A few weeks ago, the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Humanities hosted the inaugural Humanitas Awards, which recognizes three Humanists of the Year, and celebrates the ethos and value of the humanities.
The Public Humanist of the Year was awarded to Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, UN peacekeeper who led troops during the Rwandan genocide and later became a renowned humanitarian. The Historic Humanist of the Year Award was bestowed upon the late Ursula K. Le Guin, extraordinary science-fiction and fantasy author who used her writing to explore complex themes of feminism and equality. And the Emerging Humanist of the Year Award went to our very own Ashli Akins, Mosqoy’s founder and president.
Below is Ashli’s acceptance speech, which highlighted the theme of the night – exploring the role of the Humanities in our world today, and the question of “what it truly means to be human.”
"Thank you so much.
Thank you, Dan Russek, for nominating me and supporting my work. And to both of my departments – Hispanic & Italian Studies, and Environmental Studies – for giving me a safe and empowering home from which I can feel free to make mistakes, ask questions, and keep coming back. A lot of my teachers tried to convince me to go into the hard sciences because – as the stigma says – 'that’s where the smart people go.' But I disagree [with this unnecessary dichotomy]. The humanities takes brave people; people who are brave enough to figure out truly applicable solutions to real-world complex problems. Because, people don’t have formulas – and never should. So, thank you to the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Humanities for honouring the true purpose of our discipline – and for exploring this ever-important question of what it truly means to be human. Right now, in an era of disconnect and fear, of barriers and borders – we so need to be reminded of our humanness, and of the sheer goodness – quite frankly, the greatness – of humanity. So, thank you for celebrating that. To me, a “humanitarian” or a “humanist” is someone who believes in humanity, which nowadays is a radical proposition. To be clear, a humanist is not a saviour. We are not there to save, or even to help. We are instead there to listen and most importantly to serve. So most of all, I need to thank the hundreds of Quechua youth, women, families, and communities in the Peruvian Andes, who I am honoured to work with and learn from, and on whose land I am so privileged to live – for trusting in me enough to collaborate with them. And also to Mosqoy’s hundreds of supporters, donors, volunteers, and staff – because, in reality, this is a deeply collective effort. Like anything worth doing in the world, I didn’t do it alone. And while I may be getting the credit today, it is a “we”. I am so humbled to be part of this inaugural celebration, especially alongside such big names that I grew up with – Romeo Dallaire, basically a synonym for the word, grit – and Ursula K. Le Guin, a creative feminist legend. ________________________________________ A couple of months ago, I interviewed Valentina – one of the many interviews I conduct annually with our partnering weavers. The three of us – Valentina, Mishjaky, and I – sat on the sloped grass in her rural community of Amaru. I asked Valentina the usual questions – who taught her to weave, why she chose to join the women’s cooperative, what changes she has noticed in her community over the past 50 years. I sat there with my olive-green notebook, rapidly taking notes as Mishjaky interpreted between Quechua and Spanish.
My final question asked her about her hopes and dreams for the future.
And after quite a jovial, light-hearted conversation, the tone shifted dramatically. Valentina told me that she hoped her children were able to study, to learn to read and write, to speak Spanish, so that they "didn’t end up like her." She nodded at my notebook and said she didn’t want them to feel the same humiliation she felt about not knowing how to read and write, not knowing how to speak the language.
She began crying. She told me about her sister who, as a teenager, moved to the city of Cusco and learned Spanish, while she had to stay in Amaru and thus, did not. Her sister therefore has all of the opportunities, can offer her children all of these skills, while she – in her words – “can offer them nothing.”
The three of us just held the silence together.
“Does your sister know how to weave?” I asked.
Valentina paused for a moment.
“So that’s a skill that you are able to pass down to your children and grandchildren that she cannot, no?”
She nodded, pulling blades of grass out of the ground.
If both sisters had gone to Cusco, there would be nobody left to pass down the weaving tradition, or to teach them her knowledge about medicinal and dye plants.
“Do your children know how to weave?” I asked her.
“All of them?”
All of them.
This shifting value of traditional knowledge – of cultural heritage – in an era of rapid economic change, is the question I explore. Both in my interdisciplinary PhD and in my non-profit community work with Mosqoy, in the high Andes of Peru and all over the world.
I critically examine how to safeguard cultural heritage in a way that actually includes community voices, and in a way that considers change and adaptation.
In a way that does not “museumify” tradition, women, and culture – in other words, that does not try to put them in a box in the past, and say “we will help and protect you, but only if you abide by our outside views of what is traditional, authentic, and indigenous.”
The concept of “safeguarding” needs to foster community-based and economically relevant solutions, so that traditional knowledge, slow fashion, and intangible processes can exist simultaneously alongside chaos and efficiency.
In theory, it’s beautiful. It’s engaging. It’s complex.
In practice, it’s a convoluted mess.
Because, well, humans do not have formulas.
________________________________________ I have spent the past 13 years working in the Andean mountains of Peru. I first came to Peru as a 20-year-old backpacker – taking a few semesters off from my bachelor’s degree at UVic. But I accidentally left my heart in the Andes after listening to Quechua community members share their stories with me and after witnessing the unseen effects of tourism – of people like me, who were inadvertently but negatively impacting communities, simply by not knowing the “real stories” beyond the façade of this beautiful utopia. So I stayed, in response to a simple ask: that communities no longer wanted to be forced to choose between economic development or keeping their cultural alive – an impossible and unfair choice. Now, 12 years later, Mosqoy is still working with highland Indigenous Quechua communities to mitigate adverse effects of unsustainable tourism and development. We offer fair-trade outlets for traditional Quechua women weavers who wish to keep their art and livelihood alive but do not have access to the marketplace. We operate a sustainable field school that inspires Canadian students – and many UVic students – to become more responsible travelers and consumers, when visiting communities like these all over the world. And with the funds from these two social enterprises, we provide post-secondary educational scholarships in the nearest city of Cusco for marginalized youth from these rural communities – youth who have true capacity to be the next generation’s leaders. My work founding Mosqoy led me to many questions. So, after graduating from UVic with too many majors and minors, I went on to study a master’s in international human rights law at the University of Oxford, and am now finishing an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of British Columbia, intersecting the fields of law, anthropology, and environmental studies. And I still have more questions than answers.
Which I think is a good thing.
In a world where it seems like we should be burdened miles high with guilt, and at a time when current events align all too perfectly with George Orwell’s fiction, I believe it is indeed the humanities that give us hope.
Because it is in the humanities where people learn to communicate with each other across religions and cultures and languages, and break down these artificial borders that make us label people as “The Other.”
It is in the humanities that we are reminded where we came from, who our ancestors are, and what kind of science-fiction future we could collectively create, if we only slightly cleaned up our act.
It is here where we find the bravery to grit through it all, to ask questions, to think critically, and to find our “why” – our piece of this complex human puzzle.
Thank you. Gracias. Sullpayki.
– Ashli Akins, March 2019 –