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Monday March 25, 2013 07:08 by Laurence Cox - NUI Maynooth
Another world is possible: learning from each other's struggles
A course for movement practitioners and community educators who want to deepen their own practice
From the Land League to women’s liberation and from the Dublin Lockout to community activism, the struggle for equality and social change has been driven by social movements from below. Today, ecological campaigners have put climate change on the agenda, global justice activists have highlighted the crisis of neo-liberal capitalism and popular movements have changed the world from South Africa to Eastern Europe and from Latin America to the Arab world. As austerity politics bites, cuts target the poorest communities and neo-liberal “business as usual” tries to roll over democracy and popular organisations, social movements are having to rethink their strategies and communities are taking a hard look at their own understandings. What can we learn from each other’s struggles for equality and social justice - and what do we already know about how to change the world?
This course brings together students who want to learn how to make equality and social justice into realities, with more experienced activists in community education and social movements looking for space to reflect on their own work, and a team of staff who are experienced teachers and researchers, community educators and social movement practitioners - to form a community of practitioners learning from each other’s experiences and struggles to create new kinds of “really useful knowledge” and develop alternatives.
How can we bring about social justice and environmental survival? This course enables students to think about how to build real alternatives to challenge existing structures of oppression and injustice. It is about developing ordinary people’s capacity to change the world through community education, grassroots community activism and social movement campaigning. In the face of powerful voices telling us that “there is no alternative” but to trust in their expertise and solutions, this course starts from the view that “another world is already under construction”.
The main force behind positive social change, in Ireland and globally, has always been "people power": those who were not "on the inside", without property, status or power coming together to push for change where it was needed. Community activism, the women's movement, global justice campaigners, self-organising by travellers and new Irish communities, trade unions, GLBTQ campaigning, environmentalism, international solidarity, anti-racism, anti-war activism, survivors of institutional abuse, human rights work, the deaf movement and many other such movements have reshaped our society and put human need on the agenda beside profit and power. This process has not ended.
Movement participants have developed important bodies of knowledge about how to do this, which are fundamental starting-points for trying to make a better world possible. Radical adult and community educators help develop knowledge and learning that are critical and questioning, that are aware of taken-for-granted assumptions, that are systemic, political and social, that ask difficult questions, that are against technical and one-dimensional thinking alone. In the age of Occupy and Shell to Sea, anti-austerity protests and alternative media, social partnership in crisis and global justice, what can we learn from each other’s struggles?
What students say about the course:
“The real beauty of this course is the sense that finally you are not alone in your thinking. Not only can you get to open your mind up to all that has been written, but you get to open up to your class group and really learn from each other. In a world where injustice is the norm, there is a sense that there is a whole world of people out there fighting alongside you and that at last, change just might be possible.”
“There are misunderstandings about the word activism… If you are challenging the system and the way it is, then you are an activist, you are not passively existing in the world, you are taking action…”
“The knowledge and experience of activists are valued.”
“A chance to get really detailed feedback on the way you’re thinking about how to change things.”
“It’s a course for practitioners.”
The Departments of Sociology and Adult & Community Education collaborate on this MA to develop thinking about critical pedagogy in community education; power and praxis in social movements; and understandings of equality, transformation and sustainability. Our commitment to the public use of academic knowledge is a long-standing one and we have a wide range of practical experience as well as research-based knowledge. This includes involvement with social movements, community activism and issue-based campaigning; media work and public debate; active involvement in political parties, trade unions and lobbying groups; community education and literacy; development and human rights work. Maynooth is Ireland's leading centre for research on social movements and one of the few venues in Europe with so much expertise in the area. Our student body is very diverse, with a wealth of different experiences and a strong tradition of involvement in community development and social activism.
The course explores three core strands: Critical and praxis-oriented forms of thinking (e.g. in community education, social theory, media literacy, participatory action research…); Equality and Social Justice (e.g. in feminist praxis, social class, race, political economy, social change...); and Power, politics and praxis (e.g. in social movements, community activism, grassroots organising, environmental justice…) The course content is all taught from the standpoint of "praxis": the understanding that theory without practice is meaningless, while practice without theory is likely to fail. The basis of our work is dialogue between reflective practitioners, systematically including both these aspects.
What students say about the practical benefits:
“Helps to makes links with fellow activists working in different movements.”
“A chance to challenge and enhance your practice.”
“Puts names on things that you have done and helps to frame your ideas.”
“An opportunity to work collectively.”
“Make friends, networks, comrades.”
“An opportunity to challenge academic norms.”
“A chance to be more objective about your practice.”
Both Departments have a long history of attracting students who are concerned about social and global justice and keen to draw on their analytical skills to develop a professional life in these areas, including mature students who have already had such an engagement and want to develop their practice further. This programme is aimed at the needs of this very diverse group. This includes those involved in social movements, community development, adult learning, grassroots activism, workers in NGOs and state agencies, and advocates with minority groups.
The course is geared to bringing together the best of practitioner skills in the field with the best of academic research. Our workshops are not traditional classroom experiences but draw on our community, popular and radical educational practice to bring out and work with participants' existing knowledge. We bring our own lived experience into the classroom, and encourage other participants to do the same, creating a conversation between practitioners in which students are not passive learners and teachers are not unquestioned experts. We also bring in a wide range of outside mentors.
The course is aimed at people who already have either basic knowledge of social analysis or experience of social movement organising (or both!) It helps you round out your own skills and understanding across the theory / practice barrier and across different movements, times and contexts. This bigger picture, developing yourself as a reflexive practitioner with a strategic perspective, will enable you to contribute powerfully to social movements, community education projects and activist organisations - or to create new ones.
The programme attracts a wide range of students, with very diverse backgrounds, movements and levels of experience. Participants so far have included working-class community organisers and radical ecologists, radical educators and service user campaigners, feminists and rural community activists, GLBTQ rights campaigners and trade unionists, adult educators and radical artists, young graduates and experienced political organisers.
Students’ experience of the course:
“It’s fun and challenging, constantly changing.”
“Moves beyond/transcends your own organisation or movement. That can help to change your practice as well.”
“Can be fun and interactive and our input feels valued.”
“Challenges your views and perspectives.”
“The lecturers are open to being challenged and to change academic practices.”
“There was a concerted effort towards group development both by the class members and by the lecturers. We were very lucky in our class group dynamic and a willingness for each person to reveal who they really are.”
“The lecturers are deadly too!”
The course involves two days a week on campus (typically Monday and Tuesday) over two twelve-week semesters, along with independent reading and study which you should expect to take another two days equivalent during the rest of the week. Your thesis, which is usually linked to a movement project you are involved in or developing, typically takes three - four months after the end of classes. The programme includes core modules in “Community of praxis”; “Power and politics”; “Radical education and critical pedagogy”, “Equality and social justice” and "Feminist theory and practice". Along with these students choose one elective module a term, such as “The market, the state and social movements”, “Critical media and cultural pedagogy in communities", “Participatory action research in social movement practice”, “Political economy”, “Environmental justice” or “Sustainable communities”.
We run special sessions on topics like “Sustainable organising”; “Critical media literacy”; “Utopias and social movements” and “Digital media production” and invite a wide range of movement speakers to discuss their work. Field trips to date have visited community projects and direct action campaigns, local oral history projects and social centres. Major events have included our “Masked Activists’ Ball” launch, our “Beyond the crisis” seminar, and a conference “New agendas in social movement studies”. Finally, participants take research modules and complete a thesis project. This is geared towards developing your practice in a particular area, helping to contribute to a particular movement, and is often produced in a format which will be accessible and useful to other people in that movement.
Participants will leave the course with a deeper understanding of how the politics of equality and inequality works in a range of substantive areas. They will have developed the skill of practicing "politics from below": active citizenship, civil society, community education and development, social movements and other forms of popular agency. They will have gained skill as a reflexive researcher, developed their writing and presentation skills and completed a practice-based research project. This is embedded within a wider learning community where participants are supported to stay connected after graduation and the course itself builds links with a range of different social movement projects.
Warnings from current students:
“There’s a lot of self-evaluation and self-reflection.”
“Clear your timetable…. Really clear your timetable, take the opportunity to step back from your work.”
“I didn’t realise how much reflection is on the course.”
Contact and admissions
The course website is http://ceesa-ma.blogspot.com. Application is via the online PAC system, at http://www.pac.ie. The course code is MHA64; the deadline for applications is Tuesday April 30th 2013. The minimum requirement is a primary degree (BA etc.) in social science, humanities or adult education at 2:2 level, or the equivalent. For any queries about this process, please contact the Dept. of Sociology, NUI Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland at email@example.com or (+353-1) 7083659. Our website includes information on fees, grants and scholarships at http://ceesa-ma.blogspot.no/2013/03/contact-us-how-to-a....html.
Admission is by interview with staff members, and offers of interview are made on the basis of the online application. Your personal statement is particularly important in this, because this is a practitioner course which is geared towards supporting you in developing your own practice.
However, you should not feel that you have to have a particular level of experience in order to be accepted on the course. We accept students at all levels, from school-leavers who had just completed an undergraduate degree to mature students who have been active in movements for decades, and this classroom diversity is part of the richness of the course. Participants learn greatly from each other’s life experiences and organising knowledge, intellectual perspectives and political traditions. The personal statement helps us to gauge how each participant might gain from the course.
A student says:
“The main thing I enjoyed from the course was not what we learnt but how we learned it. For me the mix of people in the class was electric and we all learned so much from each other. In a way I didn’t feel like I was going into ‘college’. This was greatly encouraged from the lecturers who by the way are experts in their fields and are always at hand for guidance, advice and criticism. In a way I even feel awkward calling them lecturers as the whole learning process for me was so far removed from what most are used to in a college setting.
As regards the material, like all reflection and philosophising, one day you could be disillusioned with everything, doubting and questioning everything you ever stood for while the next day you want to take on the world, but what kept it together was the energy and camaraderie and that we were all in it together. I hope courses like this and more importantly the whole critical way of learning together is mirrored in other colleges and institutions. And for those like ourselves who are serious and committed about what we do, there is no time like the present to do this course. I already feel the knowledge I gained and more importantly the network of people I have met will be vital to any campaign or project I will be involved with in the future.”