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.


Unknown said...


I appreciate your honesty about the various attempts to define and then organize pop ed efforts. I am currently trying to use my position as a professor of Urban Studies as an opportunity to do some pop ed work, but it is difficult to find people who both understand and appreciate the value of what we do. I am inspired by your continued journey.

Drick Boyd
Eastern University
Philadelphia, PA

Chris cavanagh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris cavanagh said...

thanks for the comment. I am always excited to learn of new sites for popular education struggle/work. I trust you know about Highlander and Project South - both excellent popular education groups and much closer to you in Pennsylvania than here in Toronto. And efforts to connect popular education do continue - one opportunity will be the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference which will take place here in Toronto next June. We've yet to distribute official news but you can follow our organizing efforts on our organizers' blog.

Unknown said...


Thanks. Yes I have been to Highlander, and attended PTO Conference a couple years ago. The dates the last few years have conflicted with family responsibilities, but I hope to get back soon.