Ron Eglash Discusses "Technologies for Generative Justice" at the University of Pennsylvania

Jacob Colon, for GPA -- On April 24 at the University of Pennsylvania, Ron Eglash illuminated twelve eager listeners to several revelations, including the fact that cornrow hair braids are mathematical fractals. Eglash's lecture, "Technologies for Generative Justice," exhibited a program that he developed called "Culturally Situated Design Tools," designed to help students understand math and science through cultural practices.

When Eglash first went to Africa to speak to residents of Logone-Birni, Cameroon, they were fully aware that their town was architecturally designed as a fractal. In fact, the fractal contributed to the town's social hierarchy: royalty lived at the center of the fractal so the farther inside of it a resident lived, the more polite they were required to be.

But what is a fractal? Look at the seemingly infinite spirals of a seashell, or the repetitive branching out of capillaries in our lungs. A fractal is a never-ending mathematical pattern, one that remains the same no matter how large or small you make it.

Fractals exist in nature and human-made objects and with the help of Eglash, they are being used to create a better world.

By their very nature, fractals are regenerative because they are infinite patterns. According to Eglash, in certain areas of Africa the fractal holds spiritual significance because it represents natural patterns such as the annual renewal cycle of plants (gardeners can consider perennials as an example).

Eglash explained that social justice in our society is usually distributive, not regenerative. Think of a federal stimulus package. States receive a one-time subsidy that will not refill once fully spent. Taxation is also an example distributive justice. The tax system redistributes individuals' private earnings to replenish public institutions instead of those institutions somehow replenishing themselves.

On the other hand, generative justice encourages communities to create practices that will consistently regenerate their resources - a bottom-up approach, said Eglash. This includes composting organic waste for healthier soil, creating open-source computer software to encourage public innovation, and developing localized recycling systems to give communities more control over how they reuse materials.

Eglash noted that generative justice is not synonymous with socialism, a system that he has qualms with. Socialism attempts to redistribute resources equally, but still from the top-down via the state. Generative justice, in contrast, empowers local communities with the skills to consistently regenerate livelihood and innovation according to their own visions.

Similarly, he claimed that the education system should be more generative by connecting children to math and science in the activities they enjoy and the cultural practices they are familiar with. Besides fractals in cornrows, Eglash has shown students the intricate physics of skateboarding and the mathematical logic in the homes of American Indians.

Ron Eglash sees math and science everywhere and he wants us to do the same.  

Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.