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.