Decolonize This Sabbatical, Decolonize This Quarantine

By Emily Welty

Just a few weeks ago, I was still on my yearlong sabbatical, backpacking around the world and researching two new projects – one on the role of theatre in social justice movements and one on decolonizing research and the university.

My research on theatre was supposed to be a yearlong study of the intersection of transnational peacebuilding and the arts as a means to address structural violence including colonialism, racism, sexism and poverty. The project examined how theatre might be a decolonizing practice and a way to recapture agency and control of the narrative in contexts of systemic oppression. My project focused on conversation with communities in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe who have drawn on the arts as a way to contest colonialism, engage in nonviolent resistance to oppression, demand climate justice, deal with the aftermath of violence and rebuild relationships in deeply divided societies. I planned to read plays, see plays and meet with theatre makers in more than ten countries around the world to understand how they used theatre to engage the issues that were the most pressing in their contexts.

When I began the sabbatical last September, the second piece of my plan was to radically rethink the way I conduct research. I was deeply uncomfortable with many of the extractive and colonial ways that scholars are trained to research. My intention was to rethink and decolonize my own understandings of research. I wanted to decolonize the classes that I teach, the curriculum that I supervise and the university that is the home for my work. In the process of looking at decolonization in a particular context, my attention began to shift from the large scale arenas of colonization – land ownership, legal rights, resource distribution, etc. – to a micro level. Of course we need to decolonize the United Nations, the banking systems and the schools but those institutions are entirely controlled by individual human beings who mostly believe themselves to be outside of responsibility for the horrors and legacy of colonialism. So the work of decolonizing must focus on the political and economic but it cannot gain traction if it ignores the personal. If I begin with looking at myself rather than displacing responsibility elsewhere, I have to ask a different set of questions. How do I work to decolonize my own relationships to the land, to my own body, to my relationships, to my job?

Decolonization has often been state-centric. I’m asking what it looks like for civil society, for the arts, for education, for the place we work, for our groups of friends and most importantly, for each of us, as individuals. I’m centering my experience, the experience of a white colonial settler, not because that experience is more valuable or that it has been under-represented (in fact the opposite is true) but because this is where the majority of work of decolonizing needs to be done. It is not the responsibility of the colonized to bear sole responsibility for the work of decolonizing. This is not to say that the institutional and national work of decolonizing isn’t important, it absolutely is. My intent is not to depoliticize decolonization, it is to emphasize that this isn’t only the work of national governments or economies but must also addressed on the scale of the individual.

These two research projects felt separate; they were different projects with different outcomes. By focusing on theatre, I was concentrating on storytelling and that storytelling – how we tell stories, whose stories get told and who tells them – is actually critical to the larger work of decolonization. Eventually these two projects felt much more like one. One piece of decolonization is changing the stories that we tell, to ourselves and one another. Because my attention has been so concentrated on storytelling and decolonization, the first question that has arisen for me in the midst of this pandemic is how we decolonize the stories we are telling about it.

It’s not clear to me whether I am still “on sabbatical” or not. I’m not teaching this semester and it’s proving very difficult to do the work of seeing contemporary theatre when most of the theatre companies in the world are currently shuttered. But the questions that were guiding my daily life in the Pacific and in South Africa continue to weave their way into my daily quarantined life. The work of contemplating ordinary acts of decolonization continues. I’m looking at quarantine and asking what it has to do with colonization. I’m surprised at the way that so many people want to see this period of quarantine as an opportunity to do more productive work – either at their own jobs or in their hobbies and personal lives. This manifests in feel-good exhortations that now is the time to do more yoga or get more organized, bake bread or write your novel. Maximize your quarantine! Turn this into a time of personal and professional development! All of these assume a degree of class privilege that suggests that this period isn’t a time when people are struggling to meet their basic needs and the needs of those people around them. This approach also suggests a fundamentally capitalist and extractive approach to our own lives – that any pause can be maximized for personal gain.

In looking at decolonizing our own lives, decolonizing our nostalgia is an important piece of the work. While many people feel that they’re withering under the increased pressures of physical distancing and isolation from communities, I’ve encountered others who cheerfully celebrate this time as a return to how their neighborhoods felt in the 1950s and ‘60s. This is a moment to unpack some of the racial assumptions that underlie that statement. For many communities of color in the United States, the 1950s and ‘60s were a time of racialized terror. Nostalgia for that time coupled with a political moment where politicians are also advocating a return to “making America great again” do not feel calming or reassuring for many people. Decolonizing our neighborhoods may invigorate our sense of connectivity with one another but the language we use to talk about that community ethos still matters. The way we tell the story of this pandemic matters tremendously.

Here in the UK where I am currently sheltering under lockdown measures, the country’s recent Brexit which amplified anti-immigrant rhetoric looms large. But this deeply colonial nation, which once boasted of its empire abroad while maintaining its white washed narrative at home, now is facing the reality that a critical part of its essential workers who are literally keeping everyone alive, are themselves immigrants. Once the height of the crisis has passed, will the gratitude to this workforce continue or will nostalgia for an imagined past return?

The narrative around sabbaticals from the perspective of a university is that it is a time to expand your reach as a scholar, to write or publish more, to produce more classes. The expectation is generative. Academics often pitch their sabbatical as a time to “advance their research agenda” and “increase research productivity”. This discourse often mirrors colonial frameworks. However, the root of ‘sabbatical’ is actually about rest – the opposite of production. Decolonizing my sabbatical meant stepping away from both the expectation that I will dutifully churn out journal articles as well as the societal suspicion that this was somehow a vacation. A decolonized sabbatical meant a space where I could ask what my students most needed from me, what kinds of larger questions my field was posing and what I needed to continue to be a grounded and generous member of my academic and university communities. I focused very little on what I could extract from an individual encounter with a text or a person and very much on what the moments offered me and what I could offer them. I tried to center the days on asking if all of my research might center on the metaphor of mutual aid rather than extraction?

At the risk of making a teachable moment out of this pandemic, I’m wondering how we to decolonize our approach to it. Whose body is most at risk and whose is most protected? What kinds of historical situations have created vulnerabilities in communities? How has this virus and our fear of it changed our relationships with land, air, water, animals and plants? How do we live through this moment without using our own fears and vulnerabilities as a pretext for harming others? Can we accept questions as an authentic response to this time rather than demanding simplistic, trite aphorisms?


Emily Welty, Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Pace University, is an academic, activist and artist from New York City. Her research focuses on the religious dimensions of peacebuilding with an emphasis on humanitarianism and nuclear disarmament as well as nonviolent social movements. She is the Vice Moderator of the World Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs and is the chair of the Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. Emily is part of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). She is the co-author and editor of Peace and Justice Studies: critical pedagogy, Unity in Diversity: interfaith dialogue in the Middle East and Occupying Political Science. Emily is also a playwright.