Building new systems in a broken world: Nurturing our web of Knowledge
by Céline Semaan
Knowledge and criticism of power has never been in a more delicate balance as it is today. As you have probably read in the news, there is a violent war against education. In the United States, white supremacist politicians and religious extremists are burning books addressing racial inequalities and banning any books about colonialism, patriarchy, and oppression. At all levels of education, words are weaponized against our movements, targeting and harassing some of us who dare to name the harm, educate our communities and build new systems in a very broken world.
The war on information and knowledge is contributing to the erasure of many women who were once celebrated for opening a road that never existed before, for providing context and words that defined an existing situation, for lifting the veil on a toxic gaslighting culture, and empowering others to mobilize and offering new tools to build a new system.
How unfortunate is it, then, that we also see the erasure of knowledge and authorship from those that are supposedly aligned with the creators, writers and innovators, by plagiarism and reappropriation. I have seen so many creators and influencers absorb and take in the work of generations of authors and thinkers, without citing, without giving respect to those that taught and informed their mindset, without acknowledging the entitlement of a kind Enlightenment individualism that takes whatever words and ideas it encounters for itself, to capitalize on them for personal benefit.
I have seen this many times with my own work. Which is especially painful after having fought to have my work heard, to withstand being called a “troublemaker” in either pejorative or condescending context, to be considered “difficult” because of my theories and opinions, only to see those same words repackaged to critical applause because of the roads I have opened culturally. White men seldom have this issue, because when they are being erased, they retaliate instead. I too, have wanted to retaliate and in the past have stood firm against the theft of both my work as a designer and my words as an educator. Listing the names of those who have plagiarized my work would only solidify my reputation as a troublemaker, and would ultimately contribute in further erasure.
Instead, I am choosing to lean into the idea of celebrating the fact that I am inspiring others because I know where the source of this inspiration comes from—a sort of calling my energy back so to speak. I’m celebrating the fact that I have and continue to build new systems in a broken world. I have learned radical humility from this gift because when people take my work as theirs, they are in fact, celebrating my own efforts, though if they would only point back to the source, it would only strengthen our movement.
See, the basis of open knowledge and the strength of its foundation, is that when we all cite our sources and influences we create links to each other’s work. The web of powerful intellectual knowledge and body of work becomes unshakable, unbreakable. When people plagiarize work they isolate themselves within a false belief of being a thought pioneer, some kind of story book hero where they are, in fact, contributing to weakening this web of knowledge by building islands of individualism. What was once designed to be a system of information and resistance, becomes nothing more than a product of internalized colonial capitalism. For when we extract something without giving back, we act as colonial stewards to a movement we once believed in, until a capitalistic opportunity comes along, all collective values blow up in flames.
In building a body of work that centers our oral knowledge, it is imperative that we collectively commit to cite our sources, and actively contribute to and nurture this collective web of knowledge and power.
Céline Semaan is a Lebanese-Canadian researcher, designer, public speaker, and entrepreneur. She is the co-founder and executive director of Slow Factory, an institute and lab that transforms socially and environmentally harmful systems by designing models that are good for the Earth and good for people. She currently sits on Progressive International’s Council alongside Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy and has published in Elle, the New York Magazine and Teen Vogue. Her inter-disciplinary work at the intersection of fashion, climate, and politics has been covered by numerous news and fashion outlets.