Educación del pueblo: An Introduction

My name is Meghan I am the Community Education Specialist at PUSH Buffalo. One of my passions in life is Popular Education. Working at PUSH I have had the opportunity to explore more this way of humanizing ourselves and liberating our community. I am currently taking a course from the Freire Institute and I will be posting blog entries in this series Educación del pueblo: Community Education with some of my reflection from things I learn.
When I lived and studied in Cuba my tutor, Ester Perez, gave me a book she wrote called “Freire entre nosotros” (Freire amongst us). This title resonates with me as I explore popular education in the context of Buffalo and working with PUSH Buffalo. While I have studied and lived popular education and Freire in El Salvador, in Western Massachusetts, in La Habana, Cuba, and many other places, each time I learn new things. Freire’s ideas and methodologies can be applied in different situations across the world, and are by design adaptive to context. Through this blog series I will try and convey what resonates with me in the current context and I will seek to identify ways that we can use popular education to organize for a more just and free Buffalo.
Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a thinker, an activist, and an educator. He was born in Brazil and after teaching literacy for a while in rural Brazil, his life journey took him into exile all around the world. He was able to return to Brazil and spent some time in government and then retired. Many people look at popular education and read Paulo Freire’s early work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, only to stop there. I believe that Freire’s work should be looked at as he evolved as a person - as an educator, a thinker, and an activist. There are some great materials on this at the end of the article there are some links. 

Popular education as a whole.

Popular education, in different times and places, has been, well, very popular (or at least the phrase has been popular). Many people throughout history and across the globe have applied bits and pieces of the concept of popular education. In my view if you are just using one idea or concept from popular education you are not honoring the humanizing and liberating practice that is popular education. Popular education is a radically hopeful, distinct way of learning, organizing, liberating, and humanizing oppressed and oppressors alike. While during this blog series I will focus on different concepts of popular education and Freire himself, I caution anyone to single out any component of popular education. The methodologies, the practices, and the actions of popular education should be seen in their entirety.

Freire as an educator

Paulo Freire grew up in Brazil and was born into a middle class family. As the economic crisis in Brazil got worse his middle class family became poorer. He had to go to school hungry and could not learn. In fact his grade school teacher told him that he was not going to get anywhere, that he was not smart. When Freire reflects on this experience he sees it as an essential part of his formation. He understood that learning was not just about teachers feeding empty vessels information (what he called banking education, see picture), it was a human experience. One of the key concepts of Freire’s work is that students are humans and have experiences and personalities and lives that they bring into any learning space.

In his early years Freire was a literacy teacher in Brazil. There he developed many methodologies in teaching. One of the key tactics of popular education that he worked through in his literacy teaching and developed is generative themes. To start his classes Freire used simple drawings of scenes that depicted themes that were important to his students or formed a part of their life: generative themes. Below are some of the pictures he used:



(pictures from Freire Institute)
He started his class showing these pictures and instructed his students to describe what was going on. The idea to start a literacy class with pictures and not with letters or words in itself broke with the conventional ideas around how to teach, especially how to teach poor rural farmers. Freire used pictures that related to students’ lives and challenged dominant narratives.
How do you think these pictures challenged students to think about their lives?
After the students spoke about the pictures, Freire started teaching some key terms. The key words were what we might call “trigger words” and had certain literacy importance - words like farming, wage, wealth, slum, and water well. He combined the problems that students had in their lives with learning to read and write. This exercise originated an important methodology in popular education: generative themes.
These pictures and Paulo Freire’s early experience as an educator show how he came up with ideas based on the students’ lives, tested them out, changed them, and developed new teaching methodologies. While he was teaching people to read and write he started with their life experiences and talked about power and liberation. Generative themes are not neutral, they work to facilitates students’ discussion of their problems and how that relate to who has power.
What does teaching rural farmers to read and write have to do with PUSH Buffalo and community organizing?
One of the topics that I will continue to expand on in this series is how popular education can be seen as a balancing relationship between organizing and education (of course a certain kind of organizing and a certain kind of education). We bring our problems into a space, we work together to think critically about the issues at hand, we bring in some more information, we act, and then we do it all over again. Popular education is not passive, it is about working with oppressed people in ways that enable them to become more human and liberate themselves. We work to do this every day at PUSH.
At PUSH’s monthly member meeting on February 20, 2016, those who attended talked about the problem of not enough jobs in Buffalo and the reality that there is a lot of money coming into Buffalo for purposes of economic development. In the tradition of Freire, I brought pictures into the meeting that depicted different development scenarios in Buffalo in 2016 (see pictures below). We worked in small groups to identify what was going on in the pictures, what were some of the power dynamics at play, where community showed up, and who was benefiting. Community members talked about where these projects are in relations to where they live and many shared what they knew about the different development projects. The groups then discussed how things would change if there was a Community Benefits Agreement and what would happen with no community benefits agreement.


One example is the Northland Corridor Project. There is $44 million dollars of public money (Buffalo Billion and NY Power Authority) that is going into a workforce training center. The group thought it was very important that a Community Benefits Agreement include the voices of people looking for jobs, the people who live by the site, businesses, and many other community people. This is very different than the currently scenario where politicians are making the decisions on what is going there. The people in that group came out of it wanting to know more about what was going on and had a lot of questions for the politicians. This project in particular has a public meeting the week after the meeting that we plan on bringing community members to so they can ask their questions and demand answers.

After each small group did a presentation, our lead organizer gave some words on how these projects all fit together. We also talked about ways that we’re organizing around Community Benefits Agreements and how people can take action. It’s not perfect and we still have a lot of work to do to fully incorporating popular education into our organizing-not just a few activities, but the whole concept. We’re trying out different things and seeing what works.

Popular education can be complex and take different shapes, but I hope this provokes some thoughts and questions from you. I continue to learn through meetings, education spaces and most of all from our community. Thanks for reading, I welcome any feedback or if there is a specific part of popular education you have more questions about or have struggled with I am more than happy to work through it with you!


Additional Reading:

Summary of PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED by Paulo Freire


Paulo Freire and ‘the need for a kind of education in hope’