Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

Can We Cause Critical Change from the Inside?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

Recently, someone shared this Haitian proverb, implying that a small thing like a “cockroach” creates change from the “inside” with a chicken by residing inside the chicken’s belly. Apologies I don’t know the citation for this, shared via Twitter:

"The unity of the chicken & the cockroach occurs in the belly of the chicken." -- Ancient Haitian Proverb
Haitian proverb graphic, found on Twitter

Is this proverb accurate? I get what they’re saying, of course. That the larger animal (institution) swallows the smaller animal (one person trying to resist and create change) and therefore any change will only happen in small ways, under the control of the larger animal, while it is actually already digesting (eating away, diminishing) the smaller animal. It resonates. Big time.

However, do we have evidence that it can be otherwise?

We do.

Viruses. HIV and Covid-19, are tiny tiny things/beings, that enter the bodies of larger animals, supposedly much stronger animals, and can potentially not only defeat these animals, make them sick, kill them, but also transfer from one to the other, right? Of course, they do this by replicating and not one one its own. Though there are probably illnesses that don’t need that much replication. I do think that the replication inside can therefore destroy the larger creature for the goals of the tiny thing. It can happen. Theoretically.

Have we seen it happen in real life? I think Google is a glaring example of the opposite. They claim to be doing good with AI, but they keep firing the people inside who are critical of the direction they’re taking. Facebook, similar? So many of these giant tech companies show on a regular basis that critical change from within is not possible. [see this article interviewing Safiya Noble and Meredith Whittaker here]

Can critical change happen within universities? I think, fundamentally, the difference between a university and a corporate entity is that it is easier to find people within an educational institution who share some critical values, so the idea could potentially “spread” and the mechanisms for that are in place, but not always easy or smooth. The ideas can spread to other institutions, too, without the person leaving their own place. There are mechanisms for that.

So we have to believe that underdogs and marginalized people and agents of critical change can make a difference, someday, somehow, probably not on their own, but by collective work and allyship, that takes years to build. But I don’t think anyone can do it alone. You need community, and communities take years to build, tears and sweat to hold together and sustain. We can’t do it alone.

Added a few minutes after publishing – this tweet by Hannah Thornton (much better worded than mine) brings up probiotics and opened up a new avenue for me:

Tweet by Hannah Thonrton in response to my blogpost

The key element of this that captured my attention is that probiotics are little beings that help the large animal IMPROVE – versus something like HIV which DESTROYS it. And so, it’s useful, I think, to think of symbiotic relationships as well, as in, can a little being replicate enough within a larger being, to IMPROVE the larger being rather than destroy it? This is my hope for Higher Education to be honest. That all the small people who want to make critical change can build communities and allyships within and across institutions in order to cause positive, critical change, improvement, rather than complete destruction. Perhaps destroying and dismantling the oppression while constructing something good. Idealistic, I know. And the case of Google says otherwise. But I think we need to maintain hope and work towards something, rather than give up.

64 thoughts on “Can We Cause Critical Change from the Inside?

  1. Appreciate this question and the reminder of how important community is for this work. I like the metaphor of fungal networks or probiotic bacteria where connection is life and the large organism exists in commensalism with the radical changers. Thank you for your work.

  2. Ohmygosh of course! Hold over from my days as a biologist-commensalism is a non-harmful relationship between species where one species benefits but thinking about it now i feel like it might be too one-sided for this discussion.

  3. I hear you on that – but the probiotics one is good because it improves the larger being rather than destroying it, so you’re helping me think of it in another way! The tiny beings can work from inside to IMPROVE the big thing, not just DESTROY it, and that’s an AHA for me!

  4. The thing I like about the probiotic metaphor is that we can’t separate ourselves as the human from our bacteria. They very definitely shape our systems. Much like you described critical educators doing for higher Ed in your post.

  5. Hi Maha,

    One issue is that the belly of the chicken is not actually “inside” the chicken. It is part of the physical space occupied by the chicken so it appears to be inside it. The roach is only part of the chicken when it passes the stomach wall into the chicken’s cells. It has to be completely broken down for this to take place. This has important implications for the potential survival of individuals and communities within the belly of the beast!!

    I appreciate the possibility of probiotics, but the emphasis there seems to very much on the benefit of the organisation. Probiotics maintain balance for their host, they don’t change things.

    Fungal networks are a much more interesting notion, growing underground, not so much within or across but beneath, out of sight, making their own connections, making themselves a fundamental part of the survival of the surface organisms, without being coopted. But it is important that it be out of sight, because as soon as the chicken sees you moving, it will gobble you up!! That’s what chickens do!!

    Hope you are well!

      1. Its a very long time ago, that’s why. Early 2000s. Online Collaboration Course. I was one of your tutors, you were at Sheffield or you had just left. I think you were involved when it was called Ikarus, but I can’t remember.

  6. We must continue to build communities to influence critical change for fairness & equity , regardless of doing it synergistically with the larger animals (organizations) or by causing an illness (temporarily) that is aimed at building immunity (for betterment of organizations).

  7. Oh I love this with the direct link to the drive to improve things, not just change them. I agree! I think we can reach critical mass, we just need to find/reach out to the others doing the work alongside us.

  8. I like that you finish with symbiosis/hope. Darren Minister reminded me that Freire centred critical pedagogy in hope, as that helps sustain energy against oppression. It feels like madness sometimes. Without networks that reinforce that hope, it’s easier to turn away

    1. Bubbling along on the flood Hannah and Maha unleashed, struggling to get on my surfboard! I would love to participate in that book club.

      1. I remember u of course!!! I would never forget your name! But your full name was not showing, yet I knew from your tone that you knew me personally!! Soooo good to hear from you!!! Did you find the form to join the book club?

  9. Well, it was @Bali_Maha’s post that opened the flood gates, and I’m really happy to be able to engage in this discussion that is simultaneously inspiring me and teaching me how to be a better educator!

  10. I think Marcuse’s ideas about how change is co-opted by the dominant society would be relevant here. I have been in education for a while and I have seen a lot of good work (and people) dismantled by stipends, promotions, promises of tenure, “sustainable business models,” etc.

  11. Hey Maha, I’m doing well. Got some really great projects in the pipeline and barely any time to do them 😂 Also second year of my EdD and two lively boys to entertain. How are you?!

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