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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century

II Dialogue, Participation, and Critical Pedagogy

Learning in Community. A Transformative Healing Educational Model for Teaching Community Organizing



“Because of the language barrier, I do not talk in [other] class[es] unless circumstances demand me to speak,” a student states in her Introduction to Community Organizing (C.O.) course evaluation. The student proceeds to outline the profound impact of “the instructor's teaching style in which the fellow classmates were involved in the active learning process” and the effect that the study of various materials written and published by various experts had on her personal, academic, and pre-professional development. She concludes her reflections on the course by describing how her role at her volunteer internship as part of the course went from translating documents for community outreach to becoming an active member of the organization working alongside her fellow South Asian community members “fighting for justice and equality on behalf of immigrant workers.” This is just one of the many stories from the course, an interdisciplinary Introduction to Community Organizing, which has been offered to approximately 800 undergraduate students from 1995 to 2014 at Hunter College of the City University of New York, a public university. The students, mostly women, have come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Their ages have ranged from 18 to older than 50 years. Many have work and family responsibilities in addition to being full-time students.

The C.O. course is based primarily on Freire's pedagogical theory (Freire 1970/2000, p. 69), which argues that teachers are students as well as educators and students are teachers as well as learners. Esperanza Martell worked with Terry Mizrahi, Chair of Community Organizing, Planning & Development at Silberman School ofSocial Work at Hunter College, on designing and then teaching the course since its inception, based on Martell's knowledge and experiences applying Paulo Freire's and feminist/womanist methodologies to adult education. Martell's role has also included mentoring a graduate community organizing teaching assistant each semester from the Silberman Master of Social Work (MSW) program who is assigned to this undergraduate learning program as a field placement while developing herself personally and professionally. Working together, the graduate assistant and Martell, as the instructor, participate in a supervisory “parallel process” in which they are constantly engaging the issues, skills, and theory taught in the class and building their relationship with each other, the undergraduate students, and the partnering community organizations (Kadushin, 1985; Williams, 1997).

This chapter models Freirian principles of teamwork through co-authorship because it was co-written by Martell and Mizrahi, along with Kate Cavanagh and Allison Weingarten, the latter two who were graduate teaching assistants in the C.O. course in 2006 and 2013, respectively. As in the classroom instruction, “parallel process” was involved in the writing of this chapter, for which we utilized the organizing skills and theory taught in the course throughout our interactions (Kadushin, 1985; Williams, 1997). In this chapter, we first provide an overview of Freire's principles that were central to our C.O. course. Then, we describe the course and include examples of “education for liberation” that it utilized as well as concepts of “holistic engagement.” The perspectives of established Freirian and feminist/womanist educators and practitioners, the co-authors, the graduate teaching assistants, and alumni from the course are integrated. Lastly, both successes and challenges in applying Freirian education in the course, including grading and evaluation, are described.

The course applies Paulo Freire's idea of “education for liberation,” which means a process that supports students as they analyze their knowledge and behaviors that maintain current social conditions and that challenges them to act as agents of progressive social change (Freire, 1970/2000; Pyles, 2013). Freire's concepts and techniques provide a framework for social work education that employs “holistic engagement,” or utilizing students' minds, bodies, and hearts as a complement to academic writing and research. Education for liberation is a humanizing process through which students and instructors begin to break down barriers that separate people within society and connect with people authentically through shared humanity. hooks (1994), a student of Freire, believes that the concept of a radical love for humanity is at the core of social justice. Education for liberation supports students in cultivating that love and engaging love as a tool for community organizing and social change. “The heart of education as a practice of freedom is to promote growth. It's very much an act of love in that sense of love as something that promotes our spiritual and mental growth” (hooks, 1994, p. 13). hooks' framework also encompasses a feminist/ womanist perspective that includes holistic principles such as self-care, process as part of the product, and the integration of the private and public spheres (Harris, 2010; Hyde, 2008, 2012; Joseph et al., 1991). We chose these approaches for our teaching because they challenge us to put into practice in the classroom these concepts and techniques that we also employ in our community work and with each other as a teaching team. It is important as instructors to incorporate our whole selves in this process, bringing our compassion, empathy, creativity, and politics into our teaching in order to best serve our students and our profession. Martell locates her rationale for teaching using a healing educational model in her biography conveyed as follows:

My family was part of the forced economic migration of Puerto Ricans to the USA in the 1950s. I confronted and dealt with all the ills of being a poor working-class Afro/ Taina in a racist, classist, and patriarchal society. My life's struggles are what make me a human rights peace activist, educator, community organizer, trainer, life-skills transformative coach, mother, and poet/artist. I have been organizing and teaching for over 40 years. The staying power of love and my life experiences are what have touched, moved, and inspired me to continue teaching from a place of love, joy, and compassion. As someone who learned to read, write, analyze, and organize through direct experience with Paulo Freire's Education for Liberation as well as womanist perspectives gained from the literature by women of color, I am committed to the liberation of all peoples.

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