Popular Education

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The word “popular” has two meanings, i.e., “liked, admired, etc” and “coming from the people.”  While the first definition is the more common usage, it is the second one that defines what we mean by the word “Popular.”  Popular Education, education that comes from the people, is as much a way of organizing as it is a form of education.  It differs from traditional education in that:

  1. The focus is on issues and concerns that come from people living within a particular situation or set or conditions.  There is no predetermined curriculum.  The content is determined when people come together to address their issues or concerns.
  2. It is overtly political. The educational process comes out of people’s desire to take action regarding some situation or condition.  However, rather than beginning with the typical question, “How do we address the issue?” the process in Popular Education asks, “Why do we have this issue?”  It recognizes that the conditions that people live in are the result of decisions made by people in positions of power.  It teaches that if you want to know why a condition exists, ask, “Who benefits?”  Popular Education brings the issues of power and inequality to the surface and begins with the belief that if people want to change their conditions, they must confront the issues of power and inequality.
  3. Its primary purpose is to inform action. The Popular Education process begins with people critically analyzing their own situation and conditions to understand the forces that created them.  From their analysis, it takes people through a process where they create an action plan based on their critical analysis.

Popular Education has a long, rich history of working with disenfranchised and marginalized people throughout the world, particularly in Central and South America.  While is no single way of doing Popular Education, there are consistent themes and basic principles that run throughout the practice, which are illustrated in the infographic.

Popular Education Basic Themes Infographic

Popular Education teaches people to question some of the assumptions they make about the world, things they take for granted.  It recognizes that there is a dominant class in the USA that operates from a particular set of values, values that are taught to our children and are reinforced by most institutions, e.g., schools, government, churches, media, etc.  Because they are the dominant class, they get to set the rules by which we all must live by and the standards that we all most meet.  Not surprisingly, the rules reared people who reflect their values and punish those who don’t.  These rules and standards are presented, not as a value-based set of rules that advantage a particular group, but as natural, as coming from nature.  Not accepting these values is seen as crazy.  We are taught through our institutions to accept them without question.  Even though these rules serve the dominant class at the expense of the rest, most people accept them and even work to maintain them.

A clear example of how this process works is our educational system.  A core value of the dominant classes in the USA is the “American Dream”, i.e, anyone can achieve their goals if they have the talent and put in the work no matter what situation they were born into.  Education, in this view, is the great equalizer.  Whether born rich or poor, through education, you can achieve your aspirations.  Because all have access to education, one’s success or failure in life is due to whether one took advantage of what was offered.  Those who succeeded did, those who failed did not.  Success or failure is in the hands of the individual.

A closer look at our educational system, however, would show that, while every child does have access to education, every child does not have access to a quality education.  The quality of one’s education depends on where one lives, which depends on one’s economic status and ethnicity.  When half of African American youth in this country attend high schools where graduation is not the norm, do we blame the youth for this failure, or do we look deeper?  The values of the dominant class put enormous emphasis on the individual suggesting that, yes, the failure does belong to the youth or, more accurately, their parents.  This view conveniently ignores the decisions made by people in positions of power that created these extreme differences in the levels of investment in education based on one’s wealth which, along with ethnicity, dictates where one lives.  If you examine where we put our resources in addressing these disparities you would see that most of the resources are dedicated to changing the behavior of school children, their parents, and/or their teachers.  Very little resources are spent on changing the conditions that lead to the glaring disparities.

Popular Education is about getting people to question these values and rules by exposing how they provide a hidden advantage to some members of society at the expense of others.  Because Popular Education is overtly political, it seeks to understand why this disparity persists by asking the question, who benefits?  There is a great deal of research that shows how wealthy communities and highly educate adults, as a group, are aware of these educational disparities and work to maintain them.  This way, the pool of competitors for the college slots and jobs that they want for their children is smaller.

At the heart of America culture is the belief that people who work hard should be rewarded and that anyone who has the talent and puts in the work should be able to achieve their goals regardless of the conditions they were born into.  The core values are admirable and is held by many whether they are part of the dominant class or not.  It is, in fact, a value that draws people to the USA from throughout the world.  The dominant class is served by this value when achieving one’s goal is seen as a singularly individual act.  When the rules set by the dominant class strip away the responsibility of all other factors in a person’s life except their own behavior, it absolves itself of any responsibility.  If people accept the rules as fair and unbiassed they simultaneously take full responsibility for the failure of the youth.  The Popular Education process opens the participant’s eyes to all the factors that contribute to the conditions they are focused on.  It is from this analysis that people develop a plan of action.



Community Organizing

We are building community power to end cycles of abuse and promote the rights of all. Come organize with us against white supremacy and patriarchy!

Popular Education

Popular education is the philosophy of both our education and organizing programs.

Training Workshops

We offer training workshops to the community that will help your group learn about domestic violence and sexual assault.

Almost twenty-seven years ago, NELCWIT was a lifesaver for me and my three kids, and none of us have forgotten. I'm just sharing this with you to let you know what a huge impact the courageous and dedicated women of NELCWIT, and the vital, top-notch services they provide, have had across time. I can't, and wouldn't want to, imagine my life without your grace and wisdom.

- Anonymous