On Creating Spaces of Unlearning

by Adriana Cancar

Recently I was part of a quite special Summer School and when I look back at it, I especially remember the feeling of trust – trusting each other to listen, to understand as far as possible, to comprehend, to speak, to respond, to feel with each other, to sit in silence together.

Broadly framed by concepts, theories and debates of and around ‘decolonization’ and ‘development critique’ the Summer School was attempting to confront and question hegemonic narratives and naming the most problematic aspects of growth and development imperatives and promises.

I am aware that by gathering a group of  like-minded people already aware of power structures and hierarchies creating a space of awareness and trust and emotionality is somewhat easier from the start than in a mainstream business or academic context which are built around competition and being ‘most efficient’. However, I think these kind of trust experiences, including creating spaces of vulnerability and unlearning are crucial to give everyone the room to question the world around us and especially our own roles and how these narratives and imperatives are embodied in ourselves and performatively reproduced in our daily lives. This act of unlearning and deconstructing the world around us and within us can lead to deeper insights and understanding of each other to tackle inequalities together to create a just world where we all can feel at home.

In my role as a European academic and after passing through my education in this exact academic system I cannot stop myself from analyzing these spaces in a somewhat systematic manner, reflecting on what might be beneficial for “our” – or at least my – learning spaces in a typical Western, white academia when it comes to dealing with and reflecting on power and knowledge hierarchies based on mainstream development and progress imperatives (embodied in myself, in western academia and teaching). But more importantly I wanted to try to put my experiences and learnings together on creating spaces of learning and unlearning and why it is so important to create these exact spaces to co-create a just world.

Without wanting to create a new tick-box questionnaire on “how to create a decolonial atmosphere” I still want to emphasize and reflect on some very important points that emerged in the Summer School that, I believe, would help to create a safer and more aware environment to learn from each other and to unlearn jointly.


To unlearn we need to feel safe to fail and trust each other not to judge and make fun of us. For this we need to open up ourselves and the atmosphere for emotions and emotionality. By excluding emotions from academia, academic writing and research we close ourselves off from a very human engagement and a quite big part of ourselves. And by that I do not mean to only reflect on feelings and emotions but to accept that the main characteristic of us human beings are emotions – and by reclaiming your emotionality in the form of self-reflection and feeling into oneself and being able to name your current state, we can establish more emotional placeshere emotionality is not seen as weakness but as a driver for more in-depth, critical thinking. While positivist academics hold on to the binary of emotional-rational and expand this imaginary to the spheres of academia (which must be rational) and society (being irrational and emotional), I say that knowing oneself, your emotions and its reasons and causes can be quite rational – knowing oneself and being able to understand each other is a quite rational thing when trying to come to terms with someone or something – and especially when trying to understand certain social phenomena. Hence, closing the intellectual space up for emotionality for me is the irrational thing, as emotions move the majority of human interaction. Integrating emotionality in science and academia therefore means an expanded perspective enabling to re-discover seemingly self-evident connections or “correlations” and “causalities”.


I think the first step to accept emotions and emotionality is to be aware of differences in everyone’s life paths. Everyone came as a mosaic of experiences, thoughts, ideas and especially emotions, embodying them in this very moment. These traits are inscribed in the way people were present, how they talked, how they listened and how they tried to understand each other. Each one’s perspective brings us closer to the “absolute” reality (spoken in white European academia) which is an assemblage of perspectives and experiences. I, as part of the organization team, was very aware of this fact from the beginning when we needed to decide which applications would be the most fitting for the Summer School. The biggest difficulty was trying to act in-between: on the one hand I was an organizer needing to select certain people according to specific criteria on paper; yet on the other, I was also a sensitive person not wanting to exclude anyone from this experience. In this exact situation I encountered an inner contradiction which I could not properly deal with.

Additionally, and unfortunately these kinds of experiences in deciding who is (allowed to be) present creates marginalization and exclusion. Even as a team that is facilitating a Summer School on “Decolonize Development”, I as part of the Organization Team could not properly secure diversity and difference in the way I wanted due to bureaucratic, structural, institutional and economic reasons. And participation was not possible due to several and very different reasons, such as visa exclusion – the wheel of privileges is spinning and spinning even in “aware spaces”. Deconstructing and criticizing the structures and the ideas hence need to be done simultaneously.

In the space and structural opportunities given, we as the organizing team such as the participants tried to embrace diversity and be aware of intersectional patterns and experiences of marginalization. One strategy to adequately address this was by being present and sharing stories, and by embracing and respectfully recognizing how everybody contributed to creating a space of awareness, trust and respect.


At the same time as we try to respect the diversity of the group and the individuality of every person present we learn to be aware of our actions and our behavior and in what way they could influence our environment. Being aware of hurtful language or expression or maybe even what we as embodied versions of historic power and hierarchy or suppression symbolize for others. Being aware of one’s own positionality (see again the wheel of privilege or theories and ideas of intersectionality) and presence is a key to create spaces of trust and unlearning. In my experiences in western and mostly leftist university events I can say that this has become common sense, which I find great. But then the question of the physical presence, or better absence, is being posed.

By presence, I mean the physical “being there” in the room at the event which seems to be a matter of course for most of EU and Western passport holders who do not need to apply for a visa and/ or have low burdens to overcome to participate in academic events. Simultaneously, we need to ask ourselves who was not able to come here? I think we should not only be aware of the language and our behavior in these exact situations but should also be aware that “we” (as people owning a “good” passport) have a lot privileges – but should not stop there but rather ask ourselves “how can we support and fight against the visa regime?”.

Finally, spaces of unlearning should be spaces of self-awareness on all levels whether on the discourse and linguistical level or the awareness of one’s physical presence.


Respecting the uniqueness of every person’s present and respecting your own path and stories is very important. And more important is to access your stories and emotions with them. By opening up the space to be and share and at the same time to receive and give space to others, everybody contributed to creating a space of mutual respect. This atmosphere of respect for each one’s past and future and especially present is something I find very special.

Respecting each others time and capacities and being aware of the concept that if you take up space you should be willing and able to give this space and attention and the atmosphere back. This means opening up space of reciprocity and willingness to be present.

Looking back at the Summer School I found it really helpful when workshop speakers precisely intervened in situations where the dialogue dynamics were imbalanced. And regardless of the fact that this behavior seems self-evident to some people, by repeating these “rules” “we” (as speakers, organizers, etc.) can emphasize and create the new “normal” that should include aspects of self-awareness and mutual respect.


By setting the ground with mutual respect, self / awareness and diversity and difference we can create dialogues at eye-level. And by giving the space to share and listen a space where dialogues can be created in its initial meaning of two or more people talking with each other. But by talking with each other the component of listening is in danger of being forgotten.

In my perception oftentimes when we talk with someone we forget to listen and mainly want to express ourselves – and oftentimes we forget to think about the consequences of our words (see Self-Awareness and Mutual Respect); and not just of our words but also of the time we need to talk, and the capacities others need to listen to us. Oftentimes “talks” are monologue reactions to other monologues. The skill of active listening is getting lost, and you have to “fight” for the attention on the other side.

By being aware of the concept of reciprocity and trying to keep the balance in conversational spaces and learning spaces and respecting each others time and cognitive capacities, spaces of dialogue can flourish again. And in spaces of mutual respect and dialogue places of “unlearning” can flourish.

By dialogue and talking I want to emphasize the importance of listening and caring about what the other person is trying to convey and express and respecting this. By respecting and attentively listening to each other there is so much to learn from each other. A great example at the Summer School was for everyone to bring a personal item that is symbolizing “Decoloniality”. As introduction everyone wanted to learn how their brought item was connected to “Decoloniality” and was attentively listening to their conversation partner. This “method” of connecting a word or construct with a personal thing is creating a certain interest.

Another example I want to introduce is the Yarning Circle. Our speaker Wendy Harcourt explained this method: a group of a certain amount of people comes together and has to answer a quite personal question. In our group’s case we were asked the question: what Earth-other is important to us? Wendy was making clear that this idea and method is something she learned from First Nations people in Australia, who use this method actively to listen to each other and reflect together as a group. The goal here was not to come to a consensual conclusion but to “speak from the heart” as Wendy put it so beautifully. I can only speak for my circle but in this circle there was no atmosphere of performance or judgement, there was no competition for the best argument or the supposedly “right” position. It was just about expressing thought from the heart without the head or “reason” interfering.

By taking the speed out of these situations and trying to be aware of conversational dynamics and spaces of dialogue, listening can lead to the co-creation of spaces of unlearning and learning.


Learning is a big word – we are educated and told that we need to learn throughout our life; the concept of lifelong learning is getting quite some attention. Learning in this context is understood typically academically, trying to get the most benefit out of a situation. When we deconstruct this thought or idea we find a rather extractivist logic and neoliberal indoctrination – take something out of the situation and using it for only our own benefit.

I have to again think about the Yarning Circle where so many deep emotions were expressed and were just left in the room – just being there without comment or judgement. This means for me that, sometimes, it is not about “using” situations and happenings but just about accepting this situation as it is, and this is a huge learning.

With this I want to stress that we (as critical scholars) need to unlearn the way we approach and value our (past) experiences. We need to practice more respect and gratitude for the experiences we were able to live through and what we have learned from them without actively trying to extract the knowledge out of these situations.


By following  spaces of difference, of respect, dialogue and (un-)learning we come to the point where we are inevitably vulnerable. Being openly vulnerable in times where strength is conceptualized as physical strength, ability, competences, power or influence, it takes a lot of courage to show yourself vulnerable and weak, which seems to be the opposite of contemporary interpretations of strength.

Showing that you care is not a weakness but it is valuable. Making oneself vulnerable is courageous and can be  inspiring and encouraging for others. The deepest origin of human interaction is reciprocity and by opening yourself up you inspire by giving the space for others to open up as well. You trust them to handle your vulnerability in a respectful manner and hopefully create a wave of influence on others.

Again, this is the place where the Yarning Circle is a great example – I was not comfortable from the beginning to directly share my thoughts and wanted to wait for the others. As everyone was sharing their thoughts, I gained the courage to express myself as well and I just recognized how I appreciated everyone’s openness, vulnerability and trust in me not to disrespect this situation.


And last but not least, the most important component for creating a space of unlearning is trust. If you experience all the “stages” (in systematic and academic terms) above you can trust others in this situation to be present, to respect you and your experiences, your time, your capacity – in general to respect you as a being.


I want to close by expressing gratitude for this experience and the space I was part of and was allowed to co-create. We had an open space of mutual respect and dialogue, of learning and failure, of vulnerability and empowerment, of solitude and connectedness and community, a space where head and heart found a place to – just be.

I feel like this was a space in which we learned to lose the fear – losing the fear of being misunderstood, being judged, making failures, losing the fear of letting the guard down and being vulnerable, letting go of the fear of showing oneself, expressing oneself and just being oneself.

A space of dialogue and questioning (oneself).

A space of emotionality and re-claiming their own emotionality and emotions, to reconnect with emotions and trusting everyone to respect and accept it.

Being aware that everyone has their own emotions and learning to access them, name them and learn how to deal with them – for your own sake of connecting and learning about oneself.

Taking time together to get into the feeling and seeing what is coming from the heart, a space where the heart is a symbol of emotionality.

A space of rest and inspiration – human connection and community. Distancing oneself from the idea of individualism even though we need to get back in the world where we need to perform and do things alone, where we define our worth as individuals, closing up and managing our emotions and ideas by ourselves.

But maybe the most beautiful experience was to just be and be accepted and appreciated for this – and finding a community to tackle the same things.

Adriana Cancar is a Research Assistant at the University of Kassel, Germany. She is part of and contributing to the DFG-funded project “Towards a Reinvention of Development Theory- Theorizing Post-Development” and the COST Action Network “Decolonising Development”.