Picture by Aiju Salminen
My life began as the offspring of an Inari Sámi mother and a Finnish father in a small village in rural northern Finland, where I found a love of swimming, hiking, and the Nordic outdoors that has stayed with me ever since. When I’m not spending time with my family, my partner and my two children, I’m probably doing the front crawl in a lake somewhere, or camping under the branches of an old pine tree.
In twentieth century northern Finland, an intimate village setting had advantages and disadvantages. The expansive environment offered liberation in your back yard, an endless-seeming sea of greenery and possibility, while—as a melting pot of Finnish, Sámi, Swedish, Norwegian, and Russian tradition in an increasingly metropolising national culture—the school, classroom, and village were places of socio-cultural riches and tension, where it was easy to feel stuck, even forcibly constrained.
Old made way for an unknown ‘new’ way of living, and the dysfunction of the community impacted the children attending the local school. What happens in and around schools when discursive, historical, and material forces pull in many directions at once, and the community has unresolved problems coping? Child peer groups become stricter, gender expectations narrow, and overt and covert forms of harassment, bullying, and violence become commonplace.
My indigenous background taught me perseverance and patience; parents and coaches helped me follow my passion for the backstroke; I started to think of myself as a member of a team whose social relations helped every member in it. And then school groups would knock me off my feet. How I could and should act, as a female, as a person, how I located myself as an indigenous person from a working-class background was bound to school hierarchies that ruled their expectations and dynamics with overt and covert violence. The disparity between how I saw myself and how others saw me was expressed as isolation and discrimination.
‘This is not acceptable,’ I thought. My brain told me action had to be taken. I became very sensitive to the behaviour of my peers. This lead to reading more, and to a decision: if I was going to be knocked about, I’d make sure the experience counted. One choice led to another and another and twenty years later I was a researcher in (non-)violence and had been working for ten years by primary schools.
Teacher training offered little guidance on the informal school life of young people; on their peer cultures, social challenges, and violence occurring between them. So I did a master’s thesis on bullying with a very close friend. I considered the methodological frame of bullying unsatisfactory: discovering problems in its foundation in psycho-pathological aggression theories, its dichotomous victim-perpetrator thinking and blindness to socio-cultural factors. I found a theoretical home in feminist gender theory, in which abuse of power is theorised in psycho-social and sociological ideas of power, dominance control, and violence. My friend and I finished our joint master’s project, then started a doctoral study on the same topic.
Examining the bizarre, almost alien-seeming events of the past has led to a journey of discovery in which I have been privileged to work in some of the most exciting pro-compassion projects with some of the most daring researchers in the world, some of them in Finland. The membership in the board of the Finnish council for gender equality has offered a box seat on the educational field. Practice, research, and theory interact in my work, which is more than I could have ever hoped for.
I’ve applied for and received funding from the Academy of Finland in five projects, and am honoured to have contributed to EU initiatives such as Daphne III. I’ve been able to channel my experience in practical management and project execution into ensuring this research reaches the people it needs to. My colleagues include wonderful scholars nationally and internationally, and I visit other universities and countries as part of my work. My time as primary and special education teacher has given me important knowledge of the everyday life and relationality of school children, of the work of teachers, and of school as an organisation.
My personal experiences and feminist research have taught me a very important lesson: children grow up surrounded by powers very much bigger than they are themselves. Pathologising those children does not—and has not—advanced our understanding of those forces. Instead, we should raise awareness of those forces and create new ways of doing and relating.
Best of all, I think we all can do better than to simply say, ‘this is wrong.’ In a changing world, I can state one, that we need an explicit understanding of just how expansive our experience can be, and two, that we should give that understanding to our children through an education that is as free of violence—covert and overt—as possible. Literally and figuratively, schools are where our children are bleeding. Therefore, schools are where we should start, by an understanding child of peer relations, to embrace the vast possibilities in the capacity and activity of young people, as well as the relationality of learning.
Our world is only beginning to grasp the possibilities of its entire population. Creating a truly compassionate educational environment is possible now. It is not utopian or a product of science fiction. Violence is a reductive response to a mixture of forces, for example social, historical, material and affective. People, little and large, have a potential for both cruelty and love; what grows depends on what we feed.