How to Decolonize a Conference

21st August 2019

New Zealand gave The Australasian Animal Studies Association (AASA) Conference 2019, ‘Decolonizing animals’, an original spin when it hosted the event in Christchurch, July 1-4, 2019, as Annie Potts, Director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (NZCHAS), explains.

Why bring AASA to Christchurch?

The Australasian Animal Studies Association’s biennial conference had not yet been held in Aotearoa, even though New Zealand-based scholars are dedicated members.

The New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (NZCHAS) at Canterbury University is the only research and teaching hub in this specialized field of study in the Southern Hemisphere; we also offer the only full programme in Human-Animal Studies courses (from 100 level right through to PhD level).

This was a really important opportunity to host local and international specialists in this interdisciplinary area, to show them what NZCHAS and UC offers in terms of teaching, postgraduate and academic research opportunities, and to showcase how Christchurch is the leading city for HAS in Australasia.

Can you explain about the theme and the design of the event.

The conference theme was Decolonizing Animals. It explored how colonial politics and histories have shaped, and continue to shape, the contemporary worlds of humans and other animals. We designed, planned and ran the conference according to bicultural kaupapa (principles) with a plant-based animal-centred twist. All delegates received information about tikanga Māori (customary practices) ahead of the conference so that correct protocols were maintained throughout the event. And our vegan kaupapa ensured that this was an animal-friendly event.

The conference committee comprised Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi scholars, and we were concerned to ensure that the event was a non-hierarchical, intersectional and inclusive event – only first and last names appeared on badges, no-one’s title or ‘status’ in academia was displayed.

“Indigenous perspectives on human-animal relations were prioritized — we invited Māori keynotes from different iwi in Aotearoa, as well as keynote speakers with Mohawk and Aztec heritage from the USA and Mexico respectively.

Although AASA conferences tend to be primarily academic conferences, one of our goals was to also decolonize the academy itself, so we also invited keynotes who were animal advocates in their communities, as well as experts in indigenous plant-based practices. For example, one keynote session focusing on Latin American perspectives featured a lead campaigner against bullfighting from Colombia (Terry Hurtado) followed by an expert on indigenous plant-based food from Mexico (Wvtko Tristan) who prepared a traditional Aztec plant-based meal as part of his presentation.

“We were especially keen to make students feel welcome and to this end one of our doctoral students arranged a postgraduate workshop on Critical Animal Studies and Intersectionality which was led by one of our keynote speakers from the USA.”

So there was a host of benefits for everybody…

“Canterbury University benefited from this event in some very direct ways. As a result of this opportunity to showcase what NZCHAS offers we have now been approached by graduate students from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, Central America and Mexico about undertaking doctoral research in Human-Animal Studies at UC in the future.

Moreover, we have been invited to participate in international exchanges such as the Erasmus+ teaching programme (between European universities and UC) and host international scholars at our centre who have won prestigious European postdoctoral and other academic grants. Specialist networks also emerged during the conference comprised of scholars and animal advocates from across the globe.

Since this event I have also been contacted by a publishing business in Cambridge, UK, that wants to publish a collation of papers from the conference.

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