Mathematical Literacy in/for Transnational Activism: Critical Conceptualization of Embodiment and Emplacement

I wrote this article for the Journal of the Learning Sciences, with Virgie Aquino Ishihara, a long-term volunteer community activist who has long been working with Filipino migrant communities in Japan to redress violence rooted in human trafficking in transnational entertainment industry. Her activism centers love and care toward fellow migrant women from the Global South. We together depicted how an activist collective, Filipino Migrants Center, led by a migrant woman of color countered the official data that did not reveal historically marginalized voices and violence against their bodies, through their long-term efforts for policy changes, while exercising their mathematical literacy. I learned tremendously from Virgie and one of the important messages she has given me is this: Let’s not silence ourselves from voicing what we are seeing but also let’s find a way for silent advocacy when we face risks of endangering our lives and the lives of those who we care.

Our way of seeing mathematics is distinctively different from mathematics learning focused on mastery of mathematics defined by school curriculum. We situate the mobilization of mathematical literacy (Esmonde, Curnow, & Riviere, 2014) as a tool to see and redress social and historical dilemmas (Engeström, 2014; Gutiérrez, 2016) rooted in the geo-economic politics of race, gender, and class.

The activist group worked with Filipino migrant community in Japan toward a more just society. Exercising their data literacy, the activist group problematized the gendered nature of Filipino migration in Japan as seen in the following excerpt: “Filipino migration to Japan has shifted heavily in favour of women. In fact, women now dominate the makeup of Filipinos in Japan by 4 to 1.” Many Filipina migrant women were holders of “entertainer visas” that were issued for those who worked in the entertainment industry. In response to international concerns about the human trafficking associated with these entertainer visas, their issuance peaked in 2004 (139,485) and dropped about 65% over two years (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, n.d.).

Mobilizing mathematical literacy, the activist group saw the macro contexts behind migration in relation to the governmental policies focusing on the economic impact on remittance from migrants. Such macro-level understanding of the impact on migration and global economy led them to see historical and macro-economic dilemmas surrounding domestic violence that can be otherwise seen as personal problems. The mathematical literacy exercised by the activist group aligns with the analysis carried out by economists on remittances from migrants and the global economy and was critical in the sense that activists could see the “social responsibility” that was repeatedly mentioned during our study.

Advocating for policy changes, the activist group highlighted the lack of support for these victims by combining secondary data, their observations in the entertainment district, and voices of the Filipina migrant domestic violence victims. What drove the activism was not merely data literacy but also the activists’ deep understanding of particularities such as rules and systems governing the entertainment district around bodies of migrant women.

Critical synthesis of embodiment and emplacement allowed us to examine how the mobilization of mathematical literacy became consequential (Hall & Jurow, 2015; Jurow et al., 2016) in two interrelated aspects: 1) embodiment, the process through which the historically hidden bodies of migrant women came to be visible and assembled and 2) emplacement, the transformation of a locally significant place toward gathering disparate bodies. We walked around the entertainment district to observe such social consequences designed by the activist group. Our conceptualization of the critical intertwinement of embodiment and emplacement directed our attention to social consequences to a particular place, a public park within the entertainment district. As migrant women repeatedly visited and gathered around the park, the place came to gather the previously hidden bodies but also the diverse bodies of people who came together.

The Park Transformed

Whose voices and bodies are included and excluded in the discipline are very much political. Unless we include the historically hidden bodies and silenced voices, the discipline will continue to discipline those who are forced to stay in the margins (Takeuchi, Sengupta, Shanahan, Adams, & Hachem, 2020). Our paper shows the power of migrant women of color leadership in social movements and mobilization of mathematical literacy toward policy change. Inclusion of the voices deviated from the norms in interlocking ways can make the discipline of mathematics more socially just and decolonial.

Domestic violence surfaced even more during the pandemic. Our shared walk in an urban entertainment district showed the need of mobilizing mathematical literacy to unveil the hidden intersectional bodily politics toward the policy change and community transformation.

— with respect, love and care for those who have endured and are enduring hidden violence

Based on: Takeuchi, M.A. & Aquino Ishihara, V. (2020). Learning to assemble the hidden bodies: Embodied and emplaced mathematical literacy in transnational migrant activism. Journal of the Learning Sciences. Advance online publication Full text available here


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Takeuchi, M.A., Sengupta, P., Shanahan, M-C., Adams, J.D., & Hachem, M. (2020). Transdisciplinarity in STEM education: A critical review. Studies in Science Education, 56(2), 213–253.