As a teenager, Nicole Laliberté went on a two-week human rights delegation trip to Guatemala. Although she didn’t know it at the time, this trip would have a lasting influence on her—one that she would carry on to her future academic and career decisions.
At the time of her trip, Guatemala was amid the Guatemalan Genocide—a massacre of Maya civilians during the military government’s counterinsurgency operations. She noticed that even in the worst conditions, Guatemalans around her talked of hope—they spoke about a prosperous future and imagined a life without genocide and war. However, when she returned to Guatemala more than fifteen years later, she realized that there was a change in the discourse among Guatemalans. Although the state of Guatemala was not as bad as it once was, people had less hope. They began to settle for the poor conditions of their circumstances simply because they were liveable.
“I was really interested in this transition of the post-war peacebuilding period because, during the war, people imagined alternative futures. But when things came to a normalized status, there was less fight for change,” says Laliberté. Her experiences in Guatemala, and the change that she saw in people, was what led her to study post-war peacebuilding for her Ph.D. degree and inspired her to pursue feminist and anti-oppressive pedagogical studies.
Laliberté is an associate professor in the department of Geography, Geomatics and Environment at UTM. With a background in feminist geopolitics, Professor Laliberté has a passion for exploring the intersecting academic area of environmental and social justice.
In particular, Laliberté teaches with feminist and anti-oppressive pedagogical approaches that consider the historical relations of power and privilege and how those influences shape the institutions from which we receive knowledge. With these approaches, Laliberté aims to challenge the institutions and social norms that perpetuate inequality and injustice.
Additionally, through her experiences in Guatemala, Laliberté was influenced to lean towards collaborative-based teaching. This is one of the most important aspects of feminist and anti-oppressive pedagogical approaches because it creates conversation among people, pushing back against dominant narratives of knowledge that often prioritize the voices of white men.
Laliberté aims to apply feminist and anti-oppressive pedagogical methods to her classes. Although there are certain constraints that Laliberté faces in bringing a truly feminist and anti-oppressive approach, she expresses that the most important aspect is awareness. “It’s all about being aware. [In class, I want to] make explicit when there are structures at play that inform [certain types of] actions that do not match with [anti-oppressive and feminist approaches].”
Furthermore, Laliberté explains that there are practical strategies that can be used to apply her methods. “It starts with the syllabus,” she says. When creating a syllabus for the class, she considers whose voices are represented in the readings and topics; it is crucial that diverse types of struggles are talked about and considered from different perspectives.
Unfortunately, it is challenging to explore and practice innovative strategies of anti-oppressive feminist pedagogical theories, especially at institutions like U of T because of the large class sizes. Additionally, Professor Laliberté explains that there is only so much that an individual professor can do to foster an anti-oppressive feminist environment. It is important to also call our institutions to act on these issues. Universities should ensure that they are hiring and sustaining a wide diversity of faculty members to welcome more voices, cultural experiences, and perspectives.
Aside from increasing diversity, these institutions also have a responsibility to hold themselves accountable for the systems they perpetuate. Laliberté explains, “Institutions have a responsibility not only to speak to the conditions of the world that we live in right now but also to take responsibility for historical legacies. Institutions of higher learning have historically been elitist. We as an institution have a responsibility to be thinking about this and should ultimately filter down to individual courses as well.”
Professor Laliberté emphasizes that conventional lectures and class structures do not allow for the full facilitation of anti-oppressive pedagogical theories. “I used to always joke that I would never want to teach in a classroom because I think there’s so much learning that happens outside of the classroom—that’s where people integrate the knowledge into their lives and make meaning of it,” says Laliberté.
For anyone interested in pursuing anti-oppressive and feminist research, Laliberté advises that “you don’t have to reinvent the wheel” to study these teaching approaches. While a lot of mainstream research is done within the structures of colonial institutions, Professor Laliberté explains how there are many incredible scholarly ancestors who have laid the groundwork. Aspirational researchers and educators should look to those spaces outside of the traditional institutions and teaching methods that tent to promote the voices of white men as primary sources of scholarship.
To fully embrace anti-oppressive and feminist approaches to discourse, not just teaching, institutions must reflect on how knowledge is presented and, even more importantly, who is represented in that presentation of knowledge. After such an understanding, educational establishments can become more inclusive. Professor Laliberté believes that this begins with “including the more vibrant and comprehensive aspects of knowledge.”