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Chapter 1 -- Where we Begin: Naming the Context

Et toi? Quand est-ce que tu pars? Elle est ou, ta place? (from Ressources Humaines, Laurent Cantet)
What about you? When are you leaving? Where's your place?

Tu, con que intencion y como pretendes utilizar las tecnicas? (Alforja, Tomo 2, "Advertencia!")
And you, what are your intentions, how do you plan to use these techniques?

Where and how does popular education for union democracy begin?

When planning this handbook I decided to build it on the spiral model, with each chapter more or less corresponding to a moment in the educational spiral. So I initially thought Chapter One would be about sharing experiences and building trust -- the first step in the spiral as I learned it.

But as I looked back at my work I realized that there were several activities that belonged to the spiral but didn't fit in any of the steps, these activities addressed the context in which education takes place and the role of the educator.

The activities address a problem that seemed important to highlight, so rather than put them in an appendix, I decided to give them a chapter and put them up front.

Why context matters.

Educators and activists are drawn to popular education because they want transformation, not just more of the same. For labor educators and activists -- who work in a movement that is struggling for survival and renewal -- popular education's combination of participation, inclusion, strategic thinking, collective action, and democracy holds great promise. Its history, in the US and around the world, is inspiring.

Yet, too often, popular educators find themselves far from their goals, doing work that is little like the work they aspire to do. Why?

It may be that the institution that sponsors the education and pays the bills wants the education to produce the "right" results, to get people "on the program." Or the educational program may be dependent on union funds or support and want the education to stay away from critique or action.

It may be that the participants who come to the educational event or program have little shared experience or widely varying goals and interests. Or maybe they come with a purely instrumental purpose: for example to pass a job-related test. (How people are recruited to, or find their own way to, an educational event or program is important.) It may be that participants have a vested interest in keeping things as they are -- transformation might threaten their status or position.

It may be that the educators themselves lack the kind of strategic orientation and collective capacity that they wish to cultivate in participants. They may be disorganized and weak, with no shared vision of where they wish to go and how they hope to get there.

Educators working in a context that undermines or limits popular education may end up longing for an idealized "real" popular education only possible in Brazil or South Africa or somewhere else. They may become cynical or discouraged and end up using the participatory tools of popular education to further the top down strategies and institutional agendas. They may dodge the difficult questions and potential conflicts posed by popular education and stick to the tools and forms of popular education, becoming "technicians" (what Laura Vargas Vargas calls "dinamiqueros/as"). When they rebel, they often end up popular educating themselves out of a job.

Where popular education is practiced in the US labor movement it is often against the grain, trying to create the conditions for popular education in contexts that undermine or discourage it.

You can see the importance of context also in the good situations, where your work is supported. It is much easier to articulate education and action when you are working with a group of workers who are already working together to reform their union, for example, or who share the same problems, the same conditions and the same goals. Popular education is much easier to practice when the institutions or people who sponsor it respect democracy, equality and worker self-organization.

I know this from personal experience, having taught across the range of labor and worker education contexts, from union education and apprenticeship programs, to university worker education and adult education programs, to community-based workers centers and AUD.

As educators, then, we need to name the context -- as much as we can -- even before we begin. Here are some questions we need to ask ourselves:


Who are the players? What do they want? What do they fear? Where do we fit in?

Who is sponsoring the educational event? Who is paying for it? Why? What are their goals? What do they fear/hope to avoid? What are their expectations? Who opposes it? What have they done/might they do to discourage workers from participating or discourage them from asking the "wrong questions? What are the stakes? The risks?

Who will participate? How do they get there, who recruits them? What are the positions and interests of the various players? Who are the people who will be in the room? What do they do? What experience, interests, skills, resources, etc. do they bring? How did they get there (who organized them)? Who is not in the room? Why not? What do you know about what they want? What else do you want to know?

Who are you? What do you want? What are your goals? Fears? What do you bring? Who are you working for? What are the goals and fears of the institution or organization? What do you hope to achieve? What are the minimal conditions you require in order to do your work? What is your bottom line? What are your expectations and assumptions? What are your nightmares?

Activities in this chapter:

The activities below are for looking at our context and challenging ourselves as educators. The following chapter looks at how to open the dialogue with the participants.

In Activity 1.1, The Nightmare Scenario, you use the worst outcome you can imagine to help you identify your priorities and needs. It's a way to prepare for planning a workshop or other event that helps you focus and shed anxiety.

As the authors of Educating for Change say it is important for educators to "put ourselves in the picture," to turn the tools of popular education on the educator -- problem-posing our own work and goals. This is what the second activity, Putting our work in the picture, is about. (In my experience, nothing puts educators in the picture like a good, bottom-up, teacher union organizing campaign, but this activity is a good start.)

The third activity, Challenging the Educators, also turns the focus on the educators, but this time challenges us to develop a shared (or not) vision of labor education, and explore what is often an uncomfortable gap between our rhetoric and goals on the one hand, and our daily practice, on the other.

Our learning and organizing process as educators has no finish line, either. The Working Group, Activity 1.4, is a tool for continuing and deepening our dialogue about education and organizing.

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