What did we do?

Section 4 of

Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: a critical evaluation

by Blanca Facundo

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In the previous section, I stated in general terms some characteristics of those of us who, during the seventies, created what we wanted to be a pedagogy with (not for) the oppressed. We called it liberating education. [1] I have established that we were guided by Freire's books and by an expressed conviction that there is oppression in the United States (of which racism is only a part). We were also persuaded that the "traditional" (and even most of the non-traditional) educational programs in the United States either had given up or had not really tried to create and provide relevant educational services for (much less with) the oppressed. We decided to try.

There were vast differences among the ways in which we tried; there was an immense variety in the educational programs and activities we created to work with the oppressed. They included Spanish literacy programs, English-as-a-second-language classes, adult basic education, GED preparation classes, pre-college programs, college programs at the 2- and 4-year levels; the use of theatre, clowning, massage and other non-verbal educational tools; childbirth classes; labor education programs; parenting programs; and college re-entry programs for middle-aged women, to name only a few. [2]

Our institutional base was summarized as follows in November 1981: [3]

We are all private, non-profit organizations working at the grassroots level in urban and rural geographical areas where Latinos are concentrated. We do not own fancy or expensive physical facilities, equipment, libraries, audio visual or computer centers. We are by no means financially secure. A doctoral degree would be more an exception than a rule in the paper credentials of our staff. We cannot afford Ph.D. salaries. Most of the learners in our projects cannot pay tuition, and because most institutions are not accredited, students are not eligible for financial aid. Our revenues are extremely limited.

The learners in our programs were a predominantly Latino population, although some projects worked with Black and heterogeneous (Black Latino, Oriental) populations. With few exceptions, learners were adults; those described by the United States educational system as "non-traditional," "deprived," or "disadvantaged." We rejected all those labels. In occupational terms, the learners could have been unemployed, or seasonally employed. They included recent immigrants and regular migrants. The overwhelming majority of them lived under poverty level in either urban or rural areas.

They wanted to learn and they worked hard at learning what they needed. They were most emphatically not, as "the system" often states or implies, lazy, ignorant losers. It may seem that way, within a self-serving definition of competency or survival, which conveniently turns into self-fulfilling prophesy.

A set of beliefs (even if locally defined at each site) was deemed to be the starting point in all programs. These were to be translated into a set of concrete actions. Thus I called them "practiced beliefs." There were:

We probably shared the same ideals that are voiced by the traditional educational system, but we believed ourselves to be different: we acted upon the ideals and strived to translate them into concrete actions. Our rationale for this was:

you cannot teach freedom to a captive audience, you cannot teach equality when the teacher or board member is above and hierarchically separated from the students. You cannot in honesty evaluate the work of others if you are not prepared to be evaluated by them. You cannot teach democracy by means of undemocratic processes. [7]

The way to avoid falling into the trap of saying without doing was, what I now believe to be the adoption of a superficial interpretation of democracy as a participatory process with which we would reflect with learners about all institutional activities. [8]

We deemed attitudes and emotions to be of utmost importance: [9]

We do not separate emotions and feelings from words and action. We reject the affective/cognitive dichotomy and take into consideration these domains, looking at how they are expressed in words and actions. And this we do with everyone: students, teachers and administrators. We examine the cognitive and affective domains in words and action on a one-to-one basis, but also in group situations. We do it by means of open dialogues and what some would call exercises in group dynamics. Body language and non-verbal communication are important for us. We disagree strongly among ourselves and anger, like any other feelings, is considered okay, as long as it is acknowledged or pointed out in a dialogue, to examine it as a part of a process.

We frowned at "academia" because we felt it implied something that is separated from the common sense, day-to-day concerns of the learner. Not only separated, but above and beyond these concerns. Which was, in our opinion, the major reason why learners often failed to learn in "academic" environments while they learned easily in the environment we created with them.

Our preferred mode of learning was collective or group learning. Most of us emphasized collective learning, as opposed to individualized instruction. We felt very strongly that the basis of power is found in collective, rather than individual actions. [10] That is why we tried to emphasize the participation of learners in decision-making, frowning upon distinctions between "academic" and "administrative" matters as it these were isolated entities.

As for curriculum, in addition to considering the process of education as an inherent part of the contents, we tried to make the day-to-day, common sense concerns or the learners the basis upon which we constructed, with them, a curriculum. We wanted it to be a cross-disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) curriculum that could change every year, based upon the needs of the learners, as perceived by us with all of them. We tried to avoid the pressure of prescribed contents that we had to cover in "X" period of time. We were concerned with effective teaching and learning. The pressure to cover prescribed contents, in our opinion, prevented both.

We truly believed the following to be the product of our efforts:

Within our programs, the learners come out of the culture of silence; out of the fatalism and apparent docility; out of their self-devaluation. And they develop a sense of power based upon a critical understanding of the concrete conditions of their existence in this country. They realize that these conditions can and should be changed; that they can do something to this effect.

This cannot be the result of traditional teaching, which is conceived as a process whereby a knowledgeable person deposits contents into the head of an ignorant person. Empowerment cannot result from this type of activity in which the process is telling learners that they are powerless and ignorant while the contents say otherwise.

Teaching and education in general, including the administration of educational institutions, is conceived as something different. An education of quality then would be seen as an unfinished process: the process of learning how we can best learn together as equals and with dignity what we all decide it is important to learn, so that we can be empowered to act, to change and therefore to transform our world into a place in which it will be easier to be human and to love.

As stated in note 3 for this section, all the information I have provided thus far is excerpted from a presentation I was asked to make by a major funding agency. I knew very well that what I was to say was not exactly what "the system" wanted to hear, but I went along with my planned presentation anyway. As of 1984 I must admit that the statements presented in 1981 only offered our ideals, our shoulds, what we wished our programs to be.

In 1981 I had already discovered the enormous gap which separated us from our funding sources, and had realized that a "confrontation" was inevitable. Further, we were going to lose (our funding, that is) unless we opted to defeat ourselves by accepting money to do what we did not want to do. [11] In our situation, funding would be a self-defeating victory. A decision had to be taken both individually and within each project.

I had made mine. The Reagan administration was into "quality" and "excellence" in education, and we were far from being considered "excellent" by the system. Consequently, in the presentation I was asked to offer I started by denouncing "the definitions game:"

The definitions game is an obstacle to communications which leads us to a dead end. "What is quality?" we can ask, and after a long discussion we will either draft a definition that is so general that it is meaningless, or we will come up with as many definitions as there are persons. And where do we go from here? The definitions game can take us straight into a need to define even the concepts we have used in our definition. But that would not tell us much about what we can actually do to promote effective teaching and learning. I dare say that perhaps definitions are not as helpful as we often think they are!

Further on, I lashed against another "favorite" of the system by saying that we were not into "the numbers same," although sponsoring agencies sometimes required that we enter it:

How many do you recruit? How many do you enroll? How many do you graduate? Our quest is not quantity, but quality. It should be evident by now that, if we were to construe a definition of quality in liberating education, its elements would greatly differ from the accepted, standard criteria, which are basically quantitative. 

Our collective work, which a group of seven project directors had strived to sustain since 1978-79, was about to end its federally-funded stage. We could sense it. A change of administration had taken place in the government of the United States and it was not inclined to assist the grassroots. As I stated to a group of about 75 liberating educators in the only national conference we ever held: [12]

The only reason why we are here today is because we have not forgotten, because we have followed-up. And we have to do it again if we want to continue working together. That is for you to decide, for you to do.

IRCEL is only an instrument for your use. But IRCEL needs you to use it on behalf of all not only for the sake of your own institutions. We need to go beyond the narrow confines of our barrios and to reach out to compañeros in other barrios. It takes all of us to do it.

IRCEL (Information and Resources Center for Educación Liberadora: "liberating education") had two beginnings. "Officially" it started in September, 1980 when we received a federal grant to finance it. Unofficially, however, it started in 1978 when a group of representatives from some Hispanic Liberating Education projects surprised each other at a conference in Wisconsin. It was a Projects Directors' meeting convened by a federal funding agency. I had been working with a group of Freire-inspired educators in Puerto Rico, [13] trying to discover through practice and based upon Freire's theories, a relevant alternative for the education of urban low-income adults. I had submitted a proposal requesting financial support for our efforts. We received a three-year grant and that is how I found myself, as an evaluator, in a Projects Directors' meeting.

To our dismay, we felt alienated, we felt that we did not belong there. We naturally moved to see if there were other Latinos in the conference with whom we could communicate. We found people from two projects: one in New York and one in Oregon. We all discovered that what we were doing was very similar, although we were working in very different barrios. We learned that we were not alone, and that knowledge gave us some energy to go on. [14] When the meeting ended, however, we went back to our projects and we did not follow-up. You know how it is: practitioners seldom have the time to do these things.

In 1979 there was another Projects Directors' meeting. And by then there were seven Latino projects doing what each described as "liberating education." By this time, all were feeling an urgency to communicate with each other, but to communicate without the limitations of a conference that had little to do with what we were doing. We just had to meet again, with an agenda prepared by us, for us. [15]

One of the projects had received more money that it had requested, by mistake of the funding agency. This project asked the funding agency to allow us to use this extra money to convene an Hispanic Mini-Caucus to discuss common concerns. Permission was granted. It was January, 1980.

I had moved from Puerto Rico to the United States to accept a job in the State of Virginia, and had prepared a proposal requesting assistance to create a network of Latino Adult Education Projects. I participated in the Mini-Caucus as an observer and recorder. [16]

The Caucus was held to see if we could take steps to work together regardless of the outcome of the proposal I had written. The seven projects worked intensively for two days. What follows is what we came up with as results:

1. We drafted a list of common problems and concerns.

2. We agreed that I would use the research facilities of the institution that employed me to identify more Latino Adult Education Projects which were using the ideas and methods of Paulo Freire in the United States.

3. We agreed that, if we could find at least six more projects that were doing what we were doing, we would make a special unsolicited request for funds to the agency that already was funding some projects, to hold a Mini-Conference in New York, sometime in the summer of 1980.

4. We agreed to file a report to the funding agency with these results. 

By the month of June 1980 (three months after the caucus), twenty-four projects had been identified and contacted. The funding agency approved an unsolicited proposal to convene the proposed Mini-Conference in New York in July 1980. All 24 projects participated. In the Mini-Conference we learned everything we could about each project, exchanged materials, and identified common problems. We agreed on a tentative wording for the meaning for our programs, drafted collectively. [17] It read as follows:

1. Educación liberadora (liberating education) takes place in different settings.

2. Educación liberadora is the participatory practice of education that maintains that education is political.

3. Educación liberadora is an educational process that begins by making people aware of themselves and their surroundings and, as human beings, to develop a critical consciousness.

4. Liberación (liberation) is defined as the empowerment of participants and the giving-up of power of the facilitator. [18]

5. Educación liberadora fits into two practical applications (conscientization and literacy), but these cannot occur separately. [19]

6. Each of us [present in New York] is working in a liberating setting, whether it be applied directly in a "schooling" sense, or a "non-schooling" sense such as with youth programs and in the fields of music and art.

7. The following were identified as commonalities that united us:

  • We consider that dialogue is a starting point in educación liberadora.
  • Educación liberadora is the empowerment of the people. [20]
  • Liberación must go hand in hand with providing the people with skills that will help them in their immediate situation. [21]
  • Educación liberadora is "de-schooling." [22]
  • Educación liberadora occurs predominantly in community settings.
  • Liberación is cultural identity. [23]
  • Educación liberadora does not discard theory or practice. On the contrary, both theory and practice are utilized dialectically.
  • The existence, strength and development of educación liberadora should go hand in hand with the exchange and sharing of ideas and materials among us. [24]
  • In order to accomplish this, a mechanism has to be established. [25]

It was decided that, if the proposal I had submitted was funded, I would undertake the networking and resources sharing tasks which all projects needed, but for which no project had time or staff.

The proposal was funded and IRCEL was born based at the Latino Institute Research Division in Reston, Virginia. It operated from September, 1980 to September, 1982, when the Institute gave notice that its operations in Virginia would be closed. I requested and obtained the safekeeping of the materials collected by IRCEL, notified all projects, and looked for a way to continue the networking we needed, this time without federal monies. [26]

A progressive church granted seed monies for this effort and a "new" network called Alternativas was born, staffed by unemployed volunteers in February, 1983. [27] Its major networking vehicle was a newsletter entitled Alternativas.

IRCEL had two major tasks to undertake during its final federally-funded year of 1982-83: two documents had to be prepared, to assist practitioners in two areas which had been identified as presenting the biggest problems to all projects engaged in liberating education:

The first document was produced in 1982, printed and mailed in 1983. [28] The second document is the one you are now reading.


Notes to Section 4: What Did we Do?

1. Some called it liberatory education. As of this writing, the label "liberating education" is not much in use. It has evolved into "education for empowerment," and "popular" (or people's) education.

2. A total of 28 projects came together in 1981. An IRCEL 1981 Descriptive Directory of Projects was produced to provide an overview of how liberating education was operationalized across the United States and Puerto Rico.

3. The information and quotes provided in the following pages are excerpted from a presentation I made at the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), Annual Project Directors' Meeting, Columbia, Maryland, November 1981. It was entitled, "The Meaning of Quality Education in IRCEL: A Democratic Approach Towards Effective Teaching and Learning," and was published in Educación Liberadora, December 1981, pp. 10-13.

4. This position is fairly close to the personalist or populist approach, as it ignores class differences.

5. This belief was perhaps the hardest to practice. Specialized functions sometimes are required by the system (such as check signing and submission of financial reports to the IRS) and some are essential for institutional survival (such as proposal-writing and fundraising). Also, project founders and old timers could not avoid a certain love-hate from newcomers, which was based on the charisma that project founders and directors seemed to have.

6. This was a major concern because, for the most part, learners resisted spending their time in anything that would take them away from their immediate, survival-oriented and practical objectives. Further, part-time staff members could not invest a great deal of time in meetings and more meetings, even though they did (for the most part) work for more hours than they were paid for.

7. Again, learners resisted an experience with which they were not familiar. In some instances they demanded "real" teachers, homework and the discipline of a traditional school.

8. We wanted "participatory" instead of "representative" democracy. This meant that all were expected to participate equally in deliberations prior to decision-making, and that decisions were to be taken by consensus instead of by majority vote. Any other style brought instant accusations of "authoritarianism," and/or dogmatism. Participation became an end in itself. Participation for what? To practice "democracy." Yet, when rapid decisions were needed for action, the preferred process did not seem to work. It always entailed an enormous amount of time.

9. This was certainly true -- and time consuming. An impact of group dynamics, no doubt. It is fascinating to read Emanuel de Kadt's statements in Catholic Radicals in Brazil, on how powerfully Catholic university students were impacted by group dynamics, in the early sixties, much in the same way we were in the late seventies. Another (unknown) attraction to Freire's educational philosophy? See de Kadt, pp. 215-18.

10. The philosophy and practice that we developed tried to be as non-directive as possible. I think that without realizing it, we moved from using non-directiveness as a means to using it as a goal in itself. How non-directive can you be in insisting in non-directiveness? The question only came up in the only large conference we ever held (October, 1981 in Reston, Virginia). Reading Emanuel de Kadt, I could not help but remember that conference. Some of the problems posed by de Kadt, which we also faced, were: (a) a tension between the requirement for efficiency and the requirement to have a minimum of authority from the top; (b) extreme non-directiveness was forcefully proclaimed mostly by those who were not in a position of ultimate administrative responsibility; (c) any kind of structure was resented as manipulation; (d) newcomers did not have an understanding of what our work was about, and a great deal of time had to be spent in clarifying this matter; (e) voices of dissent dominated the proceedings. As de Kadt, I concluded that "the result was a truly awful muddle, a complete lack of clarity as to any decisions about the future that might come about" from the conference. Catholic Radicals, pp. 222-25. See Eva Díaz' account of the liberating education conference in "A Vision Being Formed: the Dynamics of the Conference," Educación Liberadora, October-November, 1981, pp. 4-5; and Sarah Hirrschman's "Recollection," same issue of Educación Liberadora, pp. 20-28.

11. I recall that computers and advanced educational technology were "in." Some liberating education projects took that road. Most, however, refused to consider that type of activity as a priority. It was quite expensive to implement, it required specialized staff, etc. We were dismayed by the priorities expressed by the Reagan administration, in which we clearly did not "fit."

12. This is the conference to which I refer in note 10 above. The quote is taken from my "Opening Remarks," which came after two days of interaction during which I had sensed the issues mentioned in note 10. The conference participants included a considerable number of "newcomers." Many directors of projects could not attend due to the emergencies (mostly financial) faced by the projects, and sent other staff members to represent them. I felt the need to "tell the story" of our collective work, to no avail. The agenda, carefully planned collectively, but by project directors over the phone and mail, was disrupted under the banner of non-directiveness. Members of our funding agency were present. The situation was hopeless.

13. Project D.A.R.E. (Discovering Alternatives for Relevant Education), created in 1978 with a grant from FIPSE (see note 3 above). It was located in a public urban housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was in charge of "process evaluation." D.A.R.E. was one of the projects which helped me start IRCEL when I moved to the United States in 1980.

14. We had discovered, through trial and error, that liberating education was easier said than done, as the saying goes. It was an exhausting and very frustrating endeavor. All our premises had been proved false by the learners. We were caught into the unexpected situation of being required (by the learners) to do the very things we had decided not to do. And, as Freire advised, we had started with learners, where they were at, hoping to move along, with them, to where we wanted to go. They knew better, though, and refused "our" way.

15. The urgency was serious. We needed to learn how others were coping with reality; to find out if we were crashing against reality or were just being incompetent; perhaps we were looking for a "magic" solution!

16. The problems and concerns expressed at the Mini-Caucus were integrated into a document I prepared and mailed to all participants. Problems and concerns were amazingly similar in all projects.

17. A careful transcript of proceedings was made based upon notes taken throughout the interaction. These were mailed by the host institution to all participants.

18. The movement towards non-directiveness is clearly expressed by this statement.

19. Conscientization, a term much discussed and defined (and, incidentally a term which originated within ISEB; see section 1, note 25 and associated text), was the immediate objective of liberating education. This we all realized. The objective responded, we believed, to a long-range goal: the structural transformation of society. The problem was that no one knew how conscientization could be "practically applied" in the United States context. We were learning by doing.

20. This was a medium-range goal. Empowerment was needed before structural changes.

21. This was an immediate objective, as learners demanded it.

22. We were much influenced by Ivan Illich, as evidenced in this commonality.

23. Freire's emphasis on cultural action was more than well-received by Latinos, who struggle in the United States to safeguard their cultural identity. The question of whose culture (that of elite or that of oppressed Latinos) never came up in this meeting.

24. We truly wanted to learn from each other, among projects, to face the challenges that our practice was posing to our theory.

25. In addition to what will be described in this section, interesting experiments, such as staff exchanges, were conducted. Educación Liberadora, the newsletter which connected us between 1980-82, is the best source on the mechanisms that were tried in this quest.

26. Federal funding, I had decided, was self-defeating. I undertook the task to continue networking efforts through volunteer work. By then, many of us were unemployed and, while searching for a job, some joined efforts to keep in touch with all who wanted to try.

27. A private, non-profit entity was created called Alternative Solutions, Inc. (ASI). This entity operated between October, 1982 and May, 1983 when it was dissolved. Its assets were transferred to Puerto Rico, for the project Alternativas (the new network), sponsored by the Puerto Rican Center for Lifelong Studies. The church approved the dissolution and transfer, and supported the operations of the network until December, 1985.

28. Phyllis Noble, Formation of Freirian Facilitators (Latino Institute, Chicago, July, 1983).