A year ago, as the ‘methods’ person, I joined a team of doctoral students and faculty engaged in social action projects with high school students at a school that has social action as part of the curriculum. That semester, we read and analyzed the groups’ notes on success and failure, surprise and disillusionment. Drawn in by the reading, I decided to jump in and facilitate a group myself. Last semester 6 groups (comprising 8-10 high school students and one facilitator in each) met at the school every week, and my group examined truancy.
The students at the school were used to having ‘volunteer coaches’ come in and facilitate projects. However, the ‘coach’ role as I experienced it was a combination of facilitation, teaching, researching, and advising on a wide variety of issues and concerns besides the project itself. The more I interacted with students, the more I felt I needed to learn about what they were thinking and feeling and how they were interpreting their roles in these projects. Were they ‘doing school’ – only a different type of school? How sustained was their interest? Did that matter? How were we defining success? To what degree were we, volunteer coaches in the school, thinking about the ethical ramifications of student activism both in and out of school.
One point that became clearer to me at the end of the semester was that students were not naïve about structural causes of oppression, but they did seek to distance themselves from the links between their personal and societal problems partially because of the ways in which this knowledge might serve to ‘place’ and ‘name’ them. The power of their personal experiences was at times denied by students because such experiences have also served to ‘name’ and ‘place’ them within status hierarchies. Such links need to be drawn out carefully and with sensitivity so that they serve to empower while providing solidarity. By the end of the semester the group had certainly done something and there was a relationship that was growing between the students and myself, and yet, a lot was missing.
After the semester ended, I went to India, attended an Education conference and met with grassroots activists in the field of education. There I found renewed inspiration for the work that I am trying to do here in the United States. I met Bunker Roy, the founder of Barefoot Colleges in India. Barefoot College (after the Barefoot doctors of China) does not credential anybody. But the college serves as the ground for social action all over India. Participants learn and train to solve immediate problems in their communities – barefoot architects build eco-friendly houses, barefoot solar engineers solve the problem of electricity and so on. I asked Bunker Roy if I could visit and learn. His reply was characteristic of the philosophy of the Barefoot Colleges– “Come,” he said, and “unlearn.” I plan on doing that this year.