Presence, Power, and Popular Education, Part 2

In part 1 of this piece–which I wrote more than two years ago–I complained that the way popular education has been, well, popularized in our current movements tends to satisfy itself with a critique of the “banking method” of education and with a desire for “dialogical,” “problem posing,” and participatory education, and how in that self-satisfaction it loses a lot of its richness and useful complexity. I then briefly suggested the concepts of presence and power as potential helpers in deepening grassroots education at the social movement level.

While I don’t want to spend this article writing about Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed alone, I do think getting back to that book is a good first step to seeing the untapped potential of the popular education approach. See, in most movement discussions of popular education in which Freire is referenced (and this is actually less of a problem when Myles Horton, Highlander, and the civil rights movement are the reference points, since they were less academic and more rooted in a movement context that is popularly understood), we get really stuck in chapter 2 of that book.

While chapter 2 is great in its discussion of the banking method, student-teacher relationships, and the alternative of dialogical and problem-posing education, there are two other chapters that come after it! In chapter 3 the concepts of minimum thematic universes–systematically mapping out the underlying themes and categories of students-teachers’ experiences and worldviews, and using a team of investigators to develop an in-depth and contextually relevant curriculum–and limit situations–those opportunities when the student-teacher’s own worldview confronts its contradiction with reality and with its own unrealized potential, and thus is pushed to grow and expand the thematic universe–are introduced and, though the elaboration is unnecessarily academic, the ideas are fascinating. Except for AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot, I don’t think I have seen even a reference to the idea of limit situations in many years. In chapter 4, dialogue is explicitly politicized in a very useful proposal for a change in the way revolutionaries relate and communicate with the masses, going beyond the classroom setting to the movement setting at large.

Like I said, I don’t want to get stuck on Freire, but my point is that, even using this one book as an example, most social movement approaches to popular education are stuck at what I’d consider the tactical level. We are concerned with how participatory the content is in the individual instance of education–almost inevitably the 1 1/2 hour to 2-day workshop–but we spend much less time talking about the long-term strategy of popular education as praxis: as a process of reflection, action, and then more reflection that, over time, transforms ourselves and the world.

This is where I want to go now with this piece. I would like to explore how grassroots educators can deepen popular education at the level of strategic, long-term praxis. I think the concepts of presence and power can aid us here.

Presence: Weaving Revolutionary Curriculum Into the School of Life

I think the best thing that grassroots radical educators can do for ourselves is to de-emphasize the thinking of ourselves as short-term workshop facilitators or classroom instructors and, instead, to more intentionally understand ourselves as long-term (that is, multi-year, multi-decade) accompaniment to both our students and to the movement. That is rather than rooting our understanding of ourselves in these singular (and often repetitive) educational interventions like the workshop, we think about ourselves with a long-view, as organic intellectuals who are present and engaged in praxis with the people around us for a number of years. We see ourselves consciously, systematically weaving educational dialogues and problem posing questions into the years long struggles and changes of our localities, making community life itself our priority area–with classrooms and workshops as tactical tools, but not the core of the thing.

A story to help give this texture:

I worked at Tyee High School for 5 years, alongside my friend Briana Herman-Brand. In that first year we started using political education curriculum with youth as young as 8th grade, usually in 1-4 hour workshop style sessions. At the time, I went through a process that I think many radical educators go through. As the sessions progressed I judged our success based on how much energy and participation I saw, and how dynamically and creatively youth worked with the concepts. I assumed that because it was participatory and that youth engaged so well, that the specific intervention was transformational and revolutionary, and I went home each of those evenings really excited. Then, I’d run into those youth weeks later, and they would still be using oppressive language, fighting, sexually harassing other youth, etc. This was the moment of self doubt in which I started questioning both their abilities to learn and my workshops’ abilities to teach. I would end the year not knowing how successful any of my work had been, especially with the youngest youth, who were particularly all over the place in their reactions.

Well, Facebook can be a beautiful thing! Because now, 7-8 years later, I can reconnect with many of those youth, and a good number of them have explained to me the power of even some of our most unforgettable programs–one of which I had actually completely forgotten!–and it even shows in some of their career choices. One particular young woman, who I had a really hard time working with, just straight up disappeared from my life after her 9th grade year, and then I saw her again back at Tyee 5 years later and she was doing a similar Americorps position to my old job, citing our time with her as an inspiration. As most educators know, the feeling that news like this gives you is priceless.

Education takes time. Building knowledge takes time. That’s why the concept of praxis is so crucial. The workshop, the lecture, even the book are not the fulcrum of education, as I think we know. Life is. Experience is. Our conscious, curricular interventions are just that: interventions into the daily actions and reflections of the people we’re working with. The implications of this, then, is that our interventions can be much more powerful if we can approach them with a long view.

We already know that a weekend long workshop is more effective than a 2 hour workshop. We already know that a 10 week program is better than a weekend workshop. And we know, implicitly, that long-term organizing relationships are the most effective of all. So I think we should put more of our focus and attention there. If we, as radical educators, know that we are committed to a place for at least, say 4 years (even better if it’s more like 10-20), then I think we should work with other similar committed people and really map out a curricular approach that is based on our movement presence over that long period of time.

By movement presence I mean the traditional writings, weekend workshops, guest speakers, 10-week programs, etc., but I also think about long-term mentoring relationships (something I hear a lot about from my friends in the Bay), yearly reflection and commitment-setting events, programs of organizers writing letters to future selves and actually delivering those letters, and the study, mapping, and articulation of the trends that we are observing over the years. How are the winds changing? Where does movement energy seem to be going? Most of us are left guessing on these questions, relying on anecdotal evidence, but this is an area where grassroots educators, along with researchers, could really be helpful!

This is also where inter-generational relationships are so powerful! By maintaining their presence in our communities and our movements, by sticking through all the past dramas and dissolutions, victories and failures, movement elders can offer essential insights to all of us. Though I’m still young, my own 15 years of experience can often be really helpful to younger or less experienced organizers, often in sort of unexpected ways. For example, when younger activists complain about the state of the left and how right wing our culture is, I give them an example of the current events section of Barnes and Noble. When I first starting looking for books at Barnes and Noble in the mid-nineties, I jumped for joy when I could find even a single Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky book. Now, walk into a Barnes and Noble current events section and you can see Naomi Klein, Vijay Prashad, Amy Goodman, the Zapatistas, etc. Not ideal, but a huge shift! (funny/sad sidenote: the New Age section has also grown to overtake the philosophy section) This is just one trend that can be useful to talk about to give context to the growth of the left/progressive forces, but it requires a long term presence to see it.

Presence is also important for radical educators to model because of how hard organizing is, how thankless it can feel. Simply the act of staying in the struggle, still being there after so much hardship, can be inspirational and can give much needed depth to people’s sense of movement commitment. After 9/11 pushed the global justice movement into a sad sort of hibernation, the moments when activists simply came out of their homes to see each other and to see long-standing organizers still doing work was really pivotal in rebuilding and strengthening the anti-war movement.

As a small town person, I’ve always had a deep love for the small town regulars. The old man in Oak Harbor who would wave to passing traffic near the Roller Barn. The Bellingham bus driver who would always start his route with a Simpsons trivia contest. I believe that is a conscious role that radical educators (and really by that I mean all revolution-minded organizers and artists!) should take up. We should be movement regulars; humble, helpful presences who can listen attentively, ask questions, and provide solid educational content that is attuned to the current local context, the key questions that the local movement is facing from year to year.

This can help us to go beyond the repetitive cycle of 101 workshops, and really engage with popular education as the praxis that it’s supposed to be.

I have a lot more that I can say about presence, but these ideas are still feeling pretty raw, pretty first draft. I think I’ll leave it here for now, talk about power next time, and then refine the ideas further in a future pass.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi