How can we innovate our practices as individuals and collectives that “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”?

Mia Perry, SFA Co-Director – Opening remark

For our third major SFA symposium, we traveled to Lira in Northern Uganda: members from Nigeria, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland and Glasgow met in Kampala on February 13, 2019 to begin the 8-hour road journey to the vicinity of the ongoing research projects led by the Ugandan hub. This was to be the first international symposium in collective memory to be held in this small town, we were hosted in a beautiful hall at the Brownstone Country Home, built especially for our event. The venue was an apt choice, echoing our idea of sustainability, as it was completely running on solar power, locally inspired architecture with thatched roofs, did not have any unnecessary frills such as air conditioning and offered locally produced food.

We set out this year to establish strategic planning for the network and expand the scope and nature of our partnerships. Along with the academics, administrators and artists of our network, this year our participants included journalists, business people, and farmers from our various international hubs, along with community members, teachers, and district officials from the nearby Apala subcounty, Alebtong district.

In a recent newspaper report, Stephen Buryani provoked me with the following statement: “This is the paradox of plastic: learning about the scale of the problem moved us to act, but the more we push against it, the more it begins to seem just as boundless and intractable as all the other environmental problems we have failed to solve. And it brings us up against the same obstacles: unregulatable business, the globalised world, and our own unsustainable way of life” (2018, The Guardian). This resonates with me intensely, I replace “plastic” with “socio-ecological sustainability,” and feel this sentiment reflects many moments I have had over the past three years of working with the SFA network.

So, I began the symposium this year by foregrounding my awareness and conflict with the unsustainability of my own way of life. As a founder and co-director of this network, I acknowledge the compromises I make on a daily basis — of the times I reach for the convenience of a plastic packet of processed food or a cheap t-shirt, and of the resources (non-renewable natural resources, carbon emissions, inequitable labour) that were expended for us all to meet in Lira this year.

There is no high ground in this work, no clear “right” and “wrong”, “us” and “them” – and perhaps that is why it is so challenging and has such powerful potential. Unlike conceptions of education (I have knowledges and skills that I can share and teach to others), unlike conceptions of biomedical research (there is a medicine can cure this disease), the issues that we are facing and addressing in our work (all of us in different ways) are issues that we are also simultaneously implicated in creating and sustaining. With the briefest of reflection, I can see that we are part of the problem just as we are committed to being part of the solution.

I ask myself and our network how we enact sustainability and equity in our engagements with one another and our work and initiatives. How can we innovate our practices as individuals and collectives that “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”? How many plastic bottles would we get through over the course of our meeting, how many air and road miles would we collectively rack up, and of course, as always, who are the beneficiaries of our work? Our third symposium was exciting! Our hubs are gaining capacity, focus, and confidence; our research is taking root and finding pathways to impact; our vision and planning is finding form; and our motivation and commitment to the work we are forging is as vibrant as ever. The next chapter of the SFA is not certain by any means – but uncertainty in our methods of research, as in our communities of practice is what we need to embrace and improvise with in ethical ways if we are to continue to work with innovation and imagination towards sustainable futures.