Voices from the Immigrant Rights Movement: by Diana Pei Wu

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Diana Pei Wu: Liberation Dreams

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


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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Joyti Chand : South Asian Network

Joyti Chand based on an interview by Diana Pei Wu

Taking Time To Share, Heal and Move Forward Together

At the South Asian Network (SAN) we work with youth and older South Asian people to engage them in dialogues on racism, violence within the family, and immigration. We look at how policies on these issues impact the community. The question is, how do we do that so that the community feels a sense of entitlement and ownership?

A lot of it also has to do with storytelling. Policy is often seen like this artificial thing out there, something you hear about on TV. But if you hear a personal story, it’s easier to make


connections to your own life. If you gather a group of people who have their own stories to share, they may challenge each other’s existing assumptions and understand how their issues are related. Popular education is not just about developing a formal curriculum but more about opening the space for sharing stories. It’s a place to have people share and talk about their experiences, our vision for ourselves and our communities, or policies we need.

We know one leader doesn’t have all the answers in the movement. In popular education the traditional foundation of teacher and student is put aside. Instead we learn from each others stories. We then reflect on our own experiences as a community, do our own analysis, and move forward together. This process ensures that we are critical and develop an action plan together, so that people are not excluded or marginalized or a small group of people are making the decisions.

Taking on Homophobia and Sexism Head-On

At SAN we provide a space for immigrants to talk about the experiences back home and connect them to how they experience repression here. About 3 years ago, we took a step back because there were issues that we needed to talk about— homophobia and sexism. SAN is already open to bringing out the issues, but we realized we needed to do more. We needed to build in resources to identify and address some of the key issues of the queer community. We got together some folks from SATRANG, a queer South Asian group, and others from the community who cared about building a space for queer South Asian folk and allies.

We spoke individually with all staff and board members about their comfort level with queer issues and whether SAN should move forward on addressing these concerns in our work. First we conducted three trainings and dialogues to provide a space for people to talk about how they grew up, messages around gender, immigration rights, and all the different things that impact us around sexual orientation.

We decided we needed to build internal capacity to address issues on civil rights, discrimination, and health access, particularly in terms of the needs of the queer South Asian community locally. Collaborating with SATRANG, we started the Southern California South Asian Queer Community Health Assessment. We distributed materials at public events and collected surveys on health and wellness. We were basically asking the community, “What are things that are needed in terms of social support?” Now we are in the process of collecting the results of the surveys, incorporating the findings, and trying to make changes in our curriculum organizationally.

Healing Together

For those of us who are immersed in this work, we are constantly trying to analyze without allowing ourselves to look internally. We don’t have a chance to look at ourselves historically and say that this has happened to me. We walk around sometimes really mad and frustrated; you feel like a robot and you have to perform. Popular education can help us heal these frustrations. An example is one of the pieces from the BRIDGE curriculum. You reflect on the generations of women in your family— what did your mom do and what did your grandmother experience? Tools like that help us to step back and share what happened.

For us to be able to move forward we need to be able to vocalize our own oppressions. If you hold it in, you are constantly feeling worse. If you vocalize it, it creates a sense of relief. You find that other people share or understand that historical background. Then you’re not in it for yourself since others have similar stories. That’s where the potential to heal lies— because you’re not the only one. People can share the injustices that they’ve dealt with and move on to the next step. Our clients have told us that when they share their stories, they feel that they are not alone, that this is not just randomly happening to them. They connect with each other and find comfort where they’ve had a release. They are then no longer suffering in silence but are out there and talking to people in the community.

Popular Education and Movement Building

Popular education relies on creating a sense of solidarity in order to organize and mobilize a community. There always have to be spaces to connect at that human level to know that you’re really in solidarity, not just the political analysis. If you don’t have sensitivity within a group of people, there’s no healing, and then people don’t have space to be regarded as anything but a number. Unless people are able to connect on that human level, there is no movement.

In terms of movement building popular education needs to be encouraged more. In LA I don’t enter into a lot of spaces where it is about popular education. Having more spaces for training and where people can talk about some of the missing pieces in our work is crucial to moving forward. One of the challenges occurs within movements. We are also impacted by outside society, so there are still a lot of hierarchies and divisions within the progressive community. We need a space to step back to see how external factors also play out within our community.

Popular education is a long term process. It would change the pace of work and the kind of work we do. Just challenging one policy often distracts us from the work of doing community education or creating forums for the community. It happens in my work— we focus on responding to hate crimes, employment & housing discrimination, workers’ rights— and that’s important work. But popular education methodologies urge us to take the time we need to share, heal, and move forward together.

Based on an Interview with Joyti Chand, South Asian Network, Artesia, CA by Diana Pei Wu, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Oakland, CA

Joyti Chand is a Community Rights Advocate in the Civil Rights Unit at South Asian Network, based in Artesia, Southern California.

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Mónica Hernández : Highlander Research and Education Center


“The only way change is going to happen is from the bottom up.”

I believe that popular education starts from personal experience and builds a deliberate intentionality about trying to help people look at the conditions and issues they are dealing with on changing things and making things better.

I first heard about popular education when I was doing HIV prevention work in San Francisco with immigrant women. I started learning about some of the models that had been used in Latin America with immigrant communities, like the promotora de salud model. The premise of promotora de salud was that people in the community were the best messengers to other folks in the community. That was my introduction to popular education as a tool to help individuals learn and as a method of empowering and organizing communities.

Through my work, I became more and more convinced that movements need to be led by the people most affected. The way to do that is not to just go in and say, “This is what you’re going to do.” you need to start from where people are and honor their experiences. Immigrants and poor people in general are always being told that their knowledge and experiences don’t matter. Folks have a lot of self-esteem issues because the education system has failed them, and they believe it’s their fault—they think they’re stupid and dumb and ignorant. Popular education has the potential to strengthen their self-esteem around their own life experiences.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas: Popular Education and Transformative Organizing

I always go back to the experiences of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) in the Bay Area. When women come to MUA, they are not thinking about organizing. They are coming in because they have issues that need to be resolved, urgent issues. Domestic violence is a big issue for a lot of women. They come in seeking help and support. MUA deals with some of the immediate survival issues and provides a great deal of support. Over the course of a couple of months, women start getting involved in some of the organizing, leadership, and political activities that MUA does.

This happened with a campaign to defeat Prop. 187.[1] It was a very grassroots-oriented campaign, but a lot of the folks affected by the proposition were not voters. They felt like they needed to do something, that they couldn’t just sit with their arms crossed. MUA got involved. We started trying to figure out the role for immigrant communities in these electoral campaigns that were targeting them. Strategies developed to let immigrants know about the bill and to help educate other members of the Latino community—this happened throughout the anti-immigrant campaigns in the ‘90s, throughout all the other bills with immigration-law changes, through the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform an Immigrant Responsibilty Act (IIRAIRA) and welfare reform stuff. We developed a popular theater workshop that Mujeres members would perform to educate and elicit conversation in the base.

Transformation happens within people. In many cases, immigrant women come in feeling like they’re worth nothing. They’re afraid to talk and to participate in a public hearing or a protest; they’re afraid just being out there. The fact is that their vulnerability as undocumented immigrants really hasn’t changed—if anything it’s gotten worse, because things keep getting worse. But they become stronger and stronger as they participate and become leaders and support other women to become leaders. I’ve carried their model with me to the South to give people concrete examples of how they can organize.

Highlander and INDELI: Breaking Isolation in the Rural South, Building Bridges with African American Communities

When I first got to Highlander, we had a program designed to support the formation of grassroots Latino immigrant organizations here in the South. It was an important program because it gave people the opportunity to gather periodically and network with each other and break their isolation, both geographical and psychological. You have immigrant communities in some very rural areas of the south, hostile areas that are dealing with a growing immigrant population for the first time. The opportunity for immigrants to share with other folks what they’re living with and to realize they’re not alone—that it’s happening in other communities—is really critical.

That was an important first step. When immigrants are starting out in a place with no infrastructure and no other organizations supporting them, there is a tendency to try to address the entire range of needs of the community. People see immediate needs, so they try to form a Hispanic or Latino community center. People are working under tremendous pressure, with no opportunity to take a more strategic view of what’s needed. So there’s not a lot of community organizing in those initial stages. They are surviving in the service provision model, which is necessary but limited in its potential for change.

Next, we started the process of organizing and leadership development training through our Immigrant Leadership Development Institute (INDELI, Instituto para el Desarollo de Liderazgo).

Grassroots leadership in communities is critical. We felt that leaders had the potential to transform how organizing was approached and to spur more organizing. So part of it was helping communities figure out why organizing as a strategy was important and why it was crucial to build people’s organizing skills.

Redefining Leadership

INDELI really provided people with a different model for what leadership is. When people hear, “This person’s a leader,” they tend to think of the individual, charismatic, boss-type leader. But we were offering leadership trainings focusing on collaboration, with the idea that anybody can be a leader. We believed that leadership could be exerted differently to create more democratic organizations and avoid some of the downfalls of many grassroots organizations.

Another aspect of INDELI was to give people concrete organizing and organizational skills— know how to facilitate a meeting, how to recruit people, how to assess the needs of your community.

The third component was political education focused on bringing in an anti-oppression framework, so people could see their struggles connecting with other people’s struggles. Particularly here in the South, immigrants should know more about the struggles and history of the African-American community. Political education also looked at the framework and particulars of the debate on immigration. The Fall 2005 Sensenbrenner bill was the perfect laboratory to test the organizing skills that we were trying to help people develop and to try to analyze the political dynamics around immigration reform.

One of the ongoing issues is that well-established organizations in the South like the Farm Workers Association (Florida) and El Centro (Durham, North Carolina) have been around for a while—they have resources. At the same time, the demographic shift in the South has been different in different states. Georgia and North Carolina have had Latino communities for more than 15 years and have had a chance to build organizations. Other places—Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi—are just starting to see the immigrant influx as a visible, palpable presence. So the varying development of the immigrant community has implications for where they are organizationally.

For instance, the longstanding, funded organizations are really different than a group of two to three people who are gathering to try to form something but don’t even have a consolidated organization. Likewise, a group of people who come in with an idea of organizing is very different than an organization that is primarily services, and so on. We were looking for organizations that were really grassroots, and there weren’t that many. We realized that we had to be flexible and open to some of the people who did not yet have a full political framework but did have a sense of their work being connected to social justice—whether or not they were actually organizing at that point.

Providing a Framework for Change

We had a clear sense of what we wanted to do: form small organizing committees in communities to teach people how to do “know your rights” workshops and use that as a tool to organize people. Folks weren’t ready for that. A lot of folks came back and used the “know your rights” workshop that we had, but it was on their timeline, not ours. That’s part of what it makes it popular education—you have your methodology and plan, and it can go out the window. The information was useful for people; they just weren’t ready to go out to do a workshop yet.

That’s why we had such a heavy emphasis on political education and skills-building: we provided a framework so that people would start changing the way they thought about what they were doing. Instead of just being focused on one particular campaign, they could see how it fit into a broader effort to do movement-building. We saw that clearly in the way folks looked at some of the legislative proposals from last year.

I believe that the only way change is going to happen is from the bottom up. Popular education is a key part of that process.

Based on an interview with Mónica Hernández, Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, Tennessee, by Diana Pei Wu, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Monica is the lead person on Highlander's Pueblos de Latinoamérica project, which seeks to develop Latino grassroots leadership and organizations in the Southeast. She is also Chair of the Board of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. A native of Mexico with roots in both countries, Mónica joined the Highlander staff after working at the Northern California Coalition for Immigration Rights in San Francisco for 13 years. At the Coalition, Mónica worked in various capacities: as a hotline operator, HIV prevention educator/program coordinator, community education and action team member and co-director, and executive director.

[1] California Proposition 187 was a 1994 ballot initiative designed to deny undocumented immigrants social services, health care, and public education. It was introduced by assemblyman Dick Mountjoy (Republican from Monrovia, California) as the Save Our State initiative. A number of other organizations were involved in bringing it to the voters. It passed with 58.8% of the vote, but was overturned by a federal court. The measure prompted support for similar bills in Illinois, Florida, New York and Texas.

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Pancho Arguelles: Understanding Transformation

“Understanding the world to transform it and transforming the world in a way that changes the way we understand ourselves.”


Popular education in the global South is both a methodology for education and organizing and a  philosophy that builds a popular movement in order to bring about structural change.

In the United States, we don’t have a popular movement. We have lot of movements for social and racial justice: a lot of people trying to resist and bring change and do good things. However, the fact that people are moving doesn’t mean that we have a popular movement.

Most of the current dominant paradigms of organizations are based on the assumption that the system works. That the system is an operating democracy, a government for the people by the people. Another dominant assumption is that we live in a free economy. 

Neoliberal economists have a dogma that the free market is inherently good and an almost a religious belief that under it all things will be more efficient.

These are beliefs. The rich and those in power benefit from this, because they created the rules of the game. They don’t believe the myths, but it helps them that the rest of us believe it.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has really proven that it is not a free market.  The way capitalism is connected to monopoly, corrupt practices and militarization globally proves that.

Historically,, popular education is about putting things in context so that you get power as an individual and a group to understand your reality and be able to change it.

Starting with Dialogue

Popular education starts with dialogue. When we start retreats, we begin by connecting with values, healing— we ask everyone to bring one object that symbolizes why we are in struggle. It is one way to begin sharing our personal stories with other people so we can see how our stories relate to each other being one.

Through sharing stories, we see that there are policies and decisions made by people in groups, in their own interest. That policies are not just given to us. Policies and our current realities are a production, a historical and structural production. And the groups who made the decisions benefit from them.

Popular education also has a methodology: It is participatory, based on people's experience and knowledge; we try to break down the hierarchy of knowledge and experience. And we go one step beyond. Those who have suffered the most injustice and marginalization and have overcome the most, will have the deeper more profound knowledge of what is it to be human and how to be human.

The other part is doing the political and historical education around how we got here: the economy— the world we are living in today is the product of 500 years of colonialism by Western powers.

For me, political education is a philosophy and a practice. Praxis is integral: understanding the world to transform it and transforming the world in a way that changes the way we understand ourselves.

There is also dialogue— putting my own experience in dialogue with history and reality and other people in my community and organization, and then putting that collective group, that collective experience, in dialogue with the wider context, with history, with structures and other communities and other issues.

It is also about personal transformation, collective organizing and a commitment to resist and transform. To resist is the affirmation of our own humanity and the humanity of others. It is a radical political statement in a society that systematically denies the humanity of us in this planet. To open up spaces where people can bring their whole humanity into the room, celebrate it, acknowledge it, that is radical.

And then to commit to work together and organize, to make leadership collective, to confront problems personally and collectively through action-reflection-action.

Leadership From Below

In the United States, a lot of influential people use the rhetoric that they are the voices of the voiceless. However, those leaders would have a very hard time of embracing leadership and wisdom from below. The Zapatista definition of political leadership—to command by obeying—conflicts with the Western notion of leadership as personal. If no one is behind you, whom are you leading? Many leadership development programs create leaders of opinion based on the idea that if they can be heard, everything will be all right. Leadership in this context has a sexist male bourgeois or capitalist and heterosexual core.

The way that National Council of La Raza (NCLR), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) approach their political work assumes that the system works and that leadership comes from above. These organizations are trying to defeat the system that oppresses us with the same kind of oppressive power. If popular movements have proved something in resisting systems of colonization, it is that we cannot beat them at their own game.

Compared with these contemporary immigrant rights organizations, the twentieth-century civil rights movement is completely radical. Last year, I deepened my study of the civil rights movement and civil rights leaders as part of training people in the South and trying to promote cross-community dialogues. I realized that Ella Baker and Septima Clark embodied a core value of popular educators: becoming unnecessary, working yourself out of a job.

They also modeled accompaniment, a central notion of popular education.  They related to SNCC or other groups that came to Highlander with accompaniment, not control.  Of course, they got into fights with more established mainstream, mainly male, leadership.

A Different Kind of Power

A popular movement does not bring down the system and put a new one there; it doesn’t work that way historically.  In reality, it happens when communities and working people force people of privilege to do the right thing—not destroying the people of privilege or taking away all their power, but confronting them with their shared humanity while mobilizing the power of numbers to bring down the system.

Some people are resistant to popular education because they see it as naïve and unrealistic due to the emphasis on participation and dialogue. They have lost contact with the part of popular education that comes out of surviving, organizing, resisting, and creating a different kind of power.

Mainstream organizations like many longstanding unions and community organizing networks are obsessed with a very narrow form of power. At the end, they end up operating in a logic that is very white and very privileged in terms of class. It doesn’t go deep enough in terms of transforming what and where power is.

That is the sense when we engage in these legislative campaigns with partners in Washington, DC. They invite us to join in a trip, but we were never asked where we wanted to go. And when it comes time to evaluate if the strategy worked, these groups cannot be held accountable.

We cannot control them, but we can control the way we engage. If it doesn’t work for us, then we can just pass—say no, thank you.

Mainstream groups speak to their own privilege; they are disrespectful of the wisdom of people’s survival. But identity, autonomy, and strength become real when you have a group that is locally based. As they say in the United States, all politics are local. And all organizing has to have a local dimension. National actors, regional groups, and Washington-based policy specialists need to think how they are going to build relationships with the local groups.

We just had that conversation with the people in the new sanctuary movement. They were giving us an update, and it was so frustrating to hear them define what is possible based on the climate in the beltway, not based on a consultation with the groups. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The history of struggle and survival means that we must have memory to have hope. When we don’t have hope, there is no resistance. We have to remember how we have gone through so much to find the strength, joy, generosity, and courage to face sometimes brutal armies. And it’s still happening, so we have to keep hope going. Our work in the present draws from the strength of our memory of the past and our vision for the future.


Based on an interview with Francisco (Pancho) Arguelles, Colectivo Flatlander, Houston, TX

by Diana Pei Wu.

Francisco (Pancho) Arguelles Paz y Puente is a co-founder of Colectivo Flatlander for Popular Education, based in Houston Texas. He has been instrumental in the establishment of the BRIDGE Project at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), the Institute for Development of Leadership (INDELI) at the Highlander Research and Education Center, and the Immigrant Rights working group at the National Organizers Alliance. Before moving to the United States Pancho worked as a popular educator in Chiapas, Nicaragua, and other places. He is principal of Paz y Puente, LLC and father to Maria and Antonio.

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“Understanding the world to transform it and transforming the world in a way that changes the way we understand ourselves.”

Kayse Jama: Center for Intercultural Organizing

Privilege and Power and White Allies

Popular education works with immigrant and refugee community leaders because it is something they can relate to based on cultural and historical background. It’s a style that we know as indigenous cultures, for example, myself as a Somali refugee. It’s based on people sharing knowledge and having open space to solve and create space where people work together. So it’s part of our culture even though we may not have the same words for it.

Everyone brings something to the table, to share, and everyone has a certain expertise, life experience, or different training, historical techniques or information. For me, a key principle is that we are all equally responsible to learn from one another.

Another key aspect of popular education lies in decentralizing information and knowledge. you can take it to the people—into their neighborhoods instead of assuming or insisting that they come to the organization.

The Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO) started 4 years ago when a Somalian Muslim leader, the head of a mosque, was arrested in the airport. The police could have picked him up any time, but they arrested him at the airport, shut down the entire airport just to create fear. So we started to organize.

For the first year and a half, we held public forums two times a month where local community members came, shared and discussed their issues. We wanted the center to be grounded in the immigrant and refugee community, to be led by immigrants and refugees.  At the same time, We opened the gates for everyone. Quickly, we found that we were over-run by white allies—more and more white allies were coming, and less and less refugees and immigrants. Then we realized we had a big problem on our hands. So we spent 3 months restructuring and defining our constituency. Over that time, we defined the structure to a membership organization and defined who is our constituency and who is our allies and who is our supporting members.

Making Space for Refugee and Immigrant Community Leaders, Redefining Leadership

In our leadership development work, the work with immigrant and refugee community leaders is done in parallel with the work with white allies. To eliminate racism we have to engage folks on race issues. The white and Anglo community needs to be challenged to eliminate and understand racism itself. Our work is divided equally in engaging the white community and the work with immigrant and refugee communities.

In the popular education trainings we examine who has the power, how is it created, who makes the decisions, who is disadvantaged. So that we help people to understand power. For example, if you are first generation you’re are a "constituent" member.  If you are second generation U.S. born then you are an ally. When someone joins, they learn the roles. It’s not perfect but it is part of the process of learning.

We do ongoing training with immigrant and refugee community leaders and members to build their analysis, organizing skills develop the tools they need to have an impact in their community.

We define the popular education style at the beginning of the process. We help folks move away from the “I thought you guys are experts” mode. As soon as I define it people love it and feel impressed and feel free. It creates a level of trust and relationship with everyone. In a lecture style class, 1 or 2 people speak, people don’t get to know each other. In a popular education, the dialogue is not directed at the facilitator, it is the interaction between the participants. 

“You can’t just learn and walk away”

Generally after students graduate we ask them to an action. You can’t just learn and walk away. We ask them to do a small project to practice and have impact in the community. Eventually, in the last two years we see multiethnic immigrant and refugees groups are creating strategic campaigns to impact community issues and work cooperatively.

CIO, is still young, but I can see that we’ll be thinking about popular education as a model for decentralizing power to build the movement.

Last October in Portland, Oregon, we passed a resolution to protect rights of all immigrants. Portland is the first city to pull out of joint task force with FBI. The Mayor is now proposing to establish a day laborer center. There are some pretty severe political repercussions, including a series of raids in the last few weeks but we have made some progress. 

We are now planning to get ready for the 2008 election and 2009 legislation and we are expecting to have to fight at least 3 anti-immigrant ballot initiatives.

We have also just started a community leadership development program, with a heavy emphasis on refugee, Arab and Muslim populations. In this program, we also work with other organizations in Portland that organize with progressive white, Latino and African American communities, as a way to build our internal analysis, and also build bridges between communities. Other trainers have worked with the Native American community, so we have modified the BRIDGE immigration timeline to reflect Oregon’s KKK history and add Native Americans’ experience of children being stolen to attend federal government boarding schools. That conversation showed us that refugees from Europe and refugees from the global South have some very different understandings of racism and colonialism, and still, that there are class differences in the refugee community, based on skin color and education.

At CIO, we are not talking about black and brown, we are talking about Somalis and Ethiopians, Congolese and Liberian, Mexican, Korean, Palestinian and Afghani community leaders working with other Latino leaders, African American leaders, and progressive white folks. And we are working on redefining leadership to honor the contributions of people who are leaders in the community but not recognized as formal leaders in the city. To open the space for their leadership, we have had to work with the progressive white allies to step back and support the work as appropriate, and also to challenge the version of leadership that is exercised by gatekeepers in the refugee and immigrant community. That’s our vision of new refugee and immigrant community leadership for Portland: vibrant, diverse by race, origin, age, and a leadership that opens space for future generations of leaders.

Based on an interview with Kayse Jama, by Diana Pei Wu.

Kayse Jama is the interim Executive Director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO), based in Portland, Oregon. Before that, he was a New Voices Fellow at the Western States Center, working as a Trainer/Organizer. Born into a nomad family in Somalia, Kayse left when the civil war erupted, and finally found sanctuary in Portland. An original founder of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Kayse is also an adjunct instructor for University Studies at Portland State University.

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 Educating for Equity      ?õ¬?       Vol. 14 No. 2      ?õ¬?       Fall 2007       ?õ¬?       Credits
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