Organizing as Educating

Educating and Organizing


Organizing is teaching. Not the academic type, which mostly consists of stuffing data into people’s ears. Organizing is teaching which rests on people’s life experiences: drawing them out, developing trust, disrupting old perceptions of reality, developing group solidarity, taking action, building confidence for continued action, and creating a foundation for continual questioning of the status quo. This means of education is primarily in the action. It becomes liberating only if the person develops the discipline to rigorously reflect on that action. We have to own the questions in this educational process. Our curiosity must be the engine that drives us from action to reflection to more action followed by reflection.

The organizer’s story is told in Richard Harmon’s classic essay, “Making An Offer We Can’t Refuse.” Harmon directed Saul Alinsky’s organizing project in Buffalo, New York in the mid-1960s. Harmon has the advantage of working in an organization that is in action. Action creates the teachable moments when people find that the world is not the way it is depicted in civics text books. Such situations of cognitive dissonance are the best opportunities for education.
Most organizers, unfortunately, do not do much meaningful teaching. But good organizers do, and they pay attention to the writings of Myles Horton and Paolo Freire.

Educators vs. Organizers
The difference between educators and organizers is obvious when we compare Harmon’s essay with educator Nina Wallerstein’s “Problem-Posing Education: Freire’s Method for Transformation” in Freire and Ira Shor’s, Freire for the Classroom. Wallerstein has the student describe or name a problem, then define it along with associated feelings, relate it to their own experience, then generalize it to understand why the problem exists and who benefits from its existence. Finally, students discuss strategies for solutions and how to implement them. But such an approach is not enough for people to gain the experience of building and using democratic people power.

The questions Harmon raises are more pertinent to developing an actual campaign of action: What is the problem? How many other people feel the same way? What precisely do we want? Who do we see to get things changed? How many of us should go to see them? Who will be the spokespersons? Are we willing to caucus? What is the timetable for the response? Where and when is the evaluation session? (He recommends, right after the meeting.)

Organizing has often been criticized for focusing on winning rather than on educating. But such criticism is misguided. When large numbers of people win, it is educating. To teach people who are oppressed or discriminated against that they can, by democratically developed collective action, fight and win, is the central liberating lesson of organizing. A lost struggle, especially when experienced by people who have been persuaded to give up watching TV to join their community in doing something, only reinforces the pervasive belief that “you can’t fight the powers that be.”

Two Pitfalls of Organizing
Firstly, the lessons of organizing do not inherently lead to an understanding of the larger social structure and the necessity to fundamentally change it. That kind of understanding emerges more out of reflection, analysis, and discussion, as advocated by Horton and Freire. Therefore, it is vitally important that education should go on if organizing is to do more than give one more group a slightly larger piece of a shrinking economic or public services pie, or substitute one set of oppressors for another. People need to:

1.    Discuss values—their own and those of their adversaries. Often, these are fundamentally different.
2.    Examine alternative visions of how cities, regions, countries, and economies could be organized.
3.    Learn the workings and history of the political, economic, and social power structure within which we live.
4.    Study those who sought to bring the country closer to its democratic promise in social movements of the past.
5.    Structure their own organizations to embody democratic principles.

Secondly, people know too well the nature of power in America today and either withdraw in the face of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, or become part of politically correct groups—right on some issues but powerless to do anything about others. The educator, Horton included, tends to view the steps of power-building as co-optation. “Reform within the [schooling] system reinforced the system, or was co-opted by [it]. Reformers didn’t change the system, they made it more palatable and justified it...” he concludes.

Freire amends that view by saying: “Trying to co-opt is a kind of struggle on behalf of those who have power to do so. It’s a tactic; it’s a moment of the struggle... (I)n order for you not to be co-opted [or] …be out of the possibility of some power wanting to co-opt you, it’s necessary that you do nothing.”

Reform vs. Revolution
All significant organizing efforts and social movements face the problem of how to win immediate victories, while at the same time expanding their power, so they can address more recalcitrant problems in society. The reform versus revolution distinction does not provide guidance in formally democratic societies where the rights of free speech, assembly, and petition to the government exist along with competitive elections. A third choice is needed—encompassing both, fundamental change and something other than the immediate violent overthrow of a government.

The strategy for achieving fundamental change in the United States is to build autonomous, deeply rooted, broadly based, people power organizations that can act locally and work together in larger political and economic arenas. Good examples of this are in some of the work in the Alinsky tradition, the best organizing in the Deep South civil rights movement of the early-to-mid 1960s, and the best workplace organizing throughout American history. At their best, these movements included efforts to change major institutions, promoted mutual aid and self-help, and made education, reflection and training key dimensions of organizational life.

In organizing, people act and talk collectively; that’s how they learn. They learn both how systems work and, by reflecting on their action, they connect deeply shared values with action. This kind of reflection is a ‘time-out’ from what is immediately facing the organization; it is done in both labor and religious education. The educator has a certain luxury that is not available to the organizer because the latter’s emphasis is on building democratic power, while the former’s is to understand what that means. There used to be a healthy tension between labor educators and labor’s top leaders and organizers that, unfortunately, does not seem to exist anymore.

Democratic Movements
The difference between democratically constituted movements and organizations which come “from below,” versus government, foundation, and corporate-designed “nonprofits” or “citizen participation components” is that the former are independent, raising their core budgets from member dues and grassroots fund-raisers. Their scope of action isn’t constrained by the terms of a grant or other externally-defined guidelines, regulations, or legislation. They are only limited by the First Amendment guarantees of the Constitution and the decisions of their members. They can enter into alliances, add new issue concerns, and otherwise act as their members decide. Rather than looking for “niches” in which they can distinguish themselves from others, they look for opportunities to unite with others to build broader people power.

Leaders and organizers of independent organizations work to aggregate political resources because they understand that the solutions to neighborhood problems do not lie principally with City Hall, but with the private/corporate sector and with state, regional, and national levels of government. They often develop relationships of mutual interest with other community organizations, thus going beyond the parochialism of a local neighborhood, and end up meeting and working with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They also are free to work on any issues affecting the quality of life of their members—whether it is cooperating with unions or challenging corporations on healthcare. In stark contrast, government-sponsored neighborhood associations, foundation, and corporate-funded nonprofits typically fight over how the pie is divided—not about how big it is, who pays for it, or who shapes it.

“Participation” that is limited by externally defined funding, guidelines or legislation directs discontent into manageable channels. It is about governance or administration. It may have legitimate purposes—as, for example, a parent advisory committee at a school where the principal listens. But it is not capable of altering the relations of power—only independent “people power” organizations can do that.

Although independent organizations may sometimes reach agreements that are not entirely satisfactory, they do so with the idea that they will return at a later day in greater strength and demand more—more justice, more equality.
Settling for a Place at the Table vs. People’s Power
As the old civil rights movement song put it, “freedom is a constant struggle.” One of organizing’s lessons is that conflict and negotiation go hand-in-hand. They are not opposites. Conflict gets you to the table where negotiation takes place. New proposals are made at the table as you seek greater justice. When those new proposals are rejected because they more deeply challenge entrenched power and wealth, there is a need for people power action—more conflict. Organizations that “settle” simply for a place at the table have been co-opted in the negative sense. Organizations that use a position at the table to demand greater justice have learned the fundamental lesson of the long march through the institutions.

Formally democratic organizations are a necessary, though not sufficient condition for true democratization. Too often these organizations come to replicate the values, leadership forms, and structures of the dominant culture. To build an alternative vision requires that we begin at the base of society—in the neighborhoods, congregations, and workplaces where most people live.

We need a broader vision that combines democratic control of the economy with a pluralist society in which power is held by independent associations, not concentrated within government. Organizers need to think about how to make corporate power directly accountable to the local communities, to break up the great concentrations of wealth, and to develop a decentralized and sustainable way of economic life.

Such an enterprise will need the contributions of people like Myles Horton and Paulo Freire—people not preoccupied by the daily pressures of organization building, but who can challenge the organizers to fully reach the democratic potential that is in their work. It is difficult for community and labor organizers to generate the proposals for structural change that we need today. Their job is to create the public space where ideas can be seriously discussed and new directions agreed and acted upon.
The educators will contribute to creating alternative programs and structures; the organizers will strategize with the people on how to build the power to meaningfully struggle for these alternatives. I believe that contemporary work-, neighborhood-, faith-, interest- and identity-based independent organizing will make a major contribution to our getting to where we want to go if they root their work in the best of the small “d” democratic tradition and biblical shalom values.

Mike Miller is the founding director of the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center.This article was dapted from 'Organizing and Education”, Social Policy, Fall, 1993. The full text is available from Mike Miller, 

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

Educating with Soul


For nearly 11 years, the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL)—an organizing skills and political education training center in Oakland, California—has conducted workshops for people around the Bay Area and across the nation, with the goal of building power within oppressed communities. For the most part, we are self-taught as educators, facilitators, and curriculum developers. We have learned what we do through years of political study and experimentation, and our mistakes.

The belief that education is an important component of movement building underlies all of SOUL’s programs and is reflected in our trainings and workshops. Political education focuses not only on understanding the systemic roots of oppression and developing a conscious action response, but also on providing a context for our (working class, immigrant, queer, and transgender communities and communities of color) experiences with oppression.

The Methodology of SOUL
SOUL’s political education and trainings are based on a methodology that encourages participants to reflect on their own experiences as a way to understand the importance of political education. Our definition of Popular Education is taken from the series “Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers,” produced in Zimbabwe by Anne Hope and Sally Timmell. It is “…a method and a philosophy of education that holds oppressed people at the center of the learning process.”

SOUL understands that education and good ideas alone cannot bring about radical change in society. It takes a grassroots movement of community organizing. So, we strive to develop leaders in the movement to fight against the systemic roots of oppression. Akua Jackson, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, says that SOUL has helped her to “…think of organizing as a science, and to think about organizing in a politically and historically grounded way. The process has mirrored the type of leadership development and the new political reality we’re fighting for.”

As facilitators and educators, it is our role to always move people to the next level. The multi-step process for raising consciousness through political education is different for all oppressed people. And consciousness itself is not a static thing, but a continually evolving process that requires developing conscious organizers. SOUL’s Educational Alternatives Program attempts to raise consciousness through a series of 16 workshops on understanding systems of oppression and identifying community solutions to combat them. Another approach focuses on developing a framework for analysis, otherwise known as “coming into consciousness.” Our 10-week summer internship program brings 12 young organizers from around the world to engage in political education and organizing skills training. This advanced study course is designed to raise the analytical, critical thinking, and assessment skills of participants. In addition, SOUL offers a three-day training for trainers to build and strengthen facilitation skills.

Finally, SOUL offers two programs that attempt to develop the analytical and assessment skills of people trying to become conscious organizers. They are, a five-day intensive training for youth organizers at our National Youth Organizers Training Institute, geared towards new lead organizers and youth leaders transitioning into formal lead organizing positions, and Sunday School. We hope these programs help people to commit to becoming lifelong movement leaders.

To date, SOUL has trained over 5000 people. We engage in regular evaluations of our work, drawing primarily on participant feedback and by tracking the impact of our work on individuals, organizations, and the movement as a whole.

Says Malachi Larrabee-Garza, SOUL’s advanced political education coordinator, “SOUL trains people in frameworks that will help them to develop their analysis and to engage the Left. The whole process, which is very Freierian, is based on input and evaluation from participants, which requires constant refining of the curriculum. It has taught me about the broader process of consciousness raising because it forces you to check in with your base. You tailor your stuff based on what’s in people’s heads and… on reflection, action, and evaluation—not what’s solely on… paper, which is the traditional model… in the United States.”

Educating the Next Generation
SOUL’s aim is to develop youth leaders with effective political analysis and organizing skills, and an organizational capacity to create leaders who impact policy with field-wide knowledge and collaboration.

According to Yu Tong, a SOUL summer school graduate who starts law school at Santa Clara University next fall, “SOUL has made me think about educational access for the poor. I personally have been motivated to access different things… instead of waiting and… not being proactive because of my oppression. I’ve found different outlets… to do what I want to do and get where I want to go. My time with SOUL has provided certain bridges, and in some ways, outlets to help me organize and realize I can do what I want in life.”

Educating the next generation of leaders for our movements is a key element in building social movements. Transformative change takes a long time—many generations long. At SOUL, we are in it for the long haul, providing opportunities for developing consciousness and taking action for 21st century youth.

For more information about SOUL’s programs and instruction manuals, contact

Liz Derias is the educational alternatives program coordinator at SOUL. Originally from Egypt by way of Philadelphia, she began educating and organizing at the age of 17 with Sankofa Community Empowerment, Inc.

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

A Tale of Two Cities


Typical city planning processes fail to provide the context and information residents need to be effective advocates for themselves. After participating in an innovative educational process as part of the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), residents of Richmond, California, are prepared to take on urban planning at a whole new level.

Nicknamed the “City of Pride and Purpose,” Richmond once boasted a bustling downtown, a large and growing African American population, and a dedicated wartime workforce. Now the city is known for the toxins plaguing residents who lack buffers between their homes and the Chevron refinery, a $35 million budget crisis that caused libraries and recreation centers to close, and a near state of emergency due to skyrocketing murder rates in 2005. A recent survey commissioned by the City of Richmond found that residents rated their quality of life lowest in comparison to 212 other jurisdictions in the United States.

However, movements in Richmond are trying to turn things around. A new Green Party mayor now presides over the city with intentions of holding polluting industries accountable. The city’s commitment to recovering from the budget crisis was acknowledged by the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers. The Tent Cities grassroots movement created makeshift communities around murder sites for nearly 40 days, resulting in reduced homicides in the surrounding areas. And Richmond is beginning to catch the eye of developers as the Bay Area housing market soars and developable land diminishes.

Richmond is divided into two seemingly separate places: Scenic waterfront views, market value homes, and beautiful parks make up one city below the highway, while blight, crime, and poverty plague the urban core above the highway. The community feels broken, separated by physical as well as by socioeconomic lines. While outside investment in Richmond could revitalize the economy and help strengthen neighborhoods, it’s vital that provisions that protect the city’s low-income people and people of color must be in place to ensure that they don’t get left behind.

The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) is a coalition led by Urban Habitat, Contra Costa Faithworks!, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, and the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation. As Richmond updates its General Plan, the blueprint for development over the next 20 years, REDI is spearheading an effort to make sure that current and future development in the City of Richmond benefits all residents.


By bringing together city officials and those not traditionally engaged in planning, REDI hopes to increase local leadership and create a comprehensive strategy for equity. Using the General Plan Update as a vehicle for an inclusive process and implementation, REDI has brought together Richmond environmental educators, piano technicians, preschool teachers, Laotian community leaders, high school students, labor leaders, the mayor, city council members, and key city department heads. What do they all have in common? They all want the best for Richmond, and they all have participated in the REDI Equitable Development Leadership Institutes.

REDI launched the Leadership Institutes with an event that began a dialogue on equitable development that is continuing across the city. After the kick-off celebration, which brought all participants together, people split into two training tracks, the “Base Building” and the “Electeds and Staff” Leadership Institutes. Each track ran several months, offering a safe place for the respective groups to learn from each other, strategize on planning policies, apply equitable development principles to their lives and work, and build relationships with each other. REDI coordinated key intersections throughout the process, providing ample opportunities for the two groups to exchange ideas and get to know each other’s viewpoints.

Held in the heart of the Iron Triangle at the Nevin Community Center, the REDI “Base Building” Leadership Institute solidified relations between the environmental justice and social justice groups Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, and Ma’at Youth Academy. Simultaneously translated in Lao, Mien, and Spanish, the trainings were tailored to help participants feed their concerns into the city’s formal process. Participants initially felt unsure of where the workshops were going: Where was the fight? Who was the target?

Gradually, people began to realize that Richmond could address current concerns through planning for future changes. The population was growing, requiring the city to accommodate more housing, create more jobs, and ease traffic problems. Participants grew to make these connections, shifting their civic perspective from “fight” mode to becoming proactive leaders in urban planning for the future generation.

The curriculum was structured to cultivate this understanding. The first sessions focused on understanding participants’ concerns and needs through sharing stories and visions for Richmond. To facilitate connections between concrete issues and broader policy initiatives, REDI created an interactive Jeopardy game that broke down complex issues, such as amending the inclusionary zoning ordinance, instituting community impact reports, and instituting neighborhood planning. A bus tour of Richmond with the city’s planning director allowed participants to ask challenging questions about how to apply policy concepts to Richmond’s realities. The last session focused on implementing the campaign strategy: participants conducted a power analysis and practiced delegation visits with council members.

By the end of the Institute, the resident champions of equitable development were primed and excited to take action. They plugged into city-run community workshops to feed their ideas to the city. Sixteen-year-old Alyssa Hopper of Ma’at Youth Academy found prepping her message easy. “[Equitable Development] is a like a multi-layer cake where everyone—every race, sex, income level, age, education level—has equal say in the development of their community… land use, economic development, housing, transportation, and health,” she said.

On the “Electeds and Staff” Leadership Institute track, REDI members spent months interviewing the majority of city council members and staff department heads to understand where each stood on important issues and the challenges and opportunities present. Key themes emerged out as topics to address in the workshops, such as what to do with the remaining developable land and how to create community ownership mechanisms. The REDI team thus became a resource for city officials, equipping them with ideas, tools, case studies, new relationships, and community support to help everyone move towards a common goal.


The REDI Leadership Institutes represent a model for building institutional capacity and growing leadership for social and environmental justice in the region. Each set of trainings is customized to the particular needs of each community, identifying any common ground and shared visions. The institutes rarely teach participants new material; rather, the facilitators identify root causes, help understand decision-making structures, and connect issues and people to move a larger body forward in action. They enable residents to feel empowered in their own communities. Richmond Leadership Institute particpant Paul Larudee feels that “We live in a very desirable area—it’s up to us to decide how to develop.” He is now working to determine how a community land trust can preserve housing affordability in Richmond.

Graduates of the community-based leadership institute took their momentum and ran. After meeting with the majority of the city council to present their policy recommendations, the participants convened nearly 300 Richmond residents, officials, and other stakeholders at a community forum. There, participants presented equitable development principles and policies and asked the community to formally endorse the Declaration of Equitable Development with Polaroid photos and signatures, creating an amazing picture representing Richmond. Fredericka Bryant, of Ma’at Youth Academy, captured the essence of the event when she said, “For the core of Richmond to thrive, residents need good jobs and a safe and healthy environment. The people of Richmond deserve a safe and just community in which to raise their families. We call on our elected officials and community members to endorse equitable development principles for Richmond’s future.”

The response? “I am delighted to join with REDI and those who share the same values I do of economic and environmental justice,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin as she and other council members in attendance endorsed the Declaration of Equitable Development. “We are reclaiming Richmond for Richmond residents.”

Having been dominated for so long by Chevron, residents and city officials alike feel it is time to prioritize the people. Although still a year out from adoption, the General Plan represents a vehicle for unifying the city with long-term vision and tangible impact. Local leadership and residents are working together to actively integrate equity into planning processes for a healthy and just Richmond.

Diana Abellera is the coordinator of Urban Habitat’s Leadership Institute.

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

Florida Farmworkers Build Unity through Education and Action


With its streets full of the smells of savory Caribbean and Latin cuisine, its sounds of many languages, and its population of Haitian, Mayan, and Latino peoples, one might mentally place the town of Immokalee in any number of locations, but probably not Florida. English is seldom heard here and Americans rarely seen in this town, which serves as a bedroom community for tens of thousands of migrant workers.

Likewise, the organizing strategies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—the local farm workers’ association—have more in common with the grassroots struggles in Latin America than in the United States. In fact, the Coalition was founded 11 years ago by participants and allies of the campesino movements in Haiti and Chiapas, and the survivors of dictatorships in Guatemala.

The stated goals of CIW are economic justice in the fields; labor rights, including the right to work free from slavery; economic and political rights throughout the hemisphere enabling workers to thrive in their own countries; and the rights of immigrants in the United States.1 These organizing goals may sound utopian under any circumstances, but the sector in question—migrant laborers—is hands-down, the hardest group to organize.

CIW’s challenges include a constituency which is “ethnically and linguistically divided, largely undocumented… highly mobile, dirt-poor, largely nonliterate, and culturally isolated…. What’s more, farm labor is excluded from the National Labor Relations, denying farmworkers… the legal rights to organize and join unions.… And worse yet… workers pick up paychecks from three to four different companies each Friday evening…. There is no such thing as ‘Pacific Land Co.’s workers’ or ‘Gargiulo’s crews,’ there are only Immokalee workers and changing faces picking, planting, and pulling plastic in company fields on any given day.” Those who pick most of the produce consumed in the United States are, in short, “an employer’s dream and an organizer’s nightmare.”2

How, then, has this group attained some of the biggest victories for workers in recent history? How did it get Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers,’ and A&W Restaurant to almost double the wages for tomato pickers in Florida? Or get them to agree to a verifiable zero tolerance policy for modern-day slavery and the right of farm workers to participate, through CIW, in developing and implementing an enforceable code of conduct? How did CIW get McDonald’s, the leader of the $100 billion-a-year fast food industry, to agree to even more stringent conditions this past April with just a whisper of a boycott? Why is Burger King showing an early interest in cooperating with CIW?   

Part of the answer lies with CIW’s public mobilization strategy. The take-to-the-streets and put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is campaigns have moved the feet, hearts, and minds of multitudes in the United States, especially among immigrant rights networks and students. CIW’s campaigns rely on decentralized networks and go after the brand image, targeting the point of consumption rather than the point of production.3 More than 400 schools participated in the Taco Bell Boycott, and last October, CIW was able to galvanize 40 actions against McDonald’s in 21 states.

A fundamental factor in CIW’s successes in the food industry and its vision of transforming power is its base-building strategy. The underlying philosophy is “consciousness + commitment = change.” CIW’s methodologies are grounded in popular education, leadership by the base, and a truly horizontal democracy that requires staff to be voted in by members, and their salaries tied to that of farm labor.


According to Lucas Benitez, co-founder of CIW, “Popular education must be at the root of any movement that comes from the base. And it must come from the very people who are affected by the problems. Our popular education is accessible to everyone in our community, regardless of their language or level of formal education. It lets us build a broad base of leadership so that responsibility for the success of the movement doesn’t lie in the hands of just one individual whose loss could weaken the struggle.”

Popular education is also the vehicle that serves to explain the struggle to workers just coming into the community and to encourage their participation. Benitez says, “Popular education plants the seeds of consciousness that builds the commitment necessary to make change possible.”

Popular education is imparted through cartoons posted around CIW’s office and on Immokalee’s buildings. Vivid street art and popular theatre also play a part. CIW’s low-power radio station where members spin music, including traditional and political songs from back home, and share messages about workers’ rights, is yet another portal of popular education.
The education occurs in week-long training sessions facilitated by peasant leaders from Haiti or Central America, and in Wednesday night meetings led by newer members of CIW. The mottos that guide CIW’s organizing—“Everyone is a leader,” “He who does not analyze continues to be a slave,” or “From the people, for the people”—sprouted and grew out of the meetings, as did the strategies that guide CIW’s campaigns.

The consciousness nurtured by popular education is helping transform a vulnerable group into hard-core activists, many of whose members previously either did not know their rights, or were afraid to demand them. The organizing strategies have also succeeded in bringing together an atomized, dispersed population into a cohesive group with a common identity as exploited members of an unjust system who have the power to change their status. According to CIW, “It’s the shift from suing in court to assure that workers receive the minimum wage guaranteed by law, to fighting in the street as a community for a living wage; the shift from accepting as a given that farm workers are excluded from the laws that protect the right to collective bargaining, to organizing general strikes demanding the right to bargain as a collective.”4

The transformation brought on by education has spurred members to engage in sustained, aggressive action, such as hunger strikes, statewide marches, and national boycotts. The actions have, in turn, created a national awareness of the struggles of farm workers not seen in decades, and led to concrete changes in rights, benefits, and wages.  

Furthermore, the education reaches far beyond Immokalee and the 3,500 CIW members when, for three or four months of the year, the men and women move north along the migrant stream, sharing what they have learned with other farm workers.
“Today,” says Benitez, “we have a voice where we’ve never had a voice before.”

1.    Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “Golpear a Uno Es Golpear a Todos!” Unpublished, pp. 2-3.
2.    Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “Consciousness + Commitment = Change,” in Globalize Liberation, Solnit, David, Ed., (City Lights Books, 2004), 349-350.
3.    Buckley, Jordan, “Open Letter to Ronald McDonald,” WireTap Magazine, March 29, 2007.

4.    “Golpear a Uno Es Golpear a Todos,” Op. Cit.,  23.

Beverly Bell is the co-coordinator of the Other Worlds Collaborative and Winner of the 2006 PEN New Mexico Award
for Literature of Social Justice.

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

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Day Labor Program Unites Politics and Services


I push a partially shattered glass door of an incongruous looking office and walk past a group of Latino and African American men into the offices of the San Francisco Day Labor Program (SF-DLP) in the Mission district. It is a slightly chilly morning but that doesn’t deter the workers awaiting a job assignment from taking a break outdoors. Inside, rows of half-occupied chairs—like those seen in hospital waiting rooms—accost my eyes. The workers mill about, chat, read the newspaper, and one of them, Leon, reads the popular Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita. The spiritual detachment propounded in the Gita helps him overcome the despair of waiting, he claims. It is a long wait alright—barely 10 per cent of the waiting work force will work that day.

Meanwhile, an animated English class is in progress in one of the rooms.  Victor Ruiz is busy breaking down the annoying grammatical inconsistencies of the English language to a group of six men. Further inside is the modestly furnished but functional administrative office of the SF-DLP where a polite but busy Hector Valdez, a program coordinator, ushers me in. While he continues to work away, filing, answering phone calls, and responding to requests, he tells me the story of the SF-DLP, the largest of its kind, attracting more than a 100 workers, including new immigrants, to its unassuming offices everyday.

The SF-DLP, a project of the La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco (, is an essential service center for the marginalized worker combing the city’s streets for a job. Combining comprehensive services, organizing, and leadership development, the program empowers the day laborer community, making it more economically and politically self-sufficient. Renee Saucado, a senior organizer at La Raza, notes that in an environment of extreme hostility to immigrant rights, a lot of the organizing is prioritized around oppressive bills and the current wave of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  raids against undocumented workers.

“The working class immigrant community is in a situation of extreme vulnerability,” notes Saucado. “Trauma, addiction, high stress aggravated by the problems they face—like homelessness and extreme poverty—additionally complicate their organizing. We see ourselves as providers of vital tools to the workers so that they can then go on and fight for what they essentially should have had in the first place.”

The Women’s Wing of the SF-DLP
Jill Shenker is an organizer with the women’s collective of the SF-DLP, which was founded a few years ago to explicitly address the needs and issues of women workers. “We realized the need for an exclusive women’s collective to address the additional issues of abuse and exploitation that women as workers face,” notes Shenker. “The collective today serves as an invaluable model for bringing together labor, civil rights, and community-based organizations”—all vital in today’s disturbing vacuum for political organizing.

The women’s collective also serves as a forum to build leadership among women workers, several of them domestic workers. Today, the collective is a 70-member strong group of women who meet weekly to strategize support and prioritize women’s access to environmentally safe jobs. English and computer classes provide the additional boost that immigrant women need in order to resist and call attention to routine exploitation and abuse. While improving job skills and access to better pay is the immediate goal of the collective, they make no bones about the fact that they wish to be an active feminist forum for women’s leadership and perspectives in the larger labor movement. “We ultimately exist to build women’s leadership and their presence at the negotiating table,” says Shenker.

The collective meets weekly to provide support, make organizational decisions, and share work strategies. Collective members also get to undergo free worker safety trainings and English classes. The communal core of the collective ensures a level of professionalism on par with industry standards and also ensures the accountability that the job market demands.
Shenker explains that the center is just beginning to create a written curriculum for the workshops where the women workers are trained in the different aspects of safety related to domestic work. They have undertaken the project with the Data Center to put together information on toxic substances in cleaning products, safer alternatives, healthy workplace ergonomics, and other safety and health issues. The workshops are peer led and limited to seven to nine members at a time to make them participatory, while also enabling the members to take charge.

“We use a lot of popular education tools and strategies to inform and educate our worker-members,” says Shenker. “This means that the meetings themselves are a source of information sharing and presenting. The orally shared curricula are also empowering for women as they are many-times experts based on their experience, and this is available to new members.”
Other population education tools like agit prop theater and basic hands-on workshops help break down more complex information, especially legalese, in ways that relate to the workers’ situations and experience in the current atmosphere of hostility towards worker rights.


Connecting with Resources
With my broken Spanish and a smile, I weave my way past some of the lounging workers and introduce myself to Alex from El Salvador who has been a regular at the center for a year and a half. “We function like an informal support group. The access to basic health and legal services that we get here is crucial. Without it, we would be in a dire situation,” he states nonchalantly. More than the services the program provides, it is the informal connections and support that ensures a steady stream of members who share information and the little resources they have access to. “We get access to some computer training but we are yet to explore it fully,” says Alex. “But the center is like a home for us. Especially those of us who are homeless,” he adds, with a beaming smile.

While waiting, the workers also advertise the availability of cheap, accessible, and efficient labor. Fliers and posters are regularly distributed and posted, just like the cheap cigarettes and coffee happily shared among strangers. But the SF-DLP is more than just a hub of activity, networking, and training. It is also a crucial place for bonding, as members lookout for each other, even as they compete for the few jobs available each day.

The member meetings are informal but informational and highly interactive. Open to diverse progressive groups involved with labor, education, or immigrant rights, they seek to provide as much information as possible in the brief few hours that they meet each week. “We invite all kinds of folks committed to immigrant and worker rights to address our meetings because we believe that’s the best way to learn and use resources effectively” notes Hector.

The Day Labor Program is affiliated with a network of immigrant rights groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, Deporten La Migra, that includes the SF Living Wage Coalition and Mujeres Unidas Activas, and is also a part of the emerging Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (BAIRC).

Worker Centers—Gateways to the Movement
Worker centers have emerged as pivotal components of immigrant working class communities consolidating their rights. Through the triad of tools these centers provide: service delivery, advocacy, and organizing, they are playing a crucial role in helping immigrants navigate somewhat steadily through the rough seas of work and legal rights in the United States. Labor expert Janice Fine calls labor centers the gateway organizations that are meeting immigrant workers where they are, while also providing them with a wealth of information and training.1

The SF-DLP, like other worker centers, provides a wide range of day-to-day work services: from one-on-one assistance to individuals who walk in the door with employment-related problems to mounting collective action campaigns to change employer, industry, or government policies and practices. The SF-DLP has helped secure back wages for a number of its workers and constantly educates its workers on their rights through their fliers and curriculum materials.

Through the trio of umbilical services they provide, worker centers like the SF-DLP are mobilizing immigrant workers to defend their rights and make their voices heard. By providing a broad political context in which to practice skills and mutual aid, the program enables participants to join the fight against regressive immigration laws and to organize their workplaces The DLP is proving that the politics and need for labor unionizing is alive and well in the heartland of capitalist America.

SF-DLP is a non-profit that connects homeowners and businesses with experienced laborers for temporary or on-going jobs, such as moving, house cleaning, painting, gardening, and more. Call Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and Saturday 7 a.m.-12 noon, to hire workers for anytime.
(415) 252-5375 or (415) 252-5376.

 Preeti Shekar is a producer for the Women’s Magazine on KPFA radio in Berkeley, California.

1.    Fine, Janice, “Worker Centers,” Race, Poverty and the Environment, Vol. 14, No. 1 Spring, 2007.

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

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Training for Choice in the Workplace

Manos Home Care’s Democratic Scheduling Process 

Manos Home Care’s Adult Care department assists seniors and adults with disabilities with their daily activities in their homes, including personal care, cooking, cleaning, laundry and errands. Organized as a mutual benefit corporation, Manos Home Care’s primary purpose is to benefit its employees. Democratic education is important in carrying out our mission. Manos Home Care is a part of the group of cooperatively organized businesses loosely referred to as Manos—with six organizations providing jobs for 250 workers in 20 East Bay cities, the Manos group of businesses is one of the largest cooperatively organized businesses in the United States. Manos companies provide work in the areas: commercial office cleaning, day labor, home care for seniors, house cleaning, and respite care for children with disabilities.

Base building education at this level means teaching participants some basic skills, but it also involves un-learning undemocratic passive tactics that workers have adopted to survive in other workplaces.

 “I need a new availability form,” says Felicia McGiver, a home care aide who cares for seniors. The request is common at Manos Home Care, where workers set their own work schedules. As a part of the process in applying for work at Manos Home Care, applicants fill out a form that tells Manos Home Care when they are available to work. “I went up to Iesha [Manos Home Care Program Director] and asked her if this was a trick question,” says Felicia, laughing. Not only is the concept new, but the ability to fill out the form is a skill that workers often need to learn. The responsibility to educate applicants and employees in filling out the availability form is necessary for Manos’ offer to be truly democratic: without training people to exercise their democratic options, the choices don’t really exist.

Determining one’s own work schedule is often a new experience for home care workers. Administrative staff spends a lot of time in one-on-one sessions explaining how to fill the form out, and how to think about setting their own schedules. Allowing workers to set their schedules is one of the ways in which Manos Home Care incorporates democratic education into its workplace.

The choices for the home care aides are real; applicants must fill out a form stating their availability to work and can change that availability at any time during their employment. Felicia has stated that she can perform live-in work on weekends, and was just assigned to a client after passing a pre-employment training, criminal background check, and work reference check. In Felicia’s case, her availability matched what a client needed, and Manos Home Care managers gave her the assignment, and Felicia joined the 85 other home care aides, 90% of whom are African-American women.

When scheduling for entry-level jobs in traditional for-profit companies, managers attempt to find employees to work the schedules that their company requires by stating their requirements to applicants and current employees. The relationship is between the Manager and the employee; the Manager attempts to force the employee to conform to the company’s scheduling requirements. At Manos Home Care, we turn that relationship on its head. The workforce states their schedule, the clients state their required schedule, and managers coordinate the requests of clients and workers, matching home care aides with clients based on schedules and additional factors, such as location, client needs, and home care aide qualifications.

Manos Home Care has a four-phase process that assists home care aides in exercising their scheduling options—a new process for them. Without this training process, the democratic options wouldn’t make any sense, and home care aides would fall back into the pattern of waiting for the boss to tell them what schedule they will work. The four phases are:

  1. Application. Applicants fill out the availability form, stating the earliest times they can start and the latest times they can finish a case, both for day and night shifts. Live-in shifts are also available, and applicants also state what cities they in which they are willing to work. Applicants are free to speak to the administrative assistant regarding how to think through what their schedule is. Many times applicants put the shift they would like to work instead of the parameters of their availability—when they can work versus what shift they would prefer. After the administrative assistant is satisfied they understand the form, she accepts it and passes it to the program director with the completed application.
  2. Interview. In the interview, the availability sheet is reviewed and once again the concept of a parameter is reviewed to ensure that applicant understands that she or he is stating what times they can work, and that they can really work during these periods. The interviewer also discusses whether or not an applicant’s availability is consistent with the customer requests Manos Home Care receives. If Manos Home Care doesn’t usually get shifts that fall within an applicant’s availability, the applicant must either change their availability or risk not being hired.
  3. Pre-Assignment Training. During the first day of our three-day employee training class, the concept of availability is reviewed in the context of assignments and customer satisfaction sessions. Customers often complain about switching home care aides, tardiness, absenteeism, and requesting to leave in the middle of a shift; the trainer links these service problems, among other causes, to accepting a case that does not match a home care aide’s true availability. During the discussion of the assignment process, the trainer reviews how a home care aide’s availability is entered into Manos home Care’s customer software program, and that when new assignments come in, we match those assignments with a home care aide’s availability. The intended outcome of this training is for the aide to understand that what their availability is crucial to getting the right assignment that will allow them to succeed.
  4. Scheduling. After successfully completing the training, home care aides wait for an assignment. Schedulers call home care aides for assignments based on their availability. When the assignment is being discussed, schedulers specifically mention that the aide has stated they are available for the shift in question. If the aide refuses, then the conversation shifts to their actual availability. The assignment structure trains home care aides in the use of their availability, and they come to understand that “you really mean it when you ask when we can work.” After turning down an assignment, home care aides often fill out a new availability form and assignments are made based on the new availability.

Democratic education becomes meaningful when it concentrates on training people to exercise real options integrated into the activities of their life—work being one of these basic activities. At any workplace there are core processes in which groups of employees participate; at Manos Home Care, the assignment process is one of those core processes. Manos Home Care creates democratic action by building options into the assignment process and through training workers to exercise those options, people such as Felicia, who is currently caring for a senior in the Oakland hills. Democratic education becomes meaningful, interesting, and essential when focused on processes that include democratic actions and options.

Kevin Rath is the co-founder and Director of  Manos Home Care.

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

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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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Oaxacan Teachers Organize for Justice


Few social movements in recent history more clearly crystallize the central role of education in building democratic participation than the struggle for better working conditions and people’s political power in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico in the past decade. Last year, as the teachers union carried out their annual strike for a cost of living adjustment, increased funding for school infrastructure, free school breakfasts, and free textbooks and uniforms for students, they were met by fierce police repression from the Oaxacan state government. A peaceful sit-in in the zocalo or town square suddenly turned into a pitched street battle when government forces tried to re-take the plaza by force. After the initial shock of this naked display of military power, which left dozens injured and several killed, the people of Oaxaca mobilized with a passion and cool coordination that stunned the government and resulted in an ongoing uprising for the next six months.

Nancy Davies, a journalist based in Oaxaca, when asked whether popular education played a role in creating the intense engagement of the population observes, “You’ve got it exactly backwards; civic engagement leads to real popular education. It is the process of defending people’s rights that’s central to popular education.”

“Civic engagement came when people’s rights were violated, when their heads were smashed. People rushed in so quickly. The education came as they organized in self-defense. Within three days after the attacks, the people were in place. But, really, there were many preliminary preparations. They knew what they were reaching for and they had the whole assemblia culture of Oaxaca behind them.”

Teachers are intent on defending more than just their own paychecks, according to  Jill Freidberg, a film maker who has made a compelling documentary about the teachers’ organizing efforts, called Grains of Sand.

A central struggle has been educators’ attempts to fight privatization of the publicly run rural colleges that have offered their students—many from poor, indigenous communities—free tuition, free room and board, and guaranteed employment as schoolteachers upon graduation.

Looking for the motivation behind the repeated attempts to privatize education and to make teacher training less accessible to indegenous people, she says, “Part of the function of destabilizing the public sector is so that there is no time for anything but survival, much less struggle for cultural relevance or empowerment.”

The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca
In fact, central to the popular mobilization was a process of deep-rooted education organized by social movements that once waged their own distinct struggles for autonomy or better working conditions, and   are now working together to create a more democratic Mexico.

Jacob Muller, a journalist and activist with the Oaxaca Solidarity Network, says that many in Oaxaca city weren’t so sure that they supported the teachers when the strike began. But when the attacks on the teachers occurred, it brought the question into sharp relief: “Do we want to live in a police state where the government can viciously attack a group of workers demanding their rights?” The answer from the other workers in the city of Oaxaca was a resounding “No!”

Davies points out that the teachers’ support extends far beyond the urban core. “Ninety percent of Oaxacanos live in small communities outside of the central urban area. These teachers are in close relationship to their students and, of course, to the parents of their students. They are the ones buying school supplies with their own money, they are the ones teaching with no materials in inadequate buildings that were funded but never built.”

And beyond their role inside the classroom, many of the teachers are acutely aware of the larger social forces that impact their communities.

Genaro Vasquez, an educator in the Mixte area—an eight-hour bus trip from the city of Oaxaca—explains the core motivation behind his commitment to return to teach after receiving a university education in Mexico City.

“To awaken is fundamental because, in the majority of the towns and cities, ignorance is the normality of our time. It is a grave danger. Education rooted in our communities is the only solution to this profound threat.”

George Salzman, a retired professor who lives in Oaxaca and is a frequent commentator on Oaxaca in the alternative media, observes that “when the indigenous people come in from the countryside to support the teachers, they bring an agenda of their own. They want to gain control of their own lives. Getting rid of Governor Ulisses Ruiz is only a first step. The determination is to change the form of social life itself.”

Vasquez explains, “Standardized education is only about the numbers, it does not reach the intellectual or spiritual element. They are infatuated with computers but education is a problem of the human conscience. We must be teaching cooperation, solidarity, intellectual autonomy, and independence.”

Salzman attributes the wide-ranging challenge to the values still present in indigenous culture. “They want to move toward a world with no political parties, where decisions are made by consensus in assemblies, where each community has its own autonomy. It is a whole different concept of how to live and you can see it in the forms and structures that have been developing to coordinate the struggle.”
One of the organzations threatened with firbombing by government-backed para-militaries, was the base community group EDUCA. Their crime: educating the population to advocate for their rights. In the interview accompanying this story (pg.55),  Marcos Leyva, EDUCA’s director, explains just what this sort of organizing looks like. He also points out that the teachers themselves have a long way to go in implementing popular education within the school system.

“Despite the public school teachers’ participation in the rebellion, the schools themselves are not truly part of the process. The teachers cannot use the educational installations, materials, and facilities, because they “belong” to the official programs. They can’t do it inside the schools. If they do, they’re fired.  Teachers have to perform under official rules, so what they do is they teach outside their schedule and outside the formal system.”

Teachers have only just begun to challenge the paternalistic methods taught by the government schools, and the process of shifting the curriculum, using popular education in the government schools, and creating a truly liberating educational system is barely underway. “We’re confronting a 500-year history of colonial domination,” says Friedberg. The processes that can change such huge historical forces are, by their nature, slow and complex. But clearly, the rebellion in Oaxaca is one step in meeting such a challenge.

B. Jesse Clarke is edtor of Race Poverty and the Environment, Urban Habitat's journal of social and environmental justice. 

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Marcos Leyva: Building the Base


EDUCA (Servicios para una Educación Alternativa) focuses on three areas: promotion of integral communitarian development, strengthening of communitarian organizations, and support of initiatives that strengthen civil society.

The first program, “Building Citizenship,” focuses on promotion of integral communitarian development. It generates actions to help people develop an awareness of their rights that can lead to informed participation. This goes beyond the mere act of voting; the goal is to generate activities that allow political involvement, such as participation in communal development councils.

The second program is aimed at strengthening of communitarian organizations by generating economic activities, such as savings banks and cooperative supply stores in the Oaxacan indigenous communities.

Finally, through supporting initiatives that strengthen civil society, the third program deals with municipios* and the indigenous communities that live there. Our activities here are aimed at building a closer relationship with the indigenous authorities; we instruct them and help them form democratic systems so they can perform as municipal authorities.

Process, not Success, is Key
In all of this, we use the experience and the pedagogical/political proposal of popular education, which Paulo Freire started in Latin America. Like Freire, we firmly believe that starting from such educational and organizational processes enables the population to regain access to their rights to demand participation and better living conditions.

Since we start from the concept of popular education, we deal with processes that are not enclosed in a one- or two-year project timeframe. For example, we’ve been working during the last seven or eight years in communities, such as Santiago Izcayutla. There, we have had various collaborations aimed at generating political, organizational, and economic capacities. As a result, the municipio’s inhabitants are becoming empowered  and claiming their rights.

When we started with the Building Citizenship program, the residents were fighting a local cacique.* He wouldn’t allow them to elect their municipal authorities and imposed his personal choices for the municipal presidency. In response, a process of reflection and organization began taking shape. The first years of struggle we had plantones.* These were hard battles, which sometimes resulted in deaths. But, after a great deal of sacrifice, the community finally gained the right to elect its representatives. From that moment, community members started to support economic and capacity-building projects with municipal authorities.

In this case, we’ve achieved our goal. First, community members got to know their rights; second, they came forward to demand these rights; third, a process of active, gender-inclusive participation has been generated in that municipio. The methodology and the perspective of popular education have been fundamental in generating educational activities that build people’s capacity to take possession of their new roles.


Building the Solidarity Economy
Five years ago, we began working with community groups to organize economic activities that would create changes in the social structure. We now have 20 projects grouped into a network of communitarian economic projects.

This network has allowed us to focus on economic, social, and cultural rights, in addition to economic issues. An awareness has been generated that you need more than economic projects to improve your living standards—you also need to link them to political processes, and vice versa.

Women and Culture
Inherent to all of these programs are the two strategic axes of indigenous people’s rights and the issue of gender. These are not separate topics: they are implicit and spread through all our programs. As part of the methodology, we start with men-only and women-only groups and then they share a common space for discussion. This leads to more mixed groups because women feel that they have a space to discuss things from their point of view.

There are some tensions due to individualism. We try to grapple with that by recalling that in the deeper sense, we are dealing with persons, not individuals. We insist on collective processes that help in the formation of persons. It’s hard to overcome the tendency toward individualism without communitarian processes that emphasize the formation of persons. We strive to find an equilibrium. It is difficult, but we concentrate on concientization* processes. We believe that when people internalize communitarian principles, they will understand that their efforts are going to have a positive effect to achieve social benefits.
We also ensure that the people’s cultural rights are taken into account and that the educational content is culturally relevant. We have 16 different indigenous languages and use a translator from the villages to help in the communication process. Educational materials are translated to convey the values of tolerance, diversity, and respect to their cultural background and start from the premise that each of us knows something and has something to say.

Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca
The uprising was the result of 10 years of consciousness-raising by the teachers’ unions on behalf of people’s politicization. It achieved a lot, even if not enough.

But despite the public school teachers’ participation, the schools themselves are not truly part of the process. The teachers cannot use educational materials and facilities because those “belong” to the official programs and are meant to be used for formal education purposes. Teachers can’t do popular education inside the schools, so they teach outside their schedule and outside the formal system. This kind of popular education work by teachers aided in forming this solidarity system. The churches—especially the Catholic church—also helped, since they adhere to liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. They have carried the spirit of solidarity and responded to popular needs since the 1970s through forming Christian groups and doing capacity-building. Leftist parties have contributed in forming leaderships, too. And then there are non-governmental organizations like ours. These four are at the base of this movement. Together we have been able to encourage people to take the path of increased awareness and demand their rights. Most of this is due to popular education.

Prospects for Change
We’ve struck a big blow to the political system in Oaxaca. We have to strike again so it falls, but I believe the system has received a deadly hit. Many things are happening in our communities. We think we’re on the path that leads to deeper changes—not only the change of the Oaxacan governor but the transformation of Oaxaca. Despite our struggles and our accomplishments, power is still centralized. Changes are slow to come. Yet, people are participating and becoming mobilized. We hope that people keep on participating, but it’s tough. At this moment we’re simply full of hopes.

Based on an interview with Marcos Leyva, director of EDUCA, by B. Jesse Clarke, Oaxaca, April 2007. Translated by Franco Munini. 

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One-on-One Organizing for Affordable Housing Near Transit


I've never really been involved in something outside my family,” says Dan Martinez, a 33-year-resident of San Leandro, who is working for affordable housing near transit with Congregations Organizing for Renewal (COR) and Urban Habitat’s Transportation and Housing program.

Community members are encouraged to get involved through COR’s organizing model, which builds on one-on-one conversations. “One-on-ones” draw out each person’s concerns and explore how COR might address those concerns.

Dennis Davis is the deacon of St. Leander’s Catholic Church, which has been a COR partner for about four years. He says that one-on-ones help social justice movements to reach outside the small activist groups that traditionally agitate for change.

“They give an individual a safe place to express their feelings and to hear what we’re presenting,” Davis says, adding that one-on-ones offer nonpartisan education about issues.

COR begins a campaign only after assessing an area’s needs through these conversations with community members. Beginning with one-on-ones ensures that the issues COR campaigns around, such as the lack of affordable housing, tackle residents’ greatest concerns. As the campaign continues, one-on-ones continue to raise individuals’ awareness of the issue, whether or not people choose to become further involved.

In San Leandro, the issues have always been housing and health care. Over two years, using the one-on-one organizing model, COR built the support and momentum needed to pass a 2006 inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires 15 percent of units in the all new residential developments in the city to be affordable to moderate-, low-, and very low-income households.

COR is now partnering with Urban Habitat to strengthen affordable housing provisions in San Leandro’s downtown through a Specific Planning process. The downtown is both amenity- and transit-rich. In addition to BART and local AC Transit service, a high-speed Bus Rapid Transit route will connect Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro in 2009.

Downtown’s transit access makes it the best place to build housing for low-income families. Transportation represents the second-highest cost after housing—Bay Area working families spend the most on housing and transportation of any other region in the nation. By placing subsidized housing in downtown San Leandro, the city will be creating needed savings for families in both their housing and their transportation budgets.

Urban Habitat Partners with COR
Urban Habitat and COR are partnering to ensure that COR’s members are well-prepared to weigh in on the Specific Plan. Community members are powerful spokespeople for the cause, using their own experiences to illustrate how affordable housing can benefit community members. They meet with each other in local organizing committees and with elected officials and city staff in research actions. They are the ones who ask the questions and get the answers.

Martinez, who became involved with COR because his children could not afford to live in San Leandro, spoke about his children at a meeting with a city council member early in his involvement. He was encouraged. “The councilwoman was touched by [my story]. She had the same situation in her own family.” Testimony by Martinez and Davis also helped convince members of the Citizen Advisory Committee responsible for developing a draft of the downtown Specific Plan, to increase supportive language for affordable housing within the draft that will go before City Council for a vote in September. Their testimony spurred the Mayor of San Leandro to make strong statements supporting affordable housing to the Committee.
Raising public awareness and having community members demonstrate personal investment gives officials political protection, says Davis. When constituents show how lack of affordable housing affects them and their families, politicians can take action.

Community education also appeals to potential developers. One company that plans on redeveloping a major site within San Leandro’s downtown recently met with COR and community leaders to discuss including housing for working-class and low-income families, and affordable childcare in its project. Public education and involvement—beginning with one-on-ones and leading to public meetings—mean that the opposition that often arises in response to affordable housing developments may be prevented or moderated. COR-developer cooperation early on in the process helps COR to win affordable housing and services and the company to gain the community support it needs for its project.

On the ground, local organizing committee meetings allow leaders to practice articulating their needs and priorities among friends and other church members. COR organizers also meet with individual leaders to discuss the roles the leaders have played in local organizing committee meetings and research actions. Leaders are encouraged to conduct one-on-ones and to participate in other campaigns and actions.

Dan Martinez has become much more politically aware since joining COR, he says. Last fall he worked a phone bank for Prop. 86, which would have levied an additional tax on cigarettes. One man he called was smoking at the time, but said he would vote for the proposition anyway. It was heartening “to try to get people involved in the community in that way, by their vote.”

Martinez wouldn’t call himself a leader, though he puts in three to four days a week during especially active campaign times and speaks at COR meetings with city councilmembers. He’s only been involved with COR for eight months, he explains.
By other standards, though, Martinez may be a leader. Deacon Davis believes that a community leader is someone “who brings information to people… with a life experience, so that when people hear them speak, they see their own history.” By speaking out at public hearings and in small group conversations with San Leandro’s decision-makers, Martinez has already helped convince individuals of the need for affordable housing. The Mayor’s testimony and Citizen Advisory Committee endoresement of stronger language supporting affordable housing in the downtown Specific Plan is evidence enough. 

Cara Bertron is an environmental consultant and former intern for Race Poverty and the Environment. 

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SAJE Learnings Defining the Issues and Demystifying Jargon

Popular education breaks down seemingly complex information by connecting it to peoples’ life experience, so that everyone can understand it. Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), an economic justice and community development center in Los Angeles, has been building economic power for working class people since 1996, using a variety of such popular education tools.

SAJE used popular education with the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice to negotiate the nation’s most comprehensive community benefits agreement with the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The agreement, signed in 2001, requires the developers to include affordable housing, living wage jobs, local hiring, and parks, in their $1 billion, four million square foot sports and entertainment district. With large print maps and interactive community games, SAJE facilitated the construction of a grounded lively narrative. “Popular education allowed us to build a common analysis and campaign around who the developers coming into our community were, what they were doing and why,” explains Davin Corona, organizing director at SAJE.

Land use planning, redevelopment, and housing issues present perfect raw material for popular education. Community members intimately experience the impacts of these policy decisions every day, and are uniquely poised to take action. SAJE recently hosted a community “planning school session.” Participants took a look at new planning areas in downtown Los Angeles—prime spots for gentrification—and demystified the arcane operations of the city’s planning department. “We used a Spanish game similar to Jeopardy—‘Quien personas dicen’,” explains Davin. “Although it might seem a little cheesy, folks had a great time. The way we framed the session created space for people to put themselves out there!”

Like most popular education tools, the game helped to demystify jargon and break down language barriers, and encouraged people to move past their fears of public presentation towards hands-on advocacy.

Interactive Information
SAJE’s popular education process starts with monthly tenant leadership committees, where residents of a neighborhood identify the hottest topics that they want to focus on. After initial research and brainstorming, SAJE staffers bring their ideas back to the tenants and work with core leaders on the design, development, and use of the appropriate training tools. While there may be some audience-specific nuances, the overall effectiveness of “social change through popular education” holds true, no matter who SAJE works with. And “popular education” could range from something as simple as teaching groups to form meeting circles and set agendas, to building an environment where knowledge is created as a team.

Standard schooling teaches one form of learning, but does not take into account the significance of human experience and emotions. Whereas, popular education helps you tell the compelling story that will not only be heard, but will move people to action.

“Let’s face it: we’re the MTV generation, and the audience wants real, interactive information now!” says Davin. “Here at SAJE, we get folks to define the issues for themselves because they are the ones experiencing it.”

 Connie Galambos is the Social Equity Caucus coordinator at Urban Habitat.

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Poverty Scholarship


There are many things this poverty scholar can teach you—but in reality, no more or less than any of the poverty scholars you see, or more than likely don’t see, everyday. Homeless families, poor youth of color, migrant workers, panhandlers, sex workers; sitting, dwelling, camping, soliciting work, convening. I am them, they are me.

We are in a revolutionary struggle to not be lied about, incarcerated, mythologized, and misconstrued; to be truly heard and recognized for the deep scholarship we all hold; to survive while battling the looming jaws of poverty, the criminal injustice system, the police, the welfare system, and the gentrifying landlords.

But the one thing this poverty scholar must teach you is to re-think your notions of scholarship itself. Who is considered a great scholar? How is scholarship attained? How is greatness honored? And with what tools do we assess this canon?

At POOR Magazine we have a radical concept of scholarship: who deserves it, how it is attained, and how it is used. This scholarship has a new canon, with new designations for greatness. Survival itself, through extreme poverty and crisis, houselessness, racism, disability, and welfare, to name a few, are what you need to qualify for poverty scholarship.

Conversely, a person who is formally educated with a Master’s Degree and no poverty scholarship would be considered inexperienced and therefore, should not be writing, lecturing, or legislating for and about communities in poverty. The formally understood “signs” of scholarship, such as writing, researching, critiquing, publishing, require inherent privilege. These signs afford people an ability to be heard and recognized. Personal Journey.

My personal journey out of poverty, homelessness, and a life of marginalized otherness led me to identify this new definition of scholarship. Exposed to the revolutionary writings of Trinh Minh, I began to understand the privilege of thinking and writing itself. This was my truth, my struggle. I was a homeless child who had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to support my family; I did not have time away from earning a loaf of bread. More importantly, I did not have the privilege of knowing what I would be doing from one moment to the next. Had it not been for the innovative intervention of a civil rights attorney who converted my several thousand dollars of fines and jail time for being homeless, into a community service assignment writing about my life, I would not have been able to express my ideas, my solutions, and my poverty scholarship. As a result, I was afforded the privilege to establish my vocation as a writer, turning my unrecognized street scholarship, which all poverty scholars possess, into a documented, understood, and “heard” tract.


POOR’s Methodology
In the first year of our organization, we developed the notion of poverty scholarship, which was inducted into POOR’s core practices with the clear realization that poor folk had to flip the power of media, voice, and authorship. Poor people are inherently denied a voice in the media, the creation of legislation, and academic scholarship. Consequently, it became POOR’s goal to listen, conceive of policy, and reassign authorship to folks on the frontline of poverty and racism. In our formal workshops and leadership meetings, we established our radical notions of poverty journalism.

We also decided that poverty journalism must include an attempt at solutions. For example, in the Homefullness issue of POOR (Volume 1), we discussed the problems that poor folks have staying housed as a result of gentrification, displacement, and crisis. The solution developed by the poverty scholars was to address those obstacles, along with the danger of isolation, and disenfranchisement. Understanding the strength of the “village” and the importance of equity to create long-term economic self-sufficiency, we proposed a sweat equity cohousing project. And using a small slice of the Arts Commission grant, we realized the idea in a small apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

In the year leading up to the release of the Hellthcare issue, we conducted a series of six-month-long workshops with very low income youth, age 12 to 17, who were interned in group homes and closed mental health placements. We launched a formal collaboration with a Bay Area agency that ran locked placements and schools inside and outside the public school system for severely emotionally disturbed youth. Unlike our previous workshops for youth, these spanned a semester and included a series of literacy exercises that tied in with the kids’ curriculum and were part of their school day.

At this point, we instituted POOR’S multi-generational learning and scholarship model. Our belief was that all members of the community needed to learn, grow, resist, and heal together, overcoming our collective experiences of broken school systems and/or broken or disempowered families that had been impacted or destroyed by the crime of poverty and or racism. Each workshop included a media literacy and social justice component that questioned the unjust society of haves and have-nots, raising awareness of the system that most of these youth were caught in, and the mythologies of capitalism that they were being spoon-fed by the corporate media on a daily basis. We integrated hip hop, spoken word, and grafitti into every lesson, redefining what journalism and art are, and could be, talking about how some of the best are on the walls of our neighborhoods, and in rhymes and raps. As Eduardo Galeano has so eloquently said, “The walls are the publishers of the poor.”

“Who do you think makes your shoes? Do you think the workers at Nike are getting paid fairly?” These questions would open the discussions, inevitably leading to a critique of media messages and corporate product-pushing, opening the students’ minds to other forms of survival and success.

“Who Would Call Themselves Poor?”
Perhaps the most important thing we dealt with was the shame inherent in the life of a poor kid. A shame so powerful that a kid would shoplift or take part in some form of unsafe underground economy just to attain the right shoes. A shame that would make a kid lie about being homeless, so they would not be “the homeless kid” in their school. We created a safe space for kids who had been the abused and the abusers, who had bullied and been bullied, and who were so confused about who to be and what to be. After an intensive discussion, we proceeded to create a series of images and stories that paralleled what the adult participants of POOR were digging into.

We asked them to describe through image and story what “poor” is. Most of them described everything but themselves. Everyone who had experienced poverty was everyone else; this is oddly like adults, never realizing their own colonization, always finding it easier to act as though it’s happening to someone else. Those stories opened up the discussion further into more specific explorations of the issues we were dealing with. For example, how was their mother or father treated when they tried to get medical help at a county emergency room?

In another class we asked the question: What is “work”? This led to a fascinating examination of underground economies and economic survival through alternative means. The kids knew very well that if you had to live on welfare you would need to do some kind of “alternative” work.

The youth aced POOR’S empathy exercise, one that college students are routinely stumped by, a two-part question that asks, “What has been your worst financial crisis?” We then set up a virtually impossible scenario, one faced by most very low income parents: You are a single parent with three children aged one, three, and five. You just acquired employment, which was very difficult for you to obtain because you have no high school diploma and it’s a very competitive job market. It’s a 40-hour-a-week job but you can only get childcare for 15 hours a week. This means you will only end up with enough money to cover the cost of your childcare and utilities, but not enough for rent. What would you do?

“There is no ‘legitimate’ solution,” the kids would immediately blurt out at every version of that quiz. “The only thing that mama can do is something that isn’t legal or ‘acceptable.’” The kids were poverty scholars and survivors. They had been there with their poor parents, making those impossible choices, diving into that vicious cycle. They knew that you did what you had to do to feed yourself and your children, and that might mean committing crimes of poverty. That year-and-a-half of workshops inspired me, terrified me, and brought me to endless tears. These kids needed us there for a lot longer, but the limited funding we’d gotten from a grant for the workshops ran out, and we had no money to stay on for free. In our last group of classes, they each gave us a book with their pictures, and pages filled with promises to keep on writing, resisting, and caring for their communities and families.

The process of true integration, true recognition of poverty scholarship occurs in many ways. In media production, it means a through-line of involvement of the process and the ownership of a story. A story on homelessness in Alameda County should be co-authored by homeless poverty scholars in Alameda County. In service provision, it would mean that community-based, poverty, race, and disability scholarship would lead the discussion on service provision, school, and healthcare systems. Solutions that truly “serve” folks, like schools that truly integrate families and community, would be proffered and established rather than 1.2 million dollar poverty pimp programs, county hospitals, and No Child Left Alive. In activism, it means the understanding that poverty, race, disability, elder, and youth scholars must lead the resistance movements against globalization, environmental racism, and economic justice. These movements must come from and speak to the direct experience. In academia, it means that truly grassroots poverty scholars are integrated into teaching and learning. Community models of teaching and learning are recognized, and poverty, native, youth, and elder scholars are credited for the teaching they are already doing in the community and neighborhoods with poor communities of color.

Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia is co-founder of POOR Magazine and author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America. 

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Community Newsroom Turns the Microphone Around


During the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta, June 27-July 1, San Francisco-based Poor News Network (PNN) ran the Community Newsroom, a popular education project that aimed to “turn the microphone around.” Poor and disenfranchised people, who are usually media subjects rather than producers, got the chance to frame and report stories and post them to a blog on the USSF web site.

In the community newsroom we begin with introductions. We talk about where we come from, what privilege and experience we bring to the table. We have to own the “I” behind the reporting eye.

Marcy Rein: I grew up with the privileges of white skin, economic security, and an upscale education. Even as a teenager, I knew that privilege makes blinders, and I itched to know the world beyond my quiet corner of upstate New York. I crisscrossed the country by bus, and listened to countless strangers’ stories. My first preparation for journalism came from “Greyhound U.” And you have to know how hard this is to write, how Laure kept saying, “But what about you?”

Laure McElroy: This is how we do it at POOR; using the “I,” the first person, we centerpiece our own knowledge. We choose to use who we are and what we’ve personally experienced as both, the keystone narrative for any story we write, as well as the lens through which we interpret it. We believe that doing this is the best way to be honest about where one’s point of view is coming from, and that the journalistic cult of the third person in this country is not objective at all, but rife with hidden, mostly privileged bias.

Rein: At the June 30 newsroom, we take our place in a large and growing circle of folks sitting on the floor and in chairs in a corner of the mezzanine of the Atlanta Civic Center auditorium. PNN buys pizza for newsroom participants, so people help themselves to fat slices and begin introductions with the subdued din of other conversations and workshops all around.

McElroy: The Ida B. Wells Media Justice center at the USSF was proposed by POOR. Our vision was to create a space for non-hierarchical story generation, print, radio, or blog. The USSF seemed like the perfect place to model a setup for media creation that was not elitist and that did not reflect mainstream hegemonies—powerful interviewer/passive interviewee; outsider writer who interprets event; “expert” outsiders who provide “facts”; and actual event participants or those affected by event, relegated to pictures to give the article “color”—with its power relationships.

Rein: At the newsroom on this day, we have the San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, Nashville, Portland, and Olympia in the house. We’re Latino/a, African-American, Native American, and white, and range in age from 20 something to 50-plus. With our introductions over, PNN Project Director Lisa Gray-Garcia (a.k.a Tiny) opens the floor for story ideas.

“We need to seize the media in a lot of different ways,” she says. “This is the third day of the community newsroom and we believe the revolution will be televised and it will be our TV. Things that happen to us or people we know, things we witness and deal with, they’re all news.

“We need to connect the global-local poverty dots: poverty, race, disability, border fascism, criminalization, youth injustice, gentrification, indigenous resistance, and police brutality in Atlanta,” she says.

McElroy: We needed a room that was big enough to have our Community Newsroom, with the actual community of Atlanta involved. People like the residents of the inner city housing project that is about to be destroyed to make way for privatized “mixed use” (read: not for the poor) housing; people like the houseless folk and workers from the Task Force Shelter in Midtown Atlanta.

Rein: Despite the challenges, today the newsroom seems to be accomplishing its mission. One of the participants from San Francisco starts talking about the massive redevelopment project on the site of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Residents know the site to be heavily contaminated with asbestos and other toxics.

Redevelopment, gentrification, and displacement have hit several in the circle.

“Land is the new gold in Miami,” one person says. She talks about the project that tricked 850 low-income people into moving out of their public housing in the Liberty City community—and how the community organized to get replacement housing for them. Another notes that New Orleans faced the same loss of public housing as Miami—before authorities used Katrina as an excuse for mass displacement of poor and African-American residents.

A third talks about Atlanta.
“This is the number one foreclosure city,” she says. “Everyone lives two paychecks away from losing their homes.”

‘McMansions’ going up next to small bungalows raise the property tax assessments for everything on the street, and threaten to make whole areas unaffordable.Loss of public healthcare also threatens many of those present. Atlanta residents face the closure of Grady Hospital, the only one that treats the uninsured and homeless. People in Nashville, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia are in the same boat, one man says.

In true popular-education fashion, people see large social patterns emerge from their own lived experiences—and they learn by doing. Once all the story ideas are on the table, Gray-Garcia asks for volunteers with more media skills to collaborate with participants newer to news production.

Also in the popular education tradition, participants move from understanding to action.

Gary Spotted Wolf, talking about how land theft displaced the indigenous people of this country, proposes a symbolic action. He wants to buy back the land under Atlanta’s huge Fort McPherson for the same price the white settlers paid for it: a bottle of whiskey. Participants decide to hold the closing session of the Community Newsroom the next morning at Fort McPherson.

McElroy: It didn’t work nearly as well as it should have or could have. We needed a space big enough for the houseless folk who, by city ordinance, can be arrested simply for being anywhere within a five block radius of the Civic Center, to tell their stories, working with a POOR trained writing facilitator.

Rein: Popular education has intrigued me for years. It has baffled me too, though I have read about it and talked to people who do it and tried to adapt its methods in my organizing work. After sitting in the Community Newsroom and then talking about this piece with Laure, Cheli, and Teresa, I got it in a whole new way. I walked away from our conversation with my head exploding.

“Even the middle class among you are not secure,” Laure said in the Welfare Queenz performance. Contradictions seep into the Forum itself: the Media Justice Center sitting down the stairs and around the corner, rather than in the Task Force on Homelessness. Tight security not letting people in without their tags, security that came down on one of the panelists even. Not letting people in who get the butt end of all the troubles we’re talking about and haven’t yet started organizing. Any effective pop ed project calls out social relations. The poverty scholars working in the Community Newsroom challenge us to think about these.

Marcy Rein covered the USSF for the AFL-CIO and is a communication specialist at the ILWU.
Laure McElroy is a Poor News Network journalist, poverty scholar, and teacher at POOR's Race, Poverty and Media Justice Institute.

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Youth Media and Popular Education: Change from Within


All I have to say is that if you end up with a staph infection, please, please don’t scratch, pick, or peel at the scabs and bumps! It’s transferable to other people, so don’t be a jerk and pass it on.” Penguin is a San Francisco homeless youth who is trying to prevent the spread of staph infection. Health information is scarce on the streets; resources and services, even more so. Often, information from fellow homeless youth is the only way to learn about something.

Getting the word out to youth about health issues is only one aspect of several Bay Area programs that focus on providing media access to local youth and others excluded from traditional media channels. Roaddawgz concentrates on homeless youth, the First Voice Apprenticeship program at KPFA provides access for women and people of color, and Youth Radio is geared towards high school students.

Roaddawgz Takes a Bite out of Homelessness
Started in 2003 as a safe space for exploring and bringing into the public forum the stories and ideas of homeless youth through writing, art, and multimedia, Roaddawgz today is a four-day-per-week drop-in center offering training in computers, creative and news writing, and digital media, to homeless youth.

Self-published zines, youth magazines, and the Roaddawgz website are used to publish participant works. These outlets, especially the website, not only bring the stories of the struggles of homeless youth to a greater public, they also serve as a network for friends and family to reconnect with young people they have lost touch with, “if they want to be found,” says Machiko Saito, Roaddawgz Program Director.

Yet, far beyond any end result, Roaddawgz’s individualized education model focuses on each participant’s needs in the immediate present.

“Roaddawgz is the only place I have where I feel comfortable enough to get something done. There is no time limit, no due date, and no teacher standing over me and telling me that it has to be one way or another,” says one participant.
“There was a day last year that I really wanted to get high,” adds Jade, another participant, “instead, I ended up sitting at a computer at Roaddawgz writing about how I felt. Halfway through writing about how much and why I wanted to get high, I felt the chaos inside me leave and I no longer felt the desire to use.”

Choices like these most homeless youth don’t have when living on the streets.

Sickboy, another homeless youth, writes, “[Roaddawgz is] a place where we can be comfortable enough to create all those dreams we get told to forget, all the fantasies about adventure and excitement; we can live them, make our dreams solid concrete reality with enough determination and stamina.”

Empowering this population can inspire creativity, believes Saito. The creative process of articulating their stories becomes for them a way of helping themselves and changing their situations. This is confirmed by Donovan, who says: “I’ve been coming to Roaddawgz since I was homeless back in the winter of 2005. Since then, I’ve gotten a job and an apartment, but I still come here frequently for several reasons.”

Roaddawgz welcomes all homeless youth, regardless of background. In other settings, this would inevitably spawn tensions but Roaddawgz has never had any problems—with violence or otherwise—within the group.

“Even though [these] people are considered to have the same identity because they’re homeless youth, [in reality] we have such an eclectic group that represents all [the] diversity in society,” says Saito. Building a grassroots community of tolerance and respect has been a main focus of the program and perhaps its most effective and tangible contribution to the young residents of the streets.

Many Find a New Voice at First Voice
The grassroots community-building process seen at Roaddawgz finds a parallel at KPFA’s First Voice Apprenticeship program started in 1985 to give people of color and women a voice in the media.

Jessica Johnson, a 20-year-old program participant, says, “First Voice invites people to engage in a dialogue that is not sprinkled from the top down by the media. This is from the ground up. We are creating news and sharing experiences.”
More structured than Roaddawgz’s educational model, First Voice’s 18-month program encourages self-exploration and critical thinking, providing participants with the training to become strong media producers and civic journalists in their own communities. This creates a ripple effect as the consciousness and critical thinking developed by each participant is shared with the community.

Three times a year, First Voice holds an open house during its weekly program, Full Circle, at which community members are invited to join a roundtable discussion on current issues.

Beyond its effect on the greater community, First Voice also seeks to have an impact on KPFA and has challenged the internal system to ensure that the apprentices have a long-term presence at KPFA.

According to Rainjita Yang-Geesler, program co-director, “There are elders here who [should] have the ability and skills to pass down knowledge, and create space for the fresh talent and voices emerging from the apprenticeship program. After 25 years, this is not happening, so we [First Voice] are now moving in a new direction for economic self determination.”

A Teen’s Best Friend
Youth Radio’s Denise Tejada is only 18 but she has been producing media for four years. Last year, she won the Mission Cultural Center Film Festival’s Best Youth Producer award for her video letter to the mayor from a San Francisco Mission District girl’s program. When accepting the award, she spoke about the ability to share her skills with others.

“When I was 14, I was someone who had so much to say. I was lucky because I found a place I could express myself. It was almost like a weight was lifted from me. Now, I feel that I can give a voice to those who are not being heard.”

Although each youth media education program is different in terms of approach and the population served, they all do provide a space where youth are valued and their voices cultivated. Most often, the youth that enter these programs are not the youth that walk out into the world—confident, skilled, and motivated.

Says Tejada, “[Now] I really understand what the saying, ‘hard work pays off’ means. I now have so many opportunities in front of me. I am really excited about what’s out there and what’s next.”

Samantha Calamari is a freelance journalist recently re-located to New York City. 

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