Diana Pei Wu: Liberation Dreams

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I just returned from a week at the United States Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, where activists staged over a thousand two-hour workshops for over 10,000 people and conducted plenary meetings attended by thousands of people.  It was a week of late nights of intense discussions, art-making, sharing and not sleeping in the lovely sweaty heat of the South in summertime, meeting in funny-shaped hotel conference rooms, celebrating found objects, Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles and each other. I was wonderful to reconnect with comrades from the environmental justice and queer rights movements, with progressive media and interpreter friends and to be part of the Immigrant Rights Caucus. In many ways, it was like coming out, again, in yet another setting.

Two years is barely enough to begin the lifelong process of transformative organizing in liberatory work, never mind the two hour blocks you usually get for conference workshops. One of the reasons we were able to achieve some real results at the USSF was that we have been doing this work together for so many years already. For many of us in the immigrant rights track, the USSF was part of a long term process of movement building, one that started before we came and one that will continue on beyond our lifetimes, or at least our tenure in paid positions and official organizations. Popular education is education for liberation, grounded in people’s experiences, and an attempt to manifest the world of justice and dignity that we want, not in some far away future, but rather in the spaces that we create every day, even if only for two hours.

Personal origins

Like many children of immigrants, cultural work became an expression of who I am and continue growing. My parents introduced me to Chinese visual arts and folkloric dance, providing an important learning opportunity using all my senses and whole body. I continue maintaining this approach in the ways that I design and run workshop trainings and meetings. Likewise, continuing practice as a capoeirista has helped me challenge my fears of singing in public and my parents’ version of appropriate femininity and gender expression. Capoeira is a body-learning of whole personhood that I bring to my work as a popular educator and movement builder. As Kayse Jama from the Center for Intercultural Organizing reflects (see page x), participatory, celebratory learning and organizing is as natural as breathing for many immigrant and refugee communities: we struggle and thrive because our ancestors survived.

When I was seventeen, I worked as a children’s summer camp counselor at the local nature center. In that job, I learned a key component of popular education: the critical importance of creating situations where everyone did something together and had the space to reflect on and share what they learned. In other words, popular education creates experiences that facilitate a particular type of learning within a liberating project, where one is not alone and solidarity drives the relationshio, as Joyti Chand of the South Asian Network describes their education and organizing work against homophobia and sexism.

Later, as a field ecologist, I learned to appreciate and see small changes that other people wouldn’t notice, like the slower rhythms of seasons changing and trees growing. That attention to detail and the recognition that deep change is a long, slow process is also at the core of popular education: our work needs to focus on more than short-term policy victories and campaign wins.  It is about the minute shifts in people’s attitudes, taking the time to honor what is already present, in order to ground our work, and taking time to establish common visions and directions that affirm dignity, justice and life.

BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Era

In the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Right’s Education and Capacity Building Program, we create spaces for education in the immigrant and refugee rights movement, where community leaders and members can begin to unlearn, heal from, and educate against the racism and oppression that we have learned in our places of origin and from mainstream society. For instance, a common group agreement in popular education spaces is, “oppression exists: not in our space.” And we work to collectivize the visions for a just society that honors the histories of struggle here in the United States and in our places of origin.

We have also worked with community organizers and leaders from Indigenous people, African American and civil rights groups to build bridges between communities, challenge stereotypes and build broader movements for economic and social justice. This was one of the origins of the BRIDGE Project[Of1], or Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in a Global Economy. Even without exclusively focusing on the economic underpinnings of global flows and blockages, we understand that a key aspect of the oppression and domination of our communities is based on the whims of a global economic and political elite that controls access to resources, development, and movement, who allow the rapid flow of money and goods while increasingly blocking the movement of people as anything but labor: that is, regulating the movement of people across national borders as producers of goods, as disposable appendages of the economy, and not as bodies, hearts, or spirits. 

In the BRIDGE curriculum we honor the specific experience of people-in-place: that the experience of Colombian students growing up in South will be different from that of a young Somali woman in Portland, and that the relationships between people of African descent in the border region will be different from those of Indigenous people’s communities in California. The tools in the curriculum are designed to be living tools, being modified and shaped to match the needs and experiences of different communities.

The BRIDGE curriculum emerged from the immigrant rights movement at a time when the founders of organizations like the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights were often the only people of color and the only people without advanced degrees in a sphere dominated by professional white men. Though people of color and poor people are sometimes those professionals now, the challenges for grassroots leaders and communities to have their voices heard have not changed.

Many of the factors that lead people to migrate – war, civil strife, ecological destruction, poverty, genocide – are rooted in the political and economic policies of a global elite. The BRIDGE curriculum recognizes this and asserts that popular political education must strive to reveal and critically address those root causes of migration.

Through the BRIDGE curriculum and our popular education work, we affirm that we need to stay grounded in our values and to value our experiences as knowledge. Doing this allows members of our communities to interact in the official places of power with a strong backing and grounded in a community-based vision. Just as importantly, being our whole selves in official spaces challenges the dominant society’s definitions of legitimacy and affirms our humanity in spaces designed to strip us of the very aspects of ourselves that have survived the last 500 years of colonization, racism, displacement and fragmentation. Thus, leadership is not necessarily taken from those who have the most education, who speak English the best, and who are comfortable doing public speaking.

Some of the ground breaking work in the BRIDGE curriculum is working with immigrant and refugee community leaders to see the implications of a gender and sexuality analysis for our organizing work. This grounds our struggles in the critical orientation that our work must always be for inclusion, equality, and against homophobia, sexism and racism, helping us envision our work together as a work in progress. This creates a new type of generosity for when we make mistakes and the courage to struggle to change and grow together.

Effecting this transformation means lifting up leadership that is facilitative, cooperative, and collective, as Mónica Hernández of the Highlander Research and Education Center reminds us. Pancho Argüelles of Colectivo Flatlander reiterates the concept of acompañiamiento--to walk along and beside--as a key role of organizers, popular educators, and movement builders. We must be committed to developing leaders who will grow a movement that creates more leaders, and take that leadership from below and work to orient our communities towards the left. This is a radically different vision of leadership from dominant trends among community organizing.

My colleagues who work in the rural South and the rural Northwest remind me that there is a great need for anti-racist, anti-oppression, liberatory popular education among white people. As Kayse Jama tells it, his work with white people was, in some ways, a precondition for the Center for Intercultural Organizing to be able to begin the work of community building and development among immigrant and refugee communities; it helped non-immigrant allies to learn to step back and be supportive without taking over. This type of work and insight is applicable to all work against racism in progressive movements for justice and dignity.

The Need for Dreaming

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At the end of the United States Social Forum, we could feel satisfied that each action in our short time together led to further actions and that we finally opened up a space not just for reacting, but for dreaming. From all the workshops that were run by member, partner, and allied organizations of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, I saw and heard and intuited that we need spaces for prophesy and dreaming. I give thanks for folks like Nelson Maldonado-Torres; who open up that space in the classroom; and people like bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, and Robin D.G. Kelley, who create those spaces in their written words; and all the compañer@s who encourage dreams and prophesies in their popular education, political education, and organizing work.

A liberatory practice is a collective endeavor of dream-making and drean-implementing, something which our critical abilities often do not engage without becoming uncomfortable. Our collective process is about sharing stories and developing understanding, deep listening, loving, and healing. It must come from below and move towards the left, as Mexico’s Zapatistas declare, and aim for radical transformation. And it takes more than one: it is all of us helping, supporting, challenging, and loving each other as our whole selves.

To follow the words of Audre Lorde, “We must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply.  Popular education is part of a set of tools and actions that help us create and articulate our dreams together. The heretical part may cause great discomfort because our dreams are a rejection of the seductive paths laid out by the dominator’s dream. Liberation dreams create their own desires, paths, and trajectories for the future. We have those roads to make and walk, together. I’ll see you there, on those roads, in those dreams, in our whole bodies and whole selves, and in our own time.

Diana Pei Wu is Program Director of Education and Capacity Building at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, in Oakland, California. Diana recently completed her PhD dissertation, titled “Healing and Dreaming as Radical Decolonial Practice,” in 2006, which celebrates organizing as healing, and healing as decolonizing. She celebrates life through capoeira, salsa and samba.

[1] Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Poetry is not a Luxury” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York, NY: Triangle Press. 38-39. (Lorde 1984)

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits