Seven years ago, the Intercultural University Amawtay Wasi (UIAW) of Ecuador was accredited by the Ecuadorian government and began to offer courses. Through those coincidences of life that feel more like synchronicities, I happened to be on my first visit to Ecuador right around this date, and spent several days at a workshop with the founding members of this university. I was so impressed by their vision and direction that when they asked me to set up a U.S. Donors Board, I was compelled to say “yes” (after advising them that I had absolutely no fundraising experience).

On the eve of UIAW President Sarango Macas’ visit Keene from October 28th to November 4th, 2011 to participate in the Keene State College Symposium on Sustainability, I would like to share just a few of the many things I have learned from them over the years. Some of these precepts, I believe, are meaningful for all of us, whatever our ethnicity and profession; especially these days as we search collectively for more sustainable and Earth-friendly practices upon which to base our lives and cultures.

Wisdom: The founders of UIAW were the first educators I ever heard explicitly state that their university was primarily about acquiring wisdom; not gaining knowledge.

Well-Being versus Development: The second tenet of UIAW is that education (and society in general) should focus on promoting “well-being” rather than “development.” Instead of teaching future generations to strive to “acquire more,” we should instead promote “being more,” through our relationships with our families, communities, and with all other life forms. This concept was recently incorporated into the Ecuadorian constitution and a few months ago also adopted by the Bolivian government.

Relationalism: The concept of “well-being” in Andean indigenous thought is an outgrowth of relationalism, “which in the indigenous world means that all living beings complement each other, are inter-related and regulate themselves. It is a hologrammatic perspective, in the sense of a deep relationship between the parts and the whole.” Simply put, we are all inter-related and inter-connected not only to all life forms on this planet but also to Mother Earth herself, Pachamama.

The Role of the Ancestors: Given that so much traditional knowledge of the First Peoples of the Americas has been repressed and lost for centuries due to the European conquest and colonization, UIAW programs of study devote a significant amount of their coursework to recuperating ancestral knowledge. Projects always involve asking the community what it needs and learning from the elders when possible.

The Role of Community: Rather than focusing upon the professor as “expert,” at UIAW the community becomes the heart and center of the educational experience. The university is not created to be a large campus that draws people away from their community but instead is structured to be based in communities in such a way as to involve the entire community. It is a collective, rather than an individual, educational experience.

There is so much more I would like to share about this university which the united indigenous movement of Ecuador (one of the most important and powerful indigenous movements in the world) spent more than a decade developing to help decolonize the whole concept of the university. Some of their ideas have since “spilled over” into other areas of Ecuadorian society and culture and beyond.

But I think the best way I can finish this article is with a short story. On my most recent visit to UIAW, in August 2010, Rector Sarango invited me to a cosecha celebration. If you know Spanish, then you know that cosecha means harvest. I figured he was referring to a “corn celebration,” which I knew is common in the Andes. To my great surprise, I found out that this cosecha was actually the graduation ceremony of the first group of ancestral architecture students. As he explained, “we call it a cosecha because with graduation we are harvesting the seeds that were planted when the students began their studies four years ago. It is a time to celebrate and by joyous that we have had a good harvest of students.”

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