Ep.7: Popular Education: Organizing Knowledge & Learning to be Political


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This episode focuses on popular education, discussing what it is and why it’s key to good democratic organizing with Ernesto Cortes, Jr. Alongside organized money, organized people, and organized action, building power to effect change requires organized knowledge. Organized knowledge generates the frameworks of analysis and understanding through which to re-narrate and reimagine the world, destabilizing the dominant scripts and ideas that legitimate oppression. But rather than be driven by ideological concerns, popular education as an approach to organizing knowledge begins with addressing and seeking to solve real problems people face where they live and work. This entails informal, self-organized forms of learning. Another way to frame popular education is as a grounded approach to addressing the epistemic or knowledge-based dimensions of injustice and creating policies that put people before top-down programs of social engineering (whether of the left or the right).
Ernesto Cortes, Jr. is currently National Co-Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation and executive director of its West / Southwest regional network. Beginning in the United Farmworker Movement, he has been organizing in one form or another for nearly half a century, helping to organize or initiate innumerable organizing efforts and campaigns. The organizing work he did in San Antonia in the 1970s in many ways set the template for community organizing coalitions in the IAF thereafter. The fruits of his work have been much studied and he has been recognized with numerous awards and academic fellowships, including a MacArther Fellowship in 1984, a Heinz Award in public policy in 1999, and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Princeton University in 2009.
Resources for Going Deeper
Saul Alinsky, “Popular Education,” Reveille for Radicals (various editions), Ch. 9;
Charles Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle(University of California Press, 1995), Ch. 3. Details the organizing and popular educational work of Septima Clark, Ella Baker, and Myles Horton in the formation of the civil rights movement;
Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Temple University Press, 1990);
Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Presskill, Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice (Jossey-Bass, 2008), see especially Chapters 4 & 5;
Michael Oakshott, “Political Education,” The Voice of Liberal Learning (Yale University Press, 1989), 159-188.

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