Topographies of Knowledge: My Introduction

My name is Jessie Fredlund and I’m a new Fellow with the Futures Initiative. I’m currently writing my dissertation on the social history of water in a key water catchment area in Tanzania, the Uluguru Mountains. This small mountain range is one of the rainiest places in East Africa and the rivers that begin in the mountains are the main sources of fresh water for several major cities. Today, demand for water downstream is rising while global climate change has made the water supply from Uluguru increasingly difficult to predict. My work focuses on the experience of farmers in the mountains, who face a dual challenge: they have been asked to change the way they farm and live in order to protect the watershed, and at the same time they face increasingly unpredictable weather patterns that threaten the wellbeing of their crops. Looking historically, I consider the kind of work rural people have been asked to do to protect the water, air, and other resources upon which we all depend, arguing that this has resulted in a global division of “ecological labor” which places a significant burden on rural and indigenous communities. I also consider how forms of ritual and spirit practices have both shaped the environment and been shaped by it, how gender relates to politics and ecology, and how different ideas about land—what it is and what it should be used for—shape our world.

What does any of this have to do with the Futures Initiative? There are many points of connection, but I want to highlight in particular the ways in which waterways can help us think about geographies of connection. Current environmental crises show our futures as humans are linked across national borders and political divides. While the results of climate change have often manifested in increasing competition and conflict, my work imagines another possible world, one in which the flows of water trace topographies of solidarity and which our connectedness becomes a point of strength. But to begin building that world of solidarity, my research has taught me that we also need to reshape the geographies through which knowledge is produced and shared. Instead of knowledge trickling down from the powerful—professors to students, wealthy countries to poorer ones, elite universities to community colleges—we need to address our contemporary ecological, economic, and political crises by valuing and supporting the creation of knowledge by those who have previously been left at the edges, from farmers in a small and rainy mountain range who protect a critical water supply to students at community colleges whose neighborhoods often bear the brunt of environmental racism.

One of the roles of the Futures Initiative, as I see it, is to begin building an alternative geography of knowledge production and connection. This is reflected on the maps on our site, which show a web of connections across New York City. The Futures Initiative’s emphasis on horizontal leadership structures, peer-to-peer learning, and student-centered pedagogy all serve to decentralize knowledge production. FI and its partner, HASTAC, also use technology to expand who has access to cutting edge information and who can share and take authorship for their own ideas and expertise. As an FI fellow, I hope to explore how we can use digital tools to expand and strengthen these connections, making a space to collectively imagine and build a better future for our planet.

About Jessie Fredlund

I am a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, writing my dissertation on the political history of rain in a key water catchment area in Tanzania. My work lies at the intersections of environmental history, the anthropology of religion, gender studies, and agrarian studies. I’m a fellow with the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center and a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellow in Women’s Studies. I’ve previously taught courses on anthropology, religion and social justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and New York University School for Professional Studies. I’m also a member of the editorial collective for Barricade: A Journal of Antifascism and Translation.

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