Episode 107: The Legacy of Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire framed education as a pathway to liberation in his seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” His work has influenced generations of educators, including GLP Founder, Dr. Jane Vella. In this episode we talk with Robb Davis of California and Alex Ciconello of Brazil – two long-term Dialogue Education™ practitioners who hold the legacy of Freire’s principles dear to heart. They share stories of how this revolutionary approach to education is still alive today around the world, from city governments to grassroots social justice movements. 

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This show is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton JR. You can learn more about GLP at our website, as well as check out Greg’s work and services!

Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst. You can hear more of Una’s music at her website!

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Read transcripts for the episode below.

Intro (11s):
Hello and Welcome to Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning-centered approach. Through this podcast. We hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue.

Peter (27s):
So this is Peter Noteboom, and Welcome to our Shift the Power Podcasts series. I’m very pleased to introduce my special guest co-host for this episode, Rachel Nicolosi, Rachel is a partner in Global Learning Partners and also leads some of our communications work. Rachel, could you introduce yourself and your connection to this topic?

Rachel (49s):
Yes. Thanks Peter. I’m Rachel Nicolosi, and I am a part of the core consulting team for Global Learning Partners. I’m also an adult literacy specialist. And so this is how I got interested in the work of Dialogue Education, Paulo Freire, and Jane Vella for many, many years. And so I’m super excited to talk with our guests today about this topic. And in this episode, we want to explore the Legacy and his influences on learning centered and approaches. So we’re joined by Alex Ciconello and Robb Davis welcome. Both of you, Alex, could you introduce yourself and describe briefly in your own words, what the legacy of Paulo Freire means to you?

Alex (1m 37s):
Thank you for the invitation. I’m a lawyer and also a political scientist. And I nowadays, I worked for the international partnerships is a international energy in Washington, DC because I’m also a human rights activist. And I have been working with social movements. So Paulo Freire’s like a guide on the inspiration for every activity in Brazil. So when they talk about social justice, freedom, and how can you Shift, you know, Power to achieve a, a better society.

He is one of the greatest that we look for to inspire our activism for social transformation. So thank you to be part of this conversation. Talk a little bit more about Paulo Freire.

Rachel (2m 33s):
Thank you so much Alex. It’s also glad to have you on this conversation as well. So, Peter, I’m going to turn it back to you. Do you want to say, we may have some folks listening who might not have heard of Paulo Freire or know who he is, or what’s his legacy, if you want to say a little more.

Peter (2m 49s):
Yeah. And thank you, Rachel, and it’s so great to have you with us, Alex, to have someone who you know, is working and living in the country, where Paulo Freire, did his work and where he’s from and where he wrote his works back in the 1960s and seventies. And I think he was even a leading politician, a minister in the government toward the end of his life within the last 10 or 15 years. Wasn’t he?

Alex (3m 13s):
Yeah, he’s worked as secretary for education in one of the biggest cities in Latin American. He worked with a politician, her name is Valjina. And now it’s interesting because she is running for Vice-Mayor.

Peter (3m 33s):
Right and that’s just typical because he was an, an adult educator or a writer in the field of adult education, but always politically active. And it’s interesting to hear that his legacy is still carried forward in current day politics. I know that when I first read about Paulo Freire, he was able to put into words, convictions that I carried about my work in the world. And when I read, I think it is his, you know, most well-known book, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed and I read one chapter of another. It was like light bulbs going on at every stage on that journey of reading through that book.

Peter (4m 14s):
When I met Jane, which would have been back in the 1990s, she also loved to tell her story of meeting a Paulo Freire. When she was working in Tanzania, I believe it was in the 1970s. She was there as a Maryknoll sister and was involved in community work. And Paulo Freire came to pay a visit to the university there and they hit it off. They really connected personally, and Jane was inspired by Paulo’s work and what he was bringing. And I dare say that Paulo might of been inspired to by his connection with Jane all those many years ago. And so I think in those years, the ideas of Paulo Freire around popular education and critical thinking were really fruitful.

Peter (5m 4s):
One other community that picked up those approaches was called the training for transformation community. And that’s actually where I had my first links and connections to a critical Pedagogy let’s say, and learned about, you know, a Monologue versus Dialogue learned about conscientization our awareness building and learning, and it’s, you know, a really strong applications in the field of literacy. So we know, even though in many times on this podcast, we’ve been talking about the influence of Jane in this, on our own work here in this community. But we also carry that legacy of Paulo Freire as a very inspiring theoretician, but also activist.

Peter (5m 53s):
He was really brought together that theory and action in inspiring ways. So we’ve heard from Alex and I’ve said a little bit myself. I wonder Robb, you’re our guest from California and you’ve been working in many different settings, including in the city government of Davis, but also in the university city settings. What’s your connection to Paulo Freire?

Robb (6m 17s):
Yeah. Thanks Peter. And Rachel, ah, you know, as, as I was reflecting on it, I, I think I was introduced to Paulo Freire by a Valerie Uccelani actually at Global Learning Partners back at the beginning of my public health career, she was using Paulo Freire and the sort of foundational course learning to listen, learning to teach, I think, as it was called back then, and she just encouraged us to pick up the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I later came across the Politics of Education. So it, you know, my, my introduction was through the way that Paulo Freire informed the development of Jane thinking. And then the the courses that Global Learning Partners I think it’s before Global Learning Partners was even called that was doing the teaching.

Robb (7m 1s):
And I think what was beyond the idea of dialogue and what it means. It was really interesting to me to recall, I think, in his chapter on Dialogue and we think it’s chapter three in the book, he talks about the imperative of loving people. And when you read that, first of all, that has sort of value layed in term in relation to what would seem or could appear to be a technical thing, right? Teaching training that really pulls you up. That’s stuck with me and the way I have interpreted as well, it’s, you know, it’s not a, it’s not just a sentiment about how you feel about people, but it’s a belief.

Robb (7m 46s):
It’s a fundamental belief that people have something to contribute to their learning and to other people’s learning. It’s not just the holder of the, you know, technical information, which Paulo Freire, also talks about it in the politics of education, but it’s everyone it’s coming to terms with the reality in believing that when you’re in a, a learning setting, there will be contributions made by everyone that will deepen everyone else’s understanding of the issue and even how to frame it or talk about it, that, that everyone will be critical to sort of unlocking the door to learning for everyone else.

Peter (8m 24s):
I’m not surprised to hear it from you Robb, but I just am so touched by your reference to convictions. That is not the techniques or a theory, but it’s some deeper level values and convictions that we share. So interesting. You know, you know, I think Rachel that we we’re all telling her story about a connection that we have to Paulo Freire. What about you? What’s your story and how do you come to be a, a special guest co-host on this episode about Paulo Freire?

Rachel (8m 56s):
Yeah, thanks. Well, as I mentioned, I worked in the adult literacy for many years in New Orleans, Louisiana. And during my studies and my research in my work I’ve come to realize that most people in the United States don’t think about education as a political act or from a liberatory point of view. They think of education as a neutral endeavor, mostly just preparation for the job market or nurturing and building the whole person. And so the philosophy of Paulo Freire that education can be used to affect radical social change is seen as something for other countries, not for the U.S, but in my research on a community organizing and advocacy for adult literacy, I came across a great behind the scenes story that shows how even in the U.S, our educational institutions are used to keep power arrangements and class structure in place.

Rachel (9m 52s):
And it’s about the first federal legislation passed to provide funding for adult literacy in the United States, which is in the 1960s. And the story comes from the personal memories of Samuel Halperin who helped shape laws around public education for more than four decades. And in the sixties, he was an executive branch lobbyist for presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. And so he writes that, you know, making sure that adults have a second chance to raise their literacy skills and continue their education beyond high school. What seemed clearly to be in the public interest and the people who have been trying to pass legislation for funding for adult education and adult literacy since 1918, when they realized how poorly prepared the soldiers were that they were recruiting for World War One.

Rachel (10m 39s):
But all of these requests for legislation had been ignored for years because Congress was dominated by Southern Conservatives and Southern States had literacy tests that were barriers to the exercise of voting rights. But in 1964, Congress passed the historic voting rights act. So the power of those state literacy tests to the word, voting by blacks would decline, if not go away altogether. So it shifted the power. It shifted the mood and the tactics among the Southern lawmakers. And this is a terrible quote, but it’s one leading Southern Senator said in a closed caucus, “if we’re going to have to let them vote, we’d better show that they can at least read.”

Rachel (11m 24s):
And so with that shift of power during the civil rights movement, it led to the very first federal funding for adult literacy in United States. And it’s something that has always stuck with me. And you really can’t find on history books. They just say, you know, it was a part of the war on poverty, but it really wasn’t. It was a part of the political literacy test used to keep people from voting. So that’s my story in one of my connections, why don’t we go back to Alex. Th podcasts is called Shift the Power, which is an important theme for Paulo Freire. How does that resonate with you today? And do you have the story about what a difference that makes?

Alex (12m 7s):
Yeah, so maybe a little bit about how I grew up in the social movements in Brazil. And for popular education and Paulo Freire and the theology of liberation were like two important facts that shaped all of the things that social movement does in Brazil. So it’s important to mention that as you all said, you know, he’s an activist and mix notes theory with action. And he was put in prison during the military because our shift Brazil, he was exiled. He fought against oppression all of his life, and the popular education gave us like the social movements and the CSOs and the transformation field of organizations and people, not only in Brazil for other parts, like a language, as Rob said.

So the way people learn with love, with respect, with inclusion. That the preschools know from the Dialogue Education of the case, and he gave us like a language where as a guide, so where you promote some practice, promote some experience or transform some people’s awareness and also mobilize them to, to act, to change their reality. So there is this word that he used a lot emancipation, is there an Power when people are emancipated, they can having the cautions of his or her situation, but also the guts to, to change it.

Peter (13m 48s):
Could you make a link for us to your work? I mean, you introduce yourself as a, as a lawyer, as a human rights activist, someone working with a international budget partnership. How, how do the insights of Paulo Freire show up in your work day to day?

Alex (14m 5s):
Yeah. So before I joined IBP, international budget partnership, I worked with the Brazilian association. With women movement and black movement and different movements in Brazil from a Brazilian perspective, from someone that works on social issues, all of the presence, everybody knows him. Everybody knows his language. Everybody knows when you work with trainings and meetings with social movements and grassroots, we all use somehow his methodology and his principles. So when I started to work for an international organization and I came from an environment and what I’m so glad my organization embraced the Dialogue Education the Global Learning Partners, and it was a surprise for me that they are different take-aways of Legacy.

Alex (15m 7s):
And that, for example, Jane Vella and, you know, trying to systematize, tried to recreate some principles and practices around not only education, but also drawing from the other sources in terms of principles of implication. So just bring me like a new vision, made a new perspective from a corporate location, and then I’m very glad that it’s now a days I can bring my Legacy as a Brazilian social activist with maybe international .perspective, that includes the legacy of Paulo Freire.

Alex (15m 50s):
We’ll be on it. So I’m very glad that I met Global Learning Partners and I’m now like a certified practitioner, and then we can learn together how best to apply and all of those principles in our day by day work.

Peter (16m 8s):
You know, if I may, Rachel, I have another thread I want to pull on a little bit from what Alex said, Alex, you’ve used the phrase Popular Education, Dialogue, Education, Learnin-Centered approaches, and it’s true that there’s a, a relationship between them all. If you had to pick one principle or two principles that really show up strongly, and in all three of those expressions, that’s a common, a common foundation in all of those, what would it be?

Alex (16m 38s):
I would say, power or power relationships. How can we identify even in a broader perspective, like social change, but also Power in a group of people when you are in a training or in the classroom, you can see Power relations and we can work, you know, to include people and to create relevance on the content. So I would say that we live in a world where, you know, have power structures everywhere. So I think Dialogue Education, the Learning-Centered approach and also the Popular Education. They all try to reveal those structures and work in a way to include all voices.

Rachel (17m 28s):
Thanks, Alex. Robb I want to go back to you and to see where do you see Freire and practice of Dialogue Education and Learning-Centered approach going in to the next few years?

Robb (17m 43s):
Well, first I, I really appreciate what you said, sort of what is at the heart, this idea, you know, of, of power and how voices are heard or valued is a really critical piece. And I agree with Alex, I maybe said a little bit differently, but really Jane Vella I think gave us some tools to think about, you know, designing learning spaces, where we are intentionally pushed to think at every stage of the design process about, you know, who’s there, what did they have to offer? How do we use, you know, different learning approaches to invite people, to reflect and to listen, reflect on their own, listen to one another build on their understanding by listening and engaging with others.

Robb (18m 31s):
I often say to people about a, what I prefer to call it, the Hydraulic Education, I guess still now deceptively simple. It looks like a very straightforward kind of way to approach a planning, but when you really dig into it in its totality, you see that it has the potential to be transformative in its scary to people who have been brought up were largely used a at a more monolithic approach. And so there’s power in that. I think for me going forward, it’s funny because I use these approaches extensively in my public health work in, you know, in community-based learning around infectious diseases and nutrition, but it was really when I got into local government and was encouraging city staff to use these approaches for community-based meetings around, you know, for example, policing in our town, which is a big issue, of course in the United States.

Robb (19m 24s):
Well, I guess around the world, what I saw was in creating spaces where different voices could be heard, we began to enlarge our understanding that a narrow technical conception of security. We did not cut it and we needed to understand what security met in a broader theme. And so I guess all that to say, to answer your question, I think one of the most promising ways to use these approaches is in bringing in communities are of various sizes together and spaces where people think create a vision for their own future. What does security mean in my town? What does it mean to have systems that protect the most vulnerable?

Robb (20m 6s):
How do we think about responding to the effects of climate change? What do we need to do differently related to our lifestyles concerning greenhouse gas emissions. These are fruitful things to have conversations about, and we can make choices. We can leave them in the hands of technical experts to come up with expert reports, or we can bring people together who have an understanding of how these things will play out in communities, among vulnerable groups and, and among any group, you know, I’m still in the place of being able to explore beyond the classroom, if you will, beyond the workshop, how do we bring these into public spaces to value those different voices?

Robb (20m 46s):
And I think there’s so to be done there, to gain perspective, to engage in deep listening on these complex issues that affect all our communities.

Rachel (20m 55s):
Yeah. Thanks. Robb I would be curious to learn more about that and learn some more from you as like what challenges and opportunities do you see for our communities that, that want to embark in this work?

Robb (21m 8s):
I mean, I think the biggest challenge is leadership to get it started. I mean, Power so, you know, Alex talked about Freire, focus on power and it’s true. I think justice, you know, is the appropriate use of Power aye, aye. There are people I was in that place locally where, because of the title, because you know, your, your sitting in a certain seat, you’re given a privilege. I, you can’t deny that it, it really boils down to what we ask our leaders to do with that privilege. Do we, do we challenge them to take risks, to create these spaces where voices can be heard, where alternative views can be aired.

Robb (21m 51s):
I mean, it’s, it’s scary, right? Because you, as soon as you create those spaces, anything could happen. Things that you never imagine, what I’ve experienced is that typically really great things happen, but it’s challenging for people in power to give that up. And, and I think Jane certainly Valerie taught this, but one of the biggest challenges to people adopting Jane’s approach is, is that you, you go into a learning environment and you don’t quite know what might happen. There is a very active using for a year in approach is, is to explicitly give up power in the learning environment. That is the biggest challenge, being comfortable, being confident.

Robb (22m 33s):
And that’s where I go back to this whole idea of love of other people is really a faith or a confidence that together, if we provide the spaces, we facilitate them carefully. We, we really do challenge people to listen to one another. We can have the faith that the giftedness of the various people in the room and the perspectives and the backgrounds they bring will actually help lead us to a better resolution. Not immediately, not without pain, not without, you know, messiness, but that it is a key. And so the biggest obstacle to overcome to me is getting started and, and willingly walking into spaces where the power dynamics, are not as predictable as if it’s just a top-down approach.

Peter (23m 13s):
It’s so inspiring to listen to you, Rob, you bring so much expertise and experience and breath of knowledge to the topic. It’s fascinating. And it’s interesting. How do you know we were talking about the legacy of Paulo Freire. We were talking about principles and theories and activism, and we’re talking about applying it in security, in climate change, in any other big issue that communities are facing. You know, this topic could go on for a long time, but Alex, I wonder if you could just take it right down to the basics to a real personal story. Can you tell us a story about a time when you are designing a learning event or you were facilitating a learning event, giving up power in the way that Robb was just describing and all of a sudden these principles came alive for you in that situation, in that place.

Peter (24m 3s):
And it became personal for you. Can you help this, bring this to life for us on a very practical, in a very practical way? Yeah.

Alex (24m 11s):
I can remember a story of where we worked at different social movements and we work with a budget and social policies, and I was assigned to facilitate training with one of the biggest moments in Brazil and I arrived there and I was supposed to talk and relate to their issues of concern.

Alex (24m 51s):
And then I was like, but everything changed because they have their own way to learn. Especially in the beginning of the training every morning, they sing songs, they sit in a way and they had like flags and some symbols that they need to connect with. So for me, it was just, I was prepared to give my one hour, two hours session and I was, I just gave up and experience what they were proposing because for them as a collective social movements, they need some symbols, they need some other t.

Alex (25m 37s):
ings to connect emotionally with the show, we suppose to start to talk about it. So it was amazing to see how so much wisdom they had and just led them conduct a little bit, different parts of their training. And for me, it was so much inspired by Paulo Freie. It was initial design for them being themselves to be authentic and to learn also with the heart.

Alex (26m 23s):
That for me was when I see the power of the Popular Knowledge and the Popular Wisdom that at any social movements when we are together to discuss any issue, they bring this strength with them that is very rooted in their own experience.

Peter (26m 51s):
That’s a great story of Alex when you notice that creativity or that authenticity shining through with the, with the people you were working with. And sometimes when that happens, I hear laughter too. How does that feel for you as a facilitator when that shift happens?

Alex (27m 9s):
Yeah, I, I’m very flexible. So I think you need to know exactly what are you doing, so that you watch what you are proposing and why you are in there. And then we can understand what is happening. And understand what participants are offering to you and then you can adapt a little bit and keep the core of what we were supposed to do. But, you know, we, we all know that when people learn by their hearts, when they had this emotional connection with the content and with their learning, they learn faster and they really learn instead of being in their head.

Alex (27m 52s):
And I can say in Brazil, there is a lot of heart out of the social movements. People really like to connect. So those elements are very important for Learning so we can’t just ignore those things. So I think I just, I was just trying to understand what’s happened and try and to keep the momentum that they generate and put this momentum in the content and in the activities outlined.

Peter (28m 34s):
Thank you for sharing that story Alex, in your experience, Robb let me invite you similarly, to a, take this down to a very practical level when a time when you experienced a Shift in Power, can you tell us a story about when that happened for you? And you’ve also mentioned that these, this, this approach or this legacy of Paulo Freire really builds on a commitment to love and personal convictions. How has being a practitioner of this approach changed you as a person?

Robb (29m 7s):
Yeah, a good question. You know, when I was listening to Alex share His, I mean, two very different stories came to mind. Maybe I won’t get into both of them, but the one where Power was, was most kind of at the forefront was when I was a, the executive director of a faith-based a non-government organization was invited to the Oglala Lakota nation at Pineridge to participate in a circle process over some concerns of racist behavior by, by a staff of the organization. And on the one hand you would say, well, did you do a seven elements of design Robb or no, I, I didn’t, but it was a circle process that lasted about two days.

Robb (29m 48s):
And the reason I think it’s so relevant is because there was a real objective, right? There was a real purpose and the who who knew you need to be, there was also clear. It was the people directly concerned, but also a circle of relationships that goes out from beyond those and in the field of conflict resolution, I think for area’s got so great importance to understanding how we think about conflict and how we resolve it. And in that particular setting and in any circle process, you know, your, everyone’s placed on an equal footing to speak their truth to listen deeply. And so, you know, we never had an official sort of, this is a decision we made at the end of that period.

Robb (30m 29s):
It was clear the direction we needed to go and everybody owned it. And it taught me that, you know, first of all, teaching and learning is not a linear process, but that the tools and approaches to creating these listening and speaking spaces, where again, we’re giving a variety of people with a variety of perspectives and opportunity to speak into something of a mutual concern, just enriches the possibility of finding a solution. And so that’s what I experienced there. And I could give other examples of where, you know, people who were illiterate in a community-based setting, where the teachers and brought to light deep understandings of how to bring, change that on the surface, you would say, well, what do you know, what are they know?

Robb (31m 15s):
But they, they know their situation. They know what its like to live and thrive in an environment that may be outside technicians. Don’t know. Maybe that just goes along with the deepest learning. I think I’m repeating myself to say I’ve increasingly come to a point with my understanding that going into a situation I’ve never experienced before, where, you know, I’m either tasked with trying to engage people in learning or participating in learning. I think what I’ve taken away is that there will always be discovery that we will be surprised in a pleasant way. I think over time, you just come to realize that I’m going to be surprised by something really, really amazing here.

Robb (31m 59s):
And I don’t think that that’s how I set out using Jane Vella is approach, right? I, and yet where I’ve landed is lets create the space. Let’s structure it in a way that people get a chance let’s let structure So the people are honored by a car coming. They know why they are coming. They know what they’re there to do. They, they have an understanding that we’ve prepared the space for them. We’ve honored their time. And then that’s just be amazed at what we gained together as a Learning. And I think that’s a really, I mean, that’s, that’s been transformative for me personally, to not be afraid, you know, to be hopeful about the things that we’ll do together.

Rachel (32m 38s):
Thanks so much for Robb. I love just hearing the Depth of your experience and the hope and the love that comes with it. And that’s what we want for everyone. Like I want everyone to do this work that we do. That’s part of our lives now and the always, always a discovery and always a surprise is what makes it so beautiful. One thing we say at Global Learning Partners is revolutionize your learning. So I just wanna say thanks to you. Robb Davis, Alex Ciconello for sharing your hearts and sharing how the roots of Dialogue Education and how Paulo Freire has revolutionized your learning.

Rachel (33m 20s):
We’re going to close out our episode today as always, we leave with an open question for the listener to reflect on your own learning. And so today, as you leave, we invite you to consider what insights from Paulo Freire can sharpen your learning design and facilitation? Thanks everyone.

Closing (33m 49s):
Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton with music by Una Walkenhorst to find out more about Global Learning Partners whether it be our course offering is consulting services, free resources or blogs go to www.globallearningpartners.com. We invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialogue. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple podcasts or your preferred podcast player.

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