Popular Education & Organizing with Ryan Perez of COPAL

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Thank you so much for joining us. My name is Riahl O’Malley. I use he/him pronouns. I’m with Learning to Transform, and I am super excited to engage in a conversation with Ryan Perez of Comunidades Organizando para la Acción y Poder Latina. Specifically, we are going to talk about training and education and a lot of the great work they do across the state of Minnesota. Really excited to get into it. Before I toss some questions out for us to talk about, I wanted to give you an opportunity to introduce yourself, Ryan Perez.

Ryan Perez

Thank you! I am Ryan Perez and I work as Organizing Director at COPAL Minnesota. COPAL is an organization that’s been around since 2018 with the goal of improving the quality of life of Latinos in Minnesota, engaging in both public policy transformation systems and direct community services. Our team primarily works on our members and building our membership capacity. In other words, we work on transforming our organizers and our members into agents of social change. So it’s really exciting to be talking to you, Riahl, as someone who has been a part of my journey and is learning how to organize and train as well.


That means a lot. Thank you, Ryan Perez. I love what you just said about transforming folks into agents of change. I think this point transitions very well into the conversation we are about to have around training and education. So I’d love to hear what are some of the ways in which you’re using training and education in your work at COPAL.

Ryan Perez

Our model is really about meeting our community – first- and second-generation Latinos – where they’re at, here in Minnesota. That usually involves dealing with the immediate crises facing people’s lives before introducing them to the actual organizing and change-making processes. This is similar to how you can’t ask someone why they’re hungry and plan out a strategy for feeding them in the long term. If they’re starving right now, they are not in a position to power map. 

So, we have this model where folks who are looking for work, or faced a wage theft situation, or have a health concern approach us, and we try and deal with that at the moment. Later, we invite them to form a longer-term relationship. And that involves training because we’re meeting folks for whom this is the first experience in learning to organize or learning how the state legislature or elections work in many cases. 

So we organize training sessions at every point of the relationship following that initial interaction to build them as well as their capacity to facilitate change. I also think it’s interesting that as a young, growing organization, even our staff must engage in those trainings regularly because not everyone’s coming in with a strong race class analysis or hard skills concerning engaging in one-on-ones or making strong asks. 

Making a strong ask is something that I am personally drilling the staff about on a daily basis. It’s about being direct and concise and demanding strong commitment. It’s an ongoing process because we are learning how to teach and learn as well.


I love the connection between meeting people’s current needs, while also planning to build structures that meet all of our needs on a long-term basis. And the fact that the role of training in building change agents isn’t only external, but also internal is impressive. It demonstrates how we are transforming ourselves and being transformed by these relationships. So, I love those examples.

What benefits do you see to using training and education in your work with communities and your work with the team?

Ryan Perez

Last year, Minnesota passed a driver’s license for all legislation. Our campaign focused on ensuring that undocumented folks had the same access to licenses as everyone else. To do so, we actively engaged in training sessions concerning the legislature. I remember one training session that we conducted in the popular education style. We asked individuals to assemble an ice cream cone and asked them what they wanted on their ice cream – Do you want chocolate drizzle? Do you want nuts? We had two groups of people moving forward with their different ideas for the ice cream cone. 

But then we explained the concept of a conference committee, where each chamber had to bring their ideas together and come up with a compromise. We also had a governor and I asked him, “Governor, do you want this ice cream cone?” And the governor said, “No, I don’t like that flavor. I’m going to veto it.” 

So, we conducted these trainings that were very accessible and exciting, and folks who participated in that campaign learned how to engage at the legislature. Now, this year, we’re working on another session. This one is associated with legislation relating to ITIN, which is the use of an individual tax identification number as an alternative to Social Security. We have a lot of folks who are engaging in the capital now and were through this before. They underwent training sessions last year and are now at a high level of capacity where all we need to do is count on them. They are all ready to engage in the work. So building these trainings creates a higher capacity membership for the long term because the work doesn’t stop.

“We’re not a one-campaign organization. We’re going to keep going into these fights. And the more people we have that are ready to be boots on the ground, the more powerful we’ll be.”


Absolutely! So, you’re developing capacity. Based on the example of the ice cream cone activity you conducted, it seems you use fun analogies and something that’s light to reach people. It sounds like there was a lot of interaction. This is also a huge contrast to some really boring PowerPoints I have seen on topics like how a bill becomes a law. 

What you essentially did was to involve people in a fictitious decision-making process that built their capacity to go through different stages, which is something they would have to do on tasks that may be really critical to their lives, like having access to driver’s licenses. So I love that example. It can be challenging to take up a more facilitative process or even merely connect the dots between the analogy of hunger and its association with public policy. So I’m wondering if you could name some of the challenges that emerge when you’re using training and education in the organizing context.

Ryan Perez

As we grow, a new challenge that is now emerging is that we have folks who are arriving with different levels of knowledge and experience, more so than ever before. For instance, there are some who have undergone training sessions and have a high level of understanding of the state legislature or how the city council works. They are now mixing with newcomers who are in the early stages of their learning. 

So one thing I’m trying to grapple with is, how can we create spaces or understand and navigate spaces when we have people arriving who are at different points of their learning journey. Do we need to divide our training programs into 101 and 102? Do we need to create small groups as a way to balance that? I don’t know. I don’t have those answers. 

Another thing is that a lot of times we are doing collaborations with other organizations that don’t share our model of learning and don’t share a popular education vision. This aligns with your point about PowerPoints. They enquire if they can give a particular presentation to our members. I’m now in the habit of responding with “Let’s see it. Let’s talk about the way you plan on doing it.”

I may come across as really mean when I say that. Would I say this will not work for our people and it really wouldn’t work for anybody? I also believe that there’s nothing really special about the Latino migrant community we work with. Most people cannot sit through a one hour PowerPoint and really absorb the information. 

“So we’re really trying to push back on conventional ways of teaching as well and we are shaping others so they can engage with our membership and our community in ways that we know are effective. In this way, we are transforming them into common bastions of popular education and accessible learning.” 


When working with partner organizations, you’re sometimes invited to conduct presentations or workshops. How do you navigate them? I love what you said about the participatory approach and how it helps all of us learn better and how we are more likely to apply what we learn when we’re using this approach. You also shared the concrete strategy of seeking more context regarding the group to whom you’re presenting in order to craft something that’s really going to speak to their realities and their lives. 

However, when you have people coming in from different entry points, such as those who have a longer history with the organization and those who are new, how do you remain accountable to every individual in the group when you’re facilitating this dialog? 

Ryan Perez

That makes absolute sense. As far as a common challenge that comes up when planning a participatory approach as opposed to just a one-size-fits-all presentation, there’s an ally we have in the environmental justice space. They typically organize with older, white, small farmers, and they are folks who are really deep in environmental policy already. Here, what is the method they feel is compelling to convey information to their members? Is that like a 30-minute presentation about the policy? Who are the authors in the legislature? What are they doing to work on it? 

They usually talk using very technical terms. We want to do a collaboration event with them and were wondering how are we going to do this since we have a language barrier on top of it. In this case, how do we engineer into the training design a way for folks to be interacting and knowledge sharing in a way that works for everybody? These are just ongoing challenges in navigation.


Oh, absolutely. And on the other side, when you’re inviting in a speaker or a facilitator, how to navigate that? I totally hear that. If someone who is reading this is more on the presenting side of training and is used to giving lectures, but is interested in being more of a facilitator, or if they’ve seen models of leadership where a charismatic individual gives speeches and wants to emulate that, what advice would you give them? To someone who’s just starting out as a trainer, a facilitator, or an educator?

Ryan Perez

I can think of one piece of advice. One of the key skills of a facilitator is being able to provoke conversation and engagement. To do so, you need to be able to ask questions that actually invite responses and create excitement. When we were doing a college tour with a guest speaker and visiting different universities across Minnesota, I had an interesting conversation with the guest speaker. 

They claimed that the students at the last college we visited didn’t connect with what they were saying because they weren’t engaging with their ideas. And I proposed doing an intro in the next session to see how they react. And while that guest speaker was asking some really vague questions about their thoughts on environmental justice and not getting a response, my question was straightforward. Who here has experienced a power outage? And all the hands shot up. I then said let’s find out who had the longest power outage and pointed at different people. One said only 20 minutes. Someone else said two days.

This is how it impacted me. We brought them in to share their story with the whole group. And suddenly the whole group was activated and excited. So, learning how to ask a question that gets people excited is a huge part of the work.


Absolutely. A great example, too, of meeting people where they’re at. It is all about asking yourself, “what is an experience that is particular to this group?” This way, you can come up with a question that everybody will have an answer to. On the other hand, a question like “What do you think of environmental justice?” may not elicit a response. If I’ve never heard of it, I don’t think anything about it or the two words you just said. So that might be a difficult question for a certain group to answer. You’ve been organizing for a long time, Ryan Perez. You have a lot of experience and you have incorporated a lot of practices that you’ve shared with us around training and education. What resources or practices have helped you become a better trainer?

Ryan Perez

I’m really a nerd about the theory of organizing and so I think I have too many texts I could point to. A lot of my early trainings were through the Midwest Academy for Social Change. That’s where I learned about ideas like the strategy chart, which is still the document that I incorporate in a lot of trainings I conduct. 

I also looked at a lot of labor organizing trainings as a way to inform mine, because labor organizers have a whole different model of structure-based organizing, especially in terms of how to organize within a limited population and move people to take action.

It’s been trainings with Learning to Transform and from other communities that offer different perspectives on barriers and ways to get excited about the work. And so I really have taken from just a bunch of models and theories. And that’s been part of our relationship in the past, too, Riahl. So, we need to build our capacity to build education. It is important to describe these activities and train the trainer in an effective way.

“I had a really interesting conversation with someone who told me that eventually, you get to the point where you have an idea of how this works and then you build your own curriculum. That was really inspiring to me and that’s how I knew it was time for COPAL to develop its own curriculum.”


I love that. I’m a big fan of the approach of building your own curriculum and I love how you’ve soaked up so many different resources from different types of organizing spaces and incorporated that into your practice. Thanks for sharing that. Anything else that you’d like to share while we’re having this dialogue?

Ryan Perez

A conversation that excited me recently was when we were talking about organizing at this moment, right after the pandemic. And so much of the conversation focused on the fact that people in the last few decades have gotten less and less involved in civil structures. They got less involved in their churches and in their government. They’ve gotten less involved in social clubs. There are no longer any Saturday bowling groups. 

As such, the role that community organizing plays now is to create those homes for social engagement and to help build networks. Even though it’s kind of depressing, it also got me really excited. Because what we’re building is homes for people to build friendships and relationships and continue on their learning journeys. I think a lot of the folks listening to this conversation would be part of that description.


Awesome. Thank you so much, Ryan Perez. And we’ll certainly link to COPAL’s website where you can find out more ways to get involved, support their work, or even become a part of the community that Ryan Perez just mentioned. Ryan Perez, this was such a pleasure. You shared such beautiful nuggets with us today and we are really excited about your work. Thank you.

Ryan Perez

Thank you.

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