Ty, what's your story, and how did you get involved in popular education for social change?
Whew! That’s a packed question.
Well, I’m a black man, eldest of seven and raised in Harlem and the South Bronx. I came of age during the social ferment of the 1960s – a time that shaped my understanding of the world as it was, and quickened my hunger to play a part in shaping the world as it might be.
The fight for social justice found me at a young age. I was six-years-old in 1955, when I discovered those photos from Emmett Till’s autopsy and funeral in a magazine in my parents' livingroom. Till had been brutally beaten and murdered by a group of white men because he was young and foolish, and had broken one of their most sacred cultural taboos: he forgot his “place” in White America.
Those horrifying images brought my childhood to an abrupt end, and I became the black kid who refused to comply. The old folks called it being “hard-headed.” But, to me, I wasn’t supposed to be the only dark face in those “accelerated” academic programs in elemetary school. I asked myself if I should, as instructed, submissively “know my place” and stay in it. Now, at 62, perhaps I should’ve burned out or sold out years ago, retreating from the struggle filled with cynicism and despair. To make a long story short, I was, I wouldn’t, and I haven’t and won’t, because I’m in this fight for the duration – mine, at least.
By the mid-70s, I’d already invested nearly a decade in the struggle against Dr. King’s “Triple Evils” – racism, militarism and poverty. Throughout high school, I tutored young children failed by the public schools in the project’s neighborhood center. Then, just a month into my first semester of college, the movement called and I left to do anti-draft outreach in the ‘hood.
At the time, grassroots efforts against poverty were ostensibly driven by the notion that the poor were entitled to “maximum feasible participation” in programs meant to benefit them.
I was a confirmed believer, but that lofty ideal was rarely realized. Over time, I grew increasingly frustrated as “participation” devolved into empty tokenism (superficial placation or perfunctory consultation) and Lyndon Johnson’s rhetorical war on poverty morphed into the GOP’s protracted war on the poor and working class.
I was first exposed to theories of social and experiential learning and organizational development while working for the Virginia State Economic Opportunity Office, the state-level liaison for anti-poverty initiatives in Virginia. I had the opportunity to apply and test these new learnings in a range of community venues to address issues of power, agency and voice.
I focused on two areas: 1) team-building and strategic planning to establish a multidisciplinary task force on child care and development, and 2) troubleshooting political tensions between local elected officials (the all-white old guard) and a community action agency (mostly-black led grassroots challengers). I learned that much of what I was doing with community-based organizations was being called “popular education.” I brought those learnings to subsequent work as an organizer for various grassroots initiatives, progressive campaigns, and progressive coalition efforts.
Currently, my focus is in the arena of public education, where issues of voice, agency and alliances pit well-connected insiders (politicians, bureaucrats, corporate interests, university or think tank wonks, venture philanthropists, education entrepreneurs, and corporate media) against those with the most at stake in the ed-reform process (students, parents, teachers, and communities).
Why is popular education important for movement building? What sets it apart from more conventional educational models?
Barry Checkoway's literature on social change distinguishes six distinct categories of community change strategies: 1) issue-focused mass mobilizations; 2) confrontational social action; 3) government-sponsored citizen participation; 4) expert advocacy; 5) local development (self-help); and 6) popular education.
The first five approaches emphasize securing either a “seat at the table” or a “piece of the action.” They focus on the immediate need, rather than sustainability, and primarily seek to alter the existing distribution of resources and benefits on behalf of the traditionally locked out or marginalized, rather than transforming the longstanding arrangements of wealth, status and influence, which create those conditions in the first place.
Instead of building the capacity of community members to solve their own problems, these strategies focus narrowly on enlisting outside forces and resources to “fix” the community. They fail to acknowledge that a "seat at the table" doesn't always guaruntee the ability to influence, or even know, what's happening under the table. Likewise, the size of one's piece of the pie is ultimately determined by those serving the pie.
In contrast, popular education promotes a kind of ‘transformative populism’ by which socially- and politically-marginalized peoples are encouraged and enabled to pursue the power to influence the decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods.
As a strategic response, pop-ed is informed by a critique of actual social, political and economic relationships. Additionally, the popular education strategy can support other change strategies by providing an analytical platform enabling community members to choose the most appropriate strategies for particular situations.