AAG 2020 “Global Black Geographies” Paper Session Organizing

For the upcoming American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting, I’m co-organizing a two-part paper session on the theme “Global Black Geographies: Racialized Spaces, Black Space-Making and Theorizing in Africa & Diaspora Contexts.”

For the upcoming American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting, I’m co-organizing a two-part paper session on the theme “Global Black Geographies: Racialized Spaces, Black Space-Making and Theorizing in Africa & Diaspora Contexts.”

Session Description:

This paper session aims to bring together critical scholars (feminist/womanist, southern, subaltern, postcolonial, decolonial, Marxist, Pan-Africanist, etc.) to discuss Black (African and/or African Diaspora) spatial experiences and practices in the context of white supremacy and hegemonic race-based design and planning. In geography and related disciplines, a wide range of scholars push our critical understanding of the ways in which white supremacy, racism, and hegemonic race-based planning and design affect how we as Black peoples live, experience, navigate, and survive in urban spaces, as well as the diverse spatial practices that we employ to subvert, resist, thrive, and create communal and liberatory spaces. These investigations demonstrate the continuing impacts of white supremacy and racism in settler colonial contexts, as well as the ways in which racialized processes and institutions continue to manifest through urban and spatial imaginaries in postcolonial contexts: “black urbanism” in the UK context (Goodwin 2010), “black sense of place” in the US (McKittrick 2011), “hair braiding epistemologies” in Johannesburg (Matsipa 2017), “black placemaking” in Chicago (Hunter et al 2016), as well as the reproduction of colonial racism in postcolonial Ghana (Pierre 2013).

This panel session attempts to traverse the geographical boundaries that often separate our theorizing and scholarly conversations. In organizing this session, we aim not to essentialize Blackness, but rather to seek connections while embracing the spectrum of our subjectivities produced through our histories and experiences. We ask: How is dehumanizing and racist planning and design, emergent from slavery, colonialism, apartheid and segregation, reproduced in ‘modern’ urban and spatial imaginaries in settler colonial and postcolonial cities? How might we talk not just within but also across our African and African Diaspora geographies to critique the mechanisms of displacement and containment employed in settler and postcolonial cities, and to make visible how these techniques move across different regimes? What frameworks and concepts enable us to shift, stretch, and expand intellectually to theorize about spaces, space-making practices of Black peoples, as well as to reflect on our own experiences of conducting research as Black peoples navigating Blackness in different contexts? How does our theorizing (and theories) move? How might working across deeply embedded Africa-Africa Diaspora divides enable us to connect our critiques of white supremacy and racialization processes, and its linkages to coloniality, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, to map global Black geographies?

Our two-part session will include a first focus on creating and defining communities, and a second session on displacements and movements.

Graduate Teaching Assistant: Urban (Hi)Stories, Fall 2017, 2018, 2019

As a GTA in this course, I’ve given one guest lecture each fall semester to undergraduate and masters students on architecturally relevant theory with practical exposure to design challenges in the city of Accra.

For three consecutive fall semesters, I’ve worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant with Florian Kossak on his undergraduate + masters architecture course ARC303 Urban (Hi)Stories. As a GTA, I’ve given one guest lecture each fall semester to students based on my own professional in Accra and academic research focus, and also marked (graded) students’ final essay exams.

In each lecture, I’ve tried to blend architecturally relevant theory with practical exposure to design challenges in the city. In my 2018 and 2019 lectures, I presented and explored postcolonial criticism via the experiences of architecture and design, pulling from the works of Achille Mbembe and Homi Bhabha to critique architecture as a tool for colonial practices of segregation, exclusion, all embedded within a modern imaginary. I then traced the colonial mobilities of British architects and colonial ideas about modernity, progress and development (to be achieved through modernist design and planning). I then moved to critique the emphasis on urban modernity in the contemporary city’s design, and explored this through the practical example of the modern markets initiative in the city. This presentation helped us to explore our roles as architects, designers, planners when coming from ‘global north’ spaces to do design in ‘global south’ cities. Namely, how are we working toward liberatory practices, rather than re-producing colonial and postcolonial exclusions?

Each lecture session has provided the opportunity for me to connect with students (third-year architecture and masters in urban design students), and to provide a critical lecture connecting coloniality and architecture. Feedback I’ve received on my teaching from students:

“I’ll never forget your lecture on Accra (which for me was one of my favorite Humanities lectures ever). Also everyone I spoke to after your lecture said how much they enjoyed it! They all said you’re charismatic and that the talk was very engaging!” – student

Collaborative Research Presentation: #GSA2019

Yussif Larry Aminu, Fatimatu Mutari, Mustapha Adamu of Spread-Out Initiative NGO and I presented our collaborative research at the Ghana Studies Association Conference at the University of Ghana, Legon.

On July 14, 2019, Yussif Larry Aminu, Fatimatu Mutari, and Mustapha Adamu of Spread-Out Initiative NGO and I presented our collaborative research at the Ghana Studies Association Conference at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Our presentation was part of the panel “Re-thinking African Urban Studies” and organized by Prof. Ato Quayson at Stanford University.

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Our process: We worked together to develop our PowerPoint presentation, guided by questions of how we would like to frame the Nima neighborhood, and using the opportunity to emphasize the importance of collaborative research, and then sharing our methodological process, examples of the information produced by SOI students, as well as our initial insights.  Larry, Fati, and Mustapha did not want to present, so we agreed that I would present our 15-minute presentation, and we practiced it together several times, editing and making adjustments as we went along. We also drew on our conversation discussing initial insights and incorporated each of their contributions – as cited quotes – to also include their voices in the presentation, even though they were not directly presenting in our work.

On the day, the four of us came to the panel; I was at the front for the presentations, and then Larry, Mustapha, and Fati joined on stage for the Q&A session. We were able to share the fielding of questions during the Q&A – on how we selected the public spaces and on marginalization in Nima.

Group Presentation Photo (Panel)

The experience emphasized for us the importance of collaboration at multiple stages of the research process, as well as in our representation and in the presentation of our research. For us, it became important to represent each of their work and contributions (through our physical presence on the day, through acknowledgements and naming in the presentation). It was also important the each of us contributed and helped shape the research presentation. Preparing this presentation triggered a lot of important questions for us that we will continue to think about.

Collab Research Slide

Writing Tutor: Accra Architecture Writing Workshops: 2018, 2019

For two consecutive years, I have been part of a team of academics and PhD students organizing and running an intensive writing workshop for undergraduate, masters, and PhD students to learn and write about specific architectural sites in the city of Accra.

For two consecutive years, I have been part of a team of academics and PhD students who together organize the Accra Architectural and Urbanism Workshop (in July 2018 and June 2019). Working with Ola Uduku (Manchester School of Architecture), Irene Appeaning-Addo (University of Ghana, Legon), Joseph Frimpong (Ashesi University) and Kuukuwa Manful (SOAS), we organized writing workshops for undergraduate, masters, and PhD students to learn about and write about specific architectural sites in the city of Accra.

2018, in addition to helping workshop preparations and planning, I joined as a workshop tutor. I supported a small group of undergraduate students to explore, research, and document the architectural history and present-day realities of the University of Ghana’s Balme Library. I coordinated an informational tour with the head librarian, encouraged them to use transect walks and informal interviews with library users, and edited the initial and final drafts of their essays. I also worked with a small website team of participants to produce an online blog showcasing their work:
www.africarchi.wordpress.com

I also wrote my own reflective essay.

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In 2019, I again helped organized preparations and plans and joined as a workshop tutor. I supported four students to explore, research, and document the architectural, design and wider planning history and present-day usages of the Old Kingsway Building, located in Old Accra (Ga Mashie). I facilitated their interviews with local resident experts and provided editorial support as they pitched ideas for their essays and produced initial drafts. I also coordinated a talk by Nat Nuno Amartefio, former mayor of Accra for the students, and he shared his insights on the various international and regional influences on Accra’s architecture.

UNCLE NAT TALK

Graduate Teaching Assistant: Principles of Research Methods

In Fall 2018, I worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant with Mark Taylor of the Sheffield Methods Institute to support teaching of Principles of Research Design, a first-semester course for masters and first-year PhD students.

In Fall 2018, I worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant with Mark Taylor of the Sheffield Methods Institute on his Principles of Research Design course, a first-semester course for masters and first-year PhD students.

Mark taught this course as a weekly seminar, requiring that students write weekly reflections on the assigned readings to inform participative weekly class sessions. The two-hour class sessions were seminar style, blending short lectures interspersed with small group discussions. The course covered the fundamentals of designing a rigorous research process; and before the semester, Mark invited me to make any contributions to the syllabus and I did, adding (for example) readings on the politics of citation practices. In each session, Mark would lead the lecture presentations and I would help facilitate the small group discussions, moving between the small groups and listening to the students’ reflect on set topic questions and their readings, and answering questions and clarifying understandings. This was a fantastic learning and teaching experience, providing me the opportunity to work with students from across social sciences disciplines, and build experience in facilitating student discussions and teaching in small-group settings.

Speculative Infrastructures Workshop

In 2018, I participated in the two-day workshop ‘Speculative Infrastructures and Cities-in-the-Making, and I reflect on my contribution to the panel session on “Margins.”

In 2018, I participated in the two-day workshop ‘Speculative Infrastructures and Cities-in-the-Making,’ which was organized by Jon Silver and Paula Meth at the University of Sheffield and supported by Urban Geography journal and the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and Institute of International Development. I also developed the event poster/workshop magazine!! [Download workshop magazine]

The workshop was the opportunity for me to participate in a thought-provoking panel engaging the ‘margins’ in the research process. The workshop sought to respond to “the growing prominence of infrastructure in understanding urbanisation as a dynamic, open ended and contested process of global transformation” and to “reflect on the utility of infrastructure as a problematic in examining cities in-the-making.” This opens up the concept of “infrastructure” as both material and non-material; for example, consider the approach of urban theorist AbdouMaliq Simone, who wrote on marginalized Johannesburg residents’ economic collaborations as an example of “people as infrastructure,” and Michele Lancione and Colin McFarlane’s writing from the urban contexts of Turin and Mumbai and use of the framework of “infra-making” to highlight the material and non-material labors that marginalized residents put into action to produce the alternative forms of sanitation meeting their needs. Both approaches implicate the role of city-planned material forms of infrastructures that aren’t accessible, and highlight the actions, agencies, and relationships of residents who navigate their needs in such absences.

The provocation for the panel that I participated in, on margins, was complex. In advance, we were asked to reflect upon the following:

People are pushed at the ‘margins’; people live at the ‘margins’; the ‘centre’ as opposed to the ‘margins’ – one could continue along this line of definition of the margins as space, place or social structuration. But what if the margins are not something that can be defined and measured and studied and governed; but rather a politics that can only be performed, arranged, oriented, embodied? In this panel we are interested in exploring the infra-structural (un)making of the margins: the make+shifts, the everyday life, the assemblage of performances and matters that emerge once the veil of social categorisation is lifted, and the margins are set in motion. The notion of infra-structure (or that of infra-making) signals a desire to trace the structural makings of inequalities, social exclusion and poverty, looking at how they are contested and reinvented through the crossroads of everyday urban life. Reading the margins through infra-structures requires a historically informed ethnographic attendance to the multiplicity of life, and to its performative unfolding: a midst in-between which the researcher has no chance of detachment, but only responsibility of commitment.

In which ways does everyday life become an infrastructure ‘at the margins’?

What is the relational politics of infrastructures such as markets, sewages, bridges, side-walks when they meet with the infra-makings of urban life? Can marginality be reconfigured, as an analytics, from those relationships?

What is the ‘infrastructural’ responsibility of the work you do? Does it intersect, does it sustain, does it allow knowledge to flow and liberate?

What kind of epistemology is needed to look at life at the margins across north/south divides?

Responding to these questions took time, thought, and discussions with two PhD classmates at the School of Architecture: Amr Yaghi and Aya Musmar. In the end, I tried to answer these questions in three parts: In conceptualising everyday life at a margin, in learning from a margin, and in researching from a margin. These thoughts and conversations forced (facilitated) me to think about my own research approach and ethics and how I am (how I could be, how I should be) embodying them in my research practice – for example, not just in researching the margins as a research topic, but also as a methodological practice. For example: Whose knowledges within the domain of social sciences research are dominant, and whose knowledges are forced to the margins, I ask myself. Within this PhD process, this is the system in which I operate and act (whether I like it or not) through my readings, citations, and frameworks. I must ask myself: How am I, as a researcher, either challenging or re-producing these dynamics – for example, in the ways I conduct my research, in the ways I relate to fellow knowledge producers? And, are there other options? How does displacement *from* infrastructure compare infrastructures that *enable* displacements? How do various forms of infrastructure enable everyday life across urban space?

I find the margins to be a fuzzy conceptual location – not fixed, but rather always shifting, negotiated, changing, evolving. I don’t think about them as a specific spatial location (such as the periphery of the city), but as an experience of being outside or in-between the dominant planning framework of the city. How do residents navigate such experiences – such as being ‘cut off’ from functional electrical, water, sanitation, economic, other infrastructures? I hold scenes in my head of experiences of being at the margins that I have myself seen or experienced: Accra residents disconnected from the city’s water pipes (or even for connected users whose water is not flowing) who hire private water companies to fill large home-installed water storage tanks, purchase water in sachets or bottles, or use yellow, 20-liter jerry cans to tap water from the nearby public water points, or neighbouring houses or businesses, depending on their financial means. Access to water comes to depend not only on the physical built infrastructure in the city, but also the financial resources, negotiations, social capital, and physical labour that urban residents impress in order to make necessary connections. In another example, as means of dealing with persistent scheduled and unscheduled power outages, new layers of economy emerge. Households and businesses with the financial resources purchase and use back-up power generators or batteries. I think of Lagos markets and streets, where vendors can set up small generators connected to power outlets so customers can charge their mobile phones at a fee. I think of the experiences of people in the ‘in-between’ space of freelancing or consulting, who don’t have a formal work space, but still need a space to work, and move between cafes and restaurants where they purchase food and drinks, charge their mobile phones and computers, and hold professional and personal meetings, moving their work and social lives from domestic spaces to these venues operating on back-up generators. I think of residents who repurpose the city’s streets and sidewalks conceptualised by transport engineers as infrastructure for vehicular and pedestrian flows into multifunctional urban commons. Vehicles and pedestrians are forced to negotiate with residents’ everyday claims for vending, residents negotiate with each other and the state their own claims to space for the performance of cultural rites and ceremonies, pick-up football games, hanging out, and social activities.

Examining these practices reveals the multilayered and differing experiences of ‘marginality’. I imagine there are multiple margins, where age, gender, financial capacity, location, status and other signifiers can define which infrastructures and networks that marginalised actors can tap into, as well as their negotiations and contestations within spaces of marginality. The social relations and networks through which infrastructure solutions are produced in everyday life are as important to the city as the built infrastructure, and particularly essential for those at the margins. While practices of remaking at the margins create means of access, they also simultaneously highlight for us the very biased politics of planning and design, which is something that both Katherine McKittrick, who theorizes on North American black women’s geographies, and Paula Meth, who theorizes on South African women’s insurgent urban navigations in space, both write about. Their work forces me to ask: Who has the city been designed for, and who has been designed ‘out’ of the city? Which actions and practices have been rendered ‘informal’ and invisible and expendable by historical narratives and powers? How might these operations and relations also reveal each margin as a space with potential for transformation? In our role as researchers researching and writing about cities, how can we shed light on these practices, contribute to discourses, and also use any knowledge we produce to contribute to local processes to address the marginality that we theorize about?

I think the five questions meant for provocation only lead me to more questions. I also hope these discussions continue, whether in similar such platforms, or in person, or online – including on twitter (see #specinfra) and in the comments! Also, big thanks to my supervisors Beatrice De Carli and Paula Meth for their support, to Jon Silver and again Paula for including me in this conversation, to Tom Gillespie and again Jon for their intellectual contributions on marginalizations processes in Accra that force me to see familiar spaces with new lenses, and to Michele Lancione for his provocations that likewise challenge me in the ways I assume, think, and theorize. Thanks to my classmates Amro Yaghi and Aya Musmar for their support and helping me think through these important questions. It was also so wonderful to participate in a panel with Suzi Hall, Tom Goodfellow, and Tatiana Thieme, whose writings I engage with (in my head) and with whom I had the opportunity to have a wonderfully informative (in-person) conversation that continues to keep me thinking.

Sheffield School of Architecture Manifesto/s PhD Conference

I worked with some phenomenal PhD classmates to organize the 2018 Manifesto/s PhD conference, which was the first internal research conference at the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA), bringing together PhD students and faculty in the Architecture and Landscape Architecture departments.

I worked with some phenomenal PhD classmates to organize the 2018 Manifesto/s PhD conference, which was the first internal research conference at the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA), bringing together PhD students and faculty in the Architecture and Landscape Architecture departments.

A manifesto is a “public declaration” of an idea, intention, or view of an individual or a group. This Manifesto/s PhD Conference sought to give a voice and bring together the different research branches that are present within SSoA and the Department of Landscape. See our conference website here:
http://manifestos.group.shef.ac.uk/2018-2/portfolio/

This two-day event took place in the Arts Tower, University of Sheffield, on 27th and 28th April 2018. The first day of research presentations provided participating PhD students the opportunity to share their ongoing research and discuss feedback with the wide research community of peers, SSoA and Department of Landscape faculty, as well as external responders. The second day of hands-on workshops provided a platform for skills learning and experimentation in the areas of research methodology and research writing.

As an organizing team, we gained financial support to organize the two-day conference, including inviting external presenters and departmental faculty to respond to PhD students’ research presentations, and working with external presenters to develop a methodological and writing skills session.

I also presented my PhD methodology, which employs feminist and decolonial frameworks and collaborative approaches in order to investigate young people’s experiences of public space in Accra, Ghana.

Our Organizing Team:
Esra Can, Olivia Espinosa Trujillo, Gioia Fusaro, Victoria Okoye, Danni Kerr,  Cathryn Ladd, Yanisa Niennattrukal

#SSoAManifestos

Graduate Teaching Assistant: Cairo Urban Design Studio (2018)

In Spring 2018, I worked at Graduate Teaching Assistant for a School of Architecture masters-level studio course on collaborative urban design studio with Cairo Lab for Urban Studies and Environmental Research (CLUSTER).

In Spring 2018, I worked at Graduate Teaching Assistant for a School of Architecture masters-level studio course on collaborative urban design studio with Cairo Lab for Urban Studies and Environmental Research (CLUSTER). CLUSTER, based in Cairo, is a design NGO that leverages architecture, design, and planning for inclusive urban policy and practice in the city of Cairo, Egypt.

The studio course was oriented around supporting masters students in developing tailored design solutions to three sites in downtown Cairo (Cinema Rio) a dilapidated movie cinema), Rabbat Building (a multi-use, multistory building), and Baba al-Luq Market (a longstanding public market).

DIY in African Cities Workshop

I participated in the international workshop with researchers and practitioners with experiences from across Nigeria, as well as from Zambia, Botswana and other African countries to discuss and debate the notion of “DIY urbanism.”

From December 3-7, 2017, I participated in the international workshop “The Politics and Practice of DIY Urbanism in African Cities,” in Abuja, Nigeria. The workshop, sponsored by Malmo University, provided a platform for researchers and practitioners with experiences from across Nigeria, as well as from Zambia, Botswana and other African countries to discuss and debate the notion of “DIY urbanism.”

While in the global north, DIY urbanism refers to creative activities, in the global south, the discourse is on the urban informality, with a particular focus on residence and livelihoods. However, on the ground, the range of DIY activities in African cities is expansive, from basic needs to creative, cultural activities, although the latter are seldom recognized.

As part of the workshop, I had the opportunity to present initial thoughts and approaches from my own research (examining the ways residents claim and use public spaces), based on my past professional experience and research. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to discuss this theme and connect with urban practitioners and researchers based in the Nigeria, Malawi, Sweden, and the United States.

After the workshop, I wrote a tweet thread on #DIYUrbanismInAfrica sharing some of my key takeaways from the workshop:
Read it here.

Each of we the participants are contributing chapters to what will be a published book on this theme.