Review: We Make the Road by Walking

I really needed this book. I spent so much time this summer thinking social media and Gen Y nonprofit leadership and emerging technologies that I was kind of all sucked into the tactics of social change, and I really needed a reason to step back and reflect on the why a little more, to think about how we help people to transform their own lives, and to remember why that matters so very much.

This is a pretty unorthodox book that features, essentially, an extended conversation between two rather revolutionary men (they are both men, and there were many, many places where I wished for a feminist voice, although both (Paulo) Freire and (Myles) Horton make several references to non-sexist practice within their popular education) about their lives as popular educators, and organizers, and rethinkers about the whole concept of how people learn and change and realize their power.

I read the book thinking like an organizer and wanting to think more about the role of popular education in social movements. I found myself also noting many places where something spoke to me as an instructor, though, making me doubly glad that I read this book in the lead-up to the fall semester. To hopefully make my insights about the book more useful to you all, I’ve divided my thoughts into two sections: one on teaching and one on social change work, although obviously they don’t divide like that at all in the lives of Freire and Horton, or, really, me either. If you want more background on Myles or Paulo, check out the Highlander Center and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One biographical note about Horton that may be of interest to social workers is his work with Jane Addams in Chicago, further proof of the connection between popular education and social work’s roots.

The book has two central themes: the importance of freedom for all people, and the capacity and right of people to achieve that freedom through their own liberation struggle. For me, that carries a key message for both my macro social work practice (because it means that my organizing and advocacy must be directed at liberation and that I have an ethical responsibility to pursue processes for the work that place people as autonomous actors at the center) and for my teaching (because it means that authoritarian content-pushing is contrary to my aims to help create social workers who will be empowered in order to empower).

As a teacher:

  • One of my ongoing challenges is to think about how to relate course material to students’ actual work and struggles, so that they seek the content out, rather than engage it only to satisfy my requests as an instructor. That obviously leaves me with a quandry, though, within the confines of the traditional academic relationship, because if they choose not to engage certain material, popular education would say that they’re making a choice that fits their lives and needs at that time, while the university would say that they deserve to feel consequences (grades) for that “failure”. As an educator within the higher education system, I have to find a way to resolve that paradox somehow.
  • Perhaps more than in other disciplines, social work educators seem to talk a lot about the use of self in the teaching process–how much should we strive to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ as we’re working with out students? I have always taken the stance that I cannot pretend to be what I’m not, and I most assuredly am not neutral, and so, therefore, my task is to create a learning environment where students trust that they don’t have to agree with me in order to ‘succeed’, and then to allow them to express their own value preferences co-equally. Freire put this into better words, saying that neutrality is really code for the existing system and that, then, “neutral is an immoral act.” Horton agrees but has a different strategy, explaining that he enthusiastically tells people his positions when they ask, because then he knows that it will have relevance for them–that they’re seeking to know so that they can digest them and fit them into their worldview, that then it’s not imposing.
  • I am committed to finding ways to use questions more skilfully in my teaching, to inject them into discussions in ways that introduce what I want to communicate to students without having to force-feed it. I can think of topics where I am more successful at this than others, and maybe I need to observe someone who’s really good at it to get a better sense of how to weave this together? Also, students respond more to questions and even presentations by their peers, so how can I enhance my techniques in facilitating those types of discussions, in ways that still move us along regarding key learning objectives? And how do I do all of that in a context where students get so nervous if it seems like the instructor isn’t going to “take charge” that their anxiety can become a barrier to any constructive learning? I need to have some kind of authority, so that we have a student/teacher relationship that fosters real learning, but that can so easily slip into authoritarianism, especially within the context of the institution. They want to see me as an expert (and, on some content, I am), and I want them to see themselves as experts so that they can integrate the new content with their own realities, and I’ll probably be 80 (like these guys were!) before I feel that I’ve got that balance figured out!

    As an organizer:

  • Horton talks in one passage about the abundance of “missionaries” of various stripes who have descended upon the Appalachian region. It occurred to me that some are probably “social work missionaries”, and it made me think (again) about my role as an organizer within a community that is obviously not my own. How can such relationships not be exploitative? What are the most ethical options for those facing potential work as an “outsider” in vulnerable communities?
  • One of the maxims of organizing (and, I think, all good social work) is to ‘start where the people are’. Sometimes, though, organizers are so careful about this that they forget the equally important piece–not staying where you start. That might mean challenging racism within a neighborhood group or (as in Freire’s case) sexism among Latin American peasant communities, or it might just mean continuing to look for opportunities to introduce new ideas, resources, and connections to people in ways that resonate with how they see their needs and their world. You can’t leap ahead so much that there’s a disconnect between there experience and where you want them to go–it has to be seamless. Done right, this isn’t paternalistic–failing to do it, actually, may constitute malpractice.
  • Horton shared an AWESOME story, maybe the best I’ve ever heard, about how, after Highlander had started citizenship schools to help African Americans register to vote, he ran into a woman in Mississippi who asked him what he did. He told her he was a teacher, and she said that she was too, that she taught at a Citizenship School, and she asked him if he knew what those were. He asked her to tell him about them, and she explained all about it. He told her it was a wonderful idea and asked if anyone else knew about them. She said, “No, but they will.” He was overjoyed that she had taken such ownership in the idea and was clearning adapting it to work for her context. But the story got me thinking–how comfortable are we as social workers with those with whom we work really taking ownership of our work with them? Are we ready to really pull back so that people can feel (and even portray) it as their own?
  • Horton calls progressives and intellectuals out on the idea of reform; the people, he says, know that ‘reforms don’t reform’, that what we need is radical change. What holds us back from true structural revolution? And could it be that, precisely because we’re not pushing for enough, we’re not getting enough? That is, if we asked for everything, would we be surprised at what we could do together?
  • When I teach organizing and advocacy practice, I talk a lot about why the way in which we organize matters so much–that if we do so in a way that educates and empowers people, then we’ll win even if we fall short of solving whatever problem we laid out as the objective. Horton talks about this too and also acknowledges that it is relatively rare to see the two things (transformational popular education and effective organizing) brought together, that more often there’s too much emphasis on one pole, at the expense of the other–either education that fails to move to action, or organizing that involves manipulative mobilization rather than real human liberation.
  • Freire put into words something that I have often witnessed but never really articulated: the importance of giving people the right to express their suffering. Really, that was a lot of my work in immigrant rights–creating a political space in which undocumented immigrants, among others, could call their suffering unjust and denounce it, and be heard.
  • I’ll likely return to this, because I’m doing a lot of reading about social movements right now, but I loved a section where Horton was talking about seeing people in the civil rights movement, willing to die for the cause, who, “I had known five years before, and they were frivolous, actually frivolous. A movement can change people.” I think that’s amazingly powerful, and it gave me a lot of hope for what the next few decades might hold.

    And, as a mom:
    At one point, Freire talks about, as a child, being stunned by the realization that some kids have enough to eat and some kids don’t. I had that experience with my oldest son last week. We bought school supplies for Crosslines, and he asked why some kids don’t have enough school supplies. I explained that their parents don’t have enough money to buy them, and I could tell he couldn’t comprehend that. So we talked at length about how some parents might be sick and unable to work, and the government doesn’t give them enough money to provide everything their families need; some work at jobs that don’t pay them enough; and some can’t find jobs. The best part of the conversation was that those explanations obviously didn’t satisfy them, which makes sense, because they are so obviously unsatisfying. “But why, Mommy?” he kept asking. And finally, I just answered, “I know, sweetheart. It’s not fair. And you and Daddy and Mommy and lots of other people need to keep working to make it more fair, so that every Mommy and Daddy can buy their kids what they need to succeed in school.” I think most kids have that basic sense of fair and unfair, and I see one of my roles as a mom as helping my kids to never lose their dismay and outrage over that which is unfair.

    The book ends where I will, with this quote: “Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But the best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will all say we have done it ourselves.” Lao Tzu, 604 B.C. It has taken us a long time to move towards really understanding this, but we’re getting there. I feel recharged, recommitted, and re-inspired.

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