In the middle of October, amidst heavy rainfall and floods, a group of people met in Corris, Wales at the the beautiful residential centre Braich Goch run by the Anne Matthews Trust. The group was made of people connected in some way to the land justice movement - some who had been to the Spring Gathering earlier this year, with others fresher to any land justice space - from local groups to adjacent campaigns such as the Kurdish Freedom Movement.
The gathering was hosted by Javier, Maria and Pancha who live at the centre, and who live and breathe resistance through the critical education and organising they have done with farmers in Colombia, young people in Hull and many groups who have sought refuge, as well as collective and personal growth at Braich Goch. The inspiration for this gathering came from the Land Justice Spring Gathering where developing the political education strand of work was an obvious priority, and through the creation of a working group, the arrangements for the gathering were pulled together in an impressive amount of time.
The group who make up the Anne Matthews Trust has for many years been experimenting with models of popular education that entail taking people out of their comfort zones, from cities and towns, into spaces of natural beauty. This is combined with critical education and antiracist, antisexist and anticolonial frameworks for collective exploration. The main part of their work is to provide a sanctuary space for those seeking asylum in the UK, to live together, seek solace in sharing experience and enjoy the rivers and views of the area. The collective runs training rooted in participatory action research and agroecology.
Usually, the crew at Braich Goch invite those of refugee and migrant backgrounds to visit, so it was unusual to have a group of mostly white people from more privileged backgrounds occupying the space. It was uncomfortable at times as is often the case when white people and BIPOC people get together to do transformational work. We had hoped to raise money to support the rest of the work of the Anne Matthews Trust and in the end we asked for people to contribute what they could in a reparative contribution system (read the statement here). We are extremely grateful to Javier for offering the opportunity, alongside trust and dedication that we could make it happen despite the unpredictable element of how much money the reparative request for funds would bring in.
We began day one with a session on the history of popular education in the tradition of participatory action research. Their practice comes from practices developed as part of a network of practitioners linked to Jamaica, USA and Colombia called the International School of Bottom Up Organising (ISBO) and these practices have been developed thanks to Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and schools like the Highland Folk School which was key to the civil rights movement. Although some influences can be traced back to the Global North, these key messages stood out for us: people most oppressed in the world tend to be those of darker hue/skin colour and people who experience most oppression should be able to take leadership in organisation and movements.
Alongside understanding the context for this work, we learned three tools for organising: the people’s circle, which is how we conducted all of the sessions, doorknocking, and critical reading. At the beginning and end of each day we would have an opening and closing ceremony using the people’s circle, and when learning tools, we would have ample space - going round in a circle - to hear how it was experienced by everyone.
Nevertheless, there was a lot to learn in a few days and usually there would be more time for coming to terms with these tools, and to gel as a group. This undoubtedly put some pressure on the facilitators, and on the group. Not everyone knew each other, and people were coming into the space with different levels of engagement with the land justice movement and with ideas and practices related to liberation and transformation.
- People’s circle - a way of hearing from everybody in a community; a decision making tool as well as a practice of listening and contributing. Everybody talks for a given amount of time, with the opportunity to skip and speak later. This can develop into cross-talk (facilitated discussion) for a set amount of time, if the group agrees. The important roles are the facilitator, notetaker and timekeeper, but with a different emphasis than what you probably know from organising or from your workplace. The facilitator and notetaker summarise together to move discussions towards decisions, and there is an emphasis on process to the point where coming up with an outcome isn’t time-pressured by the confines of a meeting- it will be made when everyone is ready. We used this tool to explore the topics ‘What is land justice?’ and ‘what are people holding in relation to the conflict in Palestine-Israel?’
- Door knocking - going to speak to people at their homes about an issue, meeting people where they are at and gaining trust by really listening to how people see the world and the ‘problem’.
- Critical reading - reading a text (often prepared when used by ISBO) together, out loud, without prior preparation. Pausing, discussing and continuing whenever someone in the group has questions or things to say about what they are reading.
During the gathering there were frustrations and frictions relating to perceived othering and white supremacist behaviour. An interesting outcome was the proposal to set up an accountability group to catch and work on issues that came up in this space, and in others connected to the land justice movement. We need to prioritise how and where we work through these oppressions and differences, and the training we had there equipped us with some tools that could facilitate group processes in a more thoughtful way.
We were invigorated by the teaching and approach of the collective at the Anne Matthews Trust. One idea that stood out was liberalism as a problem when organising for change. There was an explicit anti-liberal stance of the teaching at AMT, challenging the individualism in the culture created by Western democracies, with the alternative rooted in methods and culture of grassroots self-governance found in Latin America, amongst other places. It would be interesting to explore how liberal politics within our movement get in the way of transforming our relationships, and ultimately how we organise to change the world together. These popular education tools, building leadership from the margins, and linking to international movements, are all part of a move to collectivise the struggle and do it in a just way - but we have a long way to go.
If you have any thoughts about Popular Education and want to get in touch, please send an email to Christabel, our Lead Movement Building Coordinator at email@example.com