By Maureen Nicols & Rohan Menon
The author, podcast host, and leader of the African Folktales Project shares her personal and professional reflections on a transformative design studio experience.
“I am all about getting the job done. This is something Wanagri [Maathai] talked about. The importance of actually planting the seeds, watering them and watching them grow.
But until you are planting the seeds and watering them and watching them grow, you are just talking.”
The Cultural diplomat
From the moment I log on, Wakanyi’s presence transcends the boundaries of our little screens, her warm smile and inviting spirit welcoming me into the boundaries of our Zoom chat. A native of Kenya now living in the Netherlands, Wakanyi shares that she is often described as a cultural diplomat, a title she welcomes warmly.
Along with her nomadic ancestry, she tells me that the vivid stories from her mother’s village have shaped what she believes is her core purpose in life — to be a storyteller, creating harmony within and across the many cultures she comes into contact with.
Wakanyi holds many other identities as well. A mother of four; a traveler; a facilitator of storytelling workshops; an avid reader (her two favorite books are The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing); a lover of nature, who recently found her green thumb. “Wakanyi” means optimistic, inspiring, outgoing, expressive. It means a person brimming with creativity. And so she is.
As the leader of the African Folktales Project and a global citizenship expert, Wakanyi brought her many identities and creative wisdom with her this summer when she joined reDesign’s K-12 Content Map Design Studio, a week-long creative endeavor to redefine the most important, relevant, and preparatory disciplinary content for young people in K-12 education. She sat down with me to describe her experience at this event — which all started with an intriguing email.
I can have a voice!
A few months ago, Wakanyi woke up to find an invitation in her inbox to something called “reDesign’s K-12 Content Map Design Studio”. Unsure of how the email had made its way to her, she confessed that she nonetheless felt a calling to attend. Storytelling had always been a prominent part of her own life, she explained, but she felt that diverse stories were largely absent from the K-12 content that traditionally makes up a Literary Studies curriculum. “Yes! A call to action!”, she thought. “I can work with others to think about systems! A place where I can have a voice!”. She hoped that this Design Studio could be an opportunity to amplify the stories of children from diverse cultural backgrounds, and ultimately re-imagine the discipline of Literary Studies to center global citizenship and include a diverse array of storytellers. She gushed, “I jumped up and down about the possibilities of reconstructing, deconstructing, and redesigning!”
In the eyes of reDesign, a new and improved content map had to begin by adding some seats to the design table; in particular, seats for people with underrepresented identities and diverse lived experiences. Wakanyi’s non-traditional background in education made her an ideal participant — her experiences as a mother, a community builder, a traveler, and a storyteller were not only accepted, but welcomed for the unique perspective they gave her.
The Design Studio was also going to support disciplinary “teams” — Wakanyi was invited to join the one focusing on “Literary Studies” — which gave her an opportunity to integrate her own perspectives with colleagues who also came from a variety of backgrounds, identities, experiences, and professional environments. Each team was tasked with creating a preliminary content map for their discipline that defined essential cross-disciplinary concepts and topics, and provided a rationale for their inclusion against the stated goals of creating an inclusive, multicultural, anti-racist content map.
To Wakanyi, that last part was especially notable — for years, she explained, she had been exploring anti-racist and multicultural approaches to Literary Studies in what felt like stark isolation. Her sense of purpose, however, had helped her stay abreast of current research, and follow the discourse around diversity, inclusion, and indigenous knowledge in particular. A chance to finally connect with a community of like-minded individuals that shared her commitment to equity was, for her, too exciting to pass up.
Reconstruction & deconstruction
Upon accepting their invitations, participants were encouraged to prepare for the event by thinking about how they think about their discipline area as a whole, and what materials they’ve consumed throughout their careers that contributed to that “schema”. For Wakanyi, a podcast came to mind: “Holding Space” by Dr. Aminata Cairo, a podcast which paints a picture of inclusion that goes beyond the limited boundaries of “DEI”, and into the collective work of holding space for people’s stories, existences, and experiences. As the Design Studio got underway, Wakanyi found herself in a Literary Studies team where the ethos of Dr. Cairo’s vision for inclusivity was present — her team listened to each other, collaborated meaningfully, valued each other’s unique strengths and knowledge, and worked hard to create an environment of equality and validation.
At the same time, and perhaps as a result, the work they did was joyful, inspiring, and challenging all at once. Wakanyi found herself grappling with how to create a Literary Studies curriculum that could reconstruct the predominant, narrow ways we teach young people about storytelling. In many ways, that reconstruction began with a deconstruction — of the ways in which whiteness and western-centric ideas seep into the texts children consume, and uphold a culture of white supremacy that often dehumanizes people of color and ignores indigenous knowledge. Her team realized that truly integrating different forms of knowledge about storytelling into a diversified Literary Studies content map starts with recognizing the dominant narratives about what “literature” is.
One area of focus for Wakanyi in particular was amplifying indigenous voices and knowledge. Traditionally, Literary Studies and storytelling are taught in western countries with a strict adherence to the written word. And yet, for many millennia, indigenous people have relied on an entirely different medium — oral storytelling — to teach children about the values, climate, society, and politics of their community. A change in medium creates an entirely different way of thinking about the relationship between people, literature, and learning — the storyteller shapes what children come to learn about their world, and in so doing, shapes who they are. Working to integrate this wisdom into their maps, Wakanyi’s team explored inclusive and multicultural storytelling through the lens of oral narratives, as well as music, art, poetry, textbooks, and images. They were left feeling convinced that a truly inclusive content map begins with valuing the cultural wealth and knowledge of those often marginalized.
Creating ripples of change in the field of education by being radically inclusive might not strike many folks as fun. But that’s exactly how Wakanyi described this period of intense, collaborative, creative work. She said,
“We worked really hard, put in a lot of hours and everyone really chipped in. Every single sentence was constructed by a team, either as pairs or in groups of 3s. It really was teamwork and in the end we were all quite sad to end the workshop.”
a deeply personal motivation
In many ways, reDesign’s K-12 Content Map Design Studio offered Wakanyi a space and a community in which to creatively engage with some of her most deeply held beliefs — that schools ought to inspire a generation of conscious world citizens; that the literature young people are exposed to influences the way they understand themselves and the world around them; and that with a committed team, a week of Zoom meetings, and a whole lot of messy design work, the first inklings of a better content map can emerge.
For Wakanyi, the mission of reimagining the K-12 content map for Literary Studies was not only a principled one — it was also deeply personal. She is raising four bi-racial, culturally diverse children who are rarely included or represented in classroom materials, or mainstream media. Through her children’s international schooling, where they use a U.S. curriculum, she has witnessed the jarring inequities that emerge from singular narratives about diverse groups of people. She explains,
“I had problems with the curriculum at my childrens’ schools. The culture did not represent the diversity of American people. Always the same story. The curriculum left me with a sense of lack because it was obvious they were serving one group of people. It all started to feel very foreign to me even though I am not American and have American extensions through my husband.”
As a result, the Design Studio became an amazing space for Wakanyi to actively address these issues which she has become so familiar with. Having the opportunity to reflect on her own memories of school, and to ponder the experiences of her children in school now, gave her work a touch of personal meaning as she designed content maps for the future that all kids — including hers — deserve. Asked about her hopes for this work moving forward, she said
“This studio was a major leap in the right direction, and I’m curious how it’ll be received. I wonder if we pushed the envelope too far, or even not far enough. I hope schools see the value of what we are trying to achieve, because otherwise it will be injustice.
I intend to be more bold about expressing what’s actually possible — by deconstructing literary studies and using storytelling as an approach to learning across the disciplines, with literary studies at the helm. The design studio work really affirmed my deepest conviction that school ought to be a place for exploring all knowledge sources and building a database of “best practices” to inspire a generation of conscious, world citizens who are not defined by race, economics or any other divisive political agenda.”
As was fitting, our conversation ended with a story. One of Wakanyi’s favorites is a childhood story by her superhero, Wangari Maathai, called “I will be a hummingbird”. A social, environmental, and political activist from Kenya, Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her story begins with an enormous forest, home to all kinds of flora and fauna, suddenly being consumed by fire. One by one, all of the animals are overwhelmed by the fire — except for the tiny hummingbird. She finds a stream and, carrying just one drop at a time, attempts to put out the fire. The other animals watch the hummingbird with incredulity, hopelessness, confusion. She is too small, what can she possibly do? When they question her, she says simply “I am doing the best I can.”
Asked whether she has a mantra, Wakanyi replies,
“I am all about getting the job done. This is something Wanagri [Maathai] talked about. The importance of actually planting the seeds, watering them and watching them grow. But until you are planting the seeds and watering them and watching them grow, you are just talking.”
At times, it can feel like the forest of education is going up in flames. The inequities that run through the system are so many, and run so deep. But Wakanyi and her comrades held space together at reDesign’s K-12 Content Map Design Studio, working towards the unwavering goal of transforming education to be inclusive of all stories, and all experiences. There is no button to press, no switch to flip, no fire department to magically put the fire out and fix the whole system. There are only little drops of water, and small shifts at a time. For Wakanyi and her team, there is only the beautiful work of the hummingbird.
Wakanyi Hoffman is the host of Folktale Fridays, a podcast that introduces children around the world to African folktales, the author of The Twelve Days of Christmas Safari, an African rendition of the French/English Christmas folktale, inviting children around the world to visit Africa through a collection of paintings of African wildlife, and the leader of the African Folktales Project. Her debut children’s picture book is set to be published in the UK in 2023.
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