Why Popular Education is Critical for Social Change

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If your organization isn’t putting people first – you can’t expect any realistic social change. And for one major reason: social movements are about the people.

Although it’s a simple concept, it often gets overlooked by directors of big organizations. But who can blame them? That hierarchical structure is ingrained into our brains and how we look at the world.

Which is why anyone who is looking to really drive justice needs to step back, take a look at the big picture, and think about the best way to create change. So it’s time to go back to the core of social justice – by making every aspect of it about the people.

Let’s look at how popular education can achieve just that.

What is popular education?

Let’s get to the big question – what exactly is popular education? And no – we’re not talking about the top-down learning style we see in classrooms and lecture halls.

Popular education comes from the Portuguese term educação popular – meaning education for, by, and of the people. Coined by Paulo Freire, it’s a teaching methodology that aims to raise up the marginalized and give them the ability to take control of their own learning.

In other words, we’re talking about putting everyone on an even playing field, discussing goals, and acting together. The goal is to put the ability to learn, act, and create change in the hands of the people themselves.

This learner-centered training gives movements the ability to strengthen their core and leads to more long-term change. Rather than lecturing your team in boring seminars, you’re putting them at the center of their training.

Why we need popular education

Social movements and organizations absolutely need to put popular education at the heart of their training programs.

After all – it’s a way of practicing what you preach. In order to create a more equitable society, you start by producing an equitable organization.

But moving past the philosophical aspect, here are a few reasons why every organization should incorporate popular education:

More effective

Plain and simple – popular education is more effective. These types of learning experiences tend to be more fun, more relevant, and more memorable.

Whether you’re in a traditional classroom or in a workshop for adults, popular education involves highly participatory sessions that put the teacher and student on the same level.

Ultimately, that high level of participation proves to be more enjoyable AND leaves a bigger impact on the people involved. And in the case of social change movements – that leaves you with more knowledgeable, empowered, and motivated organizers.

Aids in reflection

One big criticism against popular education is the classic, “we don’t have time for training, we need action!”.

And it’s true – we do need action. But not just any reckless, thoughtless, and careless action. The most effective social movements have been set forth by reflective leaders that were able to adapt to the needs at hand.

Considering popular education is essentially critical thought put into practice – then there’s no better way to prepare your organizers.

Building for tomorrow

A social movement needs more than a few consistent leaders.

Again, we’re going back to the basics here. A social movement requires the support of its people. So we need to prepare for the future of the movement by continuously building new leaders.

Popular education, thankfully, is a fantastic way to create new leaders and make sure the movement continues to grow – even if one person steps down.

Horizontal style

Let’s be honest – most people don’t enjoy the traditional teacher-student model, especially as adults. We want to be treated as functioning adults that aren’t being talked down to.

That’s why the horizontal style of popular education works so well in the organizing world (and in classrooms, but that’s another story). Your team is able to stay focused, apply their understanding, and come back more frequently.

Popular education has a much higher retention rate for training programs, making it the perfect choice for formal organizations and community-based models.

Let’s make popular education more popular

Whether you’re the head of a large national or international nonprofit or just looking to start a neighborhood movement – the goal is the same.

Let’s start working together, treating each other as equals, and growing as one. Popular education is the best way to promote social change and make our mark in the world.

And if you don’t know even where to start – well, start here! We’ll keep giving you the tools, resources, and tips you need to make the world a better place.

Do you include popular education techniques in your organization? Comment below and let us know your experience with it.

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Riahl O’Malley and Indira Garmendia, co-founders