Chela Sandoval (2000), as well as Nelson Maldonado-Torres (2008) who describe it as a decolonial attitude characterized by mutuality. Decolonial love demands and requires shared recognition, reciprocal humanizing encounters, and the forming of affinities across differences. As Afro-diasporic scholar Yomaira C. Figueroa (2015), citing the work of Sandoval (2000), writes:

“learning to see faithfully from multiple viewpoints” and forging a “technology for social and political transformation achieved through a shared practice of love in the post-modern world” [...] “a relation carved out of and in spite of difference that clears the path for new modes of conceptualizing social movements, identity and difference” (p. 43). 

There are ways of knowing grounded in liberation, as Maldonado-Torres (2008) suggests:

“decolonial love is the humanizing task of building a world in which genuine ethical relations become the norm and not the exception” (p. 244).

In this way, decolonial love aligns with abolitionist research aimed at imagining and creating humanizing conditions that can serve to actualize liberation and transformative justice. Indeed, what I am calling upon us to consider and reflect on is how our research orientations, approaches and paradigms align or diverge from decoloniality, and more concretely an ethic of love that centers on sustaining and creating humanizing conditions, relationships and discourses. 

Questions, Invitations & Strategies

Perhaps the words and strategic recommendations offered by brown, which I summarize below, are a first set of steps toward that direction of humanizing us -- ourselves and each other -- in ways that can orient us toward a praxis of abolitionist research. These questions, which I frame and offer as an invitation to engage and reflect upon, or as strategies to deploy when necessary to challenge and deconstruct the cross-crossing of systemic oppression and structural violence, are intended to humanize the issues and conditions that impress upon us the urgency to work toward transformative justice. The strategies are quite simple and basic in my view, as they are questions that animate or invite curiosity, critical reflexivity and feminist inquiry. Adapting each of these from brown’s (2020), I offer them as a closing invitation to community psychologists and allied practitioners, as well as comrades in the struggle. I also offer it to the CERA members in need of validation, and non-CERA members wanting to unlearn/learn and grow in their acts of solidarity, allyship and accomplice-ship. Each of these questions -- the why, what and how -- can be asked or should be asked in the context and development of our research, research relationships and research inquiries-questions; in other words, these questions should be asked of ourselves as we approach and pursue projects, and as we begin to develop relationships of collaboration toward coalitions that fuse or blur the lines between research, advocacy as prevention and reform, and organizing-activism.

Why. Listen with “why” as a framework. People mess up. … When we hear that something bad has happened, it makes sense to feel anger, pain, confusion and sadness. But to move immediately to punishment means that we stay on the surface of what has happened. … “Why?” is often the game-changer, possibility-opening question. That’s because the answers rehumanize those we feel are perpetrating against us. … Also, “Why?” makes it impossible to ignore that we might be capable of a similar transgression in similar circumstances. … “Why?” can be an evolutionary question. (brown, 2020, p. 70-71) 

What. Ask yourself/selves “what.” What can I/we learn from this? If the only thing I can learn from a situation is that some humans do bad things, it’s a waste of my precious time. What I want to know is: What can this teach me/us about how to improve our humanity? What can we learn? In every situation there is a lesson that can lead to transformation. (brown, 2020, p. 72)

How. How can my real-time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)? … Real-time action often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility. Real-time transformation requires stating your needs and setting functional boundaries. Transformative justice requires us, at minimum, to ask ourselves questions like these before we jump, teeth bared, for the jugular. I think this is some of the hardest work. … But if we want to create a world in which conflict and trauma aren’t the center of our collective existence, we have to practice something new, ask different questions, and access again our curiosity about each other as a species. (brown, 2020, p. 73) 

To bring all of these reflections together, if liberation can best be understood or described as an experience and condition of emancipation -- as an emancipatory state of being (Montero & Sonn, 2009) -- then abolitionist research can perhaps be or serve as the paradigm or approach by which more liberatory forms of being can be experienced. Emancipation, while never fully unburdened by the intersections of systems of oppression and structural violence can be a state of consciousness and an embodied way of being that is characterized by a process of continued and consistent critical reflexivity, and a practice of working toward transformative justice and healing. This -- transformative justice aligned with and toward healing that recenters and sustains humanity -- is at the core of what I am experiencing as abolitionist research. 

 

References

Anzaldúa, G. & Moraga, C. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York, NY: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press.

brown, A. M. (2020). We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Figueroa, Y. C. (2015). Reparation as transformation: Radical literary (re) imaginings of futurities through decolonial love. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 4(1).

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2008). Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Montero, M., & Sonn, C. (2009). Psychology of liberation: Theory and applications. London, UK: Springer Science & Business Media.

Sandoval, C. (2000). Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.