On possibility

Exploring the connections between postcolonial feminism and community engagement in pursuit of university transformation





postcolonial feminism, community engagement, university decolonisation, epistemic justice, subjective experiences


Higher education institutions have historically enabled and aided epistemicide, or the marginalisation, annihilation and devaluing of the knowledge of those beyond university walls. Twenty-first century universities therefore face the important task of transforming teaching and research in ways that broaden epistemic access, incorporate various knowledge systems, and ensure local relevance. Here, academic feminism, especially postcolonial feminism, and community engagement may provide a way forward, as both projects serve to deconstruct the binary between ‘knower’ and ‘non-knower’, contributing to epistemic justice. In isolation, however, these projects have not yet made enough progress in pursuit of university transformation. This essay offers a preliminary exploration of the connections between community engagement and postcolonial feminism, and the ways in which a mutually beneficial relationship between the two may enhance each project's contribution to epistemic justice. It brings together literature on feminism and community engagement, linking this literature to the ideas of postcolonial feminism. Focus on postcolonial feminism specifically emerges from the recognition that universities do not only need to transform, but also decolonise. Ideas put forward in this writing are interspersed with my subjective memories and recollections of my lived experiences, spanning two universities and continents.

Author Biography

Claire McCann, University of Oxford

Claire McCann
DPhil candidate, Department of Education, University of Oxford, United Kingdom


Bawa, A. C. (2021). Reimagining South Africa’s universities as social institutions. In Brink, C. (ed). The responsive university and the crisis in South Africa. The Netherlands: Brill. (pp. 179–215). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004465619_010

Bender, G. (2008). Exploring conceptual models for community engagement at higher education institutions in South Africa. Perspectives in Education, 26(1), 81–95. https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle2263/5013Bender_Exploring%282008%29.pdf?sequence=1

Bezerra, J., Paterson, C., & Paphitis, S. (eds). (2021). Challenging the ‘apartheids’ of knowledge in higher education through social innovation. Stellenbosch: SUN Press.

Bickford, D. M., & Reynolds, N. (2002). Activism and Service-Learning: Reframing Volunteerism As Acts of Dissent. Pedagogy, 2(2), 229–252. https://doi.org/10.1215/15314200-2-2-229

Bozalek, V., Shefer, T., & Zembylas, M. (2018). Introduction. In: Braidotti, R., Bozalek, V., Shefer, T., & Zembylas, M. (eds). Socially just pedagogies: Posthumanist, feminist and materialist perspectives in higher education. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Brink, C. (2021). Introduction. In Brink, C. (ed). The responsive university and the crisis in South Africa. The Netherlands: Brill. (pp.1–11). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004465619_001

Brooks, A., & Hesse-Biber, S. N. (2007). An invitation to feminist research. In esse-Biber, S.N. (ed). Feminist research practice: A primer. SAGE Publications (pp. 2–24). https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412984270.nl

Clark-Taylor, A. (2017). Developing Critical consciousness and Social Justice Self-Efficacy: Lessons from Feminist Community Engagement Student Narratives. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 21(4), 81–116. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1163711.pdf

Collins, P. H. (1998). It’s All In the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 13(3), 62-82. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.1998.tb01370.x

Crenshaw, K. W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039

Currey, R.F. (1970). Rhodes University 1904-1970. Cape Town: The Rustica Press.

Darroch, F., & Giles, A. R. (2015). Decolonizing health research: Community-based participatory research and postcolonial feminist theory. The Canadian Journal of Action Research, 15(3), 22–36. https://doi.org/10.33524/cjar.v15i3.155

De Sousa Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. Routledge. https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/handle/10316/44948

Duan, N. (2016, July 27). No Salaried Positions in Women's Studies at Oxford University. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/the-invisible-emotional-labor-in-womens-studies/493064/

Ellis, C., Adams, T. E., & Bochner. A. P. (2011). Autoethnography: An overview. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 36(4): 273‒290. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23032294

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://academic.oup.com/analysis/article-abstract/69/2/380/128282

Hall, B. L., & Tandon, R. (2017). Decolonization of knowledge, epistemicide, participatory research and higher education. Research for All, 1(1), 6–19. https://doi.org/10.18546/rfa.01.1.02

Herd, P., & Meyer, M. H. (2002). Care work. Gender & Society, 16(5), 665–688. https://doi.org/10.1177/089124302236991

Holdsworth, C., & Quinn, J. (2012). The epistemological challenge of higher education student volunteering: “Reproductive” or “Deconstructive” volunteering? Antipode, 44(2), 386–405. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00844.x

Keet, A., & Muthwa, S. (2021). The transformative, responsive university in South Africa. In Brink, C. (ed). The responsive university and the crisis in South Africa. The Netherlands: Brill. (pp. 216–242). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004465619_011

Lange, L. (2021). South African Universities between Decolonisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In Brink, C. (ed). The responsive university and the crisis in South Africa. The Netherlands: Brill. (pp. 272–299). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004465619_013

McCann, C., Prest Talbot, A. L., & Westaway, A. (2021). Social Capital for social change: Nine Tenths Mentoring Programme, a solution for education (in)justice in South Africa? International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 16(1), 45–59. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1313134.pdf

McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial leather: Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest. New York: Routledge.

Mohanty, C. T. (1988). Under Western Eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review, 30(1), 61–88. https://doi.org/10.1057/fr.1988.42

Mohanty, C. T. (2003). “Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles. Signs, 28(2), 499–535. https://doi.org/10.1086/342914

Quinn, J. (2005). Belonging in a learning community: The re-imagined university and imagined social capital. Studies in the Education of Adults, 37(1), 4–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/02660830.2005.11661504

Rhodes University. (2019). Reviving Grahamstown Schools Vice Chancellor's 2020 Plan. Makhanda: Rhodes University.

Stuart, M. (2021). The Permeable University: Moving beyond Civic Engagement to Transformation. In: Brink, C. (ed). The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa. The Netherlands: Brill. (pp. 120–144). https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004465619_007

Tamale, S. (2020). Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. Ontario: Daraja Press. https://www.amazon.com/Decolonization-Afro-Feminism-Sylvia-Tamale/dp/1988832497

Webb, P., Cole, K., & Skeen, T. (2007). Feminist social projects: Building bridges between communities and universities. College English, 69(3), 238–259. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472208




How to Cite

McCann, C. (2023). On possibility: Exploring the connections between postcolonial feminism and community engagement in pursuit of university transformation. African Journal of Higher Education Community Engagement, 1(1), 39–54. https://doi.org/10.21504/ajhece.v1i1.2472