By Matias Nestore

Besides the brief experiences of the UCU strikes and the Decolonise movement last year, most people in Cambridge don’t see their academic lives as overlapping with activism or social movements. Those of us who do engage in them tend to do so outside of the university domain, given that overlapping factors such as grades, publications, or just general competitive environments prevent us from identifying academia as a space in which to act.

I’m writing from a seminar by Professor Mario NovelliSocial Movement learning and knowledge production in the struggle for peace and social justice, in preparation for a roundtable discussion with Aboubakar Soumahoro, the Italian-Ivorian trade unionist and activist, working for the rights of migrant labourers in the south of Italy. While I sit in the seminar listening to Mario I wonder what sort of questions I might ask Soumahoro next week, how to drive a discussion on collaborative learning between social movements, unions and universities. Can the gap between academia and social movements working on the ground be bridged? Is there a way in which knowledge can be co-produced and an epistemic dialogue developed between the two parties?

The main question to address is why we need to look for knowledge co-production and joint learning experiences between academia and social movements. The answer to this was elegantly phrased by Mario when he asked:

Where would feminist theory be without feminist social movements? Where would postcolonial theory be without independence struggles? Would Marxist theory have achieved anything without worker organisations?

As he was posing these questions, everyone in the room kept staring at him and the images of the social movement groups involved in his research project, nodding in silence, and I wondered what such movements had to learn from engaging and collaborating with universities.

As well as presenting his work, this seminar feels like a call from Mario to start engaging with social movements, activists and people on the ground, identifying the ways in which collaborative work between academia and social movements can drive knowledge production, by creating collaborative processes of pedagogic relations. It is not only about learning from social movements or people on the ground, but rather learning with, by creating dialogues, spaces of debates and relations that can help co-produce knowledge.

Social movements give academia the language and experiences to write theory and theory helps social movements drive their struggle forward.

None of the voices involved in this process can be excluded from the conversation. This is a challenge to much top-down theory of change, both in political science but equally in comparative and international education. There is a need to challenge top-down and technical understandings of change, particularly in the field of development and question the assumption that knowledge and expertise are only to be found in big institutions. It is only through engaging with a greater diversity of people that knowledge can start to be grasped, as it is in the relations and experiences of people that knowledge resides.

As I leave the seminar, I am picturing the conversation and interview with Aboubakar Soumahoro, listing the possible questions and discussions that might arise in our meeting.