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:
As an organizer:
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.