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In memory of Aziz | An extra mile in the politics of knowledge production to recognise social movements

18.06.2024 | Authors: Nisha Thapliyal, Désirée Rochat, Joyeeta Dey and Soledad Magnone

Para leer en español, cliquea aquí, to read in Hindi click here


In Memory of Aziz expands on his work - and fellow scholars - on the fundamentals of freedom of speech and activism within academia. Aziz Choudry was an activist, educator and author engaged in radical adult education and social movements.

In our first series, we discussed with Salim Vally, Fergal Finnegan and Mario Novelli about how Aziz embodied a unique blend, seeing the university as a site of struggle, recognizing its contradictions and leveraging change. We discussed the impact of technology on education, activism, and how it can empower and surveil individuals.

In this second edition we continue conversations with:

Nisha Thapliyal, Senior Lecturer at the School of Education at the University of Newcastle in Australia. She teaches and does research on social movements for public education, the right to education, activist knowledge production and social movement learning, critical and feminist pedagogies for anti-racism, peace and social justice education.

Désirée Rochat, transdisciplinary scholar and community educator, her work connects historical research, archival preservation and education to document black activism. She is currently a FRQSC postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University.

Dive deeper listening to the podcast and accessing the full transcript in English.

[Joyeeta] In which ways have social movements been instrumental as spaces of non formal education for academics? And could you answer this question through a lens of having worked with Aziz?

[Désirée] (…) I met Aziz through my masters at McGill, not really knowing what I was doing there. I had a long term practice as a community worker, and Aziz is the first one that made me reflect on what I had learned through my community work. All the skills that I had gained from organizing people, activities for youth, gaining a political understanding. So, through working with him I was able to see, learn, the politics of Montreal by doing this work: the internal politics of community organizing, but also how to bring people together and how to do research to organize campaigns. And so by (a) paying attention to everything that happens within social movement; and (b) paying attention to different forms of learning, this is where we gained a better understanding of what we actually learn from within the social movements (…)

[Nisha] (…) the time I spent with the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) was a really intense, critical time. In acknowledging that knowledge production happened in counter knowledge production, and was intrinsic to mobilizing for social change. The MST talk about formal educational institutions as ‘fences’ to movements. Because along with the landlords, the fazenda owners of Brazil, it was the universities and the schools and the education systems that told the landless people of Brazil that they were worth nothing. That they were backward, uneducable, so on and so forth. (…) So for example, when I read your question the first time, “non formal” stood out for me and it jarred. The MST actively challenge any binaries: formal, non formal, informal. That’s where I was when I was introduced to Aziz and then began to read his work. (…)

[Joyeeta] Sort of drawing on what both of you did mention that doing this sort of work has a cost. Would you expand on what you mean by that?

[Désirée] (…) That was a non/informal learning experience that we had to do. He went the extra mile to reflect that diversity of learning opportunities and to dismantle the hierarchies of knowledge that he was fighting against. It also meant to continue literally this community organizing work, building bridges, bringing people together, organizing events, so that he could leverage some of the resources that he had access to. In terms of cost, that means that it’s an extra added layer of labor that needs to be acknowledged. It’s a relational labor because trying to keep in touch with people across the globe to be able to connect them and make sure that you’re aware of what’s going. (…)

[Nisha] (…) We can’t even imagine how much labor he performed with so much love and care that it takes. Because he didn’t just work with conventional successful academics. Look who he was writing with and so the work that would have gone into completing those projects. But the story he told me was how every time one of those books would come out, how he would go to the UK every year, and then his friends would invite him to almost every campus. But, he had almost no institutional support to disseminate this incredibly important work. (…) That’s just the least of the labor and the cost that we’re talking about. And of course, he loved it, he talked about it as something he loved to do. (…)

[Joyeeta] How have academic spaces in the past supported activist research and how it can continue to do so given the sort of growing threats to free speech? And within this, what is the role of the individual and making these spaces more conducive?

[Désirée] One of the main first things that Aziz did was he redistributed resources. It was very clear that the university provided him access to financial resources, space resources that he could channel into the movements that he was involved with. Whether it was through the books and so, as Nisha mentioned, the edited books, giving the opportunities for people to write and publish their ideas to make them more accessible, outside their networks. Whether it was organizing symposiums or smaller conferences… The first two years that I started at McGill he would organize these lunch bag seminars to bring in people. (…)

[Nisha] (…) I did my PhD and I worked in the US for another seven years, before moving to Australia. I was really shocked by the lack of resources for this kind of work. You don’t need a lot of money, but by the time I got to Australia, they were in their third decade of neoliberal higher education reform. (..) But that wasn’t good enough for Aziz. (…) And of course he had lived in Aotearoa, New Zealand, he knew the higher education context on this side of the world. This is funny, sitting in Canada and he was breaking the system down here for me to help me read the power structures and be able to see where the openings were, where the sensitivities were (…)

[Joyeeta] The role of the digital within academic work and in activist work empowers to reach and knowledge access, yet opens vulnerability and surveillance in unprecedented ways. How do you think Aziz negotiated this? What are your thoughts as scholars and community workers on this?

[Désirée] (…) I think that the work of historicizing surveillance practices from governments, international agencies. That was core to Aziz’s work, understanding how these tools work together. And I don’t think that he had any kind of explicit opinion about the digital world right now because it evolved so fast. But I think that it’s clearly, he understood them as a continuation of practices of surveillance. And I think that this is something he was always trying to remind us in understanding power, the history of power. (…)

[Nisha] (…) I think the question was always not what technology, but why technology? Technology is another form or format of creating knowledge. What questions do we need to ask of it? Is it movement relevant? Is the knowledge produced collectively? Is the knowledge counter hegemonic? Those were his constant questions… that’s what he considered struggle knowledge. Those were some of the defining features of transformative knowledge. So I think yes, on technology there was a lot of humor, and I think that’s what he was trying to tell us. (…)

[Joyeeta] We had originally just talked about the lens of gender, but you said that Aziz’s analysis was always race and gender together. Is that something you want to tell us more about?

[Désirée] And if I may add, I think it was always race, gender, and class. The question is also about migration, north, south. In every big bracket, I think that is the lens through which Aziz approached everything. So, I think it’s not just a question of bringing the lens of one, but it’s understanding the workings of capitalism all the time. Even though you could frame it in these terms, maybe differently, but also of racial capitalism. (…)

[Nisha] (…) He talked a lot about Walter Rodney and Fanon. I had looked up some of his Fanon quotes from the book, “Learning Activism”: “If care is taken to use only a language that is understood by graduates in law and economics, you can easily prove that the masses have to be managed from above”. That’s why language matters. Aziz was doing so much caring work for migrant academic women of color like myself, I wasn’t even aware of how many women like myself he was mentoring until after he passed. I always wished he’d written about it, but he lived it. And that’s what matters, and he touched all our lives.

[Joyeeta] If I may intervene in this, it’s like a good post MeToo world. Always good to hear of positive experiences of mentorship. One gets so jaded with the sort of stories as young women in academia as well. It’s very reassuring to have a sort of renewal of faith in people. Thanks for sharing that as well.

We hope that these efforts encourage further scholars, activists and community workers to keep struggling together, providing a language, enquiring and contesting dominant knowledge structures.

Expand with Aziz’s contributions in conversation with other colleagues:

Aziz Choudry: Pedagogies of repression: Activists vs the Surveillance State on Vimeo

The Intellectual Labour of Social Movements – Briarpatch Magazine

Interface – a journal for and about social movements (

Education Undergraduate Society of McGill - PedTalk with Dr Aziz Choudry