Q&A with Mathura “Temwa” Mahendren, author of Dismantling the Master’s Tools

Dismantling The Master’s Tools is a toolkit that guides users through a brave and compassionate exploration of their identities, narratives, and practices as people living and working within systems steeped in white supremacy.

Who is the toolkit for, and how is it intended to be used?

What started off as a resource for researchers working within the social sector, quickly became a toolkit that’s relevant for most of us. Most of us are researchers and knowledge-gatherers – we ask questions and seek answers to better understand the things, people, and relationships that we care about, so that we can better show up for them. In this sense, a researcher is anyone who participates in an ongoing process of inquiry in order to arrive at deeper, more clarified understandings of whatever it is they are investigating, in order to be of better service to it. This includes inquiry about the self, the other, the environment, the systems we inhabit, or the relationships and processes that connect them all. 

In the world of research, we are, for the most part, in the business of uncovering, acknowledging, critically examining, synthesizing, and sharing about “the other”. This toolkit is an invitation to direct this critical inquiry inwards, to become intimate with our internal infrastructure, so that we might better understand the lens through which we are perceiving “the other”. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are the reference point through which we locate “the other” and part of conducting robust, responsible, and compassionate research is knowing where we stand, why, and how that has and continues to shift as we accumulate lived experience. The more compassion, complexity, and nuance we are able to afford ourselves in this self-inquiry, the better equipped we will be to offer the same grace to “the other”. After all, we can only guide others as far as we’ve travelled ourselves.

How has your involvement with, and opinion of social R&D evolved over time as a result of your experiences as a researcher and participant?

It has become clear to me that the people who are paid to sit and think about these issues are often not the people experiencing them. It is a privilege to be able to engage with these issues from a place of “empathy” rather than lived experience, to be able to “solution” from the comfort of being sheltered from the impact of those solutions or lack thereof, to be able to develop “framework” after framework to understand an issue as others are living the consequences of the realities we’re trying to map, measure, and report on. In this sense, social R&D as it’s currently practiced in the mainstream, including within social innovation, is largely a tool of white supremacy. The questions we ask are defined by the limits of white comfort, the methods we use reinforce worship of the written word, paternalism, and quantity over quality (all characteristics of white supremacy culture), our tolerance for critique is determined by the level of threat it poses to white fragility, and the solutions that are uplifted are limited by the bounds of the white imagination. These realizations are among many that precipitated the need for Dismantling the Master’s Tools – the toolkit, and the ongoing unravelling that it facilitates in me as a researcher living and working in systems that uphold white supremacy.

The toolkit brings forward the idea that research is a process that should be embodied – something that is completely absent from most western-based research methodologies. How would you describe the importance of locating research within the body?

The mind-body split that is reinforced in research uplifts the mind as the generator of knowledge, as the sole location of information-gathering, processing, interpreting, and sharing. It perpetuates a false hierarchy of the mind as the dominant dimension of our being, the ruling authority over our other dimensions including our bodies, emotions, and spirits. In research, this mind-supremacy shows up in the treatment of research and knowledge gathering as a solely intellectual pursuit. 

In treating a research interaction as a solely intellectual exchange, we invisibilize the ways in which our bodies, emotions, and spirits can be activated in a research setting. We lose key data when we choose to ignore our bodies, emotions, and spirits as generators, keepers, and conveyors of knowledge. We also end up prioritizing research methodologies and practices that engage just the mind, and care for just the mind, rather the body, emotions, and spirit as well.

Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson shares that, ““Theory” is generated and regenerated continually through embodied practice and within each family, community, and generation of people. Theory isn’t just an intellectual pursuit. It is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence, and emotion. It is contextual and relational. It is intimate and personal with individuals themselves holding the responsibilities for finding and generating meaning within their own lives.”

For more on how the mind-body split manifests in our work and how we might move toward embodiment and honouring lived experience, check out Chapter 4 of the toolkit or CH4 Ep6 and CH4 Ep7 of the Spotify playlist!

You emphasize the importance of reciprocity and relationality in conducting research. What does social innovation look like when it centers relationship-building?

In the toolkit, I trace the word “reciprocity” back to its origins and define it as “the state of moving backward and forward, alternating, and mutually exchanging.”  Within research, this can look like:

  1. Treating knowledge as a gift versus a commodity. Potawatomi scholar and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer shares that the difference between the two is that we have no inherent obligation to the things we purchase as commodities. The reciprocity ends the moment money is exchanged, and the commodity becomes our property. A gift, on the other hand, creates an ongoing relationship. She shares, “From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas in a gift economy property has a “bundle of responsibilities” attached.” 
  2. Approaching research as a practice of visiting. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson defines visiting as, “Visiting within Nishnaabeg intelligence means sharing oneself through story, through principled and respectful consensual reciprocity with another living being. Visiting is lateral sharing in the absence of coercion and hierarchy and in the presence of compassion. Visiting is fun and enjoyable and nurturing of intimate connections and relationship building. Visiting is the core of our political system (leaders visiting with all the members of the community), our mobilization (Tkamse and Pontiac visited within and outside of their own nations for several years before they expected mobilization), and our intelligence (people visiting elders, sharing food, taking care).”

For more specific suggestions on what this can look like in the world of research, check out Chapter 4 of the toolkit, or CH4 Ep9 and CH4 Ep10 of the Spotify playlist!

Are you still involved in research activities and if so, what are some of the ground rules you set for yourself before embarking on a project?

I’m still involved in research in that I’m still someone who asks questions and seeks answers in order to better understand the things, people, and relationships that I care about, so that I can be of better service to them. I don’t have ground rules that I set so much as questions that I ask myself on an ongoing basis to ensure that the way I gather, process, and share knowledge is aligned with the futures I want to help build. There are too many questions to capture here (I’m not even going to pretend like there’s a ‘Five Easy Ways to Decolonize Your Practice’ version of this), but many of them are included in the reflection prompts that conclude each section of the toolkit

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