The Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa. In this interview, Professor Sarojini Nadar and Dr Lee-Shae Scharnick-Udemans – Director and Senior Researcher at the Desmond Tutu Centre respectively – provide background to this MoU, the work of their Centre, and their expectations of the collaboration with the CRPL.
Can you please tell us about the Desmond Tutu Centre, its aims and activities?
The Desmond Tutu Centre is one of three research centres housed at the University of the Western Cape. Researchers who work under the auspices of the DTC seek to contextually, theoretically and methodologically examine and challenge asymmetrical systems of power and commonly accepted assumptions about the social world and human experiences. The work of the centre is guided by five thematic areas namely: Religion and Gender Justice, Religion and Economic Justice, Religion and Ecological Justice, Religion and Political Justice, and Religion and Educational Justice. The centre aims to promote research and teaching which explores, excavates and explains the multiple and complex ways that these thematic areas intersect.
What is the idea behind the Memorandum of Understanding with our Centre for Religion and Public Life here at Leeds?
Our respective centres are both interested in understanding the connections between religious systems (doctrinally and lived) and the social world. We share a common goal of questioning and subverting the harmful systems of power which operate in this field, while also harnessing the ways in which religion functions resourcefully in public and private lives. These commonalities first brought the centres together in 2017 when the Desmond Tutu Centre hosted a roundtable discussion on religion and sexuality in Cape Town, South Africa. We were fortunate enough to collaborate with Dr van Klinken who participated in an academic roundtable with South African scholars and activists on the ways in which the Same Love music video by Kenyan music group, Art Attack, contributes to African queer world making.
In 2018, the formalisation of the MOU signalled an agreement between the two centres toward a collaborative working relationship. We recognised that because of the commonalities but also diversity of strengths, skills and networks, both centres could benefit from working together on combined projects which develop and advance critical and innovative teaching and researching around religion and the social world. This collaborative partnership will allow scholars involved in both centres to form international networks and generate creative, interdisciplinary and intersectional scholarly work.
How might the members of our Centre – both academic members of staff and postgraduate research students – benefit from the collaboration?
The Desmond Tutu Centre is deeply committed to the development of our postgraduate students and emerging academics. This is done primarily through doctoral and postgraduate training seminars where students and emerging scholars alike learn and share the rigours of being involved in socially engaged scholarship. This commitment will be reflected in the collaborative projects undertaken by this partnership. In 2019 we have already plotted ways in which we can create opportunities for postgraduate students and emerging academics in both centres to participate in research and teaching with the partner centre. The international exposure is integral to emerging academics seeking to establish networks and create a presence for their work. Further, the exchange of skills and insights between contexts and disciplines promises to generate innovative and subversive approaches to working in the field of religion.
What do you hope to gain from our collaboration yourself?
Sarojini Nadar: I have worked with CRPL Director, Adriaan van Klinken, over a number of years and we share a profound commitment to scholarship that is responsive to, and relevant for our contexts. I look forward to enhancing that connection, but moreover to theorise and offer more critical insights on what it means to challenge academic conventions in our pedagogy, research and praxis.
Lee-Shae Scharnick-Udemans: As an emerging academic I feel that this kind of collaboration is the ideal space to test the potential and limitations of new research and innovations in the field of religion. I look forward to thinking together about the way in which the interdisciplinary and intersectional study of religion can contribute to new ways of understanding and enacting equality in a vastly inequitable world.