Dr.Karen Pashby

Making the impossible, possible: An interview with Dr. Karen Pashby

In this comprehensive interview, Wayne Tobin asks Dr. Karen Pashby about her reflections on the recent Knowledge Exchange Partnership and her involvement in Bridge 47 since its inception. We hope this interview will also act as a valuable resource for all those around the world interested in Global Citizenship Education (GCE).

Wayne Tobin: At the recent Knowledge Exchange Partnership event, you spoke about the critical intersections between GCE and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). How has your research has been influenced by other thinkers in this area such as Vanessa Andreotti?

Karen Pashby:  I’ll start off with Vanessa Andreotti, then I’ll go to the links and then move into solidarity. I first met Vanessa at a conference at the Centre for Global Citizenship Education Research, which was at the University of Alberta in 2008.  At the time, her Soft versus Critical global citizenship education article had come out and was in Development Perspectives. You can trace all sorts of important work back to that publication.  It has been really influential to my and others’ thinking.

I was a secondary school teacher pursuing postgrad studies. I’d worked in various places in Canada but mostly Toronto, a city where 50% of the population was not born in Canada. I taught at a school that had 46 home languages at one point. I had also taught in Brazil.  I got started thinking about global citizenship there (I discussed this on a recent keynote panel). I went to graduate school after I had already started my career as a teacher. I was always so interested in global citizenship and global citizenship education because it’s this impossible possible. People are always like, “well you can’t be a global citizen”.  I say, that’s the point, it’s something we aspire to and it’s something we have to continually work on and reflect back on, and it’s never really a done process. It also evokes a lot of problematic things. The good thing about global citizenship is that it evokes it, it puts it up there, we have to reflect on it and we have to figure out what to do with it.

In Vanessa’s more current work with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective she literally calls it our ‘poop’!  I think she purposefully makes it quite explicit so in a way you get this kind of exciting beautiful yes, we want to work on building the world together; at the same time you get, if we’re going to do that we literally have got to deal with our crap.  

I think that has always drawn me in about her work, but I would say specifically I think back to 2008.  I think a lot of folks in so-called Global North contexts had been realising that a lot of the global learning as we call it in North America or development education as it’s often referred to in the European context,  was too charity based and that was problematic. People had started talking about the difference between charity and social justice.  Soft Vs Critical pushed us further because in that piece she draws on Dobson’s notion of complicity and then expands it through Spivak’s notion of sanctioned ignorance. The article and tool reflects it back on to us, those people imagining and doing global citizenship in context in the Global North. And turns attention to the actions and the reflexivity we have to take, which most of the going from charity to social justice work didn’t do. It still focussed on how are ‘we’ going to help ‘them’ in a better way as opposed to how are ‘our’ ways of helping actually potentially part of the problem. 

So that’s kind of the best way I can think of to describe how influential Vanessa’s work was to me at the time. I continue to use that 2006 article with my undergraduate students and with teachers.  I think it remains really powerful today.  Now obviously Vanessa’s work has moved on since then. I really appreciate the work she has been doing more recently with Sharon Stein and others. Sharon is taking up a lot of important early issues in the context of higher education particularly, and theoretically they keep pushing the edges of the debate. That’s why I think she has been influential to me.


If I move on to kind of the connection between GCE and ESD, I have been working with Louise Sund. She works at Malardalen University and Örebro University. She and I had both been using Vanessa’s work in both our teaching and our research.  Louise specialises in environment and sustainability education (ESE), so we came up with this idea when we saw SDG 4.7 come out.  Some call it the laundry basket, some call it the umbrella as there’s a lot packed into 4.7. I realise when I talk about SDG 4.7, I sometimes miss the important work around gender educations but two of the big ideas coming out of 4.7 are ESD (education for sustainable development) and GCE.  We just decided to apply for a grant with the British Academy to say, look  we both use Vanessa’s work and in this case the HEADSUP check-list which came out of Vanessa’s response to that Kony 2012 phenomenon, back when it was really unusual for things to go viral.  

But anyway, you know those seven systems of oppression in HEADSUP (hegemony, ethnocentrism, ahistoricism, de-politicization, salvationism, uncomplicated solutions, and paternalism).  So Louise had been using it in her work in environmental ed, I had been using it in global citizenship and we thought let’s bring this together to work with teachers to recognise that actually in both global learning and environmental education we have this tendency to reproduce colonial systems of power, albeit often unintentionally. We took the HEADSUP check-list, and we used it with teachers in England, Finland and Sweden and together created a teacher resource that adapts it for use in secondary schools. The teachers taught students from 14 to 18, and one of the issues that they did a lot of work around was climate change. I can think of an example coming out of Finland where the students knew quite a bit about renewable energy. The adaptation of HEADSUP got them really questioning and challenging what assumptions they were making around who is responsible for climate change and what are kind of some of the root causes.

Wayne Tobin: Have you plans for further research? What are the challenges or limitations to note?

Karen Pashby:  Work with Louise is ongoing, and we are working on a related study in Sweden at the moment. I think it’s important to note that the England, Finland, and Sweden project was with 26 teachers. It wasn’t a huge study but it showed that teachers can and do engage with this work. It also showed naturally there’s some major challenges. One of the big challenges is our classrooms are embedded in societies that are themselves embedded in wider systems of oppression.

In the context of northern Europe, we have relatively stable education systems, and we really need to hold the space for this kind of critical reflexivity. The challenge is that we also work within these systems where we have certain pressures on teachers-be it an exam culture or a certain style of pedagogy. Sometimes those things can act as constraints, and they do, for example in Sweden there tends to be a lot of discussion but if you have minoritized students in the classroom and they start raising issues about Europeans’ complicity with colonialism and you have a discussion-based pedagogy-how do teachers handle that? To what extent does the sort of local discussion-based culture account for diversity in particular ways?  So that would be something I would love to pick up on further.

The other thing in the Nordic context is the action competency culture, which is really helpful in a lot of ways because there’s this real commitment to doing civic education and not just learning about things but promoting doing something about it. And, not but, and that can also mean sometimes the actual action can be quite normative like voting or protesting, which is important. I’m not trying to say that’s not important, but it can step over potentially the deep critical reflection that Louise and I argue needs to happen in classrooms. So we’re not saying you shouldn’t be taking action at all.  What we’re saying is in a neo-liberal context of global competencies and tick-box exercises, that we really need to ensure that we are resourcing teachers with things that will help them with that critical reflexivity (see Pashby & Sund, 2020).

Wayne Tobin: What were your key reflections from the Knowledge Exchange on the theme of solidarity?

Karen Pashby:  At the recent Knowledge Exchange meeting in Copenhagen (virtually!), Dr. Su-Ming Khoo did an absolutely outstanding job of setting us up with that conversation by reflecting on the notion of solidarity and using an analogy of a braided rope.

I think Su-Ming Khoo is another really excellent scholar of praxis. I’m a scholar of praxis, as somebody who’s a teacher originally and that’s the professional identity I still kind of hold on most dearly to as well as being a researcher.  So my research is always from that perspective, how can we take theoretical resources and have them influence our education practice in such a way that we deepen our praxis, but at the same time how can praxis and the things that we ‘learn’ or unlearn or experience while relating as educators and learners then also feed back into theoretical discussions. This praxis based in decolonial theoretical resources is really at the heart of what Louise and I have been trying to work on together. I think Su-Ming does a really nice job of helping to articulate all of these processes and all of these tensions. I think she always demands that we stay on top of our game around, with what theoretical resources we are using, what are the ethical implications of thinking in different ways.  

I really quite appreciated the way she spoke about the rope because solidarity has always been a fraught term for me. I think it’s fraught at the same time I obviously I think it’s hopeful.  So, it’s like many things in global citizenship education or the way I do work in this field. It’s a productively ambivalent term and what I mean is, like I was saying about global citizenship, solidarity’s not a term that you can just like, well some might argue against this, but for me you never feel strong and secure in solidarity even though it’s about being strong and secure.  

I don’t think it’s possible to feel totally solid or firm in your understanding or relation to somebody or to a group of people, who are experiencing very different life contexts from one’s own.  But, at the same time, we have to work for it always, right, so it’s like, it’s not a get out of jail card for you to say that it’s impossible so don’t work for it. Because, it’s actually what we must imagine to be possible. So I like to break apart solidarity to solid air and think about it as making air solid, so making the impossible possible because you can have a feeling, right, of uniting between two dramatically different life experiences and you can feel for a moment that you are working together and that you are providing  a platform for somebody when you have more stable ground and for each other to learn and to grow and to support those who are in a more marginalised position.  But it’s air and it flows and changes, it’s not something you can take for granted. Solidarity has to be constantly worked on.  So I mean I love analogies and I mean, I can take them too far sometimes, but it’s like can you hold air solid for someone, who doesn’t have access to your air or in today’s context, who can’t breathe. It’s impossibly possible and an ethical imperative to keep working on.

Another mentor of mine, Lynette Shultz, introduced me to the work of a First Nations scholar and elder, Willie Ermine, and he talks about the ethical space between different knowledge systems, different ontologies and epistemologies.  So in his context he is talking about his local indigenous  knowledge system and then what he experienced coming to the university and the western knowledge system. He explains how you can understand that there’s a space between but it’s never quite capturable by either sides, yet we can relate through it, so that’s useful I think for thinking about it.

Walter Mignolo’s work has been really influential to me.  Earlier he talked about critical cosmopolitanism and the way you can link different communities, who had really negative experiences around colonialism. They can be linked in certain ways without reducing them to that link. He also talks about de-linking from the colonial matrix of power, and so that’s another act of solidarity. I think it is so important to try to and de-link from these normative and systems of oppression that become taken for granted.  And of course, I guess probably one of the more well-known Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ notion about the abyssal line is also related to the impossible possible.  All of these are different resources we have to think about relating through difference,  understanding that this is a relationship. It’s real, it’s important, it’s impossible, productively ambivalent.

In the Bridge 47 spaces I think we have been making a really strong effort to hold spaces. We pool our air together in a sense and it’s all about trying to find ways of relating otherwise to current coercive systems that reproduce patterns of oppression through global learning.  Lots of people would get mad at me because they would say no, we have to work on direct actions. Everybody has got their role. It’s important that we have people that say no, do something! We need to define solidarity and we need to create a set of norms that we can work together politically to make change. I think we can do this in many different ways but the role of someone like me doing work and having access to some of these theoretical resources is to try to bring those into the conversation and especially into our classrooms. Everybody has different roles to make truly transformative actions and relations happen.

Wayne Tobin : Does Bridge 47 give you the opportunity to exchange knowledge with your European peers and does it provide an opportunity for critical exchange as well? What are the main differences and similarities typically encountered?

Karen Pashby: It absolutely one hundred percent does give the opportunity for knowledge exchange and also for critical exchange. I think they have hired really excellent people and coordinators, and somebody is behind driving this whole thing and keeping it organised. The Bridge 47 wider network creates spaces that are built on dialogue. I know Rilli Lappalainenhas had the vision behind it, somebody I really respect. I think he believe a little bit of what I was talking about earlier in reference to Vanessa, finding the edges of the debate and having the conversations there.  Sometimes people like me that are considered sort of critical scholars. I think of myself as an educator first but I do write some theoretical stuff. We get accused of being too theoretical, but we write into these spaces for the purposes of pushing it and right from the get-go Rilli encouraged this. I remember having conversations before Bridge 47 started about that. So, I think it’s quite unique. Back home we have a different sort of set of global learning community in Canada. I think it’s harder for us to have access to a network with so much kind of diversity and different experiences that being in Europe enables.

I think the critical exchange, like when Rilli asked me to be on the Drafting Committee for the Bridge 47 Roadmap for Action on SDG 4.7 in Europe,  I was a bit like, really me?, but actually, I mean I think all of us, who were on that, will tell you it was one of the best group work, for lack of a better word, experiences I have ever had because we really debated and dialogued.

I think it’s back to this idea of solidarity. We created this space where you could disagree and push each other but we had a common desire or outcome.  And also the common desire or outcome, in this case the roadmap, was something we were going to capture for a moment that we were hoping would have really strong kind of material impacts that people could use it to advocate and do things, but we also knew it wasn’t the end either and that would capture a moment in time for us to do this work and then we’d be back to build on it.  And we know that because previous to Bridge 47 we had the DEEEP Forum. So, it’s like we know there’s this history of coming together, capturing moments, setting agendas and then deeply critically reflecting on them again and pushing it into new spaces and new types of relating and new agendas.  So to me that’s what is really exciting about the Bridge 47 network.  On the one hand, you would think it would be a bunch of people getting together that all think the same things but it’s truly not because again of the productive impossibility of the whole concept of global citizenship or of sustainable development, it’s dialogue and productive tensions..

Wayne Tobin:    Your work seems very rewarding and it must be interesting to engage with so many different people. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Karen Pashby: The fact that you get researchers and policy-makers and advocacy experts and development educators working in both informal and non-formal settings duly supporting communities in the Global South and also vice-versa, it is a really special space.  And just on our small Drafting Committee we had quite an interesting cross-section of kind of positionalities within this field-we could have Lydia Ruprecht from UNESCO kind of saying, well look we got to focus here or there and really saying from an EU perspective we’ve got to kind of hit there. And then Brikena Xhomaqi from the Lifelong Learning Platform with specific insight into the policy context. And Harm-Jan Fricke with lots of experience across sectors, plus Megan McHaney with her knowledge of advocacy and overview of the Bridge 47 partners.  

There was a group of us, anyway from different spots and we had to write this Roadmap.   It was a really intense experience because we had tried to get as much from the people that were at the envision event as possible. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to make some decisions. And I had to come back to my team, I was working on the first area, which was transformative learning and I had to say, look part of what we were talking about wasn’t working with this other part or it overlapped with that so I am going to propose we focus it here and so we were very explicit with that and talked it through with the different groups and there was a lot of support.

I was a bit nervous to be honest but the sub-group was really supportive.  They were like, yeah we understand, that makes sense, let’s nail this piece.   So I thought the process, stressful as it was at the time, was really important and I think that Roadmap really does reflect a lot of diversity.It captures things people agree with but also kind of these tensions that are important to maintain too.

One thing I was going to say about the Northern Europe Network is, and I think is really important, is that the work of Tanya Wisely and Dalene Swanson I think in setting the notion, or the idea that we really ought to be responding to the importance of connecting this work up to marginalised communities in our local contexts.  I’m really inspired by that and I think they were right on to be raising it because it is this ongoing tension we have where, we have to interject into the way that the so-called developing world, Global South, gets represented and reinforced in both public discourse and formal education and that has been a real source of intervention for a lot of the work we have been doing in critical global citizenship education.  

But absolutely in practice the work I was doing with Louise, with teachers, we see that it is completely embedded in our local communities as well and this is not something you can separate. In fact, it is something I don’t think we have paid quite enough attention to. What are the implications of taking global citizenship education into communities that are themselves experiencing the systems of oppression that occur globally in our local communities or of assuming this is not the case where we are encouraging global citizenship?

There was a little bit of difficulty when we were trying to translate that across with our Nordic colleagues. I think one of the things that was difficult was that a lot of what Tanya was speaking about was based on the notions of austerity, the experiences of austerity in Scotland and the achievement gap and the way it was getting constructed in the Scottish context and then what was happening to global citizenship education and education versus sustainable development within that context.

In the Nordic context they have a different experience, and I think that there’s both real differences and perceived differences about whether our local contexts are equal or not. So in the Nordic context sometimes it’s easy to assume there’s more equality than there actually is, for example. It was interesting when Antii Rajala and Nimco Noor were speaking a little bit about this compassionate partnerships with early childhood educators and parents of minority children in Finland.  I do think in the Nordic context as in the UK this is important. I mean there’s people who have been doing lots of work in this area for a long time.  I do think the link-up between global citizenship and local notions of anti-racism and class issues do exist in some way or form. I think this is a really exciting  and important space that that knowledge exchange network has kind of  put on the table and I think it takes responsibility in the context of the SDGs, which are problematic in all sorts of ways, but they do demand that we take action in our own contexts.  So, I have been really inspired by that leadership from Tanya and Dalene on that and I think it is something we have to keep coming back to in that space.

Wayne : How did you get involved with different aspects of Bridge 47 and what was the main learning for you for example, from the policy working group?

Karen Pashby:  There is a couple of us academics, like I know Massimlliano Tarozzi is in that group too and it’s really nice that they keep inviting us. I just have a new article that is about to be published with a couple of colleagues in the US, and it’s about like this global competencies model.  And so, of course, global competencies is this really important policy space at the moment but just like anything else in this field it can open up or it can close down space for the kind of critically reflective work we think is important.  So I know in that group those of us with theoretical research and empirical research backgrounds have been able to kind of say, okay you don’t want to derail with what we are trying to get done in terms of policy; at the same time you want to kind of keep raising these critical questions. I think that’s another thing the Bridge 47 Network has been quite successful about.  At the end of the day, you have got to take some action and do some advocacy but we will do whatever is possible to ensure we are fighting for spaces, for critical reflective spaces and it is an ongoing debate, but, I think it has really held together well in that space.

Wayne:  Just going back to the Roadmap, how did this engagement influence your contributions?

Karen Pashby:  In terms of the Roadmap I think it was a good example of having a team of diverse entry points coming together. We said we wanted to get something captured that would make a difference in today’s context. I think that’s an important piece about the Roadmap. This is not a Roadmap forever, although some of has quite a long history and has a long future I hope. But it is really important that this Roadmap be in this context and even if has changed, think about what has changed since last November, it’s about what we should do with SDG 4.7 now.        

So it is a capturing.  The future is what we do with it.  It is the types of spaces we can advocate for and sustain because a group of however many people were there, 200 I believe, came together and worked this through and then we on the team had to make some pretty difficult decisions about exactly what was going to be said and included or not. I can just say it was a very productive teamwork experience and it wasn’t classic happy-happy, clappy-clappy.  I am known for saying no more happy-happy, clappy-clappy stuff, let’s do something critical and it was! We really debated things productively and it is reflected in the outcome. 

Wayne: What did you feel like your role was?

Karen Pashby: I felt like my role there and the reason that they really had asked, not just me personally but somebody doing theoretically grounded work in the field was to ensure it was responding to those edges of the debate and that is something that lots of scholars in the field have contributed to. And I was ensuring those critical discussions were there, that is what I think is important about the multi-sectorial piece.

Wayne: I suppose when you say think about how things have changed since last November I’m wondering what next for you in terms of research?

Karen Pashby:  I think one of the things I have been thinking about is the way that even my own work can re-centre whiteness really easily.  In a way I have been trying to be strategic about this. Louise and I talk a lot about how our work is with teachers in so-called Global North contexts, that being itself a problematic term but we are trying to point to espistemological, political, and material inequities in our use of that term, more broadly geo-politically but also recognising that those exist also in the local context in the Global North.

But we aren’t pretending that what we are doing here makes sense in all different contexts and we are specifically trying to work in these contexts in which the teaching population is over-represented by white middle-class individuals, often females.  So, we see a very important strategic space for doing this particular decolonial praxis work with this population and of course, the population also includes lots of diversity. It is not all white middle-class but there is an over representation there.  So strategically we kind of want to bring global citizenship education to the fore for that group but in so doing there is still this tension. Even as I am talking I hear myself saying things and it is trying to be overt about my assumptions and then recognising my assumptions mobilise certain imaginaries and certain ways of understanding people that I am also trying to critique. And in trying to address whiteness and colonialism and hegemonies, we can recentre it.

I think it is really important that we be very open to recognising how this happens and how GCE takes up, racism. It has been something that I have been thinking about since the Black Lives Matter Movement, which pre-dates June of this year but has been mobilised in particular ways and how are we going to take that up, for example in Bridge 47. I think we do make an attempt to try to include more ‘Global South’ voices, which is important but how are we actually speaking directly about this in our own work and about white privilege?  What references do we have to draw on to be constantly reflexing about this?  And I think race as an issue is something I need to be taking up much more explicitly in my own work and that is something I have been thinking about a lot. I think there is a thread of work on this running back through the Deep Forum and into Bridge 47, but we need to be more explicit about it moving forward. I just want to mention Renee’s report that he wrote. I find this a really useful resource.

Wayne: Is there any other research that you feel would be useful for GCE practitioners?

Karen Pashby: I am in the middle of the ethics review today for an impact study of anyone who has used the teacher resource created through the project with Louise and the other teachers. This autumn I am going to have a survey come out and I will link to it also on my social media so anyone who is interested in or has used the resource we would love to hear from them, both because we want to raise the critiques and challenges of it but also to do some follow-up and show that this kind of work is relevant to practice.  We would like to then do some sustained follow-up research. It is just one tool of finding out what is happening to build this praxis.  Also and excitingly it has been taken up by a group in Ireland and Canada so it is important to show this work is being done. 

Wayne: Thank-you for taking the time to do an interview with me Karen.

About the Author

Dr.Karen Pashby

Dr. Karen Pashby is a Reader of Education Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. An experienced secondary school educator and teacher educator, her research draws on postcolonial and decolonial theoretical resources. Dr. Pashby examines productive pedagogical tensions that promote critically reflexive classroom practices in education for global citizenship in Global North contexts.