Spaces of intervention: Reuben Rose-Redwood

Kaitlin Findlay

Place can be read as a litmus of a society’s shifting values. Our built environment conveys meaning, and who it privileges and excludes is deeply political. Several years ago I traveled with friends from Williams Lake, in Central British Columbia, to Nelson, in the Kootenay region in the southeast of the province. We detoured into the town of New Denver, the signs for the beach tempting after the dry Fraser Valley. Aside from the promise of a cool lake, we thought little of our location. We pulled in and headed for the water. The beach was busy; families set up their barbecues for dinner while their children played on the sun warmed pebbles.

Returning to the van, we passed an entrance to a garden. Later, I would learn that this was a section of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre. We walked through quietly, reading the interpretive panels, and trying to recall what murky facts we knew about the incarceration of thousands of Japanese Canadians. It was a sobering encounter. The legacy of state regulation and violence destabilized our idealistic summer travel, our imagined frontier freedom. If brief, the visit stuck with me. I wondered about other sites of state violence in Canada’s landscapes, of residential schools that scatter our landscapes, and of absences, those histories seemingly forgotten after decades of active erasures. I tried to parse a Canadian culture of commemoration: are there particular practices of remembering and forgetting that are specific to Canada’s political character?

Questions around the power and politics of place naming and mapping, both historically and in the present, animate the research of Dr. Reuben Rose-Redwood. An Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Victoria, Reuben’s recent scholarship has addressed the “branding” of public infrastructure through the financial acquisition of naming rights and the politics of reclaiming Indigenous place names in a settler colonial context. In the case of the latter, his questions of scholarship and activism are irrevocably—and intentionally—entangled.

Following the tradition of critical inquiry, Reuben interrogates the relations of power in his field of study but also in the production of knowledge itself. In a recent publication on the reclaiming of PKOLS (a prominent hill in Victoria, BC, which is also known as Mount Douglas) in 2013, Reuben addressed the role of the scholar in the politics around place-naming. “It is simply not enough,” he wrote, “to offer critical scholarly accounts of the power relations involved in Indigenous struggles over the naming of places while framing oneself as somehow above the fray as a neutral bystander or disembodied narrator, since such claims to neutrality have the effect of privileging the status quo of settler colonial power.” He called for scholars to instead cultivate “place-based solidarities” that re-center “both Indigenous resurgences and more relational approaches to settler colonial power”. [1] Like in my encounter in New Denver, place naming and commemoration can radically change an individual’s relation to place, sense of belonging, and identity. Yet it takes careful calculation to work out how we might move to reconfigure our landscapes of memory and power without reinforcing pre-existing structures of dominance.

Our conversation last spring made me consider space and place in a geographical sense (of course!) but also in the sense of the spaces of intervention and activism. In early 2016, Reuben was a strong voice of encouragement for the Scholarship and Activism Forum. Landscapes of Injustice is a large, sometimes unruly, project that contains both a convergence and a divergence of voices; Reuben encouraged the creation of a space for RAs to interrogate the ethics and applications of their scholarship. His academic activity exemplifies this practice of constructive dialogue. In addition to publishing on the state of critical geography with a series of likeminded scholars, he recently co-authored a rare dialogue between himself and a conservative geographer. [2]


What story of Vancouver Island is being told in this map? Photo: MARELBU, from

This follows from a vision of activism that occurs in multiple spaces—scholarly circles and institutional settings—that challenged us to consider the concrete interventions and implications of our academic pursuits. “As scholars,” he explained, “our work is embedded in various social and political contexts, so the question then becomes how do we […] seek to intervene within those relations of power.” Rather than claiming ‘observational neutrality’, Reuben called for scholars to address the immediate contexts in which they produce knowledge. “Scholars can play a role in activism on campus itself, in trying to change the institution and resist certain dominant paradigms of how you govern an institution like a university,” he said. “The university is an institution within a broader society, so when considering the neoliberal corporatization of the university, it’s important to keep in mind that similar processes are occurring across different institutions off campus as well, so those struggles can intersect with one another.” The work of activists — the ideas and motivations behind this work — needs to be cultivated in all spaces, even institutional ones.

In my visit to New Denver, I felt as though I was encountering history first hand. I walked the shiplap houses, imagining five years away from home. It was my imagined memory, however, my impressions guided by the design of the centre; the space curated my impression of the past. [3] Similarly, street-names guide our relation to the past, implicating our sense of belonging and entitlement, if in a less obvious way. And though they lack the physical signposts, our conversations and the research we produce are also guided by structures of power, embedded by methodological biases or funding practices. I appreciated our conversation for this: a critical interrogation of the spaces in which we live and work to make space a more just future.

The following is a transcript of an interview with Reuben in spring 2016.

Kaitlin: How do you envision the relation between scholarship and activism?

Reuben: The first thing that comes to mind is the famous passage from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach where Marx argues “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. I think that’s a really useful starting point because it makes us acknowledge that, as scholars, our work is embedded in various social and political contexts, so the question then becomes how do we […] seek to intervene within those relations of power. One way to do so is to play the objectivity card, to imagine yourself and present yourself to the world as an expert on a particular topic [who] then has knowledge to disseminate into the world. That, of course, gives the scholar social authority within that given society, particularly within the context of science. You know, if you say that you’re a scientist or a social scientist doing “science”, you have “objective truths”.

There’s an alternative way of thinking about scholarship and politics that’s a more critical tradition that argues that we need to examine the power relations that operate within society as well as the power relations that inform scholarship. Scholarship occurs within institutional contexts, within universities, within think tanks and so on, and so we need to think critically about our own positionality as scholars within those political contexts. For instance, if you think about the way in which knowledge is produced, it can serve various different interests and also the way that you frame your research is also informed by a political project, whether you acknowledge it or not in your scholarship. There’s also the question of funding: there’s been recent debates in geography about the military funding of geographical research within Indigenous communities in Latin America, and we can look at a funding angle of who’s supporting this research.

So, there are various ways in which scholarship is political and to call scholarship “activism” plays a certain way of framing that. Those scholars who seek to frame themselves as objective experts, they would say they’re not doing activist work, they are doing “[…] objective research”, but the claim to neutrality is a political project. It’s a project of depoliticization which I think is even more ideological than research that is upfront about what its politics are.

Kaitlin: What place do questions of activism or social justice hold in your own research?

Reuben: In my own research, […] I’ve looked at the politics of place naming, power relations involved in mapping—both historically as well as in the present—so I’m very much interested in looking at the ways in which geographical research can document the injustices of the past in order to create a more socially just future. In that regard, [I’ll] give you two examples in my research on the politics of place naming. I’ve looked recently at one trend … [of] cities increasingly selling the naming rights to public places as part of the privatization of public space. So, that’s a research topic and you could ask various questions about that. But there is also a political dimension because I happen to disagree with that project of urban governance so I’m studying it with an aim to document what the phenomenon is and how we might be able to resist that phenomenon in various ways. That’s led me to write op-eds and create online petitions in various ways, other forms of activism. I also have an interest in recent efforts by Indigenous communities to reclaim their Indigenous place names here in Victoria, where I’m located, as well as elsewhere. So in that regard I’m not necessarily at the centre of those struggles, being a non-Indigenous settler on occupied territory, but I see myself as having some knowledge of the scholarship on place naming and the politics thereof, that I might have something to contribute to the discussions as well. So that gives you two examples of some activist work I’ve done in relation to my scholarship.

Kaitlin: Do you have any scholars you admire for activist work? Do you have any activist you admire for their work?

Reuben: The first thing to point out is that when we talk about political activism, I think it’s important to recognize that activist movements are movements—they’re social movements, they’re collective struggles—so it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t single out individual activists to create these heroes and have idols in a certain way. Rather, recognizing that even people like Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Cesar Chavez–the civil rights heroes of the 1960s and other decades–were part of broader social movements. It’s important to recognize that. That being said, there are various scholars that have influenced me in my own career, just thinking about the relation between scholarship and politics, people like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Cornell West. In my own research more specifically I’ve drawn on the research on Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, looking at the performativity of identity and subjectivity and thinking about what role the body plays in the production of the world as well as space, place, and landscape. In retrospect, […] my parents were folk musicians and they had toured with the United Farmworkers and Cesar Chavez in California, they toured the United States playing music for the Farmworkers’ movement. In some ways, my own parents and their relation to Cesar Chavez really inspired me as I grew up and became a scholar. There’s different angles to that, they don’t all align […], but they all inspire me in various ways.

Kaitlin: Do you think it’s possible to separate scholarship and activism?

Reuben: I think that all scholarship is political. And, what do we mean by activism? We need to unpack our assumption about what activism is. Is activism solely protesting and marching in the streets? Is that our vision of activism? That is one form of activism, but I think that there are various different types of activism. And scholarship, writing critical analyses of power relations that might be read by activists and inspire activist movements, why is that scholarship not seen as activism, even the scholars in the library doing seemingly activist things?

I think we need to have a broader conception of what activism is in the first place. There are various different ways that scholars and activists can intersect with one another. I guess I would point out that we shouldn’t just see activism as something that occurs off the university campuses. Increasingly over the past few decades, universities have become increasingly corporatized and run as if they were corporate businesses, with the business model. I see critical scholarship that calls attention to power relations and so forth as being a form of activism and resistance to the neoliberalization of the university. As scholars, that’s our immediate institutional context, higher education institutions. I think scholars can play a role in activism on campus itself, in trying to change the institution and resist certain dominant paradigms of how you govern an institution like a university. And the university is an institution within a broader society, so when considering the neoliberal corporatization of the university, [it’s important to keep in mind that] similar processes are occurring across different institutions off campus as well, so those struggles can intersect with one another. So it’s important to not create this barricade between scholarship and activism and say that the two are separate things, because I see scholarship itself as a form of activism.

[1] Rose-Redwood, Reuben. (2016). “‘Reclaim, Rename, Reoccupy’: Decolonizing Place and the Reclaiming of PKOLS.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 15(1), 201.

[2] If the feminist language of “positionality” or “relations of power” nudges academic towards jargon, I appreciate its specificity. For me, identifying the various and complex systems in which we operate expands our opportunities to recognize, support, and instigate resistance.

[3] Kirsten McAllister conveys the complex decision-making process that went into the creation of the NIMC. See: McAllister, Kirsten Emiko. Terrain of memory: A Japanese Canadian memorial project. UBC Press, 2011.

Many thanks to Reuben for his patience in the creation of this post and to the S&A Forum team for their support and comments. All mistakes are, of course, my own. 

%d bloggers like this: