Rachel baffled a group of teenage boys in the Air Force cadet program by turning the tables on military procedure and facilitating a discussion about their concerns, including a serious discussion about video game addiction. Cherise explored why her childhood friends were drifting apart in college. Jacob organized his fellow baseball players and successfully lobbied their coach for more reasonable practice hours. Aydi organized and facilitated weekly discussions and a journaling initiative with her family to shore up their wounded and strained relationships with one another precipitated by the stress of dealing with her troubled brother.
The students in my special topics class were asked to facilitate a co-productive process with a group of their choosing over the course of the quarter, to meet in person with a group of people bound by a community or concern in which students themselves were already deeply engaged and embedded (so as to speed up the long and necessary process of building trust). They could not plan ahead – they could not have a determining vision or expectation for what concern the group would identify and what social action they might want to take. They had to be open to what they did not know. They had to understand that they understood very little, that they communities they were working with were the determinants and owners of their own collective concerns, and that the students were part of that effort but did not rise above it.
In a way, this was teaching students to trust people — to trust the people. These students have been held up as elite their whole lives, despite their varied socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, having achieved within a system of prescriptive values. They begin to see themselves as having a special ability to give back, to lift up those who struggle to achieve within our society. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere warns against this “false generosity,” for to extend a hand to the poor and less than necessitates that the injustice of that relationship is perpetuated systemically. We are all of us “adapted to the structures of domination,” and we cannot change an unjust system through collective social actions without critically recognizing its causes. Although these students were not all engaged with issues of social justice or oppressed groups, their struggles to understand real situations in the world were authentic. Their immersion in the real, in wiping away pre-conceived notions (what Friere might call sectarianism, or suffering from “an absence of doubt,” stuck in a false certainty of their own making), was a paradigm shift of the highest magnitude. This struggle lays the ground for critical thought around “contradictions” in social and economic realities, and makes possible future efforts to create new situations.
The students were, for the most part, not easily or comfortably able to efface their own expectations and plans for their projects, at least not at first. I found it interesting that so many of them were art or design students, and perhaps the popular education process was so difficult as a result of their typical schooling. They are expert in manipulating situations to realize their own visions, and rewarded for their individual, original ideas and achievements. They are expected to weather critique from experts and peers, to strive for a more perfect realization of their ideas. The kind of popular education Friere espouses, on the other hand, is about trusting that the group holds the knowledge within themselves. It’s about empowering a group as the holders of both vision and its implementation. This represented such a big leap that after that first workshop with Ultra-red, Dont Rhine was worried about them. He was concerned that they didn’t get it, that they earnestly wanted to help their communities but had no idea what it meant to be in true communion with a people. This is a big problem, he said, and the reason Ultra-red began their project School of Echoes.
In many ways, Dont was right. The process proved to be quite frustrating for some students, and they bucked against it. They had trouble reaching their identified communities, they resorted to texting in an effort to communicate, they learned lessons about the difficulty of connection. It became clear how distant their communities were from one another. They were anxious about the twists and turns the projects took, by what they could not predict or expect. But in the process of opening up to the unknown, of experimenting with how to facilitate trust and a co-productive atmosphere, they all glimpsed a little of the emancipatory power of emergent organizing. They experienced small victories – a realization of the divides that exist between people, an understanding of the deep frustrations perpetuated by unfair systems, even some small shifts in behavior or newly instituted processes designed to forge deeper connections. It is a traumatic process, this rise of conscientização, as both Friere and bell hooks recognize sympathetically. One can never go back — one must always continue to see the world critically. This is an important boundary every great artist, educator, and revolutionary must cross.