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Popular Education: Faith in the Oppressed

Popular Education as Part of Social Equality Movements

Popular education is a methodology that raises the consciousness of the oppressed in order to inspire them to act. Instead of teaching the poor how to fit into society, it teaches the poor how to understand their reality so that they can change it. It teaches people to “read the world, as well as the word.”

Popular educators understand that education as a strategy for the elimination of poverty is impossible on an individual level. A few individuals born into poverty may, at great sacrifice and with superhuman effort, be able to study and work their way into the middle class. But until the system changes, there will always be inequality, injustice and poor people. And as long as people are isolated and blame themselves for their poverty, the system will never change. Only by building collective strength based on relationships of trust, analytic discussion and organizing can the poor change a system that is built on unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.

While Latin American popular education traces its roots to the practice of liberation theology in the 1960’s, there have been other examples of education for common folk that seek to break down social classes using poor people’s lives as a basis for curriculum and political participation. In the 1830’s N. F. S. Grundtvig, a Danish theologian influenced by the ideas of the European Age of Enlightenment, developed the idea for folk high schools, where the children of peasants would live together with their teachers and learn through singing, reading and exploring the world around them. These ideas developed into a folk school movement in Denmark, as well as in other parts of Scandinavia.

The Danish folk schools of the 1880’s was an inspiration to Myles Horton who opened the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in 1932. The Highlander School served as an organizing institute for the most important social justice movements of the U.S. South—the labor movement in the 30’s and 40’s and the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s. Rosa Parks, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, had, at the time that she refused to give up her seat in the bus to a White man, recently returned from Highlander where she had shared personal experiences of racism and explored solutions with other civil rights activists.

Another example of oppressed groups gathering in the United States to educate themselves about the world and how they can change it, is the consciousness raising groups of the women’s movement. In the late 60’s educated middle-class women began to gather at each other’s homes to discuss examples from their own lives where they had experienced oppression. These discussions formed the backbone of the women’s movement as women raised their own consciousness, giving them the strength to make changes at home and in society.

In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s popular education played an important role in revolutionary movements in Latin America, both in building a base of poor people willing to collaborate in the overthrow of dictators, and, during a socialist government, in the construction of a new society that sought to break down generational poverty caused by rigid social classes. Both Cuba (1961) and Nicaragua (1980) organized successful literacy campaigns shortly after forming their new revolutionary governments, closing down urban high schools and universities while the nations’ students and teachers volunteered to live with poor families in the countryside to teach them to read and write and to understand their world. Both of these campaigns won UNESCO awards and were successful at radically changing their countries in short order from being ones where the overwhelmingly majority of the population was illiterate to ones where the majority could read and write. In addition, the shared experience of living and working together in the countryside unified urban and rural populations that were previously divided by social class.

Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian intellectual, who, for many, is considered the father of popular education, served as advisor in the Nicaraguan literacy campaign. His books, beginning with Pedagogy of the Oppressed published in 1968 have inspired many Latin American and US educators to experiment with popular education in social movement building, from union organizers in El Salvador, to community organizers in Peru, to adult education and ESL teachers in the US.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s a generation of popular educators, who came of age in the revolutionary movements of Latin America, migrated to the United States and joined other community educators and activists who were inspired by Paulo Freire in practicing popular education with migrants to the United States. They set up literacy and English as a Second language programs that taught people to read and write and speak in their new environment. They not only taught people how to adapt to a new environment, but how to see it with critical eyes and identify changes to society, not just to themselves, to improve their lives.

These popular educators used creative methods such as theater, art, and music to reflect people’s lives back to them so that they could critically discuss it and see it from a new angle, an angle that allowed them to strategize and carry out collective action for change. These real-life issues served as the framework for learning new skills of reading, writing, and speaking, but also of lobbying, communicating with the press, and organizing direct actions.

Popular Education and Organizing Immigrant Day Laborers

In the early 90’s a new wave of migrants came the United States from Mexico, migrants who had been starved out of their homes when the Mexican economy collapsed after the signing of NAFTA. These migrants first moved to areas where there were established communities of Mexican immigrants, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, but then spread out to new areas where they had heard that work was plentiful, such as Seattle, Portland, Denver, and San Francisco. They applied for jobs in fishing, restaurants, and hotels, and, looked for informal hiring zones where they could pick up odd jobs as day laborers.

The increased presence of day laborers waiting for work on the sidewalks began to create conflict in local communities. Some unions tried to organize these immigrant day laborers but soon concluded that they were an unorganizable workforce. They were too hungry for work and were too willing to compete against each other. They fought over a limited number of jobs and there seemed to be an unlimited number of new migrants that could replace them.

In the cities where migrant day laborers began to gather, people experienced in Latin American style popular education, and drawn toward working with the poorest of the poor, began to organize these workers as they waited for work on the corners. They used popular education techniques such as theater, music, and the sharing and analysis of personal experiences of oppression as ways for workers to collectively determine new solutions that put them in charge of their own working conditions. These solutions included establishing agreed upon minimum wages at corners and a commitment to non-violence, as well as, in some cases, lobbying local governments to support the establishment of worker centers where day laborers could have a safe and dignified place to look for work.

Popular Education and the Founding of NDLON

In the mid 90’s, these popular educators worked on a neighborhood level, organizing local immigrant day laborers who were being harassed by neighbors, the police and immigration, and often exploited by employers who didn’t pay them what they had agreed to pay. In most cities, there was only one corner where day laborers gathered, and local popular educators thought that this was a problem unique to their community. At that time, only in Los Angeles were there multiple corners and well-established worker centers financed by the local government.

So maybe it was no surprise that it was a group of Los Angeles immigrant popular educators and musicians who had worked as day laborers who were the first to realize that this could not be just a local issue. They made contact with a labor rights groups in Portland, Oregon and decided to venture out of their city with their band, Los Jornaleros del Norte, and go on a West Coast tour of day labor corners. They played songs that they had written based on the life experiences of day laborers to day laborers waiting on corners in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

In Seattle, where I was working, Casa Latina had been formed in 1994 to educate immigrant day laborers using a popular education methodology. By the time Los Jornaleros del Norte came to Seattle to play on our local day laborer corner in 1998, we had earned neighborhood and the municipal government support to set up a worker center in a parking lot close by. I clearly remember when two of Casa Latina’s organizers brought the members of the band back to our office after meeting them on the street corner where they were playing for Seattle’s day laborers. For me, it was like finding soul mates after years of isolation. I couldn’t believe that there were others working on the same issues with the same popular education methodology that we were, only much farther down the road. We spent hours excitedly talking shop and exchanging experiences.

This chance meeting on the street turned into conference calls connecting day laborer popular educators and their organizations that we slowly identified across the country, including in Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, California, Long Island, New York; Silver Spring, Maryland, and Denver, Colorado. Our first conference calls were eager exchanges of experiences, then discussions about how we could apply for foundation support for these expensive conference calls, and finally, discussions on how to fund a national assembly of day laborers in Los Angeles that could bring together all twelve of the community based day laborer organizations that we had identified to found the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in July 2001.

From Popular Education to Institution Building

Once worker centers were established, popular educators, having faith that the people most affected by issues of oppression are the ones who are best qualified to determine their solutions, led day laborers in collectively establishing minimum wages, the order of dispatch, and rules of conduct of the worker centers. In addition, they set up labor rights committees to fight wage theft, women’s groups to empower day laborer women, and classes where immigrant day laborers can learn skills such as English, gardening, construction, moving, and housecleaning so that they could charge higher wages and remain safe on the job. This resulted in the development of a new organizing model for workers in the informal sector who did not have access to the union model of organizing.

All of the founders of NDLON were popular educators, but most of us spent less and less time directly practicing popular education as our energies were taken up by fundraising, financing, determining legal strategies, and other tasks of institution and immigrant worker rights movement building.

Now in 2019 many of those original popular educators have built institutions and have retired or are close to retirement. It is time to pass the baton to a new generation of popular educators who will be educating and organizing immigrant workers into the future.

A New Generation of Popular Educators

As we pass on our experience, we also realize that popular educators must adapt and evolve their strategies. We live in a different world than the one that existed when NDLON was formed. The flow of information and sharing of experiences between local groups that was so painstakingly slow when NDLON was first established, can now happen in an instant through the internet and social media. The neo-liberal policies that provoked the mass migration of Mexicans to the United States in the 90’s have spread across the world. Capital knows no borders, while richer nations struggle to prevent poor people from crossing into their countries. There is a backlash to the migration of poor people accompanied by a rising tide of nationalism and support for authoritarian anti-democratic leaders (including our own President Trump) who use the fear of foreigners to concentrate more power and wealth. In addition, venture capitalists have learned to disrupt the accepted social contract that existed between workers and employers, creating a gig economy that turns workers into independent contractors. More and more workers are resembling day laborers who are made to compete against each other for temporary work.

These are the challenges that we are passing on to the next generation of popular educators. But we have faith that humble people, given support and with the right educational methodology, can find the solutions to the social problems that affect them. And we still believe that defending the civil and human rights of the most vulnerable, raises standards for all of us.

Next Steps

Popular Educator Convening. In the first weekend of April NDLON will be gathering a small group of experienced popular educators from around the country to reconnect with each other, share experiences and knowledge, and design an initiative to develop the next generation of popular educators. The hope is that this convening will launch a new popular educator collective.

Popular Education Blog. NDLON will set up and host an interactive blog which will serve as a clearinghouse for popular educators to explore themes in popular education such as participatory evaluation, popular education methodology and techniques, systematization of experience, arts and culture in popular education and popular communication.

Popular Education to Shift Public Opinion in Favor of Immigrants. NDLON will seek support from the popular educator collective to train and mentor new popular educators by conducting popular education workshops based on a recent study on American attitudes toward immigration, as well as popular education workshops on the root causes of Central American migration. The workshops will be given in areas of the United States that have the potential to tip the political balance in favor of welcoming policies toward migrants and where NDLON has organizing strength in its membership.

NDLON’s Grassroots Leadership Development Institute. NDLON will invite support from members of the popular educator collective to give workshops at its bi-annual Grassroots Leadership Development Institute to train a new generation of grassroots organizers of the day laborer and migrant rights movement. This Leadership Institute is planned for fall of 2019.

Other Initiatives. It is expected that other initiatives will come out of the popular educators convening in April as experienced popular educators put their heads and hearts together to plan the formation of a new generation of popular educators in the United States.

Hilary Stern

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