Teaching Democracy: Popular Education Training 2018

Note: this post was originally featured on the personal blog of Penn Loh, UEP’s Senior Lecturer and Director of Community Practice. 

Teaching Democracy is a train-the-trainers program and web platform for building the capacity of Tufts and community practitioners in popular education and community-based education methods. It was co-created by Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning (UEP) with several of its community partners. These methods arise from community organizing and empowerment practices, particularly with marginalized groups. They support reflection and action in order to transform the world. They break down the rigid separation between teacher and learner—all are learners and can facilitate learning for others.

The workshop was piloted in the spring of 2016 with a group of nine students and 10 members of four partner groups. In the spring of 2018, 30 participants completed the training. About half were from Tufts and half from seven partner organizations. The diverse mix of participants helps to enrich the learning, as well as deepen UEP’s community partnerships. With the support of Tisch College at Tufts, Teaching Democracy will be offered as a one credit hour course starting in spring 2019. The course will be open to both students and community partner members.

The following vignette describes my experience in the 2018 Teaching Democracy program. The scene starts with a practice workshop on the second day of training, which my small group planned and ran for other participants. We were simulating a meeting for public school parents to discuss proposed changes to school start times.

“Welcome to our community meeting on school schedules. Let’s start off with an icebreaker. Please stand up and wave your arms if you’ve attended a meeting with us before!” I said. My team waited for a few seconds, but not a single one of the 10 Teaching Democracy training participants stood up.

“I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Yeah, and how long is this going to take? I don’t have all night.”

“I don’t really feel comfortable with standing up.”

“No hablo ingles. ¿Alguien me podría ayudar?”

My team had lofty goals during this first practice workshop. Through interactive methods, we aimed to center lived experiences around school schedules and give our participants the tools to collectively plan a campaign. But before our workshop had even begun, we were running into problems. In real-time, we experienced the effects of not establishing trust with our members. By diving right into an interactive and unnerving exercise without introducing ourselves and clarifying our goals for the session, the participants felt reticent to engage.

Through this simulated practice, we learned how popular education methods can result in bottom-up learning and fruitful action plans only when built on a foundation of trust. Most people who attend traditional meetings or classes expect that experts will deposit information in a top-down fashion. Popular education, on the other hand, shifts who is seen as a “legitimate source of knowledge” to include those experiencing direct effects of an issue. Depending on how sessions are facilitated, the environment can feel chaotic or like an intentional exercise in community-building. Learning to walk that line takes practice, and the Teaching Democracy training created space for Tufts and community members working on social justice issues in Greater Boston to explore these methods and learn together.

Over the course of two Saturdays, we were introduced to the principles and values of popular education as well as strategies for effective facilitation. The majority of the training was interactive; only so much can be learned from the books about popular education. One of the most important takeaways for me was learning how to set agendas in a way that allowed a group identify root causes to a problem. I won’t give away how we ran our second workshop, but it involved more transparency and trust-building, centering participants’ complex lived experiences, decentralizing leadership roles, and ending on unexpected and energizing new problem to solve together.