It’s hard to establish a new three day training course for a national programme with high level visibility and for me, RE:generate Trust did an excellent job in trying circumstances. Everyone acknowledged that the main training room was too small. The fine weather meant that participants were too often sweltering inside or out. The intense interest of the national media placed a spotlight on the whole event. The days were long and the issues complex; the participants were coming with immensely varied experience and knowledge of the programme and content. The professionalism and competence of the RE:generate team – Stephen, Julia, Helen and Nick – was outstanding.
Root Solution – Listening Matters (RSLM) has been in development for two decades and Stephen and Julia have been training and supporting people to use it for all that time. Translating a much longer process into a three-day residential asked the facilitators to condense their material and take short cuts that were inevitable. The refrain was oft repeated: ‘if we had more time…’ The depth was lacking but as a result, the pace was quicker. At times, I found myself unsatisfied when what I viewed as crucial issues were either ignored or handled too quickly. But given the pressure of time, this was probably necessary.
On the other hand, I was surprised that an approach that took a direct inspiration from Paulo Friere made little or no use of his educational theory. He argued that what he termed the ‘banking model’ of education – where educators filled empty vessels with their truth – was mere continuing exploitation by the elite and that liberation is found when we become co-creators of knowledge with the poor themselves. Their insights into the nature and extent of their oppression, their grasp on the reality of their situation and their capacity to see how their liberation could be found all lead to emancipatory praxis. Developed into a widely influential training programme Training for Transformation by Anne Hope and Sally Timmel in the early 1980s, Friere’s work has continued to inspire activists and popular educators ever since.
Before coming on the course, I had imagined a more radical and co-designed approach to the content than we received. I was disappointed that the control was strongly centralised with the RE:generate team throughout and that leadership from participants was not encouraged or supported. The participants proved themselves to have a hugely rich and diverse range of skills and knowledge that could have been at the disposal of the group, had it been called on. The RSLM content was offered as though it was a fully-formed and complete answer to ‘community organising’ rather than one fine example of an indigenous animation programme. There was minimal consideration of how power was actually operating in the room and no opportunities to reflect on the course dynamics.
Paulo Friere was of course a Marxist. His world view was formed from a deep understanding of the historical dialectic that sets the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The inevitable conflict between the two was fundamental to his key contribution to educational theory, that the poor are best able to find their own liberation. Such a dynamic appreciation of the role of conscientisation in seeking liberty shaped a generation in South American and across the global South. It also informs much British community development today.
The course certainly identified that conflict would be part of the organiser’s lot. But the reality of the conflict of ideology, of deep interest between – as Saul Alinsky termed it – ‘the Haves and the Have-nots’ was never explored. The capacity of these ‘organisers’ to self-organise was also never really tried. The co-production of knowledge between the learner and the teacher seemed to be trumped by a strong need to ‘bank’ the RSLM model with the participants. We left with a clear transfer of knowledge from the teachers to participants and no sense of integrating that new knowledge into our own prior experience.
As I have written elsewhere in this blog, I find my motivation for community organising from an abiding commitment to realising the potential of those who are currently excluded and marginalised in Southwark’s community. The level of oppression for those on the lowest incomes (or no income at all) is truly unsustainable for our community. We need to challenge the ways in which powerful interests deny ordinary citizens their basic human rights and undermine our much vaunted democracy in the process. We need to engage in a form of collective action that empowers the most vulnerable and disempowers the most oppressive.
The training managed to prepare us to listen attentively to anyone and everyone. It asked us to put aside our background, experience and prior knowledge and to open our minds to a new model of action-reflection. It encouraged us to think about power in the community without addressing our own power or how power was operating in the room. The training gave us a core group of teachers rather than turning in solidarity to each other for mutual learning and shard knowledge.
As I have said above, the training was an exceptionally difficult programme carried out by the facilitators from RE:generate Trust with skill, attention to detail and real enthusiasm. I hope that it will be possible to reframe it to reflect the focus on justice for those in society most silenced, to allow participants to contribute more to their own learning and to include reflection on the operation of power in the course itself.
Miles Horton and Paulo Friere [Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters (eds)] (1991) We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change Temple
Anne Hope and Sally Timmel (1999) Training for Transformation comes in two parts – an original pack of three books (Book 1-3 – originally 1984) and a single update(Book 4 – 1999) – which have to be purchased separately
Mike Seal (2008) ‘Saul Alinsky, community organizing and rules for radicals’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/thinkers/alinsky.htm]