The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Lamont Slater: Decolonizing the Mind

September 19, 2019

Lamont Slater: I always keep track of my students when the semester ends, and a lot of times, they say that it has transformed them in a way that now they're able to confront wrong information or biased information or racist information in a way that is constructive and academic and leads to global change.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present the Augsburg podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reed Day, host of the Augsburg podcast, and today, I'm speaking with Lamont Slater, program coordinator and lecturer for the Center of Global Education, and I'm speaking with him today long distance. He's in Windhoek, Namibia.

Lamont Slater: Thank you for having me on the podcast.

Catherine Day: As we begin, it would be wonderful, Lamont, if you could tell us briefly first of all to ground us in why you're there and the work that you're doing, Augsburg has a strong commitment to international and global education, and you are one of three locations for that work, is that correct?

Lamont Slater: That is correct. We have southern African location and then we have the Mexico location and then central America.

Catherine Day: Maybe you could give us an overview about Augsburg's focus on global education. How long has that been a tradition to the best of your knowledge, and what is the focus of that?

Lamont Slater: One of the ways I'm going to go ahead and get started is to present the position of the Center for Global Education and its mission in southern Africa. Part of the mission is to promote study abroad from a experiential learning basis, which is based off of the Kolb's learning cycle of learning, and the way that it's presented here in southern Africa, one of the key points of this programming is that it has a theme of de-colonizing the mind, and so de-colonizing the mind is a reference from the works of Frantz Fanon in his book, Wretched of the Earth, in which he talks about mind de-colonization as a result of events that happened in Algeria during the 1950s.

We borrow that philosophy and that theme, a thematic approach in what we do here, to de-colonize our minds and de-colonize student minds towards information that they previously have been familiar with possibly, but then we're enacting the learning process in a different way. For example, recently we were in the Eastern Cape. South Africa has different provinces, and the Eastern Cape is one of those provinces. We challenged students to read about Steve Biko's I Write What I Like, which is a book that has several excerpts of his writings of black consciousness during the life of Biko, and this book is pretty much standard reading in a lot of classes, literature, especially African-American literature, Africana studies, and so students were able to not only read his work, but we took students to engage in dialogue with a friend of Steve Biko's recently.

And we went to his home, his former home. We went to the grave site of Biko. We went to the Biko Center, which talked all about Biko and gave comparative analysis between Steve Biko and other members of the black conscious movement, including W.E.B. DuBois, and so in short, the Center for Global Education really enacts these references, not just for learning purposes, but on a broader scale, to push forward the agenda of fair and just society and learning about multiple figures that have tried to really bridge the gap between different ethnicities, races, et cetera. It really speaks to what the mission of Augsburg University's Center for Global Education is.

Catherine Day: You've mentioned several things that I'm going to want to follow up on here. First of all, I thought it would be helpful if we paint a little picture of where you are, a little bit about why you are in that particular place, how many students are there, how long do they stay in this program? And maybe just start with just a couple of those details, please.

Lamont Slater: We're in Windhoek, Namibia. Just a little quickie about Windhoek, Windhoek is the capital of Namibia. Namibia is a country that is one of the, if not the, least populated countries, especially for the size of the land, and Namibia only has two point five million people in the entire country. It's a beautiful country. It has a desert landscape. It has savannas. It has parts of the country that has a lot of green space, so it has a very geographic spacing.

From a optical point of view, it's a great place to be. It has a history of colonialism, which pretty much has dictated the future of the country in several different ways. We don't have a lot of time to talk about those ways, but it's definitely shaped the country as they move forward after independence. Students are usually here in Namibia for about three and a half months, and then prior to coming to Namibia, they're in South Africa for about three weeks, and so they get the true southern Africa experience, and at the same time, they're able to use a comparative approach to dealings that's happening in South Africa and also Namibia because they have a shared history.

Our students go from South Africa to Namibia, and then they return back to the U.S. in this case, for this semester, they'll be returning back on June 8th, so that's where the students are. With regards to myself, how I ended up here, I applied for the position while I was teaching at Quinsigamond Community College. I was about to go on sabbatical, believe it or not. I was already approved for my sabbatical. After seven years, you're able to apply for sabbatical, and that's what I did. I was in the process of completing my PhD work and wanted to be on the ground in Namibia. My whole body of work has been on the Namibian genocide, which was the focus of my dissertation. It just so happened that there was a position available in Namibia that I applied for.

It was perfect for me, and I ended up getting the job, and so I was very grateful for that and still am grateful for that, and I am able to kind of use the expertise that I have in the Namibian genocide and apply it to my job, which is beautiful. In fact, going from the experiential lens, we're able to go over different aspects of my dissertation and actually take students to those places that these events happened. For example, during Nazi Germany, you had Auschwitz and different concentration camps there, which happened approximately 25 years later than the events that happened in Namibia. Keep in mind that Namibia is a German colony, and those events that happened in Nazi Germany happened in Namibia almost 25 years earlier.

And so to actually be able to take students to these places, the actual locations, is just a once in a lifetime type of position to have, and I'm happy to share that with the students.

Catherine Day: Let's take a minute and talk about how you found your path to this research. You were in New York, I believe?

Lamont Slater: I'm a New Yorker, so I started off in New York and going to high school there, and I wanted to go to college. I was born in the Bronx, New York before I moved to Long Island, and we used to always see Fordham University. This university was in our neighborhood, and at the time, we didn't have anyone in the family that went to college, so there was no first generation. I didn't have anybody to kind of lean on about how to even go about going to college, and I had a relative that just came back from the military. He told me that you can go to the military and get funding for college.

And at the time, I was a high school student. I was a senior in high school. I was 16 when I was about to graduate and decided that's what I was going to do. I'm going to go to the military, and I'm going to get the G.I. bill and fund my way to college. Of course, I didn't have a lot of support. But that's all I had, because no one knew anything about financial aid, FAFSA forms, fellowships. I had no resources to use to my advantage, and so I signed up and went to the military. My mother had to actually sign the waiver because I was 16 when I graduated, and I went to the military a week after I graduated from high school.

I did my basic and AIT in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and then I went to Kitzingen, Germany for my duty station, and while I was in Germany, that's when I learned about not only the Namibian genocide from somebody that I just randomly met in Auschwitz when I was there, but also the positionality of black Americans and also other black Africans that were caught up in the German holocaust as well. It was a total awakening, because all I knew about the holocaust was what was taught in school and Anne Frank and all of those stories about the horrors of the genocide, but being in Germany, it enlightened me to a new history almost.

It just let me know that history is contingent upon the one who writes it. It inspired me to be a historian and look at Africana history in a way that created a holistic approach to research. That was my path to research, teaching in the field, and eventually getting my PhD in genocide, specifically the Namibian genocide, and more specifically focusing on retelling the story of genocide in Namibia from an inter-cultural lens and also focusing on really pointing out the need for correct memorialization when it comes to representation of genocide, especially with the local African culture.

Catherine Day: I presume that you take the time to share your personal discovery, how you found out this information and how it led you down this path. Do you share this with your students?

Lamont Slater: I do. I mean, because it's very important. I mean, our students are in a experiential learning program. They have to get out their comfort zone in order to really maximize this experience, just like I did. Prior to me going to Germany, nobody ever traveled overseas or even out of New York for that matter.

Catherine Day: Nobody in your family, you mean?

Lamont Slater: No, I mean it was like basic trips every now and then. Every now and then, you had somebody that would go out of state on a road trip to Florida or something like that, which I remember growing up, we went to Florida. On a whole, hardly anybody was able to even travel out of New York and get different experiences from different people. With regards to international travel, that was zero. One of the things that it opened my eyes to is that it dispelled a lot of stereotypes of ways that I thought about people.

For example, when I think about Germany, back then as a 16 year old, all I thought about was skinheads and neo-Nazi and fascism and Hitler and just bad things that surrounded Germany and its people, but when I got there, what I found out was something totally different. What I found out was that people there want the same things that people in America want, or they want the same things that people all over the world want: safety, security, freedom of movement, and to live their lives in a fair and just way, creating a society that everybody will be proud of.

When I was there, you still couldn't really go to Berlin. They had Checkpoint Charlie and all of that was in place. The wall was still up. Actually being there just created a whole different world for me. I was able to literally pop the bubble that I was in and experience the world in a different way, learn different methods to approaching life. In part, it led me to where I am today, to be part of that worldview.

Catherine Day: You have, what, 12 students with you?

Lamont Slater: We have 12 students. They use critical thought. They're very engaging, and they come from all parts of the U.S. We have three Augsburg students, and then we have students from Saint Thomas as well that's in the local area, one student from there, and then we have students from Clark university in Worcester, Massachusetts. We have a student from the Evergreen State College, and we have students from Valparaiso as well, and then also we have two students from Sienna College that's in Albany, New York as well, so we have students represented from great colleges, and they bring together thought that is very engaging. I'm very proud of these students.

Catherine Day: As you're with these 12 students, and you're sharing this personal experience, how you found your particular path into this research, can you tell us any examples of how the students have responded, and what kind of transformations are you seeing in them?

Lamont Slater: Being a part of the global education experience, you don't shed your colonized mind overnight, so it's a transformative process, and sometimes, it takes a while. What I tell my students is that great leaders all have some type of transformative process in which it takes a while to get to that point of understanding. If you look at LBJ, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, everybody has started from one point and ended up to another point.

Students really connect with that, and they understand, and with regards to previous semesters, like last semester, I had one student, actually, three students from Valparaiso University that we brought on an excursion, and by the way, I mean, part of our program, just very quickly, our program covers classwork, so you're in a class, but it's not a traditional class. It's a experiential learning class in which the instructor kind of facilitates it using his knowledge as a backdrop while the local expert comes in and gives really dictation on how things are going in the region.

It's kind of co-taught in a way to provide the local experience, to really focus on that. Then, you have the home stay part of the program in which you have urban and rural home stays in which our students then apply what they learned in the classroom, taking classes on political development, politics of Namibia, history, local history, environment, if they're taking these classes, then once you put them into local people's homes, then they can see how it actually plays out so that it goes from the theoretical process to, how do people actually live their lives? It transforms itself from theory to the practical, and students actually see it, so that's part of the program.

And then we have the excursions as well in which we take them to different parts of Namibia. We go to Lüderitz Namibia, which is where from 1884 to 1885, you had the Scramble for Africa, and you had the Berlin conference in which the lines were drawn and Africa was divided up, and in the process of that, where we are now was carved into German southwest Africa, and Lüderitz was the entry point to that vision of Germany, and so we take students to that portion of the country. We also go to Swakopmund. We go to the north where the north is a very unique place, the northern sector of Namibia, which is very unique because most of the current population comes from the north, because that population was not affected by the genocide.

And so as a result, that group is dominant within the culture of Namibia, the political landscape, and even the arts world that's here in Namibia, so because of that one event, that singular event, it has shaped the landscape of the country, and students go around to all of these experiences, and it shapes them in a way that along the way, during the four months, because they're experiencing the living experience, the practical experience, I teach the religion and social change course, and so we talk about how the Lutheran church has shaped the way people see things in Namibia. Then, we talk about people that weren't affected by colonization, like for example, when Namibia is spoken about, if you put Namibia in Google, a lot of times, the Himba tribe will come up.

And this is a tribe that wears their traditional outfit, but what it actually represents is a people that refused to be colonized in a way that religion forced people to colonize themselves or impose colonization on a group of people that otherwise would not have done that, so the whole process is transformative from how the people are transformed to how they will transform themselves. And then finally, the students also do an internship class in which they have a class, and then they have the actual internship in which we have one of our professors here, professor Alex [inaudible 00:16:49], my colleague here, what he does is he teaches the internship class, and then he places students in internships that are in their major, and so that attributes to the transformation.

Catherine Day: Do you have a specific example you could give us, a short vignette you could give us, of a student that gives us a window into that process that you just described?

Lamont Slater: Last semester, we had a student that came from Valparaiso, and this student, because of where Valparaiso is located, they have a very low percentage of minority groups that live in the area in Indiana, and we took the student to a location called Kolmanskop. It was an old diamond town in which this town was built on the wealth of the diamond industry. This took place in the beginning of the semester, and what happened in this case is that we ran into a tour guide, mind you that Kolmanskop is privately owned. It's not state owned, so it's privately owned, and because it's privately owned, the message is going to be presented in a certain way to kind of favor the German population in that history.

While we were there, I noticed that only one side of the history was presented, and in the distance, they had places where it wasn't slavery, but it was close to indentured servitude. We're talking about having people of color in a diamond mine in the middle of a desert with nowhere to go. They were segregated in an area that was not where the affluent community was. And so the student really came equipped with a view of really not talking about race relations at all, but however, as the semester continued and she started to see inequity, we had to raise an issue about equity in presenting historical information, and it led to some confrontational banter in which the student was not accustomed to part of the Center for Global Education's philosophy is that after we go to an event, we reflect on it, and the student was puzzled by what she saw.

She didn't really know how to express herself. However, later in the semester, the student started to understand that apartheid, which was both in South Africa and Namibia, was still present, and she started to understand that even though that she was in a country in Africa that apartheid was there, and so this student went through a major transformation. From the beginning of the semester to when she left, had a total transformation of her understanding of race, not only in southern Africa but in America as well, and went back to her home institution, and I'm sure she's making a difference at Valpo.

Catherine Day: There are a couple of terms that I wanted to give you the opportunity to unpack a little bit for us, and I think the one that I want to be sure we talk about is what you mean by de-colonizing a mind. To some extent, that story you just told describes what I think may be the process where a person comes in with one history and understanding, as you pointed out, your own teachings. You grew up without these things being revealed to you, but maybe you can give us some of the definition of that for us?

Lamont Slater: Well, when we think about de-colonizing in a Frantz Fanon point of view, he's talking about the experience in Algeria in which a colony becomes self-governing or independent, right, from a point of physicality, but when we talk about de-colonizing of the mind, now we're talking about freeing oneself from a colonial way of thinking and moving forward to a more progressive way of thinking. How does that happen, and how are things colonized? What's really interesting is that we had a speaker named Allan Story, and he gave a talk to our students about living in a fish bowl as a white person.

And he said that when you're white, and you're in America, and you're in the fish bowl, you don't even know what water is until you get out of it, so this is a similar example that to de-colonize oneself, you have to be out of your comfort zone, and you have to see it from a different perspective to know that there's inequity there, that histories have been erased or misrepresented. You have to be out of that fish tank to know that the legal system is not equitable to all peoples, and it goes back to the establishment of the colony.

If you look at, from a historical point of view, how colonies were established, they had systems in place that prevented movement of people of color. Once colonization occurred, there was legal processes in place that prevented pretty much everything, in the case of America, prevented African Americans the right to own a weapon, have freedom of movement, marry inter-racially, right to vote, I mean, you name it. And so to de-colonize the thinking presents it in a different way. Instead of talking about African Americans beginning at slavery, then you talk about what they were doing prior to slavery, great civilizations that they had. Great Zimbabwe was a great civilization, and the things that happened in Great Zimbabwe, the leadership that was established, the architecture that was established, and so forth and so on.

All the great things that happened prior to the so-called European bringing forth ideas that many say are civilized, right? And so to unpack that, you have to de-colonize a person's mind to know that there's an alternative history that's there, but it's not being moved forward because of either some political agenda or some other hidden agenda why minds still need to be colonized. When we talk about de-colonize, we're not just talking about the mind, but we're talking about languages have been colonized. Reason why I'm speaking English is because the colonization process, and to de-colonize our minds, we have to understand that people of color, especially people that came from African countries, they are used to speaking a different language.

And the beauty of this language is that students, when they come here, they start learning the language. Here, we have many different languages. When students come, even though they speak English here, part of the de-colonization process is not to continue to focus on Western way and speaking English, but to also connect with local society and at least attempt to de-colonize ourselves and speak the local language. That's part of the process and part of the journey, and so de-colonization is an ongoing process, because it just didn't start overnight. It started almost in every place we can think of in the global south, and it takes a lot to undo, and so that's where we're at.

Catherine Day: How long are the students staying in the home stays? Did you say it was three weeks?

Lamont Slater: It depends. Students stay in both a urban and rural home stay, so when they're staying in the urban home stay, it's a week. When they come here, they stay overnight for a week in a urban setting, and then later on in the semester, then they go to the rural setting, and then they stay there for the same amount of time, for a week. They also had a home stay in South Africa where they stayed pretty much over the weekend.

Catherine Day: What are a couple examples of stories that you hear from the students about their experience in the home stay? What do they discover?

Lamont Slater: Some of the things that they discover, which is different than their own personal experience, let's say if it's a young female student, they may describe a household that's unlike theirs, and for example, they may be in a household where there's a patriarchal figure that has headed his household in a way that they're not used to. For example, we had a student that we placed her in a home stay, and she wasn't used to the male figure just giving dictation of what to do in that household to the women that's in there as far as things that he needed, like dinner and different things like that.

Now, I always put students in the context of the south because in some cases, you see this same type of patriarchal systems in places in the deep south, so these are some of the things that the students experience, and many are not used to roles, gender roles. Sometimes students will go into a house, and it'll be strict gender roles. For example, washing dishes. There's some houses that young men wash dishes, but for the most part, you're not going to find a lot of men doing that type of role because of the culture that we're in.

And so it becomes a shock for students to see that. We let students know that you're not coming with a solution. You're just there to understand how these households work and how you can be a part of this household temporarily without thinking that you're going to bring the solution in. These are some of the things that the students see while they're there, and also, they hear a lot of things as well. There's a listening project in which we have students sit back and listen to some of the things that's going on and use critical thought and critical questioning to really attach the classroom arm of the program to some of the things that they see actually in the home.

We're talking about local politics, and we have a big land issue and a big election coming up in South Africa, and students were very curious as to how this repatriation of land will possibly affect the entire nation, and it's just not students extracting information from the people that they're living with. The people that they're living with also would like to know about life under a Trump presidency and living in America and race relations because in a Facebook world, things go viral. You know about how people of color are treated in America, and so it's the sharing of information that makes this a beautiful experience.

There's been several different great stories about post-graduation things that happened to our students. We have a student that, after going through the program, went to the fifth year. He graduated from Clark, got his master's at Clark, and then went to Harvard after that, and his focus is on education, a de-colonized education. This student is at Harvard right now going through this program. We also have two students that joined the Peace Corps, two different years as well, and ended up in Sierra Leon together. They were in two different semesters, two different schools in its entirety, yet they ended up in Sierra Leon, partially as a result of the experience that they had with Center for Global Education.

It does transform during the semester, after the semester, and then there's also long-term transformation. We have two students right now that's in the VISTA Corps in Montana together going through that program, really getting different experiential learning experiences even after they both graduated. One graduated from University of Puget Sound, and the other graduated from Valpo. And I could go on forever about the different experiences that students are getting and the benefit of the Center for Global Education.

Catherine Day: Do you have a dream that you would like to continue to work on in this program and through your work for Augsburg?

Lamont Slater: Absolutely. Part of my dream that I would like to see in this continued effort to de-colonize minds is like I said earlier, that study abroad in general, not just with the Center for Global Education, but study abroad in general, making a generalization, has a reputation for just the continued extraction of information and some will say usury with regards to study abroad, to have students come and just get a great experience, and then the actual people that are here are left kind of holding the bag, not really getting a lot of out of the presence of these study abroad centers that are positioned worldwide.

And part of this as well is that when we talk about study abroad, historically, people of color have not came to study abroad in greater numbers for many reasons. Part of that is financial, part of it is exposure to information in which one will be able to go and participate in these great experiences, and so taking those two examples that I mentioned, part of the dream that I have, which honestly is becoming a reality as we speak, is to address both of these issues. The first issue would be to talk about lack of minority involvement in study abroad. One of the things that I'm doing now, we have recruitment on the campus of Augsburg, but I also do recruitment when I'm in the states to go to different colleges, and I started to go to historically black colleges, and I will tell you that it is a total eye-opener for many because in many of these cases, they don't even have a study abroad program, or they're in the beginning stages of getting a study abroad program, or even if they have a study abroad program, the focus of going to Africa is not even there.

And so when I'm at these institutions and bringing this information and also bringing my personal research to people of color as well, because I also went to a historically black college, it motivates folks to really get involved with study abroad to the point that next semester, I just went to Mississippi Valley State University to give a talk and to talk about study abroad, well, for the first time, we have a student from Mississippi Valley State University that may be going to the Center for Global Education, the Augsburg University program, next semester as a result of that trip.

And so that's the dream coming to reality. The second part I wanted to make sure that I convey is that with regards to extraction. Everywhere I go here, people come up to me, and they always say, "Hey, can a Namibian go to the Center for Global Education? Can they go to Augsburg University in Minneapolis?" And the answer often times is no, because even though we have articulation agreements and MOUs in place, the reality of it is that many students can't afford to go. It's very complex for universities to get students for a semester basis back to the home institution, et cetera.

One of the things that I'm working on and the international resident advisor that's here, what we're both working on, is to come up with ways ... Her name by the way is Lulama Moyo. We're working on ways that we can get students that are local to participate more with the Center for Global Education. For example, in my classes, I work with a lot of professors from the University of Namibia, and a lot of times, they come and speak to our classes. Well, one of the things that I'm working on this semester is to do some joint teaching, and so one week, I'll have the professor's class come to the center, and we'll participate in a joint class.

Then, another week, we'll have our students go to University of Namibia and become part of that class, so then we're expanding the campus environment so when students come, they don't have to just feel constricted to the CGE house. They start building a global village, and at the same time, students that are local become exposed to our classroom instruction and possibly that student can be on the road to bigger things. I'm trying to come up with a way that we can have a student come back to America for a conference that's Namibian, and so we have to continue to come up with ways to really connect with the local student as well so it can be a true study abroad global exchange and partnership whereas we can create this just and global society that we envision and that we talk about, that we actually put it into the practical realm.

Catherine Day: It's been a real pleasure to learn about the work of the Center for Global Education and your specific focus. We thank you so much for taking time to share your story with us today.

Lamont Slater: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

Catherine Day: This has been Catherine Reed Day, host of the Augsburg podcast, speaking with Lamont Slater, program coordinator and lecturer for the Center for Global Education speaking with us today from Windhoek, Namibia.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg podcast. I'm president Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit