Popular Education, Economic Justice and Civic Engagement
“Let’s get on with technology as a way of connecting us to people and places we have never known and have never seen. But let us not give up the power of plain ol’ human talk to do the same.” -Johnnetta B. Cole
During a family reunion at the height of the Occupy movement, my conservative Christian family started berating the protesters: they were “destroying our country.” When their tirade ended, I told my family that I had written a story in a magazine about the Occupy movement where I wondered if people knew what “99%” really meant.
“Well, what does it mean?” my aunt asked. I went on to explain who the 99% were, the issues of the increasing economic divide and how working class people were facing worse conditions while rich people were continuously getting richer. My family (all working class or poor) nodded their heads at this familiar and gut-felt story. I told them that the Occupiers were just trying to get that message out through the protests and sit-ins.
My aunt said, “Well it’s not a very good message, if no one understands it, is it?” I had to agree with her.
In no way am I criticizing the amazing effect of the work and messaging of the Occupy movement that mobilized millions of people across the world. But how do we reach the more conservative, disenfranchised people who don’t understand our message of economic injustice?
One of the common mistakes we make on the Left is talking to all of our constituencies as we would to each other. Few of us understand that the education level of many of the disenfranchised people we want to reach does not include being able to use college-educated language. There are ways of talking and writing that are unfamiliar, as is the use of graphs and percentages. This way of messaging does not reach many of the folks we most need to participate in our movement. Without this group of people, we can never win on the issues we are fighting for.
This is why popular education is critical to a winning movement.
When I first started organizing in my community in North Carolina, organizers would say, “Oh, you’re using the Paulo Freire model of popular education.” I had never heard of him at that time, having been raised in poverty and only having a high school education. When I tried to read his book, it was so academic that I didn’t understand a word.
What I have learned over the years for myself is that I am a living example of what I’m talking about. I have a hard time with a lot of articles and books written about the issues I most care about. Even if I can understand or look up the words, academic writing uses different sentence structure than plain, everyday speech, so I find it almost impossible to read and understand.
What I learned in working with and organizing low-income people in the rural South was that we had to learn from them “in their own words” about their experiences and help them understand the messages we wanted to share through their own ways of speaking. We also used pictures and flyers that showed them talking about the issues, and teaching them in clear ways that broke down economic issues.
For example, we showed how their tax dollars were being spent by using real pennies. We held a press conference with very large fake pennies 12-inches across x 1 ½-inches thick that we made from Styrofoam and painted with copper paint. We stacked them up, showing how many pennies were spent on the military, health care, education and housing. At the press conference, we gave people a roll of pennies and asked people to spend their 100 pennies by voting, putting their pennies in four large cylinders marked with the different spending categories.
We then created an 8-foot by 6-foot report card showing how our two senators voted on these issues that people cared about. Our folks were very shocked about the results and said things like, “But I thought he cared about poor people!”
In another example, after asking people why they didn’t go vote, we realized that their evasive answers had nothing to do with apathy or thinking it made no difference, but in fact many disenfranchised voters, especially first-timers, were intimidated by the process.
So, we set up a mock election, borrowing from the Election Board all of the equipment necessary and using the school gym where people would normally vote. We developed a skit where our members played the roles, and explained every step of the voting process including how to call for a ride if they needed it. This plus a flyer increased our first time voters by 75 percent.
Now organizing in a small community outside Asheville called Swannanoa, we have discovered that we can reach almost no one we have made previous contact with through the Web or email. Every single person needs to know who we are first and what we are trying to do before they will engage in conversation. So we ask them questions about what they like about their community, and what their major concerns are.
While these conversations can take up to 30 minutes, it’s a way to begin to get to know people, and to understand what it will take to get them to register and turn out the vote. We also make sure we keep going back to them. Eventually, we begin to identify who the natural leaders are who will work with us to reach their families and neighbors with the right information and propel voter turnout. Most of all, we begin to empower a large group of leaders who can exponentially increase our ability to register and turn out large numbers of people.
Popular education involves storytelling. Stories about people’s lives and the concerns that affect them; stories that we hear and can repeat to neighbors about others’ concerns; and stories that we tell that help educate people about issues they’ve identified and they care about.
Learning how to do this is not hard, but does require training. When a national peace organization saw our materials, they started using our simple flyers around issues written by our own members to canvas in San Francisco in wealthy communities. They found these simple and easy to understand messages worked much better than the materials they had been using with much more complex messages.
So when developing messages, ask yourself:
Who is your target audience?
What are their values, and how do these values connect to what’s happening in politics?
What issues are most relevant to their lives?
What unique needs may they have?
What is the general level of formal education of people in this area/of this demographic?
I have heard many times that a group of people are stupid and/or apathetic. But let’s consider that we may not be using the right type of message when we try to reach them with our message.
 The educator Paulo Freire defined popular education as an approach that “collectively and critically examines everyday experiences and raises consciousness for organizing and movement building, acting on injustices with a political vision in the interests of the most marginalized.”