The Polson Institute for Global Development welcomed urban geographer Nik Heynen as its inaugural Distinguished Speaker in the Fall 2023 semester. A Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia, Heynen’s research explores areas of urban political ecology, abolition ecologies and geographies, and geographies of neoliberalism and racial capitalism.
Heynen was selected as the inaugural speaker for his critical approach towards understanding how racialized processes produce structurally unjust geographies and ecologies, according to Mildred Warner, director of the Polson Institute. While on campus, Heynen delivered a three-day seminar on Abolition Ecology, held office hours for interested graduate students, and presented at the Critical Development seminar series.
“The Polson Institute is so pleased to sponsor distinguished speakers who can stimulate our students and faculty and promote critical perspectives on development studies,” said Warner, professor of global development and city and regional planning.
The revitalized Polson speaker series spurred from a graduate student desire to collaborate with researchers that critically assess the complexity behind development initiatives, particularly in the domestic context. Two Ph.D. students in Development Studies, Tamar Law and Steven McCutcheon Rubio, took the lead on organizing the visit and slate of daily activities.
"We couldn't have asked for a more compelling and engaged inaugural Polson Distinguished Speaker than Dr. Nik Heynen,” said McCutcheon Rubio.
“The off-the-charts energy and intellectual and professional generosity he brought to the role set a high bar, and were palpably energizing for all of us — students, faculty, and staff — who interacted with him during his stay at Cornell.”
At the core of the visit was a three-day mini-course on critical contemporary issues surrounding food, energy and climate through the lens of Abolition Geography, which brought together over 20 graduate students from Global Development, Human Ecology, City and Regional Planning, Anthropology, and Engineering.
The course was unique as it provided a space for students from different academic backgrounds across campus to think together about abolitionist frameworks and how they could relate to their work, according to Law.
“Nik Heynen's mini-course on Abolition Ecology was one of the most meaningful experiences of my Ph.D. thus far,” said Law. “The opportunity to think about how Abolition Ecology could speak to Development Studies was incredibly thought provoking — leading to new insights about putting theory to practice, from how we can ethically approach our research with communities to how we cite and the citational politics of research.”
The course encouraged students to think about how their research could engage prefigurative politics, attending to and fostering alternative approaches that could untangle the impacts of, and address, the injustices of racial capitalism. Following the course, the students are co-writing a paper on how abolition geographies can inform critical development studies, both theoretically and methodologically.
“The thing I was most impressed with during my visit to campus were the students,” said Heynen. “They were clearly intelligent, but this is not surprising. What I was most unprepared for was how generous they were while at the same time being such fiercely critical thinkers.”
“The week wouldn't have been the same without Dr. Heynen. He was an exceptional teacher and facilitator, deftly creating a space for engaging and expansive conversations,” said McCutcheon Rubio. “I hope the model of intense, mutually enriching engagement exemplified by Dr. Heynen's visit will become a benchmark for the Speaker series as it continues and grows."
We openly share valuable knowledge.
Sign up for more insights, discoveries and solutions.