by Katherine K. Chen
27th April 2022

I am writing these words in my scyborgian capacity, in the hopes of reaching other scyborgs, which could include you. This is an exploratory mission to help readers such as yourself who wish to rethink conventional organisational practices.

What is a scyborg? la paperson’s (2017) term scyborg combines s- for ‘systems’ and feminist Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg’, highlighting how agents are ‘embedded in an assemblage of machines’ that form connections through everyday activities. Thus, by reading these words in this article, you have connected with me within larger assemblages of universities and publication systems. You might start to develop or enhance your own scyborgian powers by perusing my article ‘Learning how to be a scyborg: How prefigurative organisations can promote capacity to decolonialise organisations’. By reading this article, you can understand how to repurpose colonial practices for new ends, including decolonising organisations so that they serve traditionally less advantaged stakeholders, in the US including, but not exclusive to, indigenous peoples dispossessed from their lands, peoples descended from enslaved ancestors, and persons minoritised because of their sexual and gender identities.

Using my experiences of comparing and applying practices learned from Agile Learning Center-NYC (ALC-NYC), a small, democratic school located in New York City, to other organisations, my article highlights how liberatory organisations can promote the transformation of other organisational settings. When I originally carried out the study underlying this article, I thought I would be writing a conventional organisational ethnography of ALC-NYC’s democratic practices, akin to my ethnography of the organisation behind the annual Burning Man event. However, as the ongoing pandemic upended taken-for-granted practices that stabilise conventional organisations, I unexpectedly encountered opportunities to compare how various organisations – including my child’s school, my university and a professional association – have adapted to shifting policies. While these adaptions involve struggles, they also create spaces for members to envision alternative paths. Moreover, this time period revealed how my years of training and observing at ALC-NYC prepared me to navigate organisations that rely upon more conventional, colonialist practices. This article thus documents the spill-over effects of my research.

To briefly summarise, my article documents three ways in which scyborgs can practise change towards decolonisation, acquired from my time testing and applying practices learned from ALC-NYC. One path is to assert boundaries to support mutual growth, rather than deplete members in one-sided relationships of frustrated or stunted expectations. Another way is to make visible and thereby valued the otherwise hidden work that keeps organisations running. A third practice is to focus upon cultivating deeper relations, rather than counting numbers of relations.

When I originally wrote this article in 2021, like many others I hoped that by 2022, the pandemic would no longer be the main worry in everyday life. As we now know, the ongoing pandemic and the war in Ukraine and its reverberating displacement, death and devastation have bifurcated our attentions, intensifying uncertainties alongside past state violence and state retreat. My article’s characterisation of these times as ‘monkey paw years’, in which wishes are granted in horrific ways, especially upon those we love, has proven to be too accurate. These all underscore the urgent need to reorient our institutions towards desired futures.

Am I still as ready as I thought I was when writing that article, to deploy scyborgian powers while many of us experience unfathomable grief and loss, some of which will go unacknowledged, literally and figuratively buried? We are in the unknown, where we could reproduce past missteps or forge new paths that break from our colonialist pasts. What I do know, for now, is that I am continuing my weekly bookchat, a book club and check-in, where I can discuss texts and make sense of unfolding organisational, local and world events with Abby, the co-director of ALC-NYC, and other participants. This one constancy during the past several years is where I can align my scyborgian self in connection with other scyborgs. I hope after reading my article that you, too, can find those connections and like me, report on how these are bringing about change.

Katherine K. Chen, Department  of Sociology, the City College of New York and Graduate Center, CUNY.


Read the author’s article ‘Learning how to be a scyborg: how prefigurative organisations can promote capacity to decolonialise organisations’ here

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