Educating AND organizing

Lately I have had the chance to do a bit more reading and research than I usually do and in the process I have been reminded of the importance of the balance between education and organizing. I say “organizing” instead of “action” because dominant group members have a penchant to learn about oppression and then want to run out and “do something”. Often they are doing it by themselves, often it is wrong-headed, and often it is coming from a place of condescension and the idea that subordinate group members “need saving.” Of course, the intention of these folks is usually good, but the execution and the thought put into it are almost always lacking in awareness and skill. Organizing, however, is a different thing altogether – organizing implies that one is not going solo. Organizing is about drawing people together, building relationships, taking the time to understand interconnections, intersections, and points of departure. Organizing is often coming from a place of love, of vision, of commitment to the whole, and from a belief that together we are stronger. At its best, organizing is lead by those the oppression is targeting while dominant group members are there side-by-side, but not running the show.

My work, however, is very education heavy, and thus this piece is directed toward educators. The 24 years that I have been working around social justice issues has overwhelmingly been in an educational way. I have also done some level of organizing, but it has paled in comparison to the amount of work I have done in various educational areas. And yet, of late I have been reminded in various ways that education without action / organizing can lead to intense cynicism, intellectualization of issues that are literally killing people daily, and a means to remove oneself from the struggle, pain and “mess” of trying to end systems of oppression. It doesn’t help that much of my work has been in higher education where the additional layer of that structure serves to exacerbate systems of oppression even as it so often claims to be dismantling them.

To address this it seems wise as educators to not only ask how students or workshop participants can use the information in their daily work to make change, but to ask how can we use it collectively to make even greater change? I was speaking to a group of high school teachers just yesterday about this very dynamic and suggested that in my view education is not meant to “better a person” or to “help a student actualize their fullest potential and achieve the greatest success.” Rather, it is about helping each and every person learn what they need to learn to best serve society as a whole.

Yep, it’s a bit utopian, but what is wrong with that? I will not be told that because the idea is too big it cannot be dreamed, particularly if the alternative is a neo-liberal, racist educational system. That structure has had its day, and as a result of its misguided approach to education we are living in a society that for the last 35 years, has seen the gaps between the have’s and have-not’s grow and grow.

And so I want education, in all its sundry forms, to forever be in the service of the greater good, helping people connect, organize, and learn to live together in ways that are not exploitative, hyper-individualistic, and caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of neo-liberal, prison / military industrial complexes that serve to only propagate systems of oppression, colonization and ultimately inhumanity.

This is not to say that organizing is the end all be all, because without education and the critical, complex frame of analysis it can provide, organizing can at times reproduce the very systems of oppression we are trying to eradicate, just in a less obvious form. This often happens across social justice issues like the fatal mistake made by the white, largely middle-class gay men who were “leaders” of the LBGT movement when they stated that “Gay is the new Black”. Horrible. Harmful. And, simply ignorant. As those men were trying to rally folks to their cause, their utter lack of critical race analysis, of historical knowledge, and of intersectional understanding had their statements work to opposite purposes and serve to push People of Color/Native organizers away.

Neither education nor organizing is more important than the other, nor are they discreet entities where you do one and then go to the other, and they are certainly not developmental where you have to start in one place and only once completed can you then go to the other. In a more animated and realistic way they are subtly, beautifully and sometimes imperceptibly symbiotic, and they can manifest in incredibly simple moments like a young person I know, when hearing of the Ferguson decision saying, “That’s totally messed up (analytical lens). We should do something (organizing lens).” That is one of the best pair of sentences an educator can ever hear. There it is, both sides of what Paulo Freire charged education to be – the practice of freedom.

And so if you are an educator or trainer, lean more in the “what should WE do about these issues?” direction as you teach and train. In a training setting this means giving more space for concrete organizing not at the end of the session, but throughout the session – let folks use each element of the training as a template for attempted organizing. Remember that the litmus test of whether they are organizing or not does not have to be some concrete action. Let steps like effective dialogue, deeper understandings of other positions, careful consideration of the range of steps to be taken and implications of each and an interrogation of social and political power be measures of organizing. Ultimately, let the rising of the notion of “we” in the training or classroom space be a sign of organizing. Certainly, if more comes of it that would be great. But be careful about the “fix it” tendency and instead use that classroom or training space to cultivate an understanding of shared responsibility and collective action. This will annoy White folks, cis-gender men, professional middle-class folks, and the like to no end, but simply see that annoyance and impatience as a sign that you are doing a good job and that the process of collective work and shared responsibility is in that very moment working to dismantle structures of oppression one dominant consciousness at a time.

Some resources for teaching and training for both education and organizing can be found at web sites such as Teaching Tolerance (www.teachingtolerance.org), Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org), New York Collective of Radical Educators (www.nycore.org), and the Zinn Education project (www.zinnedproject.org).

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