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Chapter 6 -- Action

In this chapter I depart from the pattern of the other chapters. Instead of activities, I describe a few cases where education moved into action, using them to raise issues that educators and activists face as we follow this crucial step in the spiral of popular education.

Education for Changing Unions, Teaching for Change, Training for Transformation, Popular Education for Movement Building -- the titles of books on popular education reflect the importance that popular educators place on taking action to effect concrete change. If participants do not take action to solve the problems they explore, popular education is really meaningless.

The change and transformation we are talking about is not just personal growth, but transformation of the world in which we work and live. It hinges on collective action. Indeed, as Canadian educator Sam Gindin has said the task we face is to help workers develop the capacity for collective action.

Popular education not only leads to action, it includes action. The educational spiral shows nicely how reflection, planning, and action interact with and inform each other in an ongoing process. If you "leave out" action what happens to the spiral? What do the other steps mean without it? Removing action takes away what makes popular education distinctive. (The same is true of reducing action to fit safely within the classroom, as when teachers get students to write a letter to their Congressperson and call it action.)

In the US union movement, popular education rarely leads to action at all, and when it does it is typically not the self-directed, open-ended, transformative type of action to which popular educators aspire, but a top-down mobilizing effort in which the goals, strategy and even tactics have already been mapped out by the leadership.

In such cases, while the teaching techniques may be participatory and creative, and the workshops directly tied to activism, the vital center of popular education is suppressed. This is a form of the "pseudo-participation" that Vargas and Bustillo warn against (see the previous chapter), it may produce "action" but it does not contribute to building a democratic movement in which workers have power.

Action should be understood to be purposeful, strategic action that is decided and controlled by the participants themselves. To act, people need to be in control, not just at the moment, but over the course of the process that leads to and follows action.

Given the obstacles that face popular educators working in the labor movement, action is often a kind of holy grail. It guides our quest, but we rarely get to follow the process through this phase.

How has action showed up in my work as a worker educator in union education programs and at the Association for Union Democracy? What does this moment in the spiral look like in my experience? What does it mean in practice for education to include action? Can an educational process really incorporate action that is transformative? What does that require? What are the risks and possibilities? What obstacles do we face? What is the roles of the educator when participants move into the action phase? What are the implications of this risk? What are the risks and opportunities?

Case studies in this chapter:

The closer you get to the conditions that allow for real popular education, the more action starts to bubble up and disrupt education (in a great way -- disruption is a virtue, for troublemakers). Popular educators need to embrace this disruption and incorporate it into our planning, creating space for the transition to action and consciously changing our role as the group moves from reflection and planning into action. The first case study, When participants take over is about how educators can best facilitate themselves out of the picture and the participants in.

When the participants take over, the educator may remain in the picture, but her/his role changes. The second case From facilitating to intervening looks at one such transition from education into action and the way the roles changed. It also looks at the issue of power and democracy.

The third case, Crossing the line, is the one which most clearly moves from reflection and dialogue to action, and thus the one that most clearly reveals the risks involved in this moment in the popular education process. Crossing the line refers to the situation in which the educator accompanies participants from the relatively safe space of the classroom into the zone of action. Many questions are posed for educators and participants alike and basic roles and relationships are called into question. But riding the spiral all the way is a great way to learn about popular education. I've been able to do this only a couple of times, in my own efforts organizing a teachers union with my fellow workers, and, in the case described here, in my work as an ESL teacher in New York City.

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