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Queen's University

Department of Global Development Studies

Finding Inspiration in Bleak Times:  Development Studies Student Perspectives

The following comments are from a panel of Queen’s undergraduate and graduate students who spoke on a panel in March in Professor Karen Dubinsky’s “Introduction to Development Studies: Canada and the “Third World” course, Devs 100.  Collectively, they voice the joys, frustrations and difficulties that face many students as they think about the world today, and Canada’s, and their own, place in it.  They were asked to reflect on the source of the inspiration for the research and community work they do, despite bleak circumstances.  Here they do so with honesty and intelligence.  

If you prefer to read the panels comments within a PDF document, please click here to download file.

Ashley Burnie
I am in my fourth year in Devs.  My main research interests are in food systems, agriculture and the ways in which we culturally produce and consume food. Through this I have explored what race, gender and development have to do with the production of food- particularly in the context of migrant labourers in Canada.

So, it’s kind of funny because in the winter of 2010 I was sitting exactly where you were sitting; coming in on my Tuesday mornings to listen to Karen, talk about missionaries, peacekeeping, mining and other Canadian experiences abroad. So I guess what I am saying is this is pretty cool for me.

When I was trying to figure out what I was going to say to you all today, I found myself reflecting on the person I was when I was in first year, and to try to almost give my 18 year old self insight into what the next four years would entail.  In first year I wanted to a lawyer. I was interested in protecting human rights, and after studying about what mining was doing to communities in Central and South America, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. International jurisdiction law, is what it’s called. To me, this was a tangible career path which would help people BUT importantly it gave me immense personal comfort, as it helped to insulate me away from a feeling soured national pride. A feeling which begged me to come to terms with living in a country which told me one thing but did another, a country which had a national narrative polite peace keepers but who would let the poising of water-tables in Guatemala happen, as an expense of doing business.

Things began to change when, in winter semester, we had a guest lecturer. Her name was Susan Belyea and she was the director for a small not-for-profit in Kingston called Loving Spoonful. Her lecture was so different from what we were studying and I found myself walking away with a new vocabulary of food security, solidarity, reclamation, a general understanding that we all need to have better, more informed access to our food and the means of production/consumption.

Her talk made me think about activism and work right here in our community. I thought about the time I got on the totally wrong bus and it took to me places in this city that looked so far removed from the beautiful limestone buildings on campus. It got me to think about development not being about going to a foreign place, with people whose lives were so far removed from my own, but development as helping the people we see every day, indeed even helping ourselves. Loving Spoonful began to reorient the way I looked at myself and how I situated my actions in development.

So second year began, I took political economy of development with Marcus Taylor and, I joined the pre-law society as I still was hoping to defend the rights of impoverished communities in Latin America. Winter semester came around again and I found myself in Dia Da Costa’s DEVS 240 course, Culture and Development. For the first time in my life I felt obligated to pick apart my identity as a white, middle class woman and what that meant for all of my interactions with communities abroad. I observed that even though people in problematic or even ‘failed’ development projects had good intentions, ultimately this did not change how things played out on the ground. I learned that I had to think long and hard about the privileges afforded me before I could ever do development work in the global south and indeed, if I did, that the chances of me helping people more than they helped myself were slim.

At the time, I found all this information rather traumatic.

I began to problematize my existence in development, and indeed try to reconcile what I had been told I was going to do with my degree v.s what would potentially be the most useful. Indeed, what did I know about the lives of children who were HIV positive? What did I know about lack of formal education for Afro-descendants in Colombia? What did I know about besides my own experiences?

As you can imagine, and I am sure you have all felt yourselves, this made me feel pretty damn bad. I too had come into this program with good intentions and now, two years in, I was dealing with the idea that bad things would come out of my good-natured ignorance. An anxiety disorder that I had had under control for many years came back with a vengeance, my grades slipped and my stress levels sky rocketed.

A counselor suggested that I take a quieter summer where I took summer school and worked part-time- maybe something outdoors.   While looking for a work-study assignment I stumbled across something I hadn’t thought of in months- Loving Spoonful. The ad said that they increased access to health food in our community through an empowering, inclusive and environmentally sustainable manner. It detailed how they would reclaim perfectly good fresh food that was heading for the trash, and would redistribute it to emergency meal programs. It said how they were part of the national grow-a-row-campaign, where farmers and individuals would grow extra food in their garden to donate to those in need. I found out that Loving Spoonful worked as a part of the urban community gardens network and they helped to educated children and adults alike. Communal spaces where people could come together to learn, grow and foster skills which would enhance their lives in tangible ways.

I applied for the job and didn’t look back. In two years, I learned about urban access to food, and began to see the different ways people in this city were feeding themselves and others. I worked in a donation garden at the Oak Street community garden. I met people who made their living farming in the city. I worked with children in elementary schools who were so excited about the gardens they now had on their front lawns. I began to think about how we see and use urban space.

And importantly, I began to think about the small ways in which we as citizens subvert forces bigger than ourselves when we learn about food. My anxiety dissipated and my relationship with this program and my education changed dramatically. I realized how important small acts of personal activism and social subversion were, and indeed that none of us are perfect.

I learned that it was necessary to lean into all the uncomfortable and awful things that DEVS sometimes forces us to look at, but that in the end you will be so grateful you did it. Be okay with critically reflecting on yourself and where you fit into society and development, no matter how existentially difficult this may seem, because it is simply our responsibility as development studies students.

Find something you love in your own lives, and figure out how that may benefit yourself and others. Understand that if you don’t know what that is yet- that’s okay too. For me it was being open to the idea that development was not a place I had never been, but in fact something I did every day. Look abroad, but not before looking at home. Both will benefit you in the next few years. It is so exciting, challenging and rewarding- I hope all of you who are interested enjoy your undergrad in Queen’s DEVS as much as I did.

Freddy Monasterio Barsó

I am from Havana, Cuba, and have been here in Canada for a couple of years. I did my undergrad in Business Administration, in the University of Havana. Then I worked for five years in the National Power Company in the Planning and Analysis Department. Although I didn't like the job much I met people there that changed my life. These people helped me to realize that you can have fun at the same time you learn to be consistent, responsible, and take advantage of time and the only life you have to live. At some point Havana felt like a trap, an oasis where I could hang out with friends, share time with my family, and do my not really exciting but OK job. I have always been suspicious of easy things. An easy life is not definitely the kind of life that I enjoy living. When I say easy I'm not obviously referring to material things but to emotional, spiritual aspects that I need to question almost every day. Those days are the most meaningful for me.

I saw a big opportunity for change when my partner came to Queen's to do a PhD in 2011. I decided to come with her. I spent my first year in Canada, in Kingston, doing the most boring and difficult jobs I ever imagined. Again, it was the people that I met and others that I already knew (and today are among my best friends), who allowed me to have a space for my inner search of a meaningful life, a process that I hope that never ends. After a couple of months living in Kingston I decided to volunteer for CFRC and four months after that I had my own radio show, Radio Malecón, which features Cuban and other Latin American music. This has been one of the greatest opportunities I ever had in my life and one of the most gratifying experiences. Last year I started a Masters at DEVS and next year I will start a PhD in Cultural Studies. For my MA I've been researching on indigenous radio in Colombia and for my PhD I plan to look at independent cultural production in contemporary Cuba.

I think my research and my work as a volunteer in a community-based radio station gives me the opportunity to understand better the interactions between human beings. For me this learning process is important, how can you change society if you don't understand it first? I don't feel comfortable with explanations we have been given since birth, and we see are being reproduced every day. This curiosity, and the desire to transform society while I learn to understand it, becomes my main source of inspiration. My strategy is very simple and has to do with the constant attempt to improve and diversify the way I listen to people and the work they do. I don't think trying to ignore, avoid, or camouflage pain, misery or depression is a good idea. But before engaging in any project that attempt to make a positive change over other human beings' lives you have to learn how to listen to them. It's not enough to listen to their songs or read their stories. It's not just about you giving them the chance to speak and to be heard. It's more about them giving you the chance to learn how to listen and use that knowledge in the right way.

Julia Hartviksen

I’m a 2nd year MA student in the Global Development Studies program. I’m in the thesis stream of the programme, so I am currently in the process of writing my thesis.  The research that I’m building on is based on field research I collected in Guatemala City last summer. I’m looking at a specialized justice system that was created in response to rising rates of violence against women in Guatemala in recent years – in particular, something that is referred to as “femicide” which basically means the targeted and planned murder of women by men on the basis of their gender.

This is a really grim topic, but it is something that I am really passionate about. I was first introduced to femicide in my last semester of my undergraduate degree, which I spent in Guatemala as an intern with an organization called the National Union of Guatemalan Women – or UNAMG (the Spanish acronym). I was a communications and research assistant for this organization, and collected some archival data on femicide in the media for a project the organization was working on – which became an area of interest for me and something I grew to learn quite a lot about.

Working with the UNAMG highlighted for me a lot of issues in development. I realized that “doing development” does not always necessarily mean achieving a quantitative result, or fulfilling a “recipe for development” in terms of how to approach development projects. Rather, some of the most powerful and inspiring moments came from the friendships I was able to foster with my colleagues and the people I met through work. Friendship isn’t fostered by imposing your own norms or ideas.  Rather, in my case, it came through exchanging ideas and respecting each other, and recognizing my own positionality in all of this.

Working in development also meant critically engaging with my own position and role as a Westerner coming from a place of privilege. As a Canadian in Guatemala, I confronted the role of Canadian mining corporations in Guatemala, and with UNAMG I was able to begin working – in friendship - to address some of those issues. And as hard and grim as it was to face these issues, the exchanges I had made me more aware of myself and the role that I could choose to play in my work.

In doing research this summer in Guatemala, I reached a point where I really struggled with my privilege as a foreign researcher. The guilt that I felt doing the work that I was doing, and having the ability to be able to literally leave it all at the end of the summer was almost paralyzing. But one conversation I had, after conducting an interview with a community leader and indigenous feminist really reminded me that to think that alone my work would create the change we both want to see was whimsical – and that’s ok. The work that I could do, however, she reminded me, will have ripple effects that I won’t necessarily see. That ripple effect would extend from the committee who actually reads my thesis, through the people I converse with on the subject, and through other avenues that I might not even realize. It goes back to the idea of measuring development and measuring change – sometimes, you just can’t – but it doesn’t mean that change isn’t happening.

I think a big part of what inspires me is recognizing that the work and research that I’m focusing on can be apart of something bigger – through the friendships and connections I’ve made.  And hopefully, this is something we can continue to build on in the future. 

Alexandra Pederson
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Geography (Queen's)

It is a great honour to speak to a DEVS 100 course here at Queen's. My experience with development studies may have been quite different had I taken this course with Dr. Dubinsky at the beginning of my undergraduate career. My eyes may have been opened to the realities of the world sooner. However, my academic path has been quite different, but one that I certainly would not alter, because I am still here to speak with you today.

I initially started at the University of Guelph and graduated with honours in International Development Studies focusing with the stream of Political Economy and Administrative Change. Essentially, my undergraduate consisted of many development-oriented classes from a political science and economics lens. By the end of my four years, I was thirsty for more. I was encouraged by some of my most beloved professors to apply to graduate school, a place they promised would widen my eyes even further and subject me to greater knowledge about the world. With this motivation, I packed my car and drove with my partner across the country to the small, but mighty, University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George, B.C. While you may or may not have heard of UNBC, this institution has a reputation for high quality research and critical thinking that parallels and even surpasses some larger institutions here in Canada. I was drawn to their burgeoning International Studies program and was invited in with open arms. It was here at UNBC that my life changed and it was altered by one professor in particular, Dr. Catherine Nolin  Dr. Nolin offered a critical methodologies course to incoming graduate students; my first taste of the world of research and how I could fit within it. After a few weeks in her course, she started to talk about her research in Guatemala, how she had done her Master's and Ph.D. at Queen's University, and eventually she challenged me to join her on a bi-annual field school/delegation co-facilitated with UNBC Adjunct Grahame Russell of the Canadian non-governmental organization Rights Action  By the end of my first semester, Dr. Nolin, a geographer, asked me: "How can you call yourself a 'development' practitioner, if you have never been to the Global South?" She was right. Until this point, my knowledge of the world was intimately wrapped within the words of my academic textbooks. I had only seen the world through other people's eyes and experiences on paper. My White, middle class upbringing in the rural areas of Hamilton had allowed me opportunities of traveling to areas of the Global North, but I had had limited encouragement to go farther. At first, I was unsure, but after listening to Dr. Nolin and some of her other graduate students, I found myself booking a flight to Guatemala to take part in this intensive and unique field school experience in May of 2010.

The course "Geographies of Culture, Rights and Power" gave students a first-hand opportunity to speak to Indigenous Maya peoples about the impacts of genocide and cultural survival, listen to family members whose loved ones were 'disappeared' during years of state sponsored terror, as well as engage with critical issues surrounding land and resources, migration and displacement, poverty and wealth, all of which can ultimately be umbrellaed by the word 'development.'

It was approximately half way through the field school that Dr. Nolin and Grahame Russell drove students eight hours out to El Estor, a town in the far eastern part of Guatemala. The delegation had been invited to visit a remote Indigenous Q'eqchi' village called Lote 8 (Lote Ocho), a community that had been displaced in 2007 by Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals Inc. This particular area of Guatemala has been neocolonized by Canadian mining companies since the 1960s, first by INCO and later sold to HudBay. On the morning of our visit, we went as far as we could by pick-up truck, then hiked the rest of the way through the mountainous region to their new settlement, still in Indigenous territory. Over the course of the afternoon, the delegation listened to testimony from men who recounted their community's forced evictions on behalf of the Canadian mining company. Their homes were burned, crops destroyed and what few possessions they had were smashed by company security, the Guatemalan national police and military. After listening to these accounts, the men stepped away from the pavilion we sat under, and a group of women approached the delegation to share their experiences with us. To our knowledge, this was the first time the women of Lote 8 had spoken to outsiders about these terrible events. One by one, the women re-lived the horrific experiences of being gang-raped and sexually assaulted by HudBay's mine security as well as the Guatemalan police and military. The delegation witnessed the testimony of women whom had seen some of the worst sides of 'development.'

I don't remember walking down the mountains back to our lodging after that meeting. What I remember are the tears and confusion I expressed to my colleagues around a de-breifing table later that evening. The testimonies from the women of Lote 8 were not in my textbooks. The experiences of forced eviction, criminalization, sexual abuse and displacement in the name of 'development' were beyond my immediate comprehension. I began to ask the difficult questions: "Why?" "Whose 'development' is this!?"

Dr. Nolin encouraged her students to write a formal Human Rights Violation complaint to take to the Canadian Embassy at the end of the field school. I am saddened to tell you today, that the Human Rights Complaint has been responded to with silence from our government representatives in Guatemala, as well as local politicians here in Canada. This response was disturbing - an affront to what I thought Canada represented as a humanitarian and peace loving nation.

Sharing this experience is difficult, even though I am not the one who personally experienced such violence. Witnessing the harms of 'development' has impacted every day of my life since leaving Lote 8. Upon coming home to Canada, I found my family and friends were unable to engage with or understand my experiences, because they themselves had not witnessed the testimonies of these brave individuals. However, it was important that others in Canada knew and understood what was happening, because we are ultimately all connected. I felt compelled to do something, anything, to be apart of this struggle. Ultimately, I was involved in it whether I new it or not. Companies that represent Canada are doing harm in the name of 'development' with little to no recognition of those who live everyday with the negative impacts of mining. Even less is the recognition of Canadian citizen complicity within this struggle. Our Canadian Pension Plan, Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, stocks, banks, churches and more all all invested in Canadian mining companies. Our government agencies financially support, legally protect and socially pacify the impacts mining companies bring beyond short-term economic gains for wealthy corporations.

Dr. Nolin inspired me to engage further with these experiences. I decided to switch my Master's thesis topic, returning to Guatemala just a few short months later. I found myself in another region of Guatemala, but again with members of an Indigenous Maya community. Together, we discussed perspectives of development; how the Guatemalan government, international institutions and companies valued an economically driven development often laden with neoliberal policies that strengthened the wealth and power of the few and those in the Global North, juxtaposed with a more holistic, self-determined development practiced by the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala that values and respects the relationships humans have with the earth and emphasizes living well with less. 

Time and time again, mining came to the forefront of our conversations. Canadian mining companies are at the centre of many Indigenous, human and environmental rights abuses globally, and in Guatemala they are frequently involved with much of the contemporary violent conflict facing local Guatemalans. Upon finishing my Master's thesis, I was invited by Dr. W. George Lovell (Dr. Nolin's former supervisor) to come to Queen's and continue my exploration of re-thinking 'development' practices through mining in Guatemala. Low and behold, I was adopted into Geography and found my niche within geographies of development. Both Dr. Lovell and Dr. Nolin have guided my most recent project questioning Canada's northern shadow in Guatemala, and more specifically: "Development for whom?"

While talking to you in DEVS 100, my goal today was not to leave you down, dismayed or depressed with the information I have shared. Those are all legitimate and very real feelings that you can certainly engage with, but I would encourage you to use those feelings as a starting point for action - don't allow them to leave you feeling hopeless. You can all play a role in this struggle. You can continue to question 'development' and there are certainly stories of hope that come out of this discussion that can inspire you. The story of Lote 8 and the men and women adversely impacted by HudBay's Fenix mine is not over. An amazing legal team from Toronto, Canada, Klippenstein's Barristers and Solicitors are working with the 11 women, German Chub (a young man shot by HudBay's head of mining security), and the widow of an Indigenous Q'ecqhi' community leader (Adolfo Ich) are all fighting for justice in Canada's civil courts  In the documentary, Defensora, you all witnessed the testimony of these courageous individuals who are continuing to struggle for their rights as well as for peaceful self-determined development. These are stories of hope and change that can inspire us to further action. Beyond attending this class, being in development studies, or watching the critical and important documentaries that exist, you can do more. You can go home and tell your housemates, your families and friends about what you learned. You can question the types of investments you make in the future and divest from extractive resource companies that cause harm nationally and internationally. You can write to your local MP's and other government officials and ask them what they are doing about Canadian mining companies actions at home and abroad. You can join a local activist group or attend conferences or annual general meetings (AGMs) of these companies and ask them the hard questions yourself. You can even think about doing a graduate degree in an area of development that most interests you, if at the end of your four years you are left craving more from academia. The ways you can be involved in this struggle are endless, and all of them have a meaningful role to play.

I situate myself as a feminist/activist scholar - I am in a privileged position to be able to speak with you today and share the experiences of Guatemalans whom have asked me to amplify their voices here in Canada. You too are in this position here in Canada. I believe that no matter how small or big our action, we can make a difference. Show your solidarity with communities in a place like Guatemala. Respond to the testimonies of the men and women who spoke to you through Defensora by supporting their struggle and questioning economic development practiced through mining. Educate yourselves further and be critical of the ways in which 'development' is being toted as 'good' for all. If you start here, the world will open up to you and undoubtedly show many dark and harsh realities of the world in which we live - but amongst these stories, you will find glimmers of hope for truth, justice and a peaceful ways of living that are worth more than the gold beneath our feet. 

Posted:  April 3, 2014

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