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Popular Knowledge Can Transform People's Worlds

by Dalia Acosta
HAVANA - Valuing and sharing common people's knowledge and experience, awakening critical consciousness and finding paths for effective social participation are the processes used by more than 1,000 people in Cuba working in Popular Education, a liberating approach to education developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in the 1960s.

"The deepest form of participation is when people come together, sharing their own thoughts and feelings, with a strong sense of commitment and full awareness of what they are doing," José Ramón Vidal, head of the Popular Communication Programme at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre (CMMLK), told IPS. Combining true dedication and horizontal ways of organising to ensure everyone's opinion was included, the Fourth National Popular Education Encounter was held Nov. 9-12 in the Cuban capital. Cuba has appropriated this educational approach since 1995, when the first workshop was organised.

Dolores Iveth Velasco of Equipo Maíz, a Salvadoran political education group, said, "Popular Education is that knowledge that we have and build on, but when we organise it, it frees us from the bonds created by the consumer society."(photo by Flickr user katerha) This philosophy of critical awareness began to find followers in Cuba during the severe economic crisis suffered by the Cuban population in the 1990s. "The hardship we have endured for so many years creates despair and disillusion," said Vidal, a psychologist.

In Vidal's view, people who train in the methodology of popular education experience "re-enchantment" with values and emotions that are denied by the competitive and individualistic culture of free market societies. "They fall in love again with a social project, with what they do, with service, solidarity and sharing," he said.

In the 15 years since the movement arrived in Cuba and the birth of the National Network of Popular Educators, which has about 1,500 members, Freire's precepts have reached community groups and institutions around the country.

In Granma province in southeastern Cuba, "local bodies like the People's Councils are adopting, timidly as yet, this way of doing, learning and organising," Yordenis Monge, coordinator of the Food Sovereignty and Local Development Project in the eastern city of Bayamo, told IPS.

Promoted by Cuban and Spanish non-governmental organisations in three provinces on the island, the outreach initiative involves, directly or indirectly, more than 60 institutions. "Leaders and their community work groups are now going through a Popular Education learning process," Monge said.

Some authorities have recognised the benefits of this way of doing things. According to Mario Cruz Díaz, a member of the local legislature in the province of Holguín, which borders Granma, the method "is a great help in the work of directing, planning, forecasting and coordinating."

In his province, which has a population of more than 300,000, distribution of the few resources available is difficult, and they must be used to the best effect. "When a person receives aid as welfare, without consciously participating, he or she is incapable of really valuing the cost of what they are given," Cruz said.

Freire's educational goal was to encourage people to become critical subjects who were capable of collectively solving their problems, managing their lives and transforming their surroundings. Community and environmental groups and neighbourhoods facing difficulties like poverty and high levels of violence are taking up Popular Education.

Neighbourhood Transformation Workshops in the Cuban capital, the Promotion and Education Centre for Sustainable Development (CEPRODESO) in the western province of Pinar del Río, the La Marina social and cultural project in Matanzas province, and some small farmers' cooperatives are adopting the methodology.

At present, CMMLK is participating in the work of the National Network of Popular Educators in 17 Cuban provinces and municipalities. Most of the network's members are women, according to María Isabel Romero, the coordinator of CMMLK's Popular Education and Participating in Local Experiences Programme. CMMLK also has connections with similar partners abroad, mainly in Latin America, and with social movements. The Cuban centre offers training and promotes Freire's approach for the work of civil society groups in Latin America, Vidal said.

Brazilian theologian Frei Betto contributed to introducing this educational perspective in Cuba, and has closely followed its development. At the meeting, Betto said he brought "this contribution to the (Cuban) Revolution, out of conviction of the political importance of Popular Education methodology."

Latin American activists like Messilene Gorete, of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST), Honduran activist Salvador Zúñiga of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisation (COPINH), a member of the coalition of groups opposed to the June 2009 coup d'etat, and Dolores Iveth Velasco of Equipo Maíz, a Salvadoran political education group, also attended the meeting.

Velasco is part of an education project working with a wide range of groups in El Salvador. In her view, "Popular Education is that knowledge that we have and build on, but when we organise it, it frees us from the bonds created by the consumer society."

As a result of this liberating methodology, "a person takes up the reins of their own life," she said. According to her social work experience, it is vital to bring women to this kind of learning, so that they "take power over their own bodies and do not allow others to make decisions for them." 

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