Saturday, September 05, 2009

Adding District 9 to my List of "Must Reads/ Must See(s)"

I am both scare-proof and creeped-out-proof on account of a life of reading and watching science fiction and horror literature and film. So when a story or film gets under my skin I know two things right away: it will be with me a long, long time; and it is an unusual and powerful work of art. Such is my subjective measure for such things. Only a few minutes into the film and I knew District 9 deserved to be on the same shelf (in my brain) as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas; all stories that were written into the base code of my self, you could say. I loved District 9. I thought it funny, poignant, challenging, iconoclastic (of many science-fiction conventions), and thrilling. It's also extremely violent imagery, an 11 on the gross-out chart and therefore not for the squeamish and, on top of all that, it creeped me out.

This film succeeds on many fronts. Wikus van de Merwe (the person charged with issuing eviction orders to the aliens) is a brilliant character - as blissfully clueless and evil a bureaucrat as you get. His self-satisfied and gleeful description of the "popping" sounds of the alien eggs that he has just burned (as though they were so much garbage) is a scene that, even in the midst of the satirical humour, still moved me with horror and sorrow. Every example of monstrosity (whether bureaucratic or visceral, literally) served, ironically, to humanize the convincingly non-human aliens. I think the film pulls a fast one on the audience which i suspect leaves people emotionally confused if not disturbed: the aliens are disturbing and scary to look at - insectile, segmented bodies covered in chitin and filled with ichor (and what are those two pulsing lung-like extrusions in their lower abdomen? Ick!) How many of our insectophobic buttons are pushed in this film? I think the film pulls no punches in making these aliens extremely difficult to identify with. And yet, it is obvious in the first few minutes that these creatures are pathetic, oppressed and very thinly disguised representatives of any oppressed group in human history. How many of us overcome the distasteful imagery (and the conventions of film) to grant this meaning to these "people"? Or do we suspend judgment, maintain cool distance to see what will happen hopeful that the film will give us something prettier to identify with?

The reward for overcoming this challenge to our training is the simultaneously poignant and gripping sequence in which the wee ship is rising to safety, intercut with the parent and child looking exhausted, fearful, worried - as any parent and child would be in such circumstances. The film succeeds here in being completely unpredictable - will they make it? Will they get blown out of the air at the last second? You'll have to go see to find out. Suffice to say, i didn't breathe for a good few minutes.

I also think the film is messing with expectations of heroes with the transformation of Wikus van de Merwe from preening, naively self-congratulatory aparatchik to self-sacrificing defender. (Incidentally, "van de Merwe" is a common Afrikaner name which is also part of a joking tradition akin to "Newfie" jokes. Of "Van" or "So-and-so van de Merwe" are told many of the same jokes of buffoonery, stupidity and nonsense that you find in many cultures of the world. This is a strong clue to the satirical bent of this film that is perhaps a subtlety lost on most international audiences. Likewise, though most audiences are likely, I hope, to see the comparison to apartheid South Africa, there are numerous references, both subtle and not, to the history of apartheid, not least the name of the film.) The story manages almost to run its entire course before van de Merwe, fleeing for safety, finally makes a pro-active gesture, finally transforms from flight to fight. And, while his body is most alien, his actions are the most humane. Is that what the film is, perhaps rather pessimistically, saying: that to find our humanity in a world in which genocide and corporate greed have been normalized, we must become, to our fellow citizens, virtual aliens? I am certainly reminded of when i returned to Canada from a youth exchange program with Haiti. I was 19 and i returned asking questions about poverty and our (i.e. mine and Canada's) implication in that poverty. More than a few friends abandoned me with one literally saying, "chris, when you left you were normal and now that you're back you're a marxist." And i'm not even sure i'd read Marx at that point. I do fancy that I returned somewhat more humanized. And as tentative as that might have been, it was still profoundly threatening to many of my peers. Of course, i found new peers.

While this film is not for the squeamish, the visceral violence is all contextual and sound, as far as the narrative is concerned. And, like many such stories, the visceral violence exists in contrast with the more subtle (and entirely more horrifying violence - at least it should be more horrifying) casual brutality of the corporate weapons profiteers - willing to experiment, Nazi-like, on living creatures; willing to murder with ease to advance their greed; willing to commit genocide to win their comfort and power. How does that bureaucratic and corporate greed and horror compare to dismembered body parts, blood and ichor? The latter is gross, distasteful, stomach-churning, perhaps. But the former should chill us down to our bones. Does it? This storytelling tactic reminds me of Todd Solondz’s movie Happiness which I found a wickedly clever film that played a fantastic trick on the viewer. It tells a number of stories of unhappy lives using a subtle, somewhat wicked satire - akin to the subtle comedy of Chekhov. What happens to the characters is awful and yet, they are grown-ups who, arguably, have made the proverbial beds in which they lie. But in the midst of the comic misfortune is a story of real horror. While the film has us amused by the stories of adult misfortune, it gives us a story, no different in the telling, of true horror. Just what do we find ourselves laughing at in this story? How quickly do we distinguish the satire from the horror? The film is a test. And, while I think I “passed”, it has been over ten years since I saw Happiness and I can’t claim that I haven’t conveniently revised my memory. I do think that since seeing Happiness I have been more mindful about how film and art plays with my emotions.

And my emotions were disturbed by this story on many levels, not least of which was how the audience reacted - which was with silence. In the first half hour to 45 minutes of the film i seemed to be the only one laughing. I figure that the humour was either too subtle or that people were utterly ignorant of the history of apartheid South Africa - though i think you could substitute knowledge of any authoritarian/draconian regime (or read Kafka, for heaven's sake) in order to see the mocking farce with which the film portrays bureaucrats and pundits alike. I grant that as an anti-apartheid activist throughout the 80s and early 90s and as someone who visited townships while the apartheid state still existed, i am not your average viewer. However, the satire that courses through this film shouldn't need that much historical knowledge or experience in order to be appreciated. Of course, maybe i'm wrong about that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Popular Education and Diverse Economies

What will it take for the ruling forces of our nations to admit that capitalism isn't working? Of course capitalism is almost never overtly talked about in the popular/mass media and certainly not in our governments. It is effectively veiled behind the supposedly neutral jargon of "the market" and "economics" both of which are used in place of "the capitalist market" and "capitalist economics". The legacy of the red-baiting 'fear of communism' tactics remains so strong that we cannot use what should merely be the name of one approach to economics - if we use the word "capitalism" in public discourse, we must go to great pains to project an air of neutrality that presumes that listeners will wonder if you're a socialist. Most people accept that we are in an "economic" crisis and not a crisis of "capitalist economics" (or, still more simply stated, a "crisis of capitalism"). Nor have the gargantuan relief efforts - cynically limited to the biggest institutions as well as cynically abused by those same institutions - shaken people's confidence in capitalism. After all, it's not capitalism that is failing, it's the economy - or so the mass of people would like to believe.

If we cannot name the problem, how can we possibly hope to address it, let alone solve it? I'm not suggesting that what we are facing can be understood by pithy phrases, even though there is much truth in the "crisis of capitalism" naming. Capitalism, however, IS merely one system of economics - though it is the dominant one; and it is so by virtue of centuries of exploitation, war, genocide, theft and callous disregard for our shared planet (not to mention the plethora of ways by which we have learned to oppress: racism, patriarchy, etc.). But we cleverly disappear from the public mind the notion that capitalism is an historic choice and we teach ourselves to believe that it is a naturally inevitable evolution of human relations. Even while it leaves the majority of the world's wealth in the hands of the few; even while the system requires massive infusions of military spending and the ever increasing prison complex. And even while the system crumbles leaving growing numbers of people stressed, impoverished, fearful and destitute.

I figure there are at least two REALLY BIG LIES that keep things going pretty much the way they are going. One is the too-benignly named "Myth of Progress" (with its corollary "development") and the second is the "Market". Both of these lies are part of a system of common sense that the majority of the population share. The power of these lies is precisely that they are treated as unassailable common sense. The history of human civilization is seen as the history of progress - sure there were the occasional set-backs, but overall, we have progressed from primitive hewers of wood and carvers of stone to electric, space-faring, cybernauts; there has been no obstacle that our science and technology has not been able to conquer. If the cost of our progress has been global warming, polluted waters, species extinction, well, it's just a matter of time before we invent something that will not only save us, but even accelerate our seemingly unending progress. And along with our faith in science we also have an enduring faith in the market where the solutions to many problems can be bought and sold. There are, of course, many other ideas and beliefs bound together into a formidable matrix. One that people feel may have flaws but that overall does the best job possible. And besides, bad guys do get caught (Kenneth Lay, Conrad Black, Martha Stewart, Bernard Madoff, Earl Jones).

For thirty years, i have been a part of various movements researching, crtitiquing and advocating for alternatives to capitalist economics, politics and culture. And yet i've only seen capitalism grow stronger. So i wonder if there's a problem with the whole notion of alternatives which, by naming them so, tend to centre, in this instance, capitalism as the norm. And alternatives always seem second best and weak compared to the seeming robustness of the capitalist norm. But i also recognize that we are all deeply implicated in capitalist economics and depend on it for most of the necessities of life. And as we make changes, different choices, we must ensure that we do not create new causes of deprivation, exclusion, suffering. Not that this means that incremental change is the one and only path. There is enough suffering (due to lack of resources for many as well as excess of resources for the few) right now to deserve radical change. But our fears, our faith in the "market" and "progress", our forgetfulness about our interconnection with each other and the world all serve to keep us in the company of the devil-we-know.

But the "Myth of Progress" is just a story - albeit a powerful one that is bolstered by the judeo-christian-islamic notion of the expulsion from and eventual to return Paradise). But there are other tales that could be told - cautionary tales such as that of poor, doomed Icarus; punished Tantalus; cursed Sisyphus; hopeful tales of clever fishermen, tricky girls, lazy rascals; adventurous tales of brave archers and fearless maidens. And we need to tell more stories - more diverse stories. David Noble, of York University, wrote an excellent book on this very notion: Beyond the Promised Land The Movement and the Myth (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2005).

The "Market" is a somewhat trickier matter to deal with given that capitalist economics have claimed it for itself. But the phenomenon of "markets" preceded capitalism by millenia. And i have only recently learned just how duped i have been by the common sense of market=capitalism=market. I've mentioned the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham previously - in particular their Postcapitalist Politics (which, incidentally, i reviewed for the journal Emotion, Space and Society - unfortunately, unless you have a subscription or access to a university subscription, it's hard to read - so e-mail me if you're interested). Their work has been eye-opening for me - especially in showing me the way that i had colluded with some of the more negative aspects of the common sense around economics. They rightfully challenge the notion that the market and capitalism are the same thing. First, and very importantly, they define capitalist economics fairly minimally as the exploitative appropriation of surplus labour from the direct producers (or commodities, say) by non-producers such as individual capitalists or boards of directors of capitalist corporations. (Footnote 11 of Postcapitalist Politics is a pretty good summary of this idea - albeit rather dense language for many of us; but then, i'm a theory-geek.)

So, once having defined capitalism so minimally, we can now see differences that might not have been previously apparent. For instance, a self-employed person who "exploits" their own surplus labour doesn't fit this minimal definition of capitalism. Nor do co-ops whose members are simultaneously producers and owners (i.e. exploiters of their own surplus labour). In fact, once minimalized in this way, capitalism is suddenly crowded by many other economic practices which need not be seen as "alternatives" to capitalism, but as different choices of which capitalism is merely another choice. Of course, capitalism remains, for the time being, the dominant choice, holding a good deal of the marbles. But this new theory of "diverse economies" holds a great promise which, i think, can be seen immediately in the futures it allows us to imagine. And, once imagined, perhaps we can start to make our way more effectively towards those futures. Or, if the journey metaphor seems to set change outside of our horizons, we can use this theory to look around and see where the seeds of those imagined futures are to be found already growing! Seeds which include self-employed people, co-ops (worker co-ops, producer-consumer co-ops, food co-ops, multi-stakeholder co-ops), non-profit corporations, barter relationships, gift exchange, and more. Another seed is how we can reclaim the notion of "market" which is NOT synonymous with capitalism. A more complete picture of the market includes seeing that goods and services make it into the market in diverse ways. Sure, capitalist production is responsible for a good deal of what we find in the market. But other economic relationships also supply things to the market: co-op-produced goods, non-profit services, gift exchange and, of course, even theft.

Which brings me to the Catalyst Centre worker co-op as one modest player in a diverse economic landscape. i don't know if a diverse economies approach to social and economic change will humble capitalism. But i do think that this economic theory offers is a new lens with which to think about production and exchange. What if there were ore co-ops producing goods and services. Add that to the number of non-profit corporations and self-employed people and then think, "what if...?" What if we at least started with co-ops and non-profits and credit unions maximizing their purchasing of goods and services from the co-op and non-profit sector? That would keep some money out of the capitalist economy and circulating in a different set of economic relationships. Nor do we need to de-link entirely from capitalist production and exchange. Diverse economics means that capitalism in one element of that diversity and, of course, for the foreseeable future, it is likely to remain that biggest bully on the block. But in time, could that bully be brought down to size? If we can strengthen the diverse economy, develop new economic ways of being, might we not be able to raise a generation of people who value these new ways of being enough to challenge capitalism's hegemony? I think it's worth trying and finding out.

My theory with the popular education worker co-op (which is still barely getting by, financially speaking) is that our very membership could embody the very diversity of diverse economy. And, insofar as popular education is about both social and personal change (i.e. ethical self-transformation), a diverse economy practiced within Catalyst as well as between Catalyst and the rest of the world, would allow members to walk the talk in a profoundly more holistic and powerful way. Members would, of course draw some income from work with and through Catalyst. Additionally, however, members would be involved in gift exchange; collaboration between things they might be doing through self-employment (e.g. craft activities) and Catalyst programs; non-profit/charitable work (through grants and donations); and more. Seeign each member as an active participant in diverse economies is, in part, simply affirming something that has ALWAYS been true - each of us has always participated in a diversity of economic relationships, from the family economy, to under-the-table work (and even greyer type economic activity), to underpaid work, to the capitalist economy, and more. But we can go beyond simply affirming this diverse participation to evaluating our capacity (using some asset-based thinking) and choosing to strengthen those pieces with which we think, together, we can make a better world.

The iceberg image above makes a persuasive case for the amount of non-capitalist activity in which each of us in involved. What happens when we connect it all?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Organizing Popular Education - or not

To organize or not to organize? Is that the question? Or perhaps the more truthful question is: To be organized or to organize?

Our world organizes us. History (written to favour certain interests over others - see Howard Zinn's work), class (see Marx), racism, gender and more all precede the (hopefully) happy accidents of our birth. We all begin life as unwitting participants in processes that provide differential opportunity to people. The majority of people, or so it seems to me, move through their life without critical awareness of the opportunities they have or do not have. But some of us, of course, wake up and, in doing so, choose a different path than what is offered by circumstance.

Popular education is a praxis of social change that creates a space conducive to people awaking their inherent capacity to be makers of history - subjects of history and not merely objects, in Freirian discourse; spect-actors, in the language of Theatre of the Oppressed, instead of spectators. Despite my implicit claim to define popular education it is something that is notoriously resistant to theoretical explication. For popular education is simultaneously a pedagogy, a political practice, a theory, a methodology, a philosophy, a history and more. To apply Raymond Williams' terminology, it is a "keyword" - which is to say that it is not reducible to easy definition but rather necessitates a situated rendering - a political etymology, if you will.

This very resistance, however, is part of its political efficacy. As long as popular education remains a moving target it will prove difficult to domesticate and regulate. Sure, it is taken up by many people who naively think it merely a fun "participatory" alternative to traditional (i.e. authoritarian, elite, exclusive, etc.) forms of learning. It is cherry-picked and liberalized with abandon. But it is also practiced as the radical social change praxis that is its promise. And i daresay that this represents the greater share of the work around the world. But the struggle is on to contain it, regulate it, bring it under the knowledge regimes which have so many interests waging struggles for survival. And i must confess my part in this drama for i have taught a graduate class in popular education for eight years. While most of academia ignores popular education, there is, nonetheless, a steady, if modest, growth in interest amongst scholars. (I have recently learned of some interesting work in the UK and am now munching my way through Popular Education: Engaging and the Academy - International Prespectives.) And, while i do think caution and mindfulness about co-optation are in order, i also think it unwise to be reactionary (which, i'm sad to say, is only one of my many flaws) about popular education being mainstreamed. After all, should such a thing happen, it could mean a victory for the politics of popular education. Of course, not without a good fight to ensure that it is the radical critique of power that is part of that victory.

I have been involved in efforts to organize popular education for a long time. In Montreal in the 80s i worked with a good friend to pull together a popular education working group (under the umbrella of CUSO Quebec) that was very successful for several years in mounting workshops and trainings. In the 9os i worked with ICAE to create the North American Alliance for Popular and Adult Education (NAAPAE, for short). NAAPAE was a fascinating, and ultimately failed, attempt to connect a diversity of adult education practices in Canada, the United States and Mexico. These practices included popular education, folk education, adult education, literacy and much more. This very diversity was part of the problem. There were numerous very successful and energetic meetings. And it is right to call these successes in and of themselves. The failure i refer to is regarding the project to create a sustainable and democratic network of educators and organizers. The history of this effort has yet to be told - the story is one that spans fifty years, many nations and one that involves hundreds of educators. Suffice to say for now that we used the structure of the International Council for Adult Education established in 1973 - the heyday of optimism for the United Nations as a global leader in international cooperation. ICAE was recognized as a UN category B organization (an officially credited NGO body). But as NAAPAE was trying to form, ICAE itself was in a state of massive reorganization. A variety of strategies to secure funding failed. NAAPAE became part of the history books, as they say.

Meanwhile, I was also part of the Doris Marshall Institute for Education and Action, a Toronto-based group of popular educators that formed in the mid-80s. It was a charitable non-profit though it functioned pertty much as a collective using informal, and mostly effective, consensus. This is another complex story yet to be told. At the risk of tantalizing, i cite this as another example of a failed attempt to create a sustainable form for organizing popular education. But that is not to sell short many wonderful successes in DMIs almost ten year life. Even today, people remember DMI and still seek it out not realizing that it closed shop in 1997.

NAAPAE and DMI are two examples of attempts in North America to institutionalize popular education. The first an international NGO umbrella group and second a charitable non-profit. When Matt and i started talking about creating a new popular education group in 1998, of numerous inspirations were two linked to these casualties of neoliberalism (for that's another important factor): DMI as an economic model relied almost exclusively on consultancy work which was a contributing factor to its demise; NAAPAE had failed to respond to a project idea Matt and i proposed that would have mapped and mobilized member resources - we called this the "Catalyst Project." When Matt and i encountered an opportunity to secure some funding for popular education work, we dusted off our project proposal and began to build an institution that would avoid fatal reliance on consultancy. And thus were born both a worker co-op and a charitable popular education organization.

I wish i could say with confidence that we found a model that worked. But times have been tough. We had three years of well-funded work and since then we've struggled to get by. Both organizations are stable, if impoverished. And our books are in order. Which is saying a lot. But as a model for organizing popular education, the jury is still out. But we remain stubbornly optimistic that a worker co-op is a workable model that also resolves a variety of contradictions structured into state sanctioned corporate structures.

What gives me reason for hope is the recent development of a new theory of economics: diverse economies. Developed by Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson (who write as J.K. Gibson-Graham) and others, it finds its origin in JKGG's book The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) and is further developed in their newest book A Postcapitalist Politics. You can read an excellent summary of their idea in this document (a 200K pdf and there are many more articles to read here). Just how diverse economies can open up new spaces for popular education work is something i will develop in another blog post.

Both DMI and NAAPAE exposed challenges in trying to connect people on the basis of a shared pedagogical approach. Though popular education was, indeed, a commonality, no one was doing popualr education for its own sake. People and organizations were using popular education for anti-racist sruggles, anti-poverty work, immigrant and labour rights and more. And it was these issues that tended to define groups most clearly. It left me worrying and wondering. I worried that in bringing people together around a method, popular education, that we were perhaps contributing to the professionalization of a sector that could have a depoliticizing effect on the field overall. And i wondered just how best to connect the common commitment to radical social change that is found in popular education approaches to the many issues to which it gets applied.

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 España 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.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bayou - A webcomic after my soul

Bayou by Jeremy Love (ZudaComics/DC) is gorgeous. I've glanced at webcomics over the past few years and i've been amused and even delighted by some - particularly Scott McLoud's brilliant work. But i can't say as i have been wow'ed by any and my loyalty to the crisp, new still-got-the-smell-of-fresh-ink comic book has remained strong and intact. Now i am wow-ed. i noticed a print edition of Volume 1 of Bayou a few weeks ago in my local comic book emporium, The Beguiling, and i was sorely tempted to grab it immediately and, save for my weekly take (which had maxed my budget), i would have. A friend, knowing of my passion for comics, e-mailed me the link to ZudaComics (about which i knew nothing - thanks, Matt), and i was sold. Nor am i worried about my passion for the printed comic being diminished in any way.

Bayou is a comic that shines with light which, in the case of the on-line version, is literally true. The artwork, filled with earthtones of brown and mauve, sunset spectrums of orange and pink and fading yellows, is delicious. The style of drawing is a cross of bluthian cartoon with a dash of Walt Kelly's Pogo, and includes beautiful attention to facial expression. (It's somewhere in the realistic-cartoon zone of Scott McCloud's Big Triangle typology.) The elegance of the drawing is an excellent contrast with the horror and monstrosity that pervades this story - both the horror of racism of the early-20th Century American South and the horror of the fictional monsters who populate this tale.

The story is layered (or perhaps 'refracted' is a better descriptor) with the history of racist discrimination against former slaves, references to the African American folklore (Jeremy Love mentions being inspired, albeit problematically, by Disney's Song of the South and Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus Tales) and to comic book heroes such as Swamp Thing (a misunderstood monster who is, in fact, a champion). Bayou certainly shares some qualities in common with Swamp Thing. The story, however, is incomplete (with 225 pages on-line as of today) so it is to be seen what kind of champion Bayou proves to be. Lee Wagstaff, the young female protagonist, however, is a heroine with much good literary company: Mollie Whuppie, Buffy, Sarah Crewe, et al.

As i implied, i'm hooked. This webcomic is both an excellent on-line comic and a great story. I anxiously await further installments.

Raising Children with Moral intelligence

Now that i am a father of a soon-to-be 10-month-old (as well as a step-father these past two years to a teenager and an 8-year-old) i find that all that i do, read, see, and know gets immediately evaluated for its relevance to the kids. Ahhh, parenting.

My thoughts this week have turned to the teaching and learning of the young. Robert Strange McNamara's death has evoked an outpouring of renewed anger at the role he played in sending tens of thousands to their deaths as well as the murder of millions of Vietnamese (during the US's still-"undeclared" war). Joseph L. Galloway of McClatchy Newspapers wrote this scathing commentary that has drawn much fire (and i recommend reading the comments which moved me with the intensity of the hurt and anger that persists so many years later). Galloway's pithy assessment of McNamara is a cautionary note to us all: "McNamara was the original bean-counter — a man who knew the cost of everything but the worth of nothing."

It was Howard Zinn's words in this Democracy Now piece that pushed me to think about what we are teaching our children:
Well, assessing the legacy … It seems to me one things which we should be thinking about, is that McNamara represented all of those superficial qualities of brightness and intelligence and education that are so revered in our culture. This whole idea that you judge young kids today on the basis of what their test scores are, how smart they are, how much information they can digest, how much they can give back to you and remember. That’s what MacNamara was good at. He was bright and he was smart, but he had no moral intelligence. What strikes me as one of the many things we can learn from this McNamara experience is that we’ve got to stop revering these superficial qualities of brightness and smartness, and bring up a generation which thinks in moral terms, which has moral intelligence, and which asks questions not, “Do we win or do we lose?” Asks questions, " Is this right? Is it wrong?" And McNamara never asked that question. Even when he was leaving, even when he decided he had to leave the post of Secretary of Defense, even when he left, his leaving was not based on the fact that the war was wrong. His leaving was based on the fact, well, we weren’t going to win.
Looking at and assessing report cards is a relatively new thing for me. Grading, in particular, is something i've managed to avoid since i was in highschool. But i have had to grade almost 500 undergrads this past season. And i find myself looking at our kids' report cards for some insight into exactly what they are learning. It's easy to understand the marks for math and science and such. But what of their moral intelligence? It seems to me that our institutionalized mass education system still privileges those "superficial qualities of brightness and intelligence" that Zinn points out McNamara had in abundance. And i think of Hannah Arendt's assessment of Eichmann (Nazi 'architect' and manager of the Holocaust) in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil - perhaps not as highly educated as McNamara, but arguably a "normal" person (according to many psychologists who assessed him) Eichmann proved capable of horrifying war crimes. Nor did McNamara's education and greater intelligence (according to Arendt, Eichmann was not that intelligent) stop him from committing war crimes.

So i wonder about our expectations for our children when it comes to excelling in school. And just where and how are we teaching them moral intelligence, as Zinn suggests is so important? I've plucked Robert Coles' The Moral Life of Children (Houghton Mifflin, 1986) off my bookshelf for a re-read (a couple of good summaries of Coles' work can be found here and here). Coles has been a great inspiration to me over the years (not least because he's simply a wonderful writer). He talks about his work with Ruby Bridges, a young black girl who, when school desegregation laws were implemented in her town in Louisiana, famously attended class alone for many months as the parents of white children refused to let their children attend school with a black child. Ruby was six. Coles wrote:
Why not, too, think of the child as moral protagonist or antagonist - as in the South's racial conflict? Ruby, at ten, looked back at four years of somewhat unusual school attendance. A black child, she walked past hostile mobs at age six to enter a once all-white school in New Orleans... Her view of her experience? "I knew I was just Ruby," she told me once, in retrospect - "just Ruby trying to go to school, and worrying that I couldn't be helping my momma with the kids younger than me, like I did on the weekends and in the summer. But I guess I also knew I was the Ruby who had to do it - go into that school and stay there, no matter what those people said, standing outside. And besides, the minister reminded me that God chooses us to do His will, and so I had to be His Ruby, if that's what He wanted. And then that white lady wrote and told me she was going to stop shouting at me, because she decided I wasn't bad, even if integration was bad, then my momma said I'd become 'her Ruby', that lady's, just as she said in her letter, and I was glad; and I was glad I got all the nice letters from people who said I was standing up for them, and I was walking for them, and they were thinking of me, and they were with me, and I was their Ruby, too, they said." (p. 9)
It's easy to romanticize kids and their capacity for a seemingly "natural" wisdom. But Coles makes the point well that context and environment are as significant as whatever psychological capacity a person might have. Not that it is the context alone. But rather a perhaps more mysterious alchemy of personality, environment, family, etc. Zinn drives home this point about environment when he says:
Yes. Listening to Jonathan Schell and Marilyn Young about McNamara’s, well, his anguish and all of that, I understand what Jonathan is saying about the fact that you can’t find anybody in the Vietnam War or in other words, anybody at that level who is going to do anything in dissent, who is going to speak out. So, what does that tell us? I mean it’s true, it’s absolutely true. But what does that tell us?

I think it tells us that once you enter the machinery of government, once you enter the House of Empire, you are lost. You are going to be silenced. You may feel anguish and you may be torn and you may weep and so on, but you are not going to speak out.
A sobering warning. And i wonder how any of us would do in such circumstances. The still-controversial Milgram and Stanford prison experiments, for all their contradictions, still present us with humbling challenges to our self-conception.

I am interested in the links between popular education (which i consider a profoundly moral pedagogy) and child-rearing and childrens education. I can't help but feel that mostly we are doing things profoundly wrong. Already, at the age of 8, our daughter has developed a dislike for school and many of its ways (even while she loves the time she gets to spend with her friends). I hate how we teach our children to fear and loathe learning. And i suspect that this loathing that we are so good at passing on is instrumental in creating characteristic opinions of incapacity, e.g. "I don't know how to draw", "I can't sing", "I'm not a good writer." It doesn't have to be this way.

So, to conclude these meandering thoughts, a story and a quote from the abundance of jewish wisdom:
Once, the great Hassidic rabbi, Zusya of Anipoli, with tears in his eyes and fear in his voice, spoke to his followers: "last night i had a fearsome dream in which I learned the question that I will be asked about my life after i am dead. "

"I stood before God and said, "I tried all my life to be like Moses who led our people from slavery? I have sought to exercise wisdom and share learning as Solomon did? I have always sought to be faithful as Abraham was."

But I will not be asked, 'Why were you not more like Moses? Why were you not a better Solomon? Why were you not an Abraham to you people?'

His followers asked, “What will you be asked?”

He answered, with a trembling voice, "I will be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
Finally, Rabbi Hilllel, over 2000 years ago, said, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

Monday, July 13, 2009

Naming the Moment & Community Development

I thought i'd write a fresh intro to the Naming the Moment process looking at it from the point of view of community development.

Naming the Moment is a popular education method for doing social change and community development work.

There are two fundamentals upon which NTM is based:
  1. Creating just relationships (i.e. anti-oppression alliances, coalitions, etc.) for the long term necessitates making LEARNING a central feature of social change
  2. Change happens in society both incrementally (e.g. through institution-building, education, etc.) and suddenly when there is a conjuncture of various forces (political, economic, ideological, etc.) in a moment of crisis. (Naming the Moment sprang in large part from a process known as conjunctural analysis developed from the work of Paulo Freire, Antonio Gramsci and others).
Naming the Moment is a means by which people can learn to “read” these conjunctures (and the flows of forces that lead to them) and to predict to some extent the occurrence of and nature of such conjunctures.

Naming the Moment is a popular education method and thus a participatory and collective approach to learning that is based on social justice values and anti-oppression principles; it explicitly resists oppression and any unjust use of power; it seeks to build solidarity amongst individuals and groups resisting oppression; and it is a form of capacity-building for groups and individuals. It typically involves groups of people who share, in common, either geography, class, work situation, or some other form of identity (or set of these) and who therefore have the possibility of collective action to change the world in which they live. Popular education resists the structures of learning and teaching that create authoritarian experts and passive non-experts. Through democratic dialogue and using a diverse set of means of creating knowledge (e.g. talking, of course, but also including the use of art forms such as drawing, murals, ‘zines; popular theatre forms such as skits, sculpture, sociodramas, Theatre of the Oppressed; structured learning exercises of many kinds, etc.) popular education puts the tools of resistance into the hands of so-called ordinary citizens. It is a means of sharing power or practicing “power with” and of resisting “power over” as Starhawk suggests.

Naming the Moment has four steps or phases: Naming Ourselves, Naming the Issues, Assessing the Forces and Planning for Action. Each of these represents distinct goals and objectives for the collective work of sharing and analyzing experience and knowledge.

Naming the Moment is a dynamic process that grew from roots and connections between Canadian and Latin American educators. Developed within the Moment Project and led by Deborah Barndt (a ten-year effort within the Toronto-based Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice) it has continued to evolve as has its cousins in Latin America.

The Catalyst Centre, a popular education worker co-op in Toronto, has developed Naming the Moment by identifying and naming previously implicit steps creating a seven-step process dubbed Seizing the Moment. The steps include: Setting the Stage for Democratic Communication, Naming Ourselves, Naming the Issues, Crafting Meaning, Planning for Action, Taking Action and Evaluation. In Latin America – Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, et al – a similar process has been developed and is called sistematizacion. A difficult word for English speakers and difficult to translate as well, nonetheless, the concept of systematizing knowledge is one that is also key to Naming the Moment.

Systematizing is a crucial aspect of popular, participatory processes that desire to have positive impact on the world, i.e to advance positive social change. The strength of popular education participatory processes is the success these have in drawing out people’s experience, sharing this in a creative and even compassionate manner and affirming the struggles that individuals undergo. Not surprisingly, this is also the weakness of participatory processes. A common mistake is to facilitate a wonderful sharing of experience and to leave it at that. This is called go-aroundism: everyone gets their few minutes, shares their two cents, it gets noted on flip chart and then the facilitator thanks everyone for coming and the meeting adjourns. Lacking here is the struggle to identify patterns in experience (allowing for agreements, challenges and dissent), to explain those patterns, critique them and then to negotiate and affirm those patterns that are consistent with our values and resist those we deem oppressive.

This identifying and explaining of patterns is nothing less than theory-making. However, to call it this often relegates this practice to the domain of academics and intellectuals. Popular education processes recognize that everyone makes theory all the time. Anytime we answer the “why” of things, we are venturing into theory-making. Popular education recognizes that theory can be made through dialogue (i.e. democratically, critically, creatively). But more than that, when we make theory this way, informed by social justice values, anti-oppression and anti-colonial politics, we make better theory! Finally, this theory-making need not happen only in the halls of academe, far from the messy and noisy streets of our lives, but can happen – in fact, MUST happen – in the midst of life.

This is what Naming the Moment and sistematizacion is all about: the making of transformative theory from the raw material of shared experience and collective knowledge and doing this within the messy challenges of life (including feeding each other, providing daycare, licking envelopes, making phone calls, providing assistance to those who need it in order to participate, and so on). Systematizing means that we do not simply accept everyone’s understanding of their own experience as the ultimate truth of that experience. If we are going to find patterns that connect and that can change things for the better, then sometimes we need to challenge each other’s understandings (even of our own experience). Doing this with compassion and respect is a fundamental popular education ethic. A key challenge is to move from the simple collection of anecdotes to the systematizing of that experience in order to tell the stories of those patterns that connect. Systematizing isn’t merely a fancy word for theory-making. It is democratic and participatory theory-making for social justice.

But, as noted, sistematizacion is a mouthful for an English-speaker. It’s not a word that runs trippingly off the tongue. Nor does conjunctural analysis help matters much. Thus the phrase “Naming the Moment” which has the advantage of being understood quickly in a common sense sort of way. But it also acts as a powerful metaphor and statement of intent: one goal of Naming the Moment is precisely to identify the patterns of change and to name what is going on such that it can be changed: name the moment, as it were.

The Catalyst Centre’s development of Seizing the Moment merely fills in some of the pieces, locating the original four phases of Naming the Moment in the more complete cycle from planning and preparation to implementation (of whatever actions were developed) and evaluation. Seizing the Moment also encourages a stronger action footing than “naming” suggests.

So what’s this got to do with community development? A popular education approach to community development has several distinct advantages and at least one very powerful (and often deal-breaking) disadvantage.

First, the disadvantage: it takes time. A popular education approach to community development takes a great deal of time. And the structure of society, the structure and availability of funding, the urgency and magnitude of the work that needs to be done, most often compels organizers, activists and agency personnel to seek faster more expedient solutions. Put quite simply, a democratic and participatory process of social change that treats with equal value the means and ends is one that needs time. Information can be shared quickly - and all the moreso in our hyperspeed, hyoer-wired world. Learning, however, takes time.

The advantages of this approach are numerous especially given that it accomplishes a number of things simultaneously: relationship building, collective analysis, theory-making, policy development, skills training, and much more. It is community development for the long haul.

One final thing to call attention to is the role of documentation in all this. Naming the Moment has always put great value on documenting the process well. This is important both for practicing democratic communication as well as preserving a collective memory over the years. Thus the documents that follow:
Newsletters from the 1991-1992 Series of Naming the Moment Workshops:
  1. Oct 1991
  2. Nov 1991
  3. Dec 1991
  4. Jan 1992
  5. Feb 1992
  6. March 1992
  7. April 1992
  8. May 1992

Friday, July 03, 2009

Popular Education and Pop Music

My mum sent me this video (thanks, mum) knowing that the cleverness of the "rainstorm" would appeal to me. As it turns out the hand-rubbing, finger-snapping, thigh-slapping, foot-stomping sequence is an activity that i have done with groups for over 20 years. I've always used it as a focusing or calming exercise. It works wonderfully as a way of closing a workshop and it has many other uses, i am sure. This Slovenian choir's use of it as an intro to their cover version of Toto's Africa is inspired. And the foot-stomping which each of the rows does sequentially is outstanding. And i confess a fondness for the occasional pop song.

Here's a downloadable activity description of "Rainstorm" which you can use with groups. Try it. It's a moving activity, one that i always find connects me with a deep stillness in the world.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Popular Education Workshop on Immigrants and Precarious Employment

This popular education manual for workshops on precarious employment contains a dozen basic activities plus a handful more in the appendices. You can use some of the activities as workshops unto themselves (e.g. jobology, precarious work wheel) or use them in combination to support workshops of between three and six hours. Produced for the Immigrants and Precarious Employment Project, which:
examines the opportunities and challenges faced by immigrants in the new, knowledge-based economy. We interviewed 300 workers from Latin American and the Caribbean who arrived in the GTA between 1990 and 2004. In our research, we asked:
  • How are newcomers affected by broader trends towards precarious employment? · What strategies do they implement on the job and as families in order to meet these challenges?
  • What patterns of contact (or lack of contact) with social institutions and community organizations mediate immigrants’ early settlement process?
Public Outreach and Education

Our Public Outreach Project is designed to draw on the research project findings to generate and distribute knowledge of immigrant employment trajectories and early settlement strategies beyond academia. Our two main products will be:

  • A policy report based on our findings
  • A popular education manual on immigrants and precarious work for frontline workers at immigrant service agencies (Produced with the consulting support of The Catalyst Centre).

There are two files: The complete manual at 168 pages (3MB) and the 30-page Participant Kit (700K - and which you will find in the complete manual as Appendix A.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Community Mapping on the Move!

A community mapping workshop at PARC (the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre on Queen St.) was a great success this week. With 40 people attending from both the neighbourhood and across the city and including members of the PARC community, we spent two and a half hours talking about food, our experience of getting it and doing some community mapping together. You can read the proceedings of the workshop as well see pictures of some of the maps produced by downloading the newsletter here (it's a 2MB PDF).

This is part of the West End Food Co-op's Community Food Mapping Project taking place this summer in the Parkdale/High Park neighbourhood in Toronto. A second workshop will take place on Thursday June 25th followed by community outreach work and a concluding workshop in September. You can download the flyer for the next workshop here (a 360K PDF) as well as an information kit about the project here (a 2MB PDF).

There has been a steadily growing interest in community mapping as a community development and popular education tool in Toronto (see previous post). And the Toronto Star's environment reporter Catherine Porter was there covering the event and she wrote an excellent article which you can read here. (the photo, above, accompanies the article by Toronto Star photographer Adrien Vezcan).

Monday, June 08, 2009

Popular Education Bookshelf - 4: Community Mapping

Community mapping is a practice that seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. This 'zine, featured here (it's a 4 meg PDF), is the project of a graduate student at York University. Hannah Lewis is in the process of researching community mapping practices in Canada and she has turned up an amazing diversity of practices and theory. Research from which i am learning a great deal.

In 1986 i learned about the Ah Hah! Seminar, a popular education method developed by GATT-Fly, a Toronto-based, ecumenical, economic justice group. Ah Hah! drawing is a method of representing the experiences of workshop participants by developing a large picture on the wall. Like all popular education methods it is a means of democratic dialogue, analysis, and action planning. I have always loved this method and practiced it for many years. But i kept coming up against the same problem: for the method required that the participants share a common class identity, i.e. they were all workers for the industry (e.g. fishing, forestry), or they were all people on social assistance or poor, and so on. Whenever the group was mixed (i.e. so-called middle class, upper middle class and poor and/or workers) it proved almost impossible to agree on where various economic actors belonged in terms of where to put them in the picture. The complexities of the mix of economic locations (i.e. class) proved too great to be represented with Ah Hah! drawing. Now, that was in the late 80s and ealry 90s before neoliberalism had really started to reshape the Canadian economy in earnest. I wonder what things would look like now? Here's a couple of articles from that time about the Ah Hah Seminar:
And here's a couple of pictures i stumbled on of Dennis Howlett (one of the creators of the Ah Hah seminar) leading an anti-poverty workshop:
As i've learned about community mapping i have come to see Ah Hah drawing as one method of a large set of participatory mapping processes. Thanks in large part to Hannah i now know dozens of examples of community mapping (a surprising number in British Columbia) and we are now part of a couple of projects here in Toronto applying community mapping to the situation of food security in various neighbourhoods.

As Hannah writes in her 'zine: "Maps are powerful. Maps have interests or an argument to make. Maps are socially constructed." There exists, not surprisingly, a massive literature on mapping. But i would risk the educated guess that it is a literature largely devoted to understanding how to wield this tool in the interests of the powerful. But, while community mapping is still a young practice, a significant aspect of the practice is the challenging of dominant power relationships. Some community mapping uses the new technologies of GIS (geographic information systems) and GoogleMapping - technologies that require a fair amount of training. Though not to exclude popular use of such technologies, my interest in community mapping is as a popular education tool - one that is committed to resisting oppression, promoting critical thinking, building solidarity amongst the powerful, developing popular knowledge. Here's a couple of sites devoted to community mapping:
A closely-related practice, if somewhat different, is asset mapping, most strongly represented by the work of Asset Based Community Development in Chicago. This practice has also been picked up and developed by the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. And here's an excellent article by Alison Mathie and Gord Cunningham (also available as a PDF here). Finally, here's a description of asset mapping from a youth conference site: Capable City.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


I remember this video from 2000 and i was enchanted then by the choreography and mildly, self-mocking dancing by the band members. I'm delighted to see it show up on YouTube. This is one of my favourite pop songs, second only to my favourite pop song of all time (a carefully guarded secret).

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

One of the best police campaigns i've ever heard of

Just learned about this from Chiara (thanks) and BoingBoing. According to this website, Because We Love You, this is a Danish campaign to persuade bicyclists to wear helmets. I gotta say that a hug and a helmet is pretty persuasive! I'm posting this one for J'net (and the kids).

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Boal on Democracy Now!

Democracy Now! broadcast the news of Augusto Boal's death this week and included an excerpt from an interview done a few years ago (it starts at about the 30 second mark). In this interview Boal quotes the much-quoted poem by Antonio Machado which includes the line "we make the road by walking". Here's the transcript of the excerpt from Democracy Now!'s website:
“And I only have one dream. It’s to dream all my life. That’s my only dream. I would like to go on dreaming. And if I can dream of things, well, I dream of solidarity among men and women, black and white, solidarity among countries, and solidarity to create ethics. What we think sometimes, we don’t think that there is a difference between moral and ethics. Moral is mores. It’s customs. And it was moral in this country, my country—slavery. It was moral. It was moral to buy a human being. So I’m not moralist, because I know that in moral there are horrible things. But I am ethical. We need to create an ethos. In Greek, it means the tendency to some kind of perfection. And my kind of profession is solidarity, is dialogue, is democracy—real democracy, not one that we see? That’s my—I want to—not to accomplish, because to accomplish—not to accomplish, to go on. To go on. There is a poet, a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who says, ‘The path does not exist. The path you make by treading on it. By walking, you make the path.’ So we don’t know where the path leads, but we know the direction of the path that we want to take. That’s what I want, and not to accomplish, but to follow.”

You can also watch Boal in a June 3, 2005 Democracy Now! interview here.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Augusto Boal 1931-2009

Augusto Boal passsed away in Rio de Janeiro early this morning after being hospitalized on April 28 on account of a respiratory infection, according to the Brazilian website Zero Hora. Augusto has been living with leukemia for some time and had just cancelled his travel plans to attend the annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference in Minneapolis in a few weeks.

Zero Hora writes:
Born in 1931 in the Rio suburb of Penha, Boal graduated in chemical engineering and was the founder of Theater of the Oppressed. Already weakened, he received in March of this year the title of ambassador of the theater world from the the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Arrested and exiled during the military dictatorship in 1971, Boal returned to Brazil after 15 years at the invitation of then Secretary of Education of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Darcy Ribeiro.
Augusto was one of the titans of modern theatre and his work has spawned hundreds, if not thousands of theatre companies and projects around the world using Theatre of the Oppressed to effect social change. He has made many trips to Canada and the US to do trainings for actors, educators and activists of all kinds. In 1986 he co-founded the Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio. He was one of the most influential teachers i have ever had and i credit my training and practice of Theatre of the Oppressed with having taught me more about facilitation and teaching than any other single practice/theory.

I add my condolences to the many i am sure are being communicated to his family, colleagues and friends in the CTO-Rio.
Some of the T/O world:
The photos above are by Kent Hägglund from The Forumtheatre Festival in Gotland, 2003.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Good Friends

Dan Yashinsky shared the following story with many years ago. Not long after the first Gulf War, as matter of fact. A woman he had met in the airport in Tel Aviv had learned the story in Baghdad and had written it down on some very wrinkled loose leaf paper. I volunteered to decipher the tale. And now, after so many years of Baghdad dominating the news and as the US occupation continures, I feel it’s worth remembering that this ancient city has been a centre of culture and learning for many centuries.

Once upon a time, in the city of Baghdad, there lived two friends and their names were Eliezer and Abdalla. They had grown up together since childhood, gone to the same school and they loved each other very much. Their souls were close and their friendship knew no borders.

When they finished their studies, they both decided to go into business. Eliezer opened a carpet store in Baghdad and Abdalla went to Bocara in the south where he opened a shop to sell goods. Now, in those days, long-distance communication was difficult and even the closest friendship was hard-pressed to thrive. The separation was hard on Eliezer and Abdalla and, as the saying goes, "far from the eyes - so, far from the heart." And that is how each of them forgot the other.

Time passed, the years went on and Eliezer's business prospered. He became more and more wealthy until he had much gold and money, buildings and land. Eliezer's name was renowned and, in Baghdad, they called him "Eliezer Effendi." Fate was not so kind to Abdalla, and his situation worsened. In time he lost all his money and before long he had to return to his own city of Baghdad with nothing in his hands.

One day Abdalla's wife told her husband, "listen to me, and God will listen too. You know, God helped your good friend, Eliezer, and gave him all that is good. Go to his place, tell him what you have gone through all these years from the time you separated until today and he will see you and he will be happy. He will help you with good heart."

At first Abdalla was unsure about taking his wife's advice because 'the full belly doesn't know how the hungry belly feels.' Because that is the way of human beings - when you become rich you are far from the poor. But finally, when hunger knocked at his door, Abdalla decided to visit his old friend. Abdalla went to Eliezer's palace and requested permission from the doorman to enter and speak with the owner of the palace. The doorman passed the message to his master and when Eliezer heard that his best friend from childhood had come to visit him he went himself to open the door and give welcome.

From across the courtyard Eliezer could see Abdalla's face and he realized that face was not the face of their youth - Abdalla's clothes were ragged; his skin was bruised and reddened; he looked like a poor man in a desperate situation. Eliezer retreated and told the doorman to send the visitor away and to say that he wasn't in the palace.

But Abdalla had seen his friend from the distance, and he understood the meaning of this answer all too well. He returned home feeling ashamed and he was angry with his wife whom he blamed for suggesting that he go to the palace where he only suffered great humiliation. In his heart he felt the truth of the saying: 'one day honey, one day vinegar, don't ask anything from men.'

This episode weighed heavily on him and he took all his hurt and humiliation and he put it all in his heart. After a few more days Abdalla had still found no work and his family was hungry. He had only a few coins in his pockets and he couldn't decide what to do with this bit of money. Buy food or buy clothes? Abdalla sat, read from a book and prayed day and night asking for God's mercy.

One day a young lady knocked on Abdalla's door and said to him, "Oh righteous man, I am a widow. Since my husband died I have been lonely and abandoned. My husband, may he be remembered and blessed, left nothing except this brilliant stone. But what can I do with it? Eat it? Put it in water and drink the water? Have mercy upon me and buy this stone and you will save my soul from death."

Abdalla looked at the stone and could see that it was a good one, likely worth a great deal of money. He thought that God must have sent this woman to him so that he might make a bit of money. He said to the woman, "all I have is a few coins, not enough to buy the stone."

The young woman looked desperate.

Abdalla said, "I will give you these few coins now and take the stone to the market place to sell. Come back tomorrow and I will give you the profit from this."

The young woman looked relieved and thanked him for his good heart and went her own way. Abdalla sold the stone and waited the next day for the young woman's return. When she failed to appear he went in search of her but could neither find her nor find anyone who had ever heard of her. The next day, another young woman came to Abdalla's house and she had with her all her jewelery. She said, "I have heard that you are an honest man. Have mercy upon me for once I was very rich; but now I do not have enough money even to support my children. My husband sailed to the ocean countries and now many years have passed and I have received no message. Help me and buy my jewelery so I will have something to feed my children."

Abdalla bought the jewelery and explained that the jewels were worth much more than he had to offer but that if the woman would return tomorrow he would give her the profit he could make. The woman thanked Abdalla and went her way.

Abdalla waited the next day in vain to share the profit with the woman for she never showed up. And, as before, he sought her with no success. The next day Abdalla met a good-looking young man who offered to sell him 50 robes for a very good price. Abdalla knew this was an unusually good deal and the young man explained that he had to sell his wares quickly because he had far to travel and little time. Abdalla bought the robes.

These opportunities encouraged Abdalla's spirit, he sold everything and began a thriving business. Fortune looked favourably upon him and he opened more stores and became wealthy. And one day Abdalla's wife said to her husband, "The time has come for you to go to Eliezer, your friend who betrayed you. You must scold him for his behaviour towards you in our days of poverty."

These words entered his heart and Abdalla went to Eliezer's palace and requested entry. This time Eliezer came out himself to receive his childhood friend. He hugged and kissed him, and invited him to enter the palace and be served special food and drink. But Abdalla said to Eliezer, "not for your love have I come to you this time, but to scold you for how you treated me the first time I came to see you. Now I know that you do not love me. You love my money. When I needed your help you avoided me."

Eliezer said: "Forgive me, my good friend, but please do not judge me so fast."

"You are not my friend," said Abdalla with pain and anger. "You are not my true friend and this is the last time I will be in your home. From now I have no intention to see you again, ever!"

Eliezer said "Wait, I want you to meet someone." Eliezer spoke to a servant who went out of the hall and returned with two young women and a young man. "I wish you to meet my children," Eliezer said to Abdalla.

When Abdalla saw them, he fainted and fell on the floor for he recognized them immediately. They were the ones who had come to him to sell the precious stone, the jewelery and the robes. When Abdalla's spirit came back to him, he bowed to his friend and asked for forgiveness. He apologized for his rude words and the favours he didn't return. He asked, "But if you wanted to help me, why did you hide this from me, and why didn't you offer your help on my first visit?"

Eliezer said, "My dear friend and soulmate, Abdalla. The first time you came here I saw your face from a distance and I knew immediately what had happened to you. I said in my heart, 'If I help him openly, he will feel inferior in front of me, and he will surrender to me.' You would always see that money as charity. But that is not true now. You took the money, not as a beggar but to help others and you made a profit from it. These miracles strengthened your spirit to live again with ambition. Believe me, my dear friend," continued Eliezer, "from the first day I saw you until today all my thoughts have been with you. I made all the effort I could to help you. It pained me to see you in your poverty and I rejoice now to see you in your wealth."

Abdalla put his head in his hands with shame. The two friends embraced with love in their hearts for each other.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Political art and Mayworks Workshop with Favianna Rodriguez

On Monday evening i participated in an art workshop given by Favianna Rodriguez as part of Mayworks: Festival of Working People and the Arts which runs until May 3 here in Toronto. It's not often that i'm a participant in a workshop given that i am, so often, the one giving them. It was great to kick back and learn about Favianna's work as a printmaker and digital artist. Amongst other things (about which you can read on her website) she has collborated on a new book royalty-free political graphics: Reproduce and Revolt - which includes work by many artists including Eric Drooker and Rini Templeton - both of whose work i've used a great deal over the years. I was pleased to learn from Favianna that it was she who originally set up the Riniart website. Favianna began the workshop with a slide show of some of her work and a description of some of her design practices. Much of this is in included in a sixteen-page section of Reproduce and Revolt called "Design for Social Change: A Step by Step Guide for Designing Political Graphics" in English and Spanish. Most of the workshop time was devoted to producing posters using artwork that avianna had photocopied on various colours of paper. Above is what i produced. I was really pleased to learn a new form of lettering: Favianna described how you could cut a strip of paper the height of the letters, then cut the strip into the number of letters of your word and, finally, cut each block into its appropriate letter. Pretty cool!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

When the People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow

A long time ago i decided that there was something wrong with the way we made, followed, elevated leaders such that i eschewed ever wanting to be such a thing. I learned the language of "leadership" from the work of Movement for a New Society gang as represented by books like Resource Manual for Living Revolution and Leadership for Change: Toward a Feminist Model. And i reflected (principally through reading everything that Alice Miller ever wrote) on my problems with "authority" that threatened to make me a reactionary anti-leader guy. Learning about Paulo Freire's work, i committed myself to the praxis of popular education and i have followed that path ever since. Popular education, i believe, represents a different paradigm of leadership - one that not only flies "below the radar" of most leadership thinking but moves in a different universe entirely. I have come to believe that popular education is closer to the buddhist notions of mindfulness and right action than to the traditions of western individualism which find their ultimate expression in the American notion of individual liberties (which, oddly enough, the US chooses to extend to corporations under the rubric of corporate personhood).

I think the popular education ethic which i am addressing here is nicely summed up by Ronnie Gilbert, member of the Weavers singing group:
I worry when 'activists' are lionized that people will say, Oh, that is such an extraordinary person - look at all she does - she must be some kind of Superwoman. We all want models and examples to inspire us. But it seems to me that the single mother who campaigns for daycare is the activist, the woman who works for battered women, the ex-battered woman who turns her experience into a teaching project for school children, the precinct worker, leafleter, petition circulator, the person who supports with letters and money and/or physical presence the fight for reproductive rights or divestment from South Africa, who opens her doors or her church's to Central American refugees, who takes whatever small but firm bites out of her small or large resources to end religious, racial or political persecution ANYWHERE, and she who gives of some part of herself to prevent nuclear disaster - she is where the action is. (in HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics # 20Activists, Organizers, Progressives, Heroines, Visionaries..., 1985 )
Angela Davis' October 10, 2006 talk (at UC Davis) titled How Does Change Happen? includes a wonderfully lucid critique of the over-attention given charismatic leaders and which is often at the expense of the often thankless, slogging work of organizing carried out by people who often remain forever unrecognized in social change work - and, of course, many of these people, if not the vast majority, are women. As Angela Davis says: "Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation." I recommend listening to this entire talk - it is rich in critical reflection that remains urgently relevent. You can fast-forward to 15:40 if you wish specifically to listen to Angela Davis' comments on leadership. And following is the transcript of that stretch of the talk:
Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation. And I’d like to use the civil rights movement as an example. Because it’s historical for me – I was quite young, so I have an experience of it but I have to think about it as history as well. And also because everybody in this country knows who Reverend Martin Luther King is. Everybody knows. Can you think of any person in the United States of America who has not heard the name Martin Luther King? I mean, even in places like Arizona where… you know… they really resisted the observance of the birthday.

And I think this is great. This is a change that happened. But it may not have been entirely the change that we wanted because we aren’t really informed about the conditions under which that particular leadership developed. And we assumed that because there was someone called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. … he appeared on the scene in Montgomery, he was the Messiah, and this whole movement developed. I mean that’s what I call the “Messiah Complex” in terms of our notions of leadership. And it seems to me that the greatness of Dr. King resided precisely in his capacity to learn his leadership abilities, to acquire his leadership abilities from the people who had organized that movement… to listen to them. As a matter of fact, most people don’t even know that it was a group of black women who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Most people haven’t heard of the name Jo Ann Robinson even though she wrote a book called The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Because that method was the paradigm, right; you’re supposed to think that it is these great, heroic, male leaders who are the motors of history. And how could you possibly measure up to someone like that? And what you don’t realize is that the real work happened long before Dr. King ever thought of associating himself with those struggles.

As a matter of fact, do you know why he ended up being the spokesperson? Because all the black ministers in Montgomery had been involved in all these confusing debates and there were contradictions and you couldn’t ask this one… And so the idea was to choose this young man who had just arrived in town and who hadn’t had an opportunity to get embroiled in all of the debates and who really didn’t know very much anyway; which isn’t to say that young people don’t know very much, they do, they know a great deal. But he was considered to be the easiest choice.

And so, basically, the women selected Dr. King as the spokesperson for the work that they were doing. And this isn’t the history that we learn, is it? And we don’t know about Jo Ann Robinson who taught at Alabama State University and was the chair of the Alabama Women’s Political Association - how she and the members of her organization were trying to start a boycott - they had planned that. And they had tried on several occasions; and then, finally, when Rosa Parks got arrested – and Rosa Parks was an organizer; she wasn’t a tired woman, you know – she wasn’t the individual you always see portrayed, especially in the visual portrayals of her: the one black woman who manages to make it to the ranks of the heroic-historical figures – alone. She was an organizer. She was a trained organizer. And when she was arrested, Jo Ann Robinson got a couple of her students, they stayed up all night long … mimeographing … it was hard work. They stayed up all night long making those leaflets. And that’s how the bus boycott got started.

And I say this because that was really unglamorous work. It’s work that we would not necessarily think about as being that significant. But that was what helped to create that movement. If they hadn’t stayed up all night, if they hadn’t worked that mimeograph machine, if they hadn’t gotten people to go out and distribute all of those leaflets at six o’clock in the morning when people – particularly when people who were domestic servants were getting on the bus – it never would have happened. I’m not saying that the struggle for civil rights wouldn’t have happened; but it wouldn’t have happened in the way that it did. And that’s a very different story. It’s a story about people just like you. It is not a story about heroic individualism. And it’s a story about the erasure of women’s contributions.

And so I could talk about other movements as well. I could talk about the Chicano Movement, the Latino Movements, the American Indian Movement, the Asian-American Movements. And I could talk about the contributions that women made to those movements during my time in the late sixties and the seventies that will be lost if we don’t figure out how to rectify the tendency to tell history in this way that privileges heroic individualism. And keep in mind that I’m going to be using “individualism” for the rest of my talk. Because it’s dangerous; it’s really, really dangerous.
(Thanks to Rob Howarth for telling me about Angela Davis talk!)