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:
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?
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:
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.