The conditions of possibility – and hope? A research circle building community, democracy and dialogue
In Events, Opinion Posted September 12, 2023
In this new introductory blog, Sharon Clancy, Iain Jones, Jo Forster and Linden West collectively reflect on the origins, purpose and latest work of the research circle on community, democracy and dialogue.
The Research circle on Fostering and building community, democracy and dialogue first met in September 2020. Our work has built on the key chapter in the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s 2019 report that focused on the importance of community-based and ‘popular’ adult education.
In the last three years, the circle has engaged with diverse ideas, as well as identified and created resources of hope. It has sought to ask: how does adult education link with and foster our democracy? Why are our shared histories, memories, and instances of managing previous struggles all-important? The writers of the 1919 Adult Education Committee’s Final Report faced these questions head on – they recognised that our democracy and spaces for dialogue, debate and dissent need to be defended and constantly fought for. This has, arguably, never been truer than at the current juncture in the UK, in countering a sense of despair and impotence, particularly in the communities hardest hit by the exigencies of the past four decades and the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Research Circle is made up of around 10 people, drawn from diverse backgrounds in adult, further and higher education, the voluntary and community sector and trade union education. Building on the work of Harnsten (1994) the circle has: identified problems that receive no or limited attention, including, specifically, who and what shapes the world of education; how it is controlled and whose voices are heard; and how we might liberate conventional structures of lifelong learning. The Circle has offered space to reflect on such issues and begun to examine how to develop new forms of knowledge in dialogue with the needs and interests of diverse communities. A theme emerging out of our dialogues is ‘what do we mean by democracy and can we still reason with each other?’ We concluded that what lies at the heart of a living democracy are safe protected spaces with clear ground-rules where we can listen respectfully in dialogue with the other – sometimes another radically opposed to our own perspectives – in the knowledge that others might learn to listen respectfully in dialogue if and when we take the lead. In hearing ideas different from our own we enter the mindset and imaginations of others and, in turn, make visible our own ideas and insights for critically questioning the taken-for-granted at all levels.
Three sets of online events have taken place in successive years. In 2021, we examined ‘Resources for Hope’ during the Covid pandemic. This series of events provided an opportunity to learn about existing practices, meet and think about different forms of democratic adult education and imagine new forms of critical engagement. 50 adult educators, from across the UK, Italy, Bulgaria and Canada, joined together to listen to presentations and discuss key questions and emerging themes in small and large groups. During, and after, this first event series participants highlighted the power of learning about existing practices and ways of re-shaping new forms of adult lifelong education with an explicit social purpose.
The 2021 presentations
The possibilities of an education for social change were woven through each presentation in our first series during 2021. (The 2021 presentations can be viewed on the Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) YouTube site: see the links below.)
Rose Farrar, from WEA West Yorkshire, began by showcasing an innovative collaboration with Rich Wiles, an artist and photographer. The power of the video-photo stories of the lives of refugees, near Hull, was a starting point for dispelling stereotypes, myths and misconceptions. You can see this discussion here. What was especially important in this work was the idea that everyone has things to teach as well as learn; and how conviviality can be created in sharing food and storytelling.
Rob Peutrell and Mel Cooke then discussed the voices of students and lecturers and asked how the politics of ESOL relates to different forms of citizenship. They highlighted struggles between dis-citizenship, and having capacities stripped away, and acts of citizenship and contesting exclusions and claiming new rights. You can watch the discussion here. (Rob and Mel have also edited a book, Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens: Exploring ESOL issues and principles). Nalita James then asked how diverse forms of ESOL, in Leicester, related to different communities of place and multiple senses of belonging. You can see Nalita’s contribution here.
Further presentations extended the discussions about the scope and range of practice – and why these matter for practice – and policy. Richard Hazledine reported on young adults, in Nottingham, who are furthest from work. Their mistrust and lack of confidence, because of what has been done ‘to them’, embodied the danger of scarring. This was a starting point for his work and re-thinking practices. You can see what he said here.
Elaine J. Laberge joined us from the west coast of Canada and argued why the Shoestring Initiative was formed. Communities of mentorship, advocacy, intercultural connectedness, and belonging are being created for students with lived experiences of persistent poverty at Canadian universities.
The final presentation, by Jeremy Goss and Jayne Ireland, related the work of Raymond Williams on social purpose in adult education to contemporary practices – and to each of the other presentations. Williams’ 1961 Open Letter to WEA tutors defined his own purpose as a teacher ‘as the creation of an educated and participatory democracy’. Jeremy and Jayne argued that the foundations for a democratic curriculum could be developed by learning democratically, learning for democracy and learning about democracy. Watch them here.
2022: Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis
The second series of events (2022) sought to develop and broaden our focus to examine and counter the current crises and hollowing out of representative and participatory democracy with three events focusing on ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis’.
This link takes you to the RWF website and four films from 2022 events, including:
- Keynote presentation for Adult Education Research Circle – ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis’ – Health Inequalities in Communities: What is the role of Community Adult Education? chaired by Professor Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor in Community Development at Goldsmiths, University of London. The event, on 17 May 2022, featured this keynote from Professor Sir Michael G. Marmot, FRCP, Director of the University College London, Institute of Health Equity entitled ‘Build Back Fairer’.
- Video presentation by Professor Helen Chatterjee, Professor of Biology, in University College London Biosciences and UCL Arts and Sciences: The role of cultural, community and natural assets in addressing societal and structural health inequalities in the UK. At Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis Health Inequalities in Communities: What is the role of Community Adult Education?
- Dr Ana Cruz’s presentation, Professor of Education at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, who won the 2022 Paulo Freire Democratic Project Award of Social Justice: Paulo Freire’s Political-Pedagogical Approach to Education: Questioning Inequalities Through Dialogue.
On June 10th 2022 we focused on ecological/climate emergency and environmental action. This session aimed to debate and plan possibilities for adult lifelong education, tackling ecological climate emergency and taking environmental action. Short presentations were given by Professor Steve Martin, University of Nottingham; Mel Lenehan, Principal and CEO, Fircroft College, Birmingham, and Ross Weddle, Chair, WEA Green Branch. This was followed by opportunities to join discussion groups and plan action.
On September 15th, 2022, we looked at universities and their relationship to participatory action and social movements, asking ‘What should the University’s social and cognitive responsibilities be in the face of rising inequality and injustice and how should research engage more directly with “real life” problems and politics? What is the role and function of the “public academic” and the critical activist?’ The event featured 10-minute presentations from Shirley Walters, Professor Emerita from the University of Western Cape, South Africa, who talked about universities and their relationship to participatory action and social movements, and Dr Michael Hrebeniak, Convenor of the New School of the Anthropocene, who outlined the role of NSOTA, configured as a new kind of school which ‘is born out of a need. Linden West also dialogued with Professor Laura Formenti of the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy, about universities and social responsibility in Italy and the UK. An important link was made around the theme of dialogue and democracy in the classroom, and how this could build communities in diverse locations. The dialogue linked back to the tutorial class movement in the UK and family learning in Italy. Their argument was clear: we must practise what we preach. The mainstream university has proven unable and unwilling to engage with the condition of social crisis and the prospect of democratic and ecological ruin that characterise the 21st Century.
2023: Dialogues for Democracy: Learning neighbourhoods, cities and societies – building a dialogical learning democracy
Our latest event series builds on our earlier work by combining global with local learning dimensions. Our emphasis is on challenging issues of power and control over education and democratic engagement. We recognise democracy is in crisis. There is a widespread unease pervading communities, politics, economics, and education which is connected to the sustainability of the entire planet.
Many years ago, Raymond Williams described Westminster as an ‘elected court’ – even more true in recent times. Over-centralised states, which may be both authoritarian and paternalistic, tend to problematise communities more than identify them as sources of democratic hope. There is a growing recognition that we must learn our way – collaboratively and democratically – to a better, more hopeful, inclusive and sustainable future. How we do this as part of a shared project is a massive challenge. Ideals, ends and means are all important – we must learn how to nurture real dialogue as part of the process of changing communities. Our 2023 virtual seminar series is designed to addresses these issues.
Our April seminar, Learning neighbourhoods, cities and societies: learning for participation and democracy, examined ‘learning cities’ which can be found across the globe. They aim to revitalise and embed learning in families, the workplace, communities and educational institutions in order to nurture a culture of learning throughout life. They also aspire to support sustainable social, economic and environmental development.
We focused on the UNESCO award-winning Learning City of Cork: based on partnerships between local government, diverse organisations, universities and local people who see adult learning as crucial to any community. Fergal Finnegan (University of Maynooth, Ireland) also dialogued with Professor Linden West (Canterbury Christ Church University): a theme arose of the ambiguous role of faith and religion in popular education. In Maynooth some of the origin of community initiatives came from young priests inspired by liberation theology. This had to be set against the hard, controlling influence of some established and hierarchical churches. These ideas were returned to in our engagement with the liberation theology of Paulo Freire.
Our May event, Pedagogy, Dialogue and Democracy (watch the films here) focused on the need for Latin American educator Paulo Freire’s critical as well as deeply relational and spiritual pedagogy: Freire would have emphasised keeping whole human beings at the heart of the process. In the language of theologian Martin Buber, who so inspired Freire, where I might meet Thou. We examined pedagogy in social and public spaces to enable young people and adults to become informed and critically engaged citizens to keep justice, equity and social democracy alive – a need which has perhaps never been greater. Linden West and Colin Kirkwood examined how the work of Freire has inspired initiatives, including in inner-city Edinburgh and Staveley in Derbyshire. (The direct link to the film is here.) They have written about the dialogue in a blog shortly to be available on the Centenary Commission website.
You can watch the second dialogue in this May event, between Dr Jo Forster and renowned Freirean scholar Professor Antonia Darder, Loyola Marymount University, USA, here. Antonia is a Puerto Rican and American scholar. Her activism, teaching, and critical scholarship over the last five decades has consistently focused on racism, political economy, and questions of liberation. She has extended Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of love and contributed to furthering our understanding of inequalities in schools and society. Through her decolonizing scholarship on the body, ethics, racism, methodology, and the arts, she has contributed to rethinking questions of empowerment, pedagogy, and liberation from a worldview that centres on oppressed populations. She focuses on reclaiming the relationship between education and democracy, using critical pedagogy. A blog about the dialogue will be available shortly on the Centenary Commission website.
Following these blogs we will compile a list of materials, suggested reading and organisational links from all three series so far and will make this available on the Centenary Commission website.
Please look out for these additions, and for details of our next event on 6th October.