Headshot of Charlotte Saenz standing with tree trunk background
Campus News

A Bright Future with Charlotte María Sáenz

Exploring education for the common good

October 20, 2023

Charlotte María Sáenz (she/they), CIIS professor in both the Interdisciplinary Studies and the Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion departments, epitomizes commitment to education in both thought and action. For two and a half decades, they have been teaching, writing, and uplifting the collective knowledge of their multiple communities, drawing on their deep reservoir of experience as well as their wellspring of curiosity and care. Prof. Sáenz was kind enough to share some of their wisdom with the CIIS community as part of the Bright Futures event, and spent some time discussing with us how education and imagination can play a vital role in how we all co-create the world of tomorrow.

What kind of imagination should we be cultivating right now?

We need to be not only imagining, but actively creating more autonomous futures in a world in which many worlds fit, creating today the world(s) we want to live in. How do we understand and make space in our planet for everyone in it, both human and beyond human. Our planet is the home of a huge diversity of life and ways of living. Our planetary life is under assault by the increased extractivism of late capitalism in which industrial megaprojects are being created, particularly in areas inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The threat is not just to them, but to all planetary life. Many people seem to have forgotten the lessons of our most recent pandemic and, in most places, have returned to capitalist business as usual. Our collective individual imaginations need to resist and see beyond this frenetic focus on incessant growth and expansion. Taking stock of where we are right now, how we got here, what tools and skills we hold collectively, and how to activate these towards a dignified future for all is the image and action we need to practice every day.

What are some of the bright futures that you are seeing in your work and your students?

The good news is that we already have everything we need if we are able to come together and work collectively on building towards our common good. I’ve just returned from an Encuentro/Encounter in Albuquerque, NM organized by the Sexta Grietas del Norte network, which supports the Indigenous Council of Governance of the Mexican National Indigenous Congress, as well as the Zapatistas. Their name GdN translates to “Cracks of the North” and makes references to the many cracks in oppressive structures and systems, from border walls to the legacies of colonialism, the suffocation of capitalism, the confines of cisheteropatriarchy, etc. Several former CIIS students were at this Encuentro, and I saw how their education had prepared them for tackling these enormous challenges of our times. They are involved in a wide array of projects of change in their respective places: from diverse forms of activism and policymaking to the many quieter forms of making a difference. I’m particularly struck by the increased attention to the many forms of care-work: of elders and children, as teachers, parents, farmers, spiritual work, restoring local habitats, solidarity across struggles, as well as step by step creating more autonomous futures in their neighborhoods and communities.

Can you share some of the frameworks for how you approach education?

My goal is to create an environment where each person contributes from their experience to our shared purpose: that of collective knowledge production. In this, we all have a sense of responsibility to the group, as well as to our own learning process. I foster a practice of generosity in the classroom, listening deeply to class texts and each other – engaging critically, thoughtfully, and with care. Having experienced various extremes of schooling, I am aware of both the liberatory as well as oppressive potential of education. Ingrained legacies of imperial and colonial systems of education exist alongside our increasingly neoliberal and globalized education. Faced with such rapid homogenization, not only of purpose, but also of form and process, I feel it crucial to instead create alternative learning and teaching methodologies, embodied and territorialized, that revolve around sharing, questioning, and co-creation.

What inspired this approach?

In graduate school, I received the honor of Paolo Freire’s guidance. His notion of a critical and engaged pedagogy made clear how many of our society’s dysfunctions emerge through factory-type schooling and other industrializations of our agriculture, health, faith, and culture. Freire raised important questions about the crucial social and political aspects of our work in the classroom. He spoke to us of the inseparability of teaching and learning in a broader process of knowing, of becoming engaged in a search that requires critical openness. For Freire, our intelligence lies in knowing how to respond to difference and challenge, in showing ourselves to be examples of what we teach.

I believe we learn best from direct experience with the world. I encourage each person to bring to the group their full self: body, mind, heart, and spirit, and to "senti-pensar," to "feel-think." We look to our various histories and fluid identities to further inform our inquiry; thus, I seek to bring into the classroom different ways of seeing, knowing, being, and doing – creating a kind of interdisciplinary knowledge-generating workshop that produces art projects, inspires ideas, dialogue and discussion, as well as develops relationships. Our classroom is a shared site of exchange and growth, co-creating an active learning process that speaks to our lives. In fostering a supportive environment of honest communication, care, and mutual respect, together we guide a process that develops each person’s critical thinking, confidence, and abilities; provides sharing of skills, methodologies, information, and exposure to different cultural and geographic perspectives.

Learn more about Prof. Sáenz writings, awards, distinctions, and experience here

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