Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Pedagogy of Love

Popular education, for me, has always been about exercising the most loving and respectful disposition towards people and the world of which i am capable. Thus have i often returned to Paulo Freire's words from Pedagogy of the Oppressed about the necessary qualities and values of democratic dialogue: love, faith, hope, humility and critical thinking (Continuum, 1993, pp. 89-93). Love remains a strange (if not awkward) thing to speak of in education and social justice work unless one is aiming for poetic affect. But the love of which Freire speaks is not reducible to the common sense emotion/feeling (equally used, unfortunately, to speak of feelings towards cars, dish soap and new born babies). He is referring to a more complex state of being that Che Guevara also famously referred to when he wrote: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love."

I've just learned of the on-line journal Rizoma Freireano published by the Instituto Paulo Freire de EspaƱa in four lanuages: Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and English. Not all articles are in all languages. It appears that most everything is available in Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese while only a few are available in English. It's all well-worth checking out. And i am wow-ed by this article: Political grace and the struggle to decolonize community practice by Antonia Darder and Zeus Yiamouyiannis. It addresses issues of power and resistance between academic researchers and non-profits (amongst others) and communities resisting oppression:
Many of these communities are also subjected to the dehumanizing effects of serving as quasi-laboratories for the benefit of corporate experiments, university researchers, and professional organizers. And, although some of these efforts may have positive outcomes, more times than not, the gains are short lived, as professional community organizers take on single issue campaigns in ways that paradoxically disempower those most in need.
I have been and am most often one of these "professional organizers" or "university researcher" types. Of course, my conceit is that i think i'm exceptional. But conceit is all that that might be. All of my working life i have been seeking (and building) ways of being in relation with the oppressed in a just and loving manner. I have, over the past 30 years of this work, learned a great deal about what to do and what not to do. And my most recent experiment has been the creation and stubborn maintenance of a popular education worker co-op - The Catalyst Centre. Me and my co-founders have chosen this path as a means that we believe creates the possibility for creative and emancipatory relationships that are otherwise difficult or impossible within conventional corporate forms such as non-profits, charities, educational institutions and private consultancy. It is still to be seen if our experiment can claim more than critical success (we are ten years old, which is pretty amazing; but we are also impoverished and exhausted).

We have built Catalyst on strong popular education values and politics which is to say that we exist explicitly to resist injustice and to support struggles against oppression, for freedom, compassion, generosity and love (and more). But creating an economy for our work has proven difficult. Funders like our talk of democratic practice, but balk at the lack of specificity around deliverables. For, if we are truly committed to democratic practice (to which we also add working from a position of abundance and not scarcity), then we cannot know the context for change without first engaging it, connecting with the community and researching (with the community) precisely what needs to be addressed. Asking for "outcomes" (measurable or otherwise) is anathema to this approach to social change. But private funders get to do what they want with their wealth. And other sources of capital are timid, at best, and tend to insist on quick return (if not of profit, certainly of results). And thus we are forced to rely on contract work which invariably wants quick fixes to problems that rightfully deserve a great deal of time. The kind of radical social change that we know needs to happen requires time and a great deal of labour intensive work. And reliance on contracts (i.e. consultancy) means that we can only work for those who can afford us. And that's generally not the communities and organizations who could most benefit from our help.

Over the past couple of years i have been exploring connections between popular education and community development. There is a strong fit to be forged here. But it's still to be seen if it will lead to a sustainable economy. I worry that social justice and environmental work is trapped in a paradigm of the quick fix. Community development (and especially it's sibling, community organizing) seem equally fixated on the quick fix. And it's hard to deny the urgency of the circumstances we find ourselves in. But as Darder and Yiamouyiannis write (in relation to a project in which a "rights" based approach was pushed):
Given this discussion, it should not be surprising that a politics of expediency, prone to expert quick-fix and task driven solutions, functions as one of the cornerstones of liberal strategies to community “intervention” (the word itself connotes a “platooning” in from the outside). Rather than to seek organic opportunities for voice, participation, and social action among community members themselves, the premature leap into a well-defined “Rights” campaign leads to a “true-and-tried” solution. What can not be ignored here is that mainstream solutions anchored in a “rights” approach are often much more compelling to mainstream (often “white”) community organizers, since it allows them to feel far more secure, competent, and comfortable in leading the charge. This, despite their lack of lived knowledge about how generations of racism and poverty can disable community empowerment, through contradictions, conflicts, dependencies, and despair (Darder, 2008). With this in mind, both Freire and Fanon’s writings reinforce the need for establishing decolonizing dynamics that instill a sense of intimacy and openness or “authentic conversation,” in grappling with class, cultural, gendered and racialized differences, within the context of community struggles.
For several years i have been developing a notion of praxis that goes beyond traditional definitions (or, at least, makes explicit something that was always implicit) that explain praxis as the unity of theory and action or simply as action that changes the world. I've always liked the notion of praxis which, for me, has always been about mindful action that is instantly self-reflexive (i.e. self-conscious about the theory that supports the action) and willing to affirm the good and change the bad. That which i have been seeking to draw out is the aspect of changing the self. Most talk of praxis seems directed outwards from the actor to the world. But it's hardly a far stretch (whether versed in theory or not) to suggest that the change we seek to effect on the world also has an effect on us. We change and we are changed. And should we be making positive changes on the world, it seems only fair that we should, personally, experience positive change. This is, however, not what i've witnessed in all too many cases. Burnout, disenchantment, sacrificed health, ruined friendships, neglected family are only some of the many costs to our efforts to change the world. A theory of praxis that articulates the necessity and obligation for self-change is one that i believe can lead to more healthy, compassionate and effective action. Nor am i speaking of just any personal change - praxis is about changing ourselves for the better where "better" includes kinder, more compassionate, more connected, more joyful (even more sorrowful), more loving, more humble. This self-change is referred to as ethical self-transformation and it is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges that lie before us. For in the word "self" i am including the sum total of ALL our connections with the people and planet with whom we live. The "self" in a theory of praxis is not reducible to modern notions of the fragmented individual who carries around a bunch of rights and capacities. Rather, the praxical self is an expansive being whose boundaries are far more fluid than most of us are comfortable being conscious about. Changing this self IS changing the world. For this self, when the world hurts, we hurt. And when the world is joyful, we are joyful. Religious people can probably understand this by comparing my secular discourse to what they are used to talking about as the divine - that which connects us all.

Which brings me back to Darder's and Yiamouyiannis's article and their talk of love and grace. I have to think more about this notion of grace - which has a decidedly christian tone to it (or is that just my catholic roots a-showing?) and which means "divine favour" or "divine gift". I think they emphasize the latter though i'm not sure what notion of divinity they are drawing on. (For an amazing piece of thinking on "grace" i recommend the trilogy by Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials.) But, grace aside, their description for a decolonizing practice is a challenge that fits well with the definition of praxis i am proposing:
...our responsibility to a decolonizing practice must be connected to a consistent commitment to remain ever vigilant of self and the social and material conditions that challenge our privilege, entitlement, and certainties of efficacy. This is particularly so where communities have been subjected to long term abuses, predicated on historical legacies of genocide, slavery, and colonization—with their lasting impact on both the oppressed and the oppressor. Given its emancipatory purpose, revolutionary community practice requires the exercise of an integral process—one in which the mind, heart, body and spirit are welcome in the active service of liberation. This integral dynamic generates the conditions for political grace to touch our communal exchanges. In its absence, our community practice can easily, albeit unwittingly, degenerate into acts of dominance and debilitating empathy that ultimately thwart dialogue, empowerment, and social transformation.
I have read anticolonial scholarship for quite some time. And in recent years have integrated anticolonialism more explicitly in the popular education courses that i teach as well as use anticolonial frameworks for my own thinking and community work. While my activism was well-served by using the framing of anti-racism (and this is still very meaningful) i find anticolonialism to be more resistant to being de-historicized and turned into an instrumental wrench to fix bad behaviour. We need more powerful tools if we are going to save our world, our lives and what civilization we value.

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