“We’ve been having this conversation for years”.

A reflection on Bristol's reckoning with injustice

Claire Neaves and Alice Willatt, 10th July 2024

Researching injustice and exploring possibilities of redress in the city of Bristol is complex. It is vital to acknowledge the long history of work around injustice whilst considering why the city remains so divided.

As educators, we are particularly concerned with the production of knowledge and therefore any analysis of educational injustice without reference to Miranda Fricker’s theory of epistemic injustice is impossible. Epistemic injustice is that which is ‘done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower’ (Fricker, 2007:1). Fricker outlines two types of epistemic injustice: testimonial and hermeneutical.

Testimonial Justice

Testimonial injustice is a lack of credibility afforded to a speaker’s word. We could define testimonial justice as ‘being heard’ in an authentic sense; one’s words being listened to and accepted.

Bristol is a city where injustices are often voiced. Whilst it is undoubtably true that injustice persists and the most marginalised voices are often still silenced, we must acknowledge the work of individuals and organisations validating the testimony of Black Bristolians, queer Bristolians, those who’ve come to the city as refugees and other marginalised groups.

Our project is inspired by and builds on the rich body of testimonial justice work taking shape across the city’s racial justice space, particularly at the intersections of community, arts and academic practice.

For example, we are inspired by the illustrated book, If Racism Vanished for a Day that formed part of RESPECT project Bristol. The book, which we often see when visiting schools taking part in Repair-Ed, draws together children’s voices and embodied experiences of racism and is widely used to support conversations about racism. We also draw influence from The UnMuseum Cultural & Heritage Programme’s development of a prototype for an online space in which community-based archivists and cultural producers share and curate collections through Black and Minoritised lenses.

We are learning from those groups which centre recognition of the past such as  Curiosity UnLtd’s work to showcase the pioneers of the Bristol Bus Boycott, those who honour past injustices which persist in the present, such as the Palestine Museum and Cultural Centre and those who use both to call for urgent action to redress the damage caused, such as the Bristol Legacy Foundation who are “Bringing African-Led Reparatory Justice to Bristol”.

We look to the voices raised in celebration, such as Joy Trail – an educational project in which Emma Thomas and Tanisha Hicks-Beresford collaborate with Black school students to map, learn about and celebrate local people, places and stories of Black joy – and the events to mark St Paul’s Carnival.

We take inspiration from those projects which seek to create and disseminate knowledge, supporting students to learn about their heritage, culture and communities, such as One Bristol Curriculum and Cargo Classroom.

Recognising ongoing local work on interrupting the extractive modes of academic knowledge production within Bristol, as a project we look to the Charter for Co-Production Through an Anti-Racist Lens produced by the Black South West Network and researchers at the University of Bristol. As an outcome of community consultations, the Charter emphasises, among other things: recognising the epistemic violence of academic research; actively learning the histories and knowledge of communities; working with community partners within research without preconceptions about community needs or interests; and building long term community capacities.

Drawing on participatory, spatial and arts-based practices, the projects we draw inspiration from contribute to a growing body of testimonial justice work that seeks to disrupt and rework dominant trauma narratives and centre the untold stories of racially minoritised communities across the city. Amongst this epistemic justice work, and particularly pertinent to us as researchers and educators, are projects that seek to interrupt extractive, colonial modes of knowledge production.

In a city with such a wealth of knowledge and multiple groups facilitating testimonial justice, it is sometimes unclear why injustice persists so strongly.

It is here where we find Fricker’s second type of epistemic injustice a useful concept.

Hermeneutical injustice

Hermeneutical injustice relates to being unable to make sense of an experience which occurred socially due to an absence of ‘collective interpretative resources’. We could define this type of justice as being able to name, process and reckon with our experiences through the use of interpretative frameworks. For example, a tired and stressed mother may find relief in recognising what she is experiencing after reading about the ‘mental load’ explored in Emma’s comic. Likewise, individuals may only come to recognise a difficult relationship as emotionally abusive once they are able to reflect alongside others and put a name to their treatment.

Arguably, whilst Bristol has a long and proud history of speaking truth to power in which marginalised voices can be heard (thereby creating a source of testimonial justice), this has rarely been accompanied by an interpretation which allows people to make sense of injustice in a way which makes ready for repair.

Making ready for repair means not only speaking in solidarity and listening with empathy but collaborating in a way which unsettles the root of the injustice, replacing it with a framework from which to move forward as co-conspirators, determined to deny past injustice any leverage in the future.

Looking to wider frameworks of injustice, we are often able to name our experiences, as racism, sexism, homophobia and so on but this naming does not in itself bring justice. By exploring the unjust geography of Bristol and its interaction with these existing systems of oppression we bring to life Edward W. Soja’s concept of spatial justice, and we harness the potential of struggle as a ‘powerful source of identity, determination, and effectiveness in changing the world for the better.’ (2010:109)

The projects outlined above remind us that communities hold a wealth of powerful knowledge and are therefore essential sites of epistemic justice. If it is an interpretative framework which is the key to unlocking hermeneutical justice, then our aim in the Repair-Ed project is to make visible this framework to schools and their communities by opening up city-wide dialogue where educators, pupils, parents and the public can contribute their experiences to a collective interpretative resource.

In Repair-Ed we are particularly interested in the generative potential of the sorts of testimonial justice projects we have cited here. How might they contribute to the building of anti-racist political solidarities across the city? How can they help garner collective recognition and responsibility for racial injustices in the education system? Can they activate new future imaginaries of the city’s educational, cultural and civic landscape? These questions speak to a central aim of the Repair-Ed project: to collaborate with educators, children and other stakeholders to build city-wide resources and frameworks that support the collective recognition and acknowledgement of racial injustices in the city’s education system.

The People’s History of Schooling as a living archive

Through participatory workshops, exhibitions and public discussions, we will support communities to understand the injustices they have faced, and continue to face, building up a collective interpretative resource in the form of the People’s History of Schooling. Following Stuart Hall’s ideas of a ‘living archive’ (2001), we will collaborate with educators, children and city-wide stakeholders to build a digital collection of experiences which underpins a fundamental aim of the Repair-Ed project: to create interpretative frameworks and resources that support: collective recognition of the interconnections between past, present and future in both the formation of injustice and its repair; a reckoning with place as a fundamental driver of injustice; the potential for using imagination as a means to construct just futures of education.

Our living archive must go beyond merely documenting the past and present, daring instead to inspire ‘reparative futures’: processes of reparative redress that ensure injustice in the city is neither reproduced nor an inevitability (Sriprakash, 2023). Our collaborative events and the living archive itself provide collaborators with the means to build an interpretative framework through which they can locate their experience in place, as well as connect it to a wider community struggle.

The People’s History of Schooling elevates individual and community testimony by linking it to stories from across the city, creating a shared space for new knowledge-building.

When we know, we can imagine. At our launch event, Professor Jarvis Givens described imagination as a vital political tool. Repair-Ed leans into this description of imagination, sharing Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s view that spaces of marginalisation can ‘become spaces of resistance and hope’ (2012:4).  Only by viewing injustice through the lens of place and using imagination to build reparative futures will we be able to reckon with Bristol’s past in order to create a more just future.

References

Fricker, M., (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power & The Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Constituting an archive, Third Text, 15:54, 89-92, DOI: 10.1080/09528820108576903

Smith, L.T., (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies – Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd Edition). Zed Books, London.

Sriprakash, A., (2023) Reparations: theorising just futures of education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 44:5, 782-795, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2022.2144141