Leny Strobel: Interview by Evolve Magazine, Issue 38/2023
Evolve: The process of decolonization has become your life's work. How did you come to the realization, how important is that for yourself, for the Filipino people, but also on a global scale?
LS: I was 30 years old when I married my husband and came to the US. I had a corporate career in Human Resources and basically a neocolonial education that was American-patterned. So, when I came here, I thought that my adjustment would be easy. But when I started encountering people's responses to me, I began to wonder why they would look at me and say: “How come you know how to speak English? Did he pick you out of a catalog?” I asked myself: don't they know anything about Filipino American history? And I realized that they didn't. When I began asking that question, there was a shift from blaming myself for not knowing how to assimilate to self-inquiry. That inquiry started with therapy. But the therapists didn’t know anything about my cultural context. So, instead of continuing with therapy, I went back to school. I did my graduate studies in Interdisciplinary Studies looking at Asian-American History, Cross-cultural Psychology, and Intercultural Communication. I went on to do a doctorate in International and Multicultural Education, and my dissertation for that doctorate was on the process of decolonization for Filipino Americans. This work became part of an ongoing movement among Filipinos in the diaspora trying to get in touch with the historical trauma of colonialism and the healing that is possible when you decolonize and get to understand the pre-colonial indigenous history in the homeland. In collaboration with academic and NGO partners in the Philippines we are supporting the land-based medicine people, the Babaylans and their communities, who are faced with the struggle that global mining and logging corporations are doing to extract as much as they can from their ancestral lands.
Evolve: Why do you think decolonization is particularly important in our times?
LS: The global decolonization movement that began after World War Two was a response to the West, to the center of the empires. So, there was this binary of the colony and the center, the West and the Rest. The current movement is towards a decolonial practice where the West is no longer the center. What happens when we reimagine and decenter the west and the modern narrative? When we take a longer historical time frame it brings you all the way back to when there were indigenous peoples in those islands before they were called the Philippines. Likewise in the USA. There is a Haudenosaunee concept called “the long body”. The Long Body includes our ancestors and their history and it includes seven generations of your descendants into the future.
When I was teaching students, they did not want to look at what happened historically because they immediately wanted to go to the recognition that we are all humans. But when we take them through the layers of history, cultures, languages, and religions and they begin to tell their ancestral stories, they see the socially constructed nature of the reality that they believe in. And then when we bring them through this process of storytelling, they could see how their stories are interconnected. I have had students whose ancestors had black slaves, and students whose ancestors were enslaved. What happens when you tell those stories in the classroom and they hear and see each other for the first time? This pedagogy is called Ethnoautobiography and it was developed by my colleague, Jurgen Kremer, We collaborated on developing this pedagogy in undergraduate courses.
Evolve: Can you say more about that framework?
LS: This framework is about decolonizing whiteness and the recovery of the indigenous mind. But it's also a critique of modernity by centering the storytelling self. Indigenous folks will say: It's all about the story that you tell. And the storytelling self, is informed by your ancestry. It's informed by the dreams that come to you at night, the imaginal realm is part of that story. The shadow of history is part of that story. And the community, also the non-human beings in the community.
So, there are 8 elements of this ethnoautobiographical storytelling where people connect these elements of a spirituality, gender and sexuality, nature, community, and so on. In a yearlong course using this framework, we look at each of those elements and ask students to connect their personal story with these elements to develop a sense of their long bodies. We also do ritual, shamanic journeying, and sometimes we ask them go out in nature and talk to trees and stones which they've never done before.
Evolve: Why do you think this is so important to find a way into this storytelling and getting into this long body and reclaiming these deeper roots?
LS: Because it reveals the modern conditioning of the mind, the colonizer mind, this modern Western Eurocentric way of thinking that is binary, oppositional, that is grounded in materialistic, capitalistic, individualistic, patriarchal values. It reveals the toxicity of that kind of conditioning. And once you recognize that this is toxic, what is the alternative? What do you turn to when you exit modernity? When I started asking that question, I was drawn to the indigenous perspective because I recognized it in my body. My body had a sense of knowing that wasn't codified. When I would read about Daoist and Buddhist texts, I would recognize that is what I embody. My Western educated mind had no language for that.
I call this work the indigenous paradigm and I assume that all of us are indigenous to the earth, we all had ancestors that were rooted in a particular place on the planet. That's the earth-centered paradigm, that says we were all rooted in place. When we return to that original relationship with Place, we recognize that the land is sacred, the earth is alive. And decolonization and a decolonial practice means to develop that relationship.
For me, I can mark the moment when my consciousness shifted in that direction. I was doing decolonization work, but it was all in the head. And then I started thinking about what it means to become indigenous to the land. One day I stepped out of my bedroom and there was this redwood tree. I said: “I've live here for 30 years, why haven't I seen you?” That was the beginning of a daily practice, of becoming aware of who is around me and what my relationship is to these beings, the trees, the birds, the hummingbirds, the creek. I went to that creek and said: I’m sorry, I did not introduce myself to you when I first arrived here. I'm doing it now, 30 years later. Indigenous elders told me: If you fall in love with the place where you are dwelling right now, you can be indigenous to the place again. The recovery of these indigenous ways of knowing, I think is what people are turning to as part of the healing, as part of trying to move away from the colonizing mindset. I think it's coming from that realization that we need to build indigenous futures.
Evolve: What do you mean by that?
LS: The natural resources that are being used to continue to sustain our kind of living are not limitless. Oil, minerals, water are not limitless. So, our way of living is not sustainable. Many young people are already telling their parents: “I do not want to inherit all the stuff that you have accumulated.” The values are shifting. They know that material wealth does not bring you joy and peace. It breeds more war, more competition, more individualism. There's the phenomenon called the Great Quitting. Adults between 25 and 54 years old are quitting their jobs because of capitalist fatigue. So, people are returning to values that are more sustainable. And at the core of these values is to learn how to live with the land where you are. Part of what I'm learning about the shifting to indigenous consciousness is that relationship is more important than everything else, and relationships happen in the context of place-based communities, not just with humans, but also with the animals and the plant beings you live with. When I change my life in that way, I aspire to be a good ancestor. This is a vivid question for me: Will my descendants be grateful that I was their ancestor?