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Chapter 2 -- Sharing Experiences and Finding Threads

Popular education has been described as a "pedagogy of the question." (Bruss, Neal, Macedo, Donaldo P. Toward a Pedagogy of the Question: Conversations with Paulo Freire. Journal of Education, v167 n2 p7-21 1985) That's especially true of the starting point.

You've come together with a group of participants for a workshop, or meeting, or retreat. Ideally, you have done enough research to have a good idea of who the participants are, what the context is, and what the main issues that concern people are. But, do the people in the room have the same information about each other? And what if your information is wrong, or incomplete, or one-sided?

You start with lots of questions: What do the participants in the room actually want? What are their top issues? What are their assumptions? What are their broad goals? Where are there differences? Points of confusion? Points of conflict?

Participants have questions of their own, about you and about the other participants. What are their most burning questions? How do the participants' issues relate to your own?

How can you initiate a dialogue that includes your goal and issues, without dominating the process or steering the discussion your way?

How can you help create a collective understanding, shared goals, shared information among the participants?

How can you set in motion an education process that reinforces critical thought and democratic participation -- and is relevant to the participants?

Activities in this chapter:

There is so much to know and so little time to find it out. The following activities are designed to help participants quickly share information, experiences, visions, and goals. They also set a tone of participatory, democratic, and inclusive discussion that doesn't dodge difficult issues or conflicts. In the process, they help participants build trust and a sense of each other as a group.

I don't know of a more useful tool for this step than the first activity, The Union Democracy and Power Line. It works so well on so many levels. It is also adaptable and can be used not just for an introductory activity but for deeper analysis as well (see Chapter 7).

The second activity, This is what a union looks like, asks participants to show what they understand by the term "union" by organizing images of people that they draw on index cards. Who is the union? Who is not? How are they organized? What roles do they play? The most fundamental assumptions about unionism bubble up in this activity.

This is what union democracy looks like, the third activity, asks participants to talk about what democracy means to them, in specific practical terms. It helps bring up the various aspects of union democracy, not just the legal aspects, but the cultural and participatory sides as well.

The different elements that contribute to or undermine democracy are brought out more fully in the fourth activity, The union democracy triangle tool. This activity helps people deepen their understanding of the sources of democratic unionism, individually and as a group.

Talking about union democracy means talking about unionism. But there are different ideas of what a union is or should be. Visions of Unionism offers participants different ideas of what unionism means and/or should mean and asks them to figure out where they are and where they want to be. (For a great example of workers being challenged to define their vision of unionism, see the scene in John Sayle's movie Matewan. "Any union that won't take this man in isn't a union. It's nothing but a goddamn club!"

In the final activity, Broken Squares, people solve a puzzle together as others observe, in a game designed to raise people's awareness of how they work together in groups. The capacity of a individuals to work collaboratively, building a democratic and participatory process, is an essential element of organizing in a "horizontal" or democratic way. It takes the kind of practice and reflection that this game provides.

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