Tuesday's plenary speakers, Tal Peretz (Auburn University, USA) and Siila Watt-Cloutier, an indigenous activist.
The sun was shining on the opening day of the 2022 Annual International Conference, held this year at Newcastle University, northeast England. The conference – which is hosted outside of the Society’s building once every three years – is one of the largest geographical conferences in Europe, with around 1,300 geographers joining us in Newcastle, and a further 500 attending online over the next four days.
Prior to the first plenary, Chair of Conference, Rachel Pain, gave a short opening address welcoming delegates in person and virtually. She also introduced the theme, Geographies beyond recovery, and how it might speak to geographers in different ways, and went on to highlight the work that has been done for the conference around safety and inclusion.
Following Rachel’s opening words, the first chair’s plenary of the conference, Getting from here to allyship, was given by Tal Peretz (Auburn University, USA).
Tal opened his talk by asking the audience to imagine a ‘British geographer’ in an exercise that revealed some patterns about how our collective imaginary still works to reinforce certain stereotypes. The main body of the talk then included definitions of both ‘allyship’ (the supportive association with a marginalised or mistreated person or social group to which one does not personally belong), and ‘intersectionality’ (the idea that axes of oppression like race, class, gender, sexuality and religion are co-constitutive, inseparable forces which simultaneously shape our individual experiences of our social world). He voiced that we all live on axes of oppression, meaning that at some point in our lives, we will all experience some form of privilege and at other times, some form of oppression. He went on to say that allyship was seen to be an ‘imperfect, best response’, and at some point in everyone’s life, they will benefit from allyship.
Having set this out, Tal then went on to illustrate these points with two examples, Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence (MMADV) and Sweet Tea Southern Queer Men’s Collective. These two groups, although different in many demographic ways, shared a clear sense of allyship. These groups were also located in a specific place, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, – which raised questions about ‘why Atlanta?’ There were four reasons: demographic factors, including Atlanta’s historically large middle class Black population; cultural/historical factors; geographical factors, such as Atlanta being a relatively liberal place in a sea of more conservative places; and finally institutional factors – many of the men having met each other through other organisations in the city.
The intersectionality therefore becomes important because it opens up different possible pathways to allyship. For MMADV for instance, their pathways to allyship were largely mediated by the women in their communities, and particularly through the idea of being a ‘father of daughters’. For Sweet Tea members on the other hand, their engagement with allyship is primarily mediated by their own experiences of growing up and living as queer people.
He concluded that we need to move beyond lay theories of identity and instead move towards feminist standpoint theories that consider life experiences as being part of the reasons for a group’s perspectives. By applying this more complex and sophisticated model to our understanding of why things happen – recognizing these are still only partial perspectives –, and by gathering up more life experiences from more intersectional identities, we can use these to help us build better models for allyship. We also need to create more life experiences and to recognise our positionality when we do this work.
Other highlights of the afternoon included two sponsored lectures: ‘Other than White’: Racism and Belonging amongst New Migrants and Minorities in Peripheral Places, given by Anoop Nayak (Newcastle University) and sponsored by Social and Cultural Geography; and the Urban Studies lecture, 21st Urbanization and Grand Challenges for Global Sustainability, given by Karen Seto (Yale University, USA). Also on the programme was the first of two Area-sponsored sessions, Inside the Notebook: learning together from empirical instances, which sparked some very interesting conversation.
The final session of the day was the second chair’s plenary session given by indigenous activist, Siila Watt-Cloutier, who talked to the conference theme, Geographies beyond recovery, drawing on the human stories of the Arctic and its people.
Siila began her talk with a brief history of the Arctic, noting how various economic forces have shifted and changed the nature of Arctic life over the last two centuries. These have been accompanied by various social traumas and violence that have been inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Climate change is now adding to these traumatic histories, forcing adaptations that are very difficult because of the speed they require – bringing with it many further problems. Siila’s work, therefore, seeks to try and humanise these ideas and bring them to further attention of non-Arctic people.
Central to the way forward is allowing Inuit culture, wisdom, and ways of life to guide the recovery of the communities – again made more difficult by climate change because the key resources and spaces of Inuit culture are being eroded. She argued that overall, there needs to be major changes to save indigenous cultures and livelihoods, but these are also needed to save the broader planet from climate change too. At the heart of this case is recognition that people and the environment are not separate but are intertwined. The pandemic has given us new perspectives; forcing us to recognise the ways in which we are all connected and giving us a chance to see what might be possible if we do change our ways.
She concluded that what is really lacking from debates is a lack of imagination. By imagining completely different worlds in which we live in completely different ways, we can shift our ideas around conservation, preserving not only lands, but also traditional cultures that have land protection at their core. Indigenous people are not just victims, they can also offer a lot to debates if they are included. Hope from younger generations is forthcoming; they are using their skills and knowledge to make an active change to these issues. The transformation that is needed then, is not a scientific one, but a spiritual one, a change of hearts and minds, and a reduction of the greed and selfishness that has led to these issues in the first place.
The first day of the conference then concluded with a folk music performance and drinks reception.