Student Reflections

DPP students are asked to write reflections on the seminars they participate in. We are highlighting some of these from the 2020-2021 cohort below

Anti-Racist Development in Theory and Practice:

Reflections on Professor Thembela Kepe’s Critical Hope Lecture


Natalie Tuk

Professor Thembela Kepe began his powerful presentation by posing the following question: is development anti-racist? His response, however, was sobering; we cannot talk about anti-racist development without first tackling anti-racism. So, no, development is not anti-racist, in fact, it is far from being anti-racist. Kepe reminds us that racism is alive and violent; this is clearly reflected in contemporary “development policies, nation-state building practices…and liberal initiatives of inclusion.” Kepe argues that modern development practice follows similar logics to formal imperialism and colonialism. By shaping perceptions of the global periphery, this neo-colonial approach justifies the continued objectification of people.  The remedy for this would begin with empowering marginalized communities to have their experiences actionably amplified.

Kepe, furthermore, affirms that anti-racism is an active process and loose claims of ‘solidarity’ and ‘allyship’ should not be tolerated. Identifying as an ally fortifies the us-them relationship from which racism originates. He includes this in his critique of the ‘soft-approaches’ to anti-racism and development. The sanitized language that is operationalized speaks volumes, such as “participation” or “rights-based.” These ‘buzzwords’ perpetuate the belief that marginalized people need more rather than less external intervention to succeed. Language and society do not necessarily evolve in tandem. Over the last century, many former colonial powers have continued to exploit poorer nations under the banner of liberal democracy—the label changes but the policy remain.  They do so by reducing equality to a formality against those demanding change, by conflating “demands for empowerment and co-participation with appeals for tolerance and inclusion.”  Kepe argues that these widespread practices merely soften the blow of racism.

Racism within academia is certainly worth addressing, but the real fight is against the materialization of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Kepe’s South African identity allows him to give first-hand accounts of racism as it exists today as well as in recent memory. Colonial subjugation and legalized racial supremacy were perhaps most evident in apartheid South Africa, making his experiences incredibly powerful and clear. While the apartheid regime has officially disappeared, the structures that underpin it and the dynamics that shape inter-racial relations are still left mostly untouched. Land ownership is an integral part of the institutionalized racism that has still not been remedied. Even action taken to combat inequality can be more symbolic than substantive. Soft approaches offer a simplified and sanitized pathway to surface level changes that put a pleasant facade on top of the disgusting rot that has entrenched itself deep within society. 

Kepe urges us to not hold our punches in our discourse within developmental studies as well as in our daily lives. He tells us that we must not let fear of ostracization cloud our ability and conviction to speak truth to power. Anti-racism is a dynamic activity which requires more than mere recognition of the problem of racism. It necessitates placing ourselves into the subaltern struggle rather than sitting externally as observers, “bringing about community and the formation of an-other world.”  By integrating multi-directional learning into development-based scholarship, academia can learn a lot from the experiences of communities in the periphery. Development, in practice, can be transformative if it recognizes locally determined needs “by embracing concepts of self-reliance and resource autonomy.”  A perfect example of applying this principle would be the case of ciclovia in Bogota, where organic solutions to local problems were successfully propagated without external intervention.  Dei (2000) communicates this shift most clearly when he argues “local communities should own and control the solutions to their own problems.” 

There are many possible takeaways from a lecture as compelling as that given by Professor Kepe. I was initially expecting it to be a highly technical, abstract and theoretical lesson on the topic of development and its interactions with racism. To my surprise, Kepe brought raw, emotional and captivating elements into a typically dehumanized subject matter. He truly exemplified the very arguments he was putting forward. You must be brave, unfiltered and eager to incorporate stories of resistance that emerge from the experiences of typically marginalized populations. This approach allowed Kepe to argue persuasively and with passion that “insurgent scholarship and practice are necessary for confronting race-development entanglements.”  



[1]Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. Foundation Frantz Fanon. Retrieved from

[2] Dei, G. J. (2000). African Development: The Relevance and Implications of ‘indigenousness’. Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of our World, pp. 70-86.

[3] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. Foundation Frantz Fanon. Retrieved from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. Foundation Frantz Fanon. Retrieved from

[6] Dei, G. J. (2000). African Development: The Relevance and Implications of ‘indigenousness’. Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of our World, pp. 70-86.

[7] Montero, S. (2017). Worlding Bogotá’s Ciclovía: From Urban Experiment to International ‘Best Practice’. Latin American Perspectives 44(2), pp. 111–31. 

[8] Dei, G. J. (2000). African Development: The Relevance and Implications of ‘indigenousness’. Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of our World, pp. 70-86.

[9] Critical Hope Lecture 2021 - Prof. Thembela Kepe [Advertisement]. (2021, March 1). Retrieved March 8, 2021, from

Work Cited
Dei, G. J. (2000). African Development: The Relevance and Implications of ‘indigenousness’. Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of our World, pp. 70-86.
Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality. Foundation Frantz Fanon. Retrieved from
Montero, S. (2017). Worlding Bogotá’s Ciclovía: From Urban Experiment to International ‘Best Practice.’ Latin American Perspectives 44(2), pp. 111–31. from

Alone, Together

Sienna Guo

There is an unspoken agreement in the field of climate science and policy that the best way to get people to care about climate change is to make them realize how it would impact them. In Canada, increased rainfall intensity could damage buildings and homes, increased temperatures could catalyze the emergence and spread of vector-borne illnesses and increase the risk of heat stroke during summer months. Conversations about increased risk of forest fires are focused on how to evacuate people and minimize damage to infrastructure. Although sympathies can be drawn from pictures of thirsty koalas, it’s been shown that targeting our compassion isn’t effective in inciting large groups of people to change their behaviors. 

There’s a disconnect between the people and the planet; we don’t see ourselves as being part of the whole. Sure, we understand we are inhabitants. But we do not deeply feel the relationships that tie us all together: the way that our picking of flowers helps disperse the pollen of the bees, the pathways that frying pans’ chemicals take to end up in seals in the Arctic that are then consumed by our relatives living in the Canadian North, how the need for annual spring cleaning is borne from the decimated hearts and lungs of the people who manufacture clothing out of dying populations of geese, foxes and mink…This is in direct contrast to the way that I understand Indigenous communities approach their defending of the planet. In Indigenous discourse, humans are connected with all elements of our world, including the natural objects or processes we consider to be non-living, such as the ocean, the streams, the forests, the rocks, the mountains. 

Our current world depends on categorization, which focuses on division rather than unity. We have split our people into different races and different nationalities, with varying levels of power and value. The presences on the planet are divided into ‘living’ or ‘non-living’ based solely on human interpretation of what it means to live. People within a nationality are sub-sectioned into different social classes based on culturally constrained definitions of what it means to be successful as a human (our category of what we are). We define ourselves based on our differences rather than our similarities and we use this lens of differentiation when we approach all other presences. But we actually share most of our DNA with each other, there is just as much genetic diversity within a race as between different races, we are cohabiting with millions of microbes who are working to sustain us, and the very fiber of who we are – our personalities – are assemblages of all of the people and all of the things that we have engaged with in our lives. So where does this desperate need to be individualistic even come from?

You might think that humanity began with Lucy, the famous female Australopithecus afarensis who lived 3.2 million years ago. Or maybe with Toumaï (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) who lived 7 million years ago. But I think that the story of humanity began even earlier: about 500 million years ago, when algae in the sea worked collaboratively with fungi, to enable both parties to access greater sources of carbon on land. Once this reciprocal relationship was established, both parties were able to grow and change, and sometimes even branch off the family tree. Organisms continued to diversify and populate the planet, coexisting in an ecosystem that depends on the interdependence of all. 

Our story is one of symbiosis, of interconnectedness and collaboration, but instead, we now understand our world as one of individualism, division and competition. This directs how we interact with humans and non-humans, and how we organize to collectively save ourselves from dying. Certain groups of individuals are taking on lower levels of responsibility in terms of limiting their fossil fuel use or greenhouse gas emissions, and some groups prioritize their short-term comforts over all other beings. We are not held accountable for our actions, due to the multiple layers of complexity that we have established to further divide us into smaller subsections of a whole, and we don’t know how to make it all work because we’ve lost our ability to truly connect and collaborate. Even within our neat little subsections, we find ways to further divide and isolate. 

It was the individualization of profit and wealth has led us to this this point. Though it may be too utopian to hope for a drastic reversal in our understanding of humanity, of life on Earth, I wonder how systems and institutions would change if we tried. If we saw burning forests as pieces of our lungs being decimated, would we continue to watch idly? If we knew our sisters and brothers were being killed because we want to bulldoze their homes so we can plant palm trees to extract the oil to keep our food and beauty products fresh, would we continue buying those things? What if we knew we were dying, would we tolerate others investing in the very fossil fuel industry that is killing us? 

In Defence of a Holistic Conversation on Reproductive Health: On Raúl Necochea López’s “Somehow the work got done: Past and present challenges of sexual and reproductive health services in Peru” 


Nazanin Zarepour

Critiques against dominant narratives of reproductive health are often associated with the “pro-life” movement. Seldom is our attention drawn to legitimate concerns regarding “reproductive rights” signaled by pro-choice feminists (ranging from intellectuals to grassroots movements). Professor Raúl Necochea López’s work on reproductive health services in Peru drew my attention to alternative discourses on reproductive health—through which my curiosity led me to an array of pro-choice critiques on the hegemonic conversation on “reproductive rights” and its prioritization of an individualist, Western-centric approach. What became most clear in the literature is that the conversation on reproductive health needs a far more rigorous analysis of the intersections between reproductive health, race, class, and imperialism. Hegemonic discourses of reproductive health must be displaced in order to posit a method and practice that is truly holistic and consequently, just and non-coercive. 
Lucía Busquier highlights a distinction between “hegemonic feminism” and its alternatives, with the former defined as a Eurocentric epistemology which discards non-Western feminism. Busquier discusses the “Third World Women” movement of the 70s (feminismo del ‘Tercer Mundo’) as one of these alternatives,  with one of their primary concerns being reproductive health—namely, abortion, selective birth control, and forced sterilization carried out by the United States against “Third World Women.” Hegemonic feminism, on the other hand, can be demonstrated most clearly by discussions on Roe v. Wade which keeps “the state out of the domain of family life” and thus privatizes abortion and parenting.  Reproductive health carries different implications among “women of the third world”—who demonstrate a clear consciousness of how the dominant narratives of reproductive health intersect with 1) imperialism, 2) class, 3) and race.  

These three categories are pertinent in the case of Peru. As discussed by Professor López, reproductive health primarily targeted working class women, who were perceived to have the greatest need for birth control. Similarly, sterilization overwhelmingly affected indigenous rural women already in poverty. With hegemonic narratives of reproductive health already divided at race and class lines, it was evermore exploited by imperialism: mainly, the push by 1960s international organizations to limit population growth in developing countries. As such, birth control (or control de la natalidad) was criticized by the working-class as a harmful imposition by the United States to control population and thus most people emphasized family planning. 
Evidently, reproductive health that is not cognizant of the intersections of race, class, and imperialism, cannot be a holistic one nor can it be truly just. For example, when reproductive health was pushed by an imperialist agenda, its primary concern was population control rather than women’s health. Thus, one of the major goals became reproductive health as a grounds for development through the “intensification of women’s labour, and its mobilisation for global capital.”  If it is pushed by a class-based agenda (as demonstrated in the case of Peru in which working class-women were thought to have a greater need for birth control), then the goals of reproductive health become removing the burdens of social services from the state and privatizing parenthood. As such, a reproductive health system that is motivated not by justice and welfare but rather by racial, class, and imperial interests means that the “choice to parent” is not actually a choice at all. As demonstrated by Robin West, “the woman only marginally capable of supporting even herself, however, faces a choice between parenting and severe impoverishment (…) Are we truly comfortable, morally, with a world that we have created, in which only rich people can parent satisfactorily?”  

A reproductive health system can only be truly holistic when it accounts for the limits to child rearing: so that individuals are able to make the choice to parent free from economic, racial, and imperialist coercion. A holistic reproductive healthcare means displacing individualist neoliberal schemes at two levels: 1) the theoretical level: narratives of reproductive health must be more holistic by including alternative narratives to hegemonic feminism, and 2) on the practical level: putting these perspectives to work by including greater access to social services and removing the burden of child rearing from individual parents. 


[1] Lucía Busquier, “Las ‘mujeres del Tercer Mundo” en Estados Unidos: control de natalidad y esterilizaciones forzosas (1970 – 1975),” Revista Estudos Feministas 28, no. 1 (2020).

[2] Robin West highlights the problems of an individualist and constitutionalist approach to reproductive health and questions: “Why has there not been more feminist and pro-choice criticism of both Roe v. Wade specifically and our reproductive rights jurisprudence more generally?” See: Robin West, “From Choice to Reproductive Justice: De-Constitutionalizing Abortion Rights,” The Yale Law Journal 118, No. 7 (2009): 1397.

[3]  Busquier quotes “Triple Jeapordy”, a journal written by Latin women in the United States: “Control de natalidad, abortos y esterilizaciones son un genocidio en todas las mujeres de Puerto Rico y otras mujeres del Tercer Mundo que no tienen ningún poder sobre sus cuerpos. La razón por la que el sistema capitalista controla los cuerpos de las mujeres es para regular la población de Puerto Rico. Las hermanas son puestas en una posición donde deben elegir entre tener que ser esterilizadas o continuar teniendo hijos debido a que no pueden acceder a un aborto.”

[4] K Wilson, “In the Name of Reproductive Rights: Race, Neoliberalism, and the Embodied Violence of Population Policies,” New Formations 91, 50-68.

[5] Robin West, “From Choice to Reproductive Justice: De-Constitutionalizing Abortion Rights,” 1412.

In Search of a “True” Decolonial Research Methodology

Gregory Allen

Understanding and naming the ceremonies that institute violence helps us determine how we name ourselves and our roles in the violence. Part of the ceremony includes acknowledging that the ways that we make claims to and perform our humanity often—and more than likely—requires the death of the other. 

                   -Tiffany Lethabo King from The Black Shoals (2019, p.206)

Development work – be it academic or administrative – is not easy. This is a fact that was made clear to me through my undergraduate years studying critical development. I can still remember the initial “shock” that most of my first-year cohort, myself included, felt after attending our first IDSA01 class, where Professor Ken McDonald made it clear to us that development has had a long and difficult history rooted in colonialism, with some colonial practices and ideologies continuing to thrive in present day development initiatives.

The statement “development is a challenging enterprise”, which by this point in my career I understand as being so obvious that it constitutes an axiom of development studies, reappeared under new light this past week. In fact, other that the stress that comes with a week full of large assignments or making the final push during an exam season, I can say, without question, that this past week was the most challenging week that I have experienced throughout my entire academic career. The visceral lecture delivered by Professor Kepe was the capstone to a difficult week of conversations that I had with my peers, my professors and myself about racism in development and how I may be unknowingly contributing to this plague.

My recent ruminations about the racism present within development work/studies began with a research question that I posed to my cohort of students in the U of T Political Science department. This research question is as follows: How do Indigenous-led activist groups practice the tactic of litigation as well as radical tactics concurrently without quelling support for either set of tactics within a social movement? The feedback that I received after explaining this potential research project in my research design seminar was mixed. Generally, my professors were impressed by the project and encouraged me to undertake it. However, a couple of my fellow classmates stated their apprehensions about the project, worrying that a non-Indigenous scholar, particularly a young scholar who has stated his desire to publish, should tread lightly when conducting research on Indigenous issues. These students worried that I might be contributing to the colonial practice of conducting extractive research.

I was not entirely ignorant of the dangers that can come with undertaking a project in Indigenous studies before I first crafted my research proposal. In fact, I expressed a similar feeling of apprehension when I was in the stage of conceptualizing my research project. On Wednesday of this week, I had the pleasure of having a rare, long conversation with a witty and intelligent new friend who I was able to meet during my time in the ‘Zoom Universe’. They expressed some amusement but also their understanding when I stated that I was thinking about conducting research on Indigenous issues, even though I generally hate writing about Indigenous issues. The field of Indigenous studies is, bar none, the most interesting area of study that I have had the pleasure to explore in my young academic career.


However, as someone who is non-Indigenous, and who frankly does not really have any meaningful interpersonal relationships with any Indigenous people, let alone an Indigenous academic supervisor, I maintain a position of potentially dangerous ignorance when I try to write about Indigenous culture and histories in the academy, despite the years of study that I have completed in the subject area. When I write papers for my Indigenous studies classes, I always feel uncomfortable that I might be writing over the work of Indigenous scholars and Indigenous would-be scholars, whose ideas and writings have not received the same opportunities to shine as my own. And yet still, my passion for Indigenous studies persists, and along with it, my hope that perhaps, one day and in some way, I might contribute to the literature on Indigenous studies using a “true” decolonial research methodology. 

But what is “true” decolonial research? In short, I do not know. With all due respect, after hearing Professor Kepe’s impassioned lecture, I still do not know. Frankly, I do not think that anyone can develop an idea of decolonial research that even I could find a reason to criticize. For all of its merits in providing a space in which some of the most impactful ideas of social justice and decoloniality have been formed, the academy is still a colonial space that privileges certain knowledges over others and feeds off of the popular demand for extractive research. However, I greatly appreciate Professor Kepe in providing some direction as to where I should start to look for what might be a “true” decolonial research methodology.
The closest that I have been able to get to understanding a “true” decolonial research methodology comes from analyzing the concept of anti-racist research, as presented by Professor Kepe, among others. However, with all due respect, no one who I talked to this week, be it Professor Kepe, my Political Science cohort, or other professors who reviewed my project, have been able to provide a clear, convincing and flawless guide concerning how to conduct anti-racist research. What was repeated in these discussions, however, is that anti-racist development research requires more than just anti-racist intention on the part of the researcher. Oppression is systemic, and therefore, any action taken in the name of anti-oppression must disarm and erode the systems that keep marginalized people from living life on their own terms. Living life on one’s own terms also includes one’s ability to safeguard the knowledge and histories that are important to their community.

To conclude this longer than normal reflection, I frame this week as a difficult week, but also as a productive week. It was difficult in the sense that I confronted the obstacle of trying to figure out how to conduct decolonial research without being able to overcome it, and in doing so, sending me back to “square-one” with regards to developing my capstone research project. However, this week was also productive, in that the questions I was asked and the questions that I posed to others pushed me to think critically about how I might employ the concept of decoloniality within the Western academy as a colonial space. To be frank, I would agree with the number of professors who stated that my research project was promising and could potentially lead to novel and valuable contributions to the fields of Indigenous studies and social movement studies. Similarly, after reflecting on all of the discussions and arguments that I have had this week, I think that the Western academy, despite being a colonial institution, can absolutely help in developing positive changes for the lives of marginalized people. This is an argument that I believe in to my core, despite all of the problems associated with the institution. However, I have also taken to heart the concerns that my classmates have thrown at me regarding the potential for a research project conducted at the wrong place, at the wrong time and/or by the wrong person to potentially do more harm than good. 

In all likelihood, I will not move forward with my originally stated research project at this time. Despite its potential merit, there are just too many concerns that I must work through for this project to be what I had intended it to be: a vehicle through which to highlight the significant history of Indigenous resistance in an academic space that has generally marginalized such discussions. I wanted to highlight marginalized voices, not to speak over them. Yes, I would certainly love to work on this project to cap-off my Master’s studies, but I believe that it is more important that I first figure out the right way to undertake this exciting project. At the moment, I simply do not know what “the right way” is, but I believe that such a methodology is waiting to be discovered. In the meantime, I have other avenues to explore, new questions to work on, and causes to support in ways that best utilize my positionality. The academy may be flawed, but it is not an institution that I am ready to give up on just yet. 

P.S. Interestingly enough, just after I finished my final read through of this reflection and right before I submitted it on Quercus, I received feedback from both an Indigenous professor as well as one of the student’s in my political science cohort offering to help me to work out what may be a decolonial research methodology to apply to my originally slated project. As I am submitting this reflection later than I would have liked to (and given its already considerable length) I will not go on any further about what I have just learned. My refection concerns thoughts that I had throughout the week and does not include thoughts concerning what I have just read from my colleagues. Perhaps “Part 2” of this journey will be included in my next reflection!



King, T. L. (2019). The Black shoals: Offshore formations of Black and Native studies. Duke University Press.