Sunday, December 30, 2007

A World of Wisdom

A disciple of the Sufi master Bauhaudin Naqshband once asked him why he never interpreted the stories he told. Naqshband responded, “How would you like it if the fruit vendor from whom you bought fruit ate the fruit and left you only the skin?”

A story, like a piece of fruit, is a unique experience for each person. And, while many may agree that the taste of an apple is of a certain quality, a certain sweetness, who is to say that one person’s pleasure in the fruit is identical to another’s? Or, perhaps, we could compare a story to a many-faceted jewel through which light refracts in myriad ways. Each moment of experience of the wonder of refracted light is unique. So it is with stories, each telling is unique; the experience of each listener is unique. Each story represents a vast wealth of meaning that is in constant motion as we tell to each other, listen, remember and reflect. Indeed, often our remembrance is varied, emphasizing one element over another, leaving out a critical element that the story needs to work. But somehow we piece it back together again – we make up for the missing pieces with the gift of our imagination – so infinitely variable.

The stories I share on this blog are tales that i have found (or, as i often feel, have found me) that persist in my mind and heart. They speak to me over and over again of things that i am always coming to understand better, more deeply, more slowly. I am always prepared for boredom to set in as i tell a story for the Nth time only to be surprised again and again at the seemingly unending abundance of meaning to be had. One of my delights in learning and researching stories is finding stories that are similar yet different and that come from different cultures of the world as with the following two stories. The first is a “joke” that I learned while growing up in Quebec. The second is a tale from Bengal that I found in Folktakes from India: a selection of oral tales from twenty-two languages selected and edited by A.K. Ramanujan (Pantheon 1991).

Once there was a flood in which a faithful man was trapped in his house. He went to the second storey where he looked out the window and saw a canoe approach. “Get in, get in,” the canoeists said. “We’ll save you.” But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The canoe paddled away. The floodwaters rose and the man had to flee to the third floor. He looked out the window and saw a motorboat approach. “We’ve come to rescue you,” the boaters said. But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The boaters left and the floodwaters rose faster. The man climbed onto the roof of his house when along came a helicopter that lowered a ladder. But the man waved them away yelling, “My faith is in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The waters rose and the man drowned. In heaven he demanded an audience with the Lord. Standing before the Lord he asked, “Why did you let me die? My faith was strong and yet you let me die.”

“I don’t understand it,” said the Lord. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

God in Everything
Once there was a guru giving a lecture to his disciples about God. His teaching on this day was about the presence of the divine in everything. “God is in the trees, the stones, the river, the animals and in you,” he said. One disciple was very moved by this lecture and was pondering the teaching as he walked towards a nearby village. On the edge of the village he looked up to see a commotion down the street. Soon he saw that it was an elephant that had gotten out of control and was smashing its way down the street. The driver was madly flailing as he struggled to keep his balance on the elephant’s back. The disciple could see the damage the elephant was causing, people almost trampled, carts overturned, shop fronts reduced to rubble. But the disciple thought of the new teaching he had just received. And he considered that if God was in everything then God must be in that elephant as well as within himself. He resolved to stand in the elephant’s way and practice his new learning believing that his awareness of the presence of God would protect him and the elephant. He stood his ground as the elephant galloped towards him. The elephant was suddenly right in front of the disciple. The elephant wrapped his trunk around the disciple, picked him up and smashed him against one wall and then another. It dragged him in the street and left him bloodied and bruised in the dust. A short while later the guru came by and was startled to see his disciple injured in the street. “What has happened?” he asked. The disciple explained: “Master, I was reflecting on your teaching this morning when I saw the mad elephant. I resolved to deepen my belief in the presence to God in everything, including in the elephant. I believed that God would protect me.” “I see,” said the guru. “It is indeed true that God was in the elephant. But God was also in the driver of the elephant who was yelling at you to get out of the way.”

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Fate of a Bird

Once upon a time on the banks of a river that ran along the edge of a large city there lived an old man who some said was very wise while others said he was nothing but a homeless fool. Children were told by parents to stay away from the old man. But children are curious, and all the moreso of those things they are told to stay away from. One day three children were walking along the road when one spotted a wee bird that was tangled in some roots. The boy bent down to free the bird and, holding it gently, said to his friends, “I have a way to see how dumb that old guy by the river is. I’ll hold this bird in my hand behind my back and we’ll ask the old guy if it’s alive or dead. If he says ‘alive’, I’ll break its neck and show him he’s wrong. If he says ‘dead’ then I’ll let it go and he’ll still be wrong.” The friends agreed and they set off and found the old man sitting by the river as usual. The kid with the bird in hand and behind his back said, “old man, I’ve got a riddle for you. I’m holding a bird in my hand. Is it alive or dead?” The friends chuckled. The old man looked at the kids and said, “well I don’t know if the bird is alive or dead. But I do know this, whatever is the fate of that bird is in your hands.” The friends stopped chuckling. The three kids looked silently at the old man and then turned and left. As they stepped onto the road the child holding the bird held his hands up and let it fly away.
I learned this story so long ago i cannot remember not knowing it. Perhaps i carry it with me still because i can remember so many cruelties from my childhood. Mostly i remember the absurdly cruel behaviours of my peers (there was the boy's gang and the cool girls and you were cool or not, in or out at the whim of the in-crowd). But i also remember my own wee cruelties, inflicted on snakes and frogs who were guilty of nothing more than the bad luck to be in my path on days i was probably feeling particularly put upon.

They Peeked

A young couple were thinking about having a second child. Their daughter was four and, not wanting to startle her, they thought to let the girl know what they were thinking about. Sensitive to how children could react to change they were curious about their daughter’s reaction. Though they didn’t know what to expect they were themselves surprised when their daughter nodded thoughtfully at the news and said, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” They were a bit puzzled at this but felt that they had done what was right. A year later they gave birth to a boy. Bringing him home where his sister would meet him for the first time, they recalled her strange reaction a year earlier. They brought their son in the house and laid him in a crib. His sister looked at him and then at her parents and said, “I would like to be alone with my brother for a while?” This was an odd thing for a five-year-old to ask and it worried them a bit. But they loved their daughter and were sure that whatever she wanted could hardly be dangerous. They agreed and, leaving the two children alone, left the room. But they peeked. They saw their daughter drag a chair over beside the crib. She climbed onto the chair and, leaning into the crib and over her brother, they heard her whisper, “Tell me about God. I’m beginning to forget.”
I learned the above story almost 20 years ago from a friend in California. She told it to me as something she had heard had happened to some friends. As delighted as i was by the tale i was skeptical that it had actually "happened". It had the telltale feel of an urban legend, despite how benign it was (urban legends tend to be rather more violent or gruesome). I thought if it was an urban legend it was only a matter of time before i heard it once again. And, sure enough, i did hear it again - ten years later. I've since heard in one or two more times. Nor does it matter to me whether these types of tales about about something that "happened" or not - the truths they carry are no less important.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

"House Rools" and the Wisdom of Children

Though popular education is often reduced to being only about playfulness (and therefore neither serious nor rigorous) there is, nonetheless much truth in its use of playfulness. I like to remind people that in our first five years of life we learn language, social and motor skills and much more largely through play. I saw this first-hand when, in 1976, i studied with Wally Weng-Garrety, an early childhood educator at Dawson College who then got me a part-time job at the McGill Family Daycare where i worked on and off for the next four years. The childrens' day was one of perpetual play and i could see that every second of it was a learning experience. I have often wondered why it is that, as we grow older, we reduce the amount of play in our learning - in many cases reducing it to zero. Play is one of the most powerful pedagogies that we have. But it is the nature of play to be very hard to control as well as predict. And, since most mainstream mass education is about conformity before it is about learning, play moves to the bottom of the list. This is only a smidgen of my reasoning about the importance of play and why popular education values play and playfulness more than most other approaches to learning. Of course, with popular education, it is not play for playing's sake - rather it is about learning what power is, how to deal with power, develop one's own and both resist unjust uses of power as well as exercise justice (as well as a whole host of other dispositions such as compassion, kindness, etc.). All this to say that we should all look to children for daily lessons in play. They can be our teachers, those of us who have grown up and away from that time in life when all seems to be about play. I think artists and parents will know readily what i am talking about. So, it was with utter delight that J'net called my attention to our daughter's and her friend's "house rools" for a fort that they had built of blankets, sheets, chairs and futons. As you can see from the list above, written by our neighbour's youngest, their "rools" included:
  1. no war
  2. have fun
  3. eat candy
  4. smell bad
  5. be nice
Now how's that for a guide to right living? What would Marcus Aurelius or Lao Tsu think of that?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Goddess in Disguise (as usual)

Another Befana photo - this collage of images is from Giselle Signoroni. And this juxtaposition of Befanas and puppet faces reminds me that La befana is none other than the Goddess in disguise. And, as Actaeon, who learned the hard way, knows, to look at the Goddess unmasked is a dangerous affair.

Celebrating the Return of the Light

Here's a lovely Befana shot from sister hag Mary Li (thanks, Mary). La Befana for those of you who have been wondering is an Italian legendary figure who famously travels the land on the eve of the Epiphany (aka Twelfth Night) leaving gifts of candy. There are a few versions of the legend that range from quaint to bittersweet, from ethical to moralistic, but all agree that La Befana is an old woman who did not give directions to those peripatetic Magi (aka Three Wise Men aka astrologers from the east aka three kings aka George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube) as well as failed to accept an invitation to join them in their pursuit of that shining star and the Christ child. After having second thoughts, La Befana runs after the travellers, but it's too late. Thus she spends every eve of the Epiphany in her own endless pursuit. When i have a wee bit more time i may render my own version of this charming legend, for there are many themes within it that are close to my heart, not the least of which is gift giving. But in reflecting on this legend this weekend i was struck by the more moralistic versions (e.g. if the child is good she gets candy but if bad, coal) and i suspect that few people, if any at all, give coal. And the more benign take on the gift-giving of La Befana is that she sees divinity, the sacred, in every child. And in this sense, are no all children, including those of us who haven't been children for a long time, deserving of these gifts?

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Season of Revels Has Begun

A young Befana-in-training investigates this magically-glowing hoop dress as preparations are made to begin this year's Kensington Festival of Lights. Me and my wee family had an uproarious time with our sister-hags, serenading the moon and sun and thousands of participants who strolled by and shared with us nothing but smiles of wonder and delight. We sang That's Amore, Besame Mucho, La Vie En Rose and, of course, O Sole Mio. Oh and the harmony was wonderful (if i don't say so, myself), though to the untrained ear it just might have sounded like cacophony. Befana singing is a unique artform that must be appreciated in context. What a wonderful solstice evening it was and as joyous a launch of this season of revels as could be done. Cheers to all my sister Befanas, to Gaby and Andy of Red Pepper Spectacle, to all the puppeteers, lantern holders, drummers and musicians of all kinds and, of course, to everyone who attended to partake of the abundance.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How Surprising Our "Nature" Can Be

I went to the 1.001 Friday Nights of Storytelling last week for the first time in a while and brought my new family. After a lively post-potluck dinner conversation about running the weekly sessions, Dan Yashinsky began the evening. Once the usual customs had been honoured (asking who's here for the first time, explaining the rules, i.e. only telling, no reading, etc.) Dan asked for the first teller to come on up. Well, much to the surprise of J'net (my wife) and i, we saw J'net's 14-year old boy take the talking stick. J'net and i exchanged glances - parental code for "oh oh." And we were both delighted as we heard him share a story he had learned from his dad. A short tale of an owl and a mouse and very well told. It was a wonderful way to start the evening and all the moreso to hear a new voice - and a teenager's voice at that! One story inspired another and i eventually got up to add this tale to the evening's telling:
Once there was an old man who was walking along the banks of the Ganges River. The river waters were running fast as it was spring in the mountains from where the water flowed. The water was muddy and he could see bits of trees floating along in the swift current. It was then he noticed a piece of tree root pressed to the bank by the current and on it a scorpion entangled in the roots trying to free itself and avoid plunging into the river. It was clearly only a matter of minutes before the tree root was pulled into the river again ensuring the scorpion’s doom. The old man reached out for the tree root and held it as best he could in place. He then reached out to rescue the scorpion. As soon as his hand was within reach the scorpion lashed its tale and stung the old man. He drew back his hand, shook it and reached out again. Again the scorpion stung him. Again and again he reached out and again and again the scorpion stung. The old man’s hand was swollen and purple when a traveller wandered by and, watching this strange sight, shouted, "Hoy, you old fool, can’t you see that that worthless creature will kill you before it lets itself be saved. It’s an ungrateful animal; why not let it be.” The old man looked ack at the traveller and said, "Ah, my friend, just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”

Monday, December 17, 2007

If It's Solstice Then It Must Be Time for the Kensington Festival of Lights

Many years ago i was asked to join an unusual choir - a chorus of hags, you could say. As many times as i had marched along the route of the annual solstice celebration that is the Kensington Festival of Lights, never had i had so much fun. It is one of the great clowning experiences of my life. Well, once again i am joining La Befanas, the merry, raucous, cacophonous (very occasionally melodious) and always hilarious, group of solstice hags singing their love songs to the sun. This year i will be joined by my wife, J'net, as i continue to introduce her to the wonders of Toronto. This video is of the festival in 2005 with a wonderful section of La Befanas. If you've never attended the Festival of Lights, come on down this Friday night. It's unforgettable.

Trickster Pedagogy, Etc....

I've got a few gigs lined up for the beginning of 2008 and any help you readers (albeit modest in number) can give to spreading the word would be greatly appreciated. The first two are in Nova Scotia at the Tatamagouche Centre and the other is a paper i'm presenting at the AAG Annual Meeting in Boston in April.

Trickster Pedagogy and Praxis
February 12-14; Tues 7pm to Thurs 1pm
Every culture has a rich tradition of tricksters, clowns, fools, jesters, and more. They have survived in stories and traditions that preserve an ancient form of teaching that uses riddling, storytelling, and playfulness to teach by misdirection. Not exactly a secret knowledge, yet trickster pedagogy lies largely ignored or overlooked by dominant as well as alternative forms of education. This workshop explores some of the history of these practices, shares some trickster practices through storytelling, drawing, and riddling, and includes some of the theory that frames many of these practices, to allow educators and activists to strengthen their practice for social change.

If People Counted: Popular Economics Workshop and Curriculum Development
February 15-17; Fri 7pm to Sun 1pm
Popular economics challenges dominant and common notions of what economics is all about. The Catalyst Centre offers numerous popular economics activities that increase economic literacy, debunk dominant notions, and envision more just and equitable processes for sharing wealth, caring for each other and preserving the planet. This workshop highlights the Catalyst Centre’s approach to popular economics, and offers effective techniques and skills. Especially useful for educators and activists of all stripes who wish to develop popular economics curricula, or incorporate these activities into their educational work.

A Modest Manifesto for Today's Organic Intellectual
A Paper Presentation at the Association of American Geographers Annual Conference (April 15-19, 2008)

Popular economics is a heterogenous field of activism and scholarship that simultaneously contests dominant notions of economics, pedagogy and community organizing as well as the subjectivities of the participating scholars and activists. Connecting a diversity of theoretical and practical challenges to dominant economics including economic literacy, community economic development, participatory budgeting, progressive economics, community economies and more, popular economics is committed to resisting oppression. The success of popular economics relies, in part, on the creation of new forms of pedagogy and new practices of ethical self-transformation - new economies need new subjectivities. These new subjectivities are already being shaped, invented and experimented with in numerous sites including a variety of academic disciplines, civil society organizations, voluntary community organizing and municipal administrations. The Catalyst Centre, a Toronto-based popular education worker co-op, has developed an approach to popular economics education that could serve as a model that combines strategic and tactical thinking and collective action. This paper describes this approach, and articulates a notion of praxis that necessarily includes the role of ethical self-transformation or resubjectivation as discussed in J.K. Gibson-Graham's work. For the scholar-activist this new subjectivity can be seen as an application of the notion of organic intellectual, first theorized by Antonio Gramsci.

Popular Education, Social Movements and Story Telling

Hey, gang, i just got a copy of a new book that includes an interview with yours truly. Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements: A Book of Interviews done by Peter Mayo and Carmel Borg has just been published by Peter Lang (NY: 2007); here's the PDF of the book info. It is mighty distinguished company with which i find myself and I am not being falsely modest in being deeply moved. I manage to share a few thoughts about popular education in a Canadian context and connect it to the storytelling praxis i have been developing for some time. Seeing this interview after having done it quite some time ago i realize that i begin some thoughts that are past due for further attention. I highly recommend Nita Freire's interview which includes some rare reflection on Paulo Freire's use of Portuguese, something that people who have only read him in translation will find illuminating. Freire's eloquence rarely makes it across adequately in translation.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Toronto Community Development Institute - April 2008

A group of folks has come together to mount a Toronto Community Development Institute this coming April. Here's the cover letter and Call for Workshop Proposals. Check them out. This promises to be a great event that will include lots of popular education process and content as well as lots of other types of training, critical dialogue, collective thinking, and perhaps even some community organizing and development (in the spirit of walking the talk, as it were).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Snow Queen at Young Centre for the Perfomring Arts

Went to see The Snow Queen last night at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Treat yourself. I remember this Hans Christian Andersen tale as one of the scariest that i heard as a child. There was something about the transformation of the boy as he fell under the Snow Queen's spell that terrified me. Alon Nashman is much more than what the program note of "Narrator" implies. Alon narrates, dramatizes, exhorts, thrills, enchants, even dances the story. Though there is also the ethereal (and kinda creepy) dancing of the Snow Queen, performed by Kate Alton, that arrests the eyes whenever she is on stage. And then there's the string quartet's unsettling score which matches the story perfectly. I had mostly forgotten the tale and, though enchanted by Andersen as a kid, i have mostly left his stories behind. But a few have marked me, as powerful stories will. And i was impressed with this story once again, though this time what moved me most was the dedication and courage of the wee heroine who refuses to give up on her best friend. As i watched the faces of the wee girls that accompanied me to the play along with a 14 year old boy, my sister and my wife, i could see the power of story and theatre touch their hearts and minds. Though my six-year old step-daughter spent a good deal of the show in my lap, hands over ears, with her head turned away from the stage only to steal glances every few seconds as she was caught by the tale. If you're a storyteller or fancy becoming one, then go see this play. If you have kids (7 or 8 and up is best) take them and share this magic. Or if you simply want to be touched by the ancient magic of storytelling clothed in elegance, go see this play. It runs until December 15th. Just click on the link above for the show info.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ethics for Activists - 16

Dan Yashinsky put me onto this story which can be found in Chinua Achebe’s novel The Anthills of the Savannah.

Once there was a turtle who was walking along a path when a leopard jumped in front of him. The turtle knew he was doomed and he looked at the leopard and said, “Sir Leopard, would you allow me a moment to prepare myself before you kill and eat me?” The leopard thought this an odd request, but saw no reason not to grant the request. He was hardly in danger of losing his meal. The leopard said, “The prepare yourself.” The turtle scurried back and forth across the path. He scuffed the dirt, raised the dust and made a mess of the path. After doing this for a few minutes he stopped and looked at the leopard and said, “I am ready.” The leopard looked at the turtle and asked “Why did you do this?” The turtle answered, “So that when others come by and see what is left of my body, they will say, ‘a great battle happened here.'”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Riding Bicycles

A Zen teacher was walking in front of the monastery when he saw five young monks riding their bicycles as they returned from the market. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked them, “Why are you riding your bicycles?”

The first monk replied, “The sack of potatoes are heavy on my back and so I let bicycle carry them.”

The teacher praised the monk, “You’re a smart lad. When old, you will not walk as I do, hunched over.

The second monk said, “I love to watch the trees, fields and sky pass by as I roll along.”

The teacher said, “Your eyes are open, and you see the world.”

The third monk said, “When I ride my bike, I chant nam myoho renge kyo.”

The teacher praised the monk, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly aligned wheel.”

The fourth monk said, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all sentient beings.”

The teacher said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”

The fifth monk said, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.”

The teacher sat at the feet of the fifth monk and said, “I am your student!”

Montreal-based Middle East Popular Education Project

Just found out about this new popular education project in Montreal: Middle East Popular Education Project They write:
This popular education initiative aims to build collective knowledge on Canada’s role in the Middle East, while creating spaces within the context of Quebec’s student movement for developing collective strategies to confront war and racism both at home and abroad.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Participatory Budgeting in Toronto

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a popular democratic process that has been growing around the world inspired by the success in Port Alegre, Brazil. Modeled on that process is our very own (here in Toronto, Ontario, that is) PB process that the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) has been doing for a few years. Josh Lerner, a PB researcher now living in New York (we miss ya, Josh) just sent me this link of a new webpage on TCHC's PB process. We developed a popular economics course at the Catalyst Centre within which we included a module on PB that i plan to post here this week Meanwhile if you're interested in learning more about participatory budgeting you can join a fairly active discussion list here:
as well as check out this resources page:

An Unusual Manual for Everyday Life

Not what you might expect of Gilles Deleuze's and Félix Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), but i was surprised in re-reading the introduction by Michel Foucault to find the list below that he coyly offers as a list of principles to guide everyday life that he suggests can be found in the book.

As some of you know, i'm a bit of a theory geek and i've been munching my way through french poststructuralism (as well as a variety of other theoretical lands) for some time. I've long had a suspicion that Foucault and others provide indispensable theory for the practice (or praxis) of popular education. Now, this may seem a bit far-fetched to some, but i would suggest that the forces that gave rise to the practice and theory of popular education are the same as those that gave rise to much of twentieth century critical theory (postcolonialism is one name for these forces). And while popular education has been developing in the contexts of grassroots struggles, critical theory has been pretty much the exclusive domain of the academy. I'm determined to bring the worlds of popular education and the worlds of critical theory into closer dialogue with each other. Something tells me this is both an important and an urgent task. One name i give to this relationship (or encounter) is trickster pedagogy, something i've been working on for some time and about which i plan to write more soon. Meanwhile, i continue to work on understanding Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari and many others. (Incidentally, here's an interesting explanation of a D&G concept, lines of flight, from Josh Lerner who used it as inspiration to name his website.)

It is unusual to find in Foucault's work something as concrete as this list of principles i refer to. And they may not seem what you are used to as concrete. But I suggest they are and as a popular educator i feel they provide challenging advice about how to act as well as be in the work. (It helps to understand what Foucault means by "Truth" with a capital "T", but i think you can get the gist of it regardless). Here's what Foucault writes:

This art of living counter to all forms of fascism [which is what Foucault is saying Anti-Oedipus is all about -c], whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles which I would summarize as follows if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to everyday life:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia
  • Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization
  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
  • Do not think hat one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
  • Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth, nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond united hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.
  • Do not become enamored of power.
And just in case you're disappointed with this list here's another - the four rules of Dinotopia:
  1. give more, take less
  2. do one thing at a time
  3. dance every day
  4. exercise imagination

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Duncan Williamson 1928-2007

I've just learned that one of the world's greatest storytellers has died. Duncan had a stroke a few days ago and had been paralyzed and unable to speak. And i've just received word that he passed away last night. Condolences to all, friends and family alike. Duncan will be missed. Though his stories will live on. In 1998 he visited Toronto along with David Campbell and they performed at the annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling. I was lucky to have been his chauffeur while here and got to spend many hours chatting and listening while we drive around Toronto and the region. My friend Nicole Bauberger and i did an interview with him as well as recorded numerous stories and songs which Duncan was pleased to share with us. I'll see if i can find that interview and add it to this blog. Here's Duncan profile page on the Scottish Storytelling Centre's website. My heart is saddened this day.

Here's a piece written in the Scottish daily Newspaper The Herald:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Migrations Across a Fall Sky

Walking along a tree-lined path this morning i heard the familiar sound of geese honking. It was early, just after sunrise, the sky was as grey as it looks in the photos above and i suppose i was barely awake. I looked up and saw through the mostly bare branches of the trees the chevrons of Canada geese flying south. I don;t know how to describe the feeling it evoked in me except to call it joy. Chevrons of birds have always made me feel that way. Perhaps it reminds me of the ancient rhythms of winged migrations. I stood on the beach this morning underneath the grey ceiling of clouds (photo above) and watched chevron after chevron of geese making their annual southward journey.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Notes from CAW Workplace Training Workshop

I'm sitting here in the CAW Port Elgin Family Education Centre on a beautiful Fall evening after a having facilitated a session on "dealing with conflict in the classroom". The workplace training program is a remarkable accomplishment. As he CAW writes:
In 1996 Big Three bargaining our union successfully bargained training time for every member in the workplace during working hours. In 1999, eight more hours were added expanding the workplace training program to 24 hours over the life of the agreement. The courses are designed to give our members an opportunity to learn more about their union, review developments in the industry and deal with workplaces issues ranging from building respect to ergonomics and stress.
Every couple of years there's a Workplaces Trainers Conference - there's over 125 trainers, i believe. This is the second time i've been privileged to offer a workshop at this event. Today's workshop was overflowing with stories of people's experience of conflict in the workplace. So much so that i didn't need to do all the pieces i'd designed. You can download the original design here (a 46K PDF). In reflecting on the workplaces trainers' experience we were able to create a pretty damn good list of helpful advice and techniques for dealing with conflict in the classroom. We began the workshop by listing one expectation of the workshop from each participant. You can see those expectations here (a 20K PDF). And here's what we created in our discussion of advice, techniques, what works (of course, not everything works in every situation all the time - also, some of this might seem a bit mysterious as i comes from discussions we had which would take more time than i have to convey):
  • Keep open mind
  • If someone comes looking for a conflict, don’t give in
  • Don’t let them rattle you – it helps to know that we’ve all had the same experiences
  • Many different ways to earn respect
  • agreeing with someone
    • Admit that you don’t know, commit to go and learn and then move on
  • You can earn respect from the rest of the class when you do challenge a disrupter
  • Always have a script – develop formulas that you can apply
  • Take time to sit down informal and shoot the shit with people who are potentially disruptive
  • Give participants an “out”
  • Throw it back to the class
  • Ask a person to leave
  • If you think you’re going to have a bad class, then you probably will. Be positive.
  • Talk with participants, not AT
  • Let co-facilitator know how you feel – rely on your co-facilitator
  • “You’re entitled to your own opinion”
  • Be authoritative, not authoritarian
  • Stay away from Tangent City
  • You can be strong like an oak or strong like grass
  • Give a potentially disruptive participant something to do (e.g. prepare the handouts, help set up the room, be one of the small group discussion leaders)
  • Involve participants in the process – get them to “own” the process (e.g. by starting session with getting them to suggest guidelines for behaviour that will help them)
  • Have water available at all times
  • When confronted with someone who says, “It’s boring,” you can respond with, “It can’t be boring. It’s a class based on participation including your participation.”
  • When confronted with, “This is another union brainwashing session,” you can respond with, “If I can brainwash you in eight hours either I’m really incredibly powerful or you’re kind of susceptible.”
  • “I” messages
  • “You” messages, i.e. when people say “You guys….” You can respond with, “We’re all “you” guys.”
  • Respect with co-workers
  • Relying on co-facilitator, e.g. “back comments”

Good Thoughts for Oliver Schroer

Just listening to CBC this morning as i prepare a workshop for CAW workplace trainers i learned that Oliver has had to go back into hospital for further treatment for the leukemia he has been living with for the past while. Apparently, there are problems with a scheduled bone marrow transplant. Oliver is a local (i.e. Toronto) and national wonder of the fiddle. His most recent album, Camino, is a magical collection of pieces he composed and recorded along the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. I'll be listening to it and thinking good thoughts for Oliver as i drive up to Port Elgin this morning.

I found this video of Oliver's score to this fellow making noodles. It's called Bazoku Noodles.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Rainforest Wonder

Alas, but i was supposed to be on a boat with J'net on our way to visit a remote native community she visits once every couple of weeks for her work. But the boat was too full and i was the expendable one. As i watched the boat surge off down the inlet i saw this wonder, which seemed a fitting consolation. The rainbow was actually a perfect arc across the entire sky and with the sun coming out for the first time in days, it felt like the world itself calling out, "look, see how wondrous is this land."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Old Woman and the Pot

There was once an old woman who, one day, was feeling very sorry for herself. Her husband had recently died and she was also thinking of her many children, of whom two had also died. She thought about what a terrible thing it was to outlive your children. Many of her children still lived and she knew that she had lived a good, if hard, life. But her self-pity was strong and she felt doubly bad for this indulgence. She decided to go to the market and, there, perhaps lose herself in the bustle and noise of the crowd. Once in the market her spirits did begin to lift when she noticed a pot-seller's table and remembered that she needed a new pot. On the front of the table was a nice, shiny new pot the exact shape and size that she needed.

She asked the price and the potseller said, "For that pot, four kopeks."

Yes, thought the woman. It is a lovely new pot and too expensive. She looked over the table and, to one side, saw another pot, a little smaller but still good for her purposes. It looked old but it would do.

"For that pot, five kopeks," said the potseller.

The woman was surprised and said, "But I don't understand. How could that pot be more expensive than this nice new one? I don't mean to embarrass you but, that pot looks used."

"Ah!" said the potseller and he lifted his hand and struck the old pot hard with his finger. The pot sent a musical note into the market air that stopped all those around who heard it until the sound dissipated into the morning air. "You see, we who make pots know that you do not judge a pot by the way that it looks but by the note that it sings."

"Oh, yes," said the old woman, smiling. "I knew that. I just forgot it for a moment."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Collection of Social Justice Mailing Lists

I've always been an avid reader of newsletters, magazines, journals and, of course, books. And the internet has multiplied beyond imagining the amount of text and image that can fill one's reading hours. Here's a few of the lists about social justice activism and popular education to which i am subscribed:

Social justice events, news and resources in Toronto:
  • Rise Up! News and Events
    • Compiled and published by long-time activist and educator Anna Willats, this is a very comprehensive listing of social justice and advocacy events in Toronto. To post an event, subscribe, or unsubscribe, just send a plain text message to
  • Toronto Social Forum
    • Started by activists who were inspired by the Porto Alegre initiated World Social Forums, this list shares information and resources about social justice activism with a strong international focus.
  • Centre for Social Justice
    • A Toronto-based research centre, their list promotes events and resources mostly in Toronto including campaigns with which they are associated.
  • Planning Action
    • A group of activist planners, they've got a great list about planning related happenings, debates and more.

Beyond Toronto
  • The Popular Education News
    • An excellent newsletter, written and published by Larry Olds (long-time adult educator from Minneapolis) that features events and resources abut popular education - mostly in the US and Canada.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A New Season

I've been absorbed. Or perhaps i've been away on a cosmic jaunt. It sure feels that way when i notice that my last post to this blog was in July. It's been a wonderful summer and, as richly packed as it was, it also feels like i've merely blinked and months have passed. The autumnal equinox is behind us and we are well into the fall season of school and work and life. As some of you know, i am now married - having proposed to a beloved friend of 20 years, J'net August (now J'net Cavanagh), we did two wedding ceremonies this past summer, one in Port Alberni, BC and one on the Toronto Islands. Everything went wonderfully well and there are numerous good memories that have been shared widely amongst family and friends. However, little has changed in my day-to-day life as J'net and i continue to live on opposite sides of the country until next year. Alas. Such a modern relationship. I also have two step-children now as well and, having taken care of one of them this summer for two weeks and with all the frenzy (joyous though it was) of two weddings and with all the August preparatory work for teaching this Fall and, finally, getting started teaching, i am only now catching up to myself and attending to numerous deferred tasks - like blogging.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Kafka and Son - not to be missed!

I went to see Kafka and Son at the Toronto Fringe this afternoon and, having seen it in its original run well over a year ago, i was once again deeply moved by this gripping play. Alon Nashman’s performance makes me wonder about other one-person shows that have moved me and in which i've wondered whether i'm witnessing acting or channeling. I learned about Kafka's letter to his father through this play and, having struggled through most of Kafka's work over 20 years, i wish that i had known of this letter then. Though i'm not wure i wouldn't have gone for the easy psychological (Adlerian and reductionist) interpretation: tyrannical father leads to son who has to overcompensate, producing work that appears to be that of a genius but is really just a boy crying for his father's love and approval. Alon's acting out the words of the letter gives us a Kafka of remarkable complexity - humour, pathos, anger, regret, longing, humiliation - and the play pushes the story beyond the obvious psychological reductionism to the question of whether or not Kafka would have been the iconic Kafka we know without the father he describes. Kafka's work is not therapy writ large as some might have it. He was a participant in the discourses of his time which included surrealism, the relatively new practice of psychoanalysis, existentialism, Marxism and more. He also lived at a time when the 20th Century was young and still trying to sort out the shape of power (personal and political). He wrote the letter after World War I and i imagine that had a rather profound influence on him (he followed the letter with some of his most famous work: The Trial, The Castle, Amerika). His story The Metamorphosis remains one of the most influential tales i read as a teenager (written, interestingly, just prior to World War I).

Are we called into the life we live or are we pushed? Is it possible that Kafka “created” his father; did he need such a relationship to give us the works of genius that are still so frighteningly apt in our less-than-enlightened age of war, “terror”, baby-faced tyrants, shadowy economic hit men and persistently invisible machineries of power? I feel strongly that popular educators and social change activists need to include Kafka in their reading. We need to understand power better. I think there might be a tendency to apply Kafka to interpreting the formerly communist bloc countries while ignoring the relevance to Anglo-American culture except to misuse the adjective kafkaesque. When we wonder about media complicity in the run-up to Bush's war in Iraq and "against terror", when we wonder about Guantanamo and how the US would arrest one of their own soldiers (former US Army Muslim Chaplain James Yee for 76 days in solitary), when we wonder about the health care system in the US (as shown through Michael Moore's new film Sicko) and about those forces perpetually trying to privatize Canadian health care - some of the answer (or perhaps it's better to say, some of the questions) are to be found in Kafka's work.

If you're in Toronto you still have a few opportunities to see Kafka and Son - you can see the listings here. And the play goes on tour next week to Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton. It is a remarkable and memorable piece of theatre. Don't miss it!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Why? Why? Why? - A popular education reflection tool

I was recently asked by the Climate Crisis Coalition about an exercise i've been using for many years to do critical reflection. It's an old favourite of mine and its simplicity belies the profound effects it can have on people. I call it Why? Why? Why? and it consists of simply posing a simple question and pounding it with a series of "Why's". You can download an activity description here:
And there's a sample form here: Why? Why? Why? Sample Form (Word-22K)

I like to call this exercise "popular education for our inner two-year-old" - something all parents will understand. I like to use this exercise to start an event as it gives people the chance to consider why they are involved in the work they do and, presumably, why they are participating in the event they are a part of.

If you use it please let me know how it goes and i'm happy to share more tips about how to use it.

Friday, June 29, 2007

This year's talk about Human Rights Education and Advocacy

Each year for the past three i've been invited to give a talk (along with Chrysogone Zougmore Secretary General of the Mouvement Burkinabé des Droits de l'Homme et des Peuples in Burkina Faso) on the relationship between human rights education and advocacy. I called this year's talk The Warp and the Weft and you can download a version of it here:

Friday, June 15, 2007

Invisible Theatre to the power of 10

The Yes Men are up to their antics once again. This CBC story reports the latest (thanks, Matt). The Yes Men are merry pranksters who monkey-wrench corporate conference events by posing as official representatives of various corporate interests. This documentary chronicles some of their pranks. It's interesting to compare their work to invisible theatre, one of the methods of Theatre of the Oppressed developed by Augusto Boal (if you can read Portuguese check out Boal's organization in Rio: CTO-Rio and there's an english page here about international exchanges). Invisible Theatre is an interventionist form of theatre in which a group of actors stage and perform scenes that expose various forms of injustice. The goal is to provoke dialogue about oppression and, hopefully, contribute to resisting oppression if not promoting justice. The actors never reveal that it is theatre and so people who have witnessed/participated in the event would never know that they had been part of something that had been planned. The ethics of doing this are, to say the least, fuzzy - worth debating. Since first doing Theatre of the Oppressed in the mid 80s i have seen a consistently enthusiastic response on the part activists and educators that usually sounds like, "That's so cool. Let's DO IT!" This enthusiasm can eclipse the need for careful preparation including discussion of the why's and wherefore's of doing it. The Yes Men eventually expose what they have been doing so it's not exactly invisible theatre but it does share some elements in common up to the point they reveal themselves or get exposed. The curious thing is why people are suckered by them when they are presenting incredibly outlandish things as in one presentation where they advocate for slavery. But, having come across Confessions of an Economic Hit Man i can see that believing the Yes Men is actually not as hard as believeing the extent to which the forces of U.S. capitalist democracy are willing to go in manipulating other countries economies for the benefit of the U.S.

Monday, June 11, 2007

John Perkins on "The Secret History of the American Empire

This episode of Democracy Now features an interview with John Perkins who wrote Confessions of an Economic Hitman. It's an illuminating, if discouraging, interview. It makes me wonder what chance the forces for social justice have when capitalism can function as Perkins describes:
We work many different ways, but perhaps the most common one is that we will identify a third world country that has resources our corporations covet, such as oil, and then we arrange a huge loan to that country from the World Bank or one of its sister organizations. The money never actually goes to the country. It goes instead to US corporations, who build big infrastructure projects -- power grids, industrial parks, harbors, highways -- things that benefit a few very rich people but do not reach the poor at all. The poor aren’t connected to the power grids. They don’t have the skills to get jobs in industrial parks. But they and the whole country are left holding this huge debt, and it’s such a big bet that the country can't possibly repay it. So at some point in time, we economic hit men go back to the country and say, “Look, you know, you owe us a lot of money. You can't pay your debt, so you’ve got to give us a pound of flesh.”
Here's the Democracy Now interview with Perkins from November 2004.

A few things worth checking out

Culture Collective
A source of on-line videos, that Jacob of the Living Folklore says is "a place to cultivate dreams - a collection of stories and voices to inspire hope and to create a meaningful dialogue across cultures and generations." There's a blog, too.

International Summer Institute Lifelong Learning
Faculty of Education, University of Malta 18-19 September 2007 with Professors Peter Jarvis, Margaret Ledwith, Peter Mayo and Kenneth Wain. Click here for a PDF flyer describing the event.

The Popular Education News #49 - June-July 2007
Produced and distributed by Larry Olds from Minnesota this issue features reports from the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed conference that happened a few weeks ago.

Highlander’s 75th Anniversary Celebration Educational Institutes
On Friday, August 31, in celebration of its 75th Anniversary, Highlander will conduct day-long, single-topic trainings on the core methodologies that have been the backbone of Highlander’s ability to impact communities for the last 75 years. Choose from one of five core methodologies and spend an entire day with Highlander Staff and other nationally known leaders in their field. Topics of study include: Popular Education, Participatory Research, Cultural Organizing, Multilingual Capacity Building and Communications for Change.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Redesigning the Popular Education Class

As some of you know, i've been teaching a popular education class at the Faculty of Environmental Studies for the past several years. In 2001 and 2002 i co-taught it with Matt Adams of the Catalyst Centre. I then co-taught (in the Winter semestre of 2003) the new second part (focusing on practice) with Christine McKenzie who was a new member of Catalyst at that time (and, like myself a graduate of FES). And i've taught it solo for the past few years. And this coming Fall i'll co-teach it with Deborah Barndt who's been on faculty at FES since 1993 thereabouts. So, it's time to redesign the course. Here's the syllabus from this past season. And for those of you interested in the individual session designs you can download a Word document here (it's 451K) with 11 of the 12 sessions. It's a very popular course that has always attempted to give a critical survey of the field of popular education (broadly interpreted). You can get a sense of this from the syllabus and session designs.

Now, Deb and i are talking about reorienting the course. It will still be survey-like. But we're going to feature three frames of reference: contemporary Latin American popular education, postcolonialism and aboriginal ways of knowing. We're still sorting what the texts will be and, thus far, have agreed to the following:
And we're looking at choosing one of the following:
Tough choices. And i'd love to add more. There will be a selection of readings as well, albeit less than in the past since we'll be concentrating on a few texts for a change. Opinions on this course, our text choices and how you think popular education should be taught are most welcome.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Popular Education Bookshelf - 3 - Public Health

Popular Education and Public Health

This post is partly a sharing of some resources and partly a request. I've learned over the years that participatory research has made quite an impact on the health field. I'd like to learn more, especially where people are using popular education for public health work. I'm told that Nina Wallerstein at University of New Mexico is a leader in this field. And there's Denise Gastaldo who's edited a book of poems by immigrant women in Toronto (there's a PDF here). Then there's Women's Health in Women's Hands who have some good resources on-line such as Building Inclusive Communities Tips Tool (a PDF); Healthy Options for Women (a PDF and also available in French, Somali and Swahili) and others (see the resources page).

The Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition has some great resources as well. Check out Healthy Food, Healthy Community (a PDF) as well as others on their publications page.

i recall meeting Ron Labonté many years ago and have heard his name for years associated with a storytelling process and health education - they call it story/dialogue and you can find out more about it here.

There's an Australian site that has some interesting pieces on it here. And, specifically, they use a storyboard process that uses graphic images for health promotion - there's a PDF (12.8M) here.

And here's an interesting article from Asian Labour Update: Popular Education and the wWorker's Health and Safety Movement. It looks like they're doing something similar to the mapping work that Dorothy Wigmore has developed.

If you know of good popular health education resources, please let me know about them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Work, Dignity and Social Change" Interactive Video Workshop

Check out this excellent video on the Unemployed Workers’ Movements of Argentina:

Work, Dignity and Social Change

I've been meaning to blog this for some time, but thought i would wait til i'd had a chance to watch it all again and share some choice quotes. Alas: tempus fugit. One of the participants of the popular education class that i teach at the Faculty of Environmental Studies (thanks, Gaby) shared some of this video as her class presentation and then used it as the basis for her contribution to our collective class project in which you'll find an activity description for using this video. I highly recommend this video as it has remarkably articulate interviews with people about their struggles that include using popular education. One of the things that i like about these interviews is that they address both the complexities and contradictions of community organizing (e.g. whether to take state money or not) and popular education (e.g. what happens when you try and do popular education to people?). It's worth the watch! The website also includes facilitators' guides and other handouts.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Popular Education Bookshelf - 2 - Participatory Evaluation

Popular Education and Participatory Evaluation

"Participatory" is a tricky keyword. And, though many people tend to think of popular education and participatory education as synonymous, this is a mistake. I would say that popular education always includes using so-called participatory methods and has, what you could call a participatory ethic. But participatory approaches are not necessarily popular education. The big difference, i would say, has to do with the radical critique of power that is a central feature of popular education. And, while there are certainly naive interpretations of popular education that ignore its radical elements, i think this is an unavoidable tendency and a necessary struggle. But "participatory" is a trickier matter. It is the sort of term that can mean all things to all people. But, when it comes to participatory research, participatory action research, participatory rural appraisal and participatory evaluation i think it important both to critique and to affirm the interconnections with popular education. But more on this will have to wait for a future post. Meanwhile, having recently been asked for resources on participatory evaluation i dug up some research i'd done some time ago. There are a handful of manuals on participatory evaluation that are well-worth working with. Though you can't depend on the manuals themselves to advocate for a popular education ethic and politic, there is a strong affinity. The approaches in these manuals are very adaptable to popular education contexts. Here they are:

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Popular Education Bookshelf - 1 - Human Rights

Popular Education Human Rights Training Manuals

I know of three excellent sources of human rights education material: Equitas, the Human Rights Resource Center of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center and The Council of Europe. Each if these organizations has numerous manuals and education resources and in each case you've gotta dig down into their websites to find things. And the Council of Europe website is a baffling maze. Within these manuals you'll find hundreds of education activities on human rights, of course, but they also include numerous group activities, energizers, games and more. All of this is easily adaptable to other educational contexts. So, here are links directly to a variety of manuals.

  1. The International Human Rights Training Program 2006 - This is the manual of the annual training program Equitas has done for many years. It's a three-week course and this manual has been designed strongly based on a Freirian education model and with a very good participatory ethic. I've been a facilitator at this event and can vouch for the effectiveness of Equitas' pedagogy. On this page you'll find PDFs of both the facilitator and participant manuals in english and french. This page will no doubt be updated with the 2007 manual once this year's event (in June) has happened.
  2. Training for Human Rights Trainers Book 1 (pdf) and Book 2 (pdf): both of these are excellent train-the-trainer resources and are also available in Russian on this page. In December in Nairobi, i facilitated a version of this program.
  3. Equitas Manuals: Equitas has a good practice of developing and publishing manuals for the many types of trainings and consultations they do. This page has a wide variety of manuals.
HUMAN RIGHTS RESOURCE CENTER: There are numerous manuals on this site though they could do with some reorganization. You'll find nine of them (as html pages) here and there's an overview page here which will lead you to yet more resources. Most of these have been developed with primary and secondary school students in mind but all of them are adaptable to adult education situations as well. The Human Rights Education Handbook (#5 below) in particular is an excellent training manual for facilitating both human rights and many other educational processes. Here are direct links to nine of their education manuals:
  1. Human Rights Here and Now
  2. Economic & Social Justice and as pdf (446K)
  3. Raising Children withg Roots, Rights & Responsibilities and as pdf (669K)
  4. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Rights
  5. The Human Rights Education Handbook and as pdf (852K)
  6. Lifting the Spirits: Human Rights & Freedom of Religion or Belief and as pdf (1,874K)
  7. The Beyond September 11 Project and as pdf (221K)
  8. The Activist Handbook on Indigenous Peoples Human Rights (working draft)
  9. Sustainable Economics Curriculum
THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE: I learned of these materials from a Catalyst Centre intern who came to work with us from the Czech Republic. Once again, these manuals contain numerous activities that, though developed for human rights work, are very adaptable to other education contexts. From a quick glance at their website i can see that there are an awful lot of resources here in multiple languages (it looks like the Council of Europe has a lot of money). But their website is byzantine - i found my way to these resources three different ways from Sunday. Here is an index page for something called Learning and Living Democracy - but the links to some of the youth manuals don't seem to be working anymore. And Compass has a number of links to manuals in multiple languages. Here's a link to a couple of their manuals:
  1. COMPASS: A Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People and as pdf
  2. Education Pack: ideas, resources, methods and activities for informal intercultural education with young people and adults and as pdf

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Popular Education Bookshelf - 0

For some time now I've been trying to figure out a way both to frame and to share the many resources available (electronically and otherwise) for practicing, studying and otherwise using popular education. This blog is, in fact, one solution to this challenge. And, while i've shared some links to good resources i've wanted to be more systematic about it for some time. This is a tricky task, as popular education is something of a moving target. Which is part of its pedagogical/political appeal as a strategy of resisting unjust uses of power or, in a word, oppression. As such a strategy popular education is a dynamic interweaving of theory and practice or, in a word, praxis. Unfortunately there is a tendency to reduce popular education to a mere bag of tricks for better facilitating meetings and doing education work that is more fun and easy. This is a naive interpretation that, though useful at times, is often dangerously misleading.

The english word "popular" is, no doubt, partly to blame for this. In english the word "popular", in the first instance, means well and widely liked or appreciated. But in spanish, from which we adopt the phrase popular education, the word is more closely associated with its root meaning going back to the Latin populis meaning "the people." I, as well as many educators, have chosen to stick with the term popular education, despite its contradiction in english, as an act of solidarity with the context that created the term, i.e. latin american resistance to colonial, elitist and authoritarian education that had as one of its central objectives the maintenance of the massive inequality between rich and poor. (Paulo Freire, one of the most significant practitioner/philosophers of popular education, is one of the most notable personalities in this history of radical resistance to oppression.)

It has been a challenge to sustain a critical awareness of the radical (and even revolutionary) disposition of popular education as we have applied and developed it in Canada and the US during the past 30 years. And, while there are numerous reasons for this that are worth exploring, i want to call attention to one for the moment. And that is the tendency to interpret (and reduce) popular education to better group process. "Better", of course, means many things to many people but here i'm referring to things such as friendlier, more cooperative (even non-conflictual), democratic, anti-authoritarian, fun, engaging, participatory and more. And, while i believe that popular education does support such better group process, this is merely the tip of a very large and subversive iceberg. Popular education has no monopoly on better group process and a search of the literature will quickly find many very useful resources from the fields of sociology, cognitive psychology, conflict resolution studies, corporate (i.e. private sector) human resources training, leadership studies, community development and more. And i'm a firm believer in 'stealing' what's useful. I recommend excluding nothing from popular education practice without examining it first for potential adaptation and application. After all, all these fields that i mention have long-since been 'stealing' and adapting to suit their own purposes.

But, as i've said, popular education is more than mere techniques and bags of tricks, as desirable and necessary as these things are for educators, activists, trainers and others. Popular education is about changing the political, social, economic, cultural, personal, familial (and so on) worlds such that they are more just, more equitable, more peaceful (though peace does not mean eliminating conflict), more compassionate, more kind and even more competitive (if by competitive we eschew war in favour of that competition that is perhaps better termed contest and which is a necessary and vital form of engagement for play and growth and even intimacy).

Popular education is a praxis, a tricky and contested term. Its meaning starts with its greek root meaning, simply, practice. But the word comes to us across time and space having passed through the hands of numerous philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx and, finally, for our purposes, Freire. Popular education claims (as well as advocates) to unite theory and practice in a dynamic relationship: theory informing practice and practice informing theory. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (chapter 3) Freire argues that theory (he refers to "the word") without action is mere "verbalism" which is "idle chatter" and "alienated and alienating 'blah.'" He adds that action without reflection is "activism", "action for action's sake" and which "negates true praxis and makes dialogue impossible." (While i agree wholeheartedly with Freire's critique here, i prefer the term activistism to name what Freire means by activism.)

So, praxis, in Freire-speak can be summed up as action-reflection-action which is a cycle that goes on and on. I quite like the following definition from the Pakistan-based Sindh Education Foundation:
Praxis is a complex activity by which individuals create culture and society, and become critically conscious human beings. Praxis comprises a cycle of action-reflection-action which is central to liberatory education. Characteristics of praxis include self-determination (as opposed to coercion), intentionality (as opposed to reaction), creativity (as opposed to homogeneity), and rationality (as opposed to chance).
I have two critiques of this definition and one thing to add. My first critique is to bring Marx's take on praxis to bear on the notion of "individual": Marx's point about praxis is that it is social classes that are the actors in praxis and not individuals. My second critique has to do with the supremacy we grant rationality as a value and ethic but i'll save this for another day. More importantly for now, i think it is important to add something to what we mean by praxis. And this, perhaps, leads to a compromise between Marx's notion of social classes and the above definition's use of "individual." Along with action-reflection-action that changes the world i would add the process of critical self-reflection or, more accurately, a process of ethical self-transformation. While this might be implicit in some uses of the term praxis, i believe it central enough to require being made explicit. And my use of the term "self" does not refer to the individual (that supposed stand-alone, fragmented, separated-from-all idea) but rather the individual-in-relation (as in Martin Buber's notion of the I/Thou) or, to go back to the pre-17th Century definition of individual (see Raymond Williams' Keywords) which meant "indivisible."

Thus, popular education praxis is the activity of critically conscious, social actors (individuals, groups, social classes in relation with and amongst each other) that seeks to resist injustice, oppression, violence and tyranny and bring into existence a world with more love, more justice, more compassion or, as Grace Paley says in her poem The Responsibility of the Poet:

It is the poet's responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet's responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice

So, all this to say, that when i am sharing resources, some of those so-called techniques that we can fill our bags of tricks with or toolkits as some call it or skill-sets to use some contemporary jargon, there is an indispensable context of history, politics, theory and praxis the ignoring of and exclusion of which will lead at best to a contradictory practice of popular education and, at worst, hypocrisy and co-optation - popular education, with all its revolutionary potential would become its opposite and cease to be a force for liberation.

This blog post is the first of many "Bookshelf" entries, each of which will feature links (and perhaps annotations or even reviews though i make no promises) of resources that i think good for popular education praxis.

And because i love Grace Paley so much i'll give her the last word with the continuation of The Responsibility of the Poet:

It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
on in the way story tellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery. There is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Georgia in Toronto: Darbazi

Over ten years ago a Georgian choir got started in Toronto. Called Darbazi, i had a few friends in the choir and saw a few of their first performances. It's been a while and i've heard occasional word of their performances and travels. I'm reminded of them now, not surprisingly, due to my recent travels. The Darbazi History page has a nice account of their origins as well as a couple of their trips to Georgia - lotsa nice photos as well. They also have a recordings page that has six mp3's on it - worth listening to:

From the CD:

  • GURULI MAQRULI - This wedding song from the province of Guria features the intricate Gurian yodeling technique krimanchuli: "We are the bridal party! We are bright, and we are beautiful! Open the door to the wine cellar!"
  • KEBADI - An example of Georgian Orthodox lithurgy from Guria. "From the rising of the sun..."
  • AZAMAT - A dance song from the province of Abkhaseti. On this recording you will hear chonguri, two panduri and bani panduri.

From an recording for the CBC Amateur Choir Competition:

  • TSMINDAO GHMERTO - Georgian Orthodox hymn from the province of Kartli. "Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us."
  • ADILOI - A horse riding song from the province of Imereti. "I am sitting on my black horse, well-seated in the saddle. I kicked the dust off my boots and rode to Tbilisi."

From an amateur minidisc recording of a 2003 Darbazi concert:

  • IMERULI SATRPIALO - A love song from Imereti. "... woman, love of my heart, why don't you return my love? You set me on fire, my murderer, my close neighbour. Woman, I'll come to you, embrace you. The country's eyes are on you, Kristina with the beautiful eyes. Hear my prayer for you."