Towards an equal platform and language for popular education

3 June 2015

During May, the Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme at IDS sponsored the participation of four European grass roots activists to attend one of the world’s most respected transformative training programmes, Vishtar’s Gender, Diversity and Social Transformation in India. Over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing about their journey…

The first week in Visthar’s Gender, Diversity and Social Transformation programme has laid the groundwork for what is shaping up to be a stimulating, invigorating and educational month of classes and workshops. The diversity of the group of participants and facilitators has contributed to lively discussions and debates, as well as presenting challenges that the group has worked hard to overcome in creative and constructive ways.

Consisting of men and women from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and the UK, a mixture of races, sexual identities and religious backgrounds, ranges in formal (institutionalised) education, ages and English language skills, it is impressive how much the group has managed to achieve in such a short period of time. We have built trust and friendship among the participants, shared life stories, developed common vocabularies and conceptual tools with which to communicate regarding issues central to the course, found common grounds in understanding each others’ journeys and struggles while creating space for differencesRepresentation of Banking Approach to Education

From the outset the facilitators sought to establish an ethos of equality and mutual respect, while encouraging open recognition of the disparities in opportunities and privileges, generating sensitivity to the power dynamics that we each may bring through our interactions. We were invited to collectively set the norms that govern each training session, and to lay out our individual hopes and expectations for what the programme might provide us. Participants were introduced to educational methodologies in line with Paulo Freire’s ‘Problem-Posing Approach’, as opposed to the ‘Banking Approach’ that dominates all formal education systems to which we had been exposed.

Representation of Banking Approach to Education


The ‘Problem-Posing Approach emphasises’:

  • The co-construction of knowledge, co-discovery of truths
  • The importance of active participation of both students and facilitators
  • The centrality of dialogue to the learning process
  • The role of facilitators not as authority figures but as guides whose function was to:
  • Introduce concepts and ideas
  • Provide the framework of interaction
  • Make interventions where necessary to ensure that all voices could be heard. 

In groups we presented our own accounts of what was important in our own learning processes, and found common ground such as support, patience, communication, sharing. On several occasions in the first few days a facilitator would highlight how certain voices were more dominant (avoiding singling anyone out), draw attention to gender, racial and linguistic privilege in group participation, and encourage deeper reflection on these issues. Participants began to more frequently highlight these issues as they saw them arise, and moderate their own contributions accordingly. It was particularly moving to see the group giving more space for Tamil members to speak in their own words and language, with others who were capable voluntarily translating in both directions; participants who were initially more silent became increasingly vocal throughout the week.

By the fifth day of the course we had established a collective understanding of the social construction of gender, and how culture-specific roles, expectations, (dis)empowerment, oppression and violence were (re)produced through overlapping and reinforcing layers of social institutions. Differing experiences of religion, family, media and education were explored, and the way they contributed to gender inequality and oppression were enacted through participant role-play, which again highlighted how our differing backgrounds generated different reference points, placing different degrees of emphasis on different institutions, but generating common themes.

The meaning of poverty and its root causes were discussed, with debates held over lines of disagreement. Film screenings explored capitalism and globalisation, how economic relations are structured and their impacts on indigenous communities living on land containing resources. India Untouched, a film on the persistence of caste-based discrimination and violence in Indian society, generated a particularly lively discussion; UK and Zimbabwean participants drew parallels with racial inequality in their own histories and contemporary backgrounds, while South Asian participants considered and reflected upon the myths of caste's disappearance from the fabric of social hierarchy, debating the efficacy of the policy of Reservation (affirmative action/positive discrimination).

Having ended the fourth day with an innovative exercise for representing the intersection of identities and social institutions engendered in the life-story of a woman from a poor Dalit background, we each spent day five creating and sharing our own ‘River of Life’; our own life-stories. This was an intense and deeply emotional day in which our joys and traumas, developments and struggles, all came to life. Privilege and disadvantage, tragedy and achievement, politicisation and conditioning were shared together, building on the relationships of trust and empathy we had co-constructed, and setting the scene for further delving into the complexities and strategies of fighting together for a more just and equal world.

Dan Laverick is an LGBTQI-rights activist. Recently he took a central role in the London-based “Friends of the Joiners Arms” campaign, which brought a diverse group of people together demanding the protection of safe LGBTQI spaces in London from devastating gentrification policies and processes. His work also revolves around building transnational solidarity links with grassroots movements around the world. His academic interests are currently focused on Gender and Queer theory and how critical thought can be used in an empowering manner in real-life community struggles for justice.

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