The first of the Centenary Commission Research Circle’s conferences on ‘Building community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education‘ was held on 7 May, focussing on the theme of ‘Community, democracy and dialogue through adult lifelong education: Celebrating Resources of Hope’.

Organised by Sharon Clancy, Iain Jones, and other members of the research circle on fostering community, democracy and dialogue, it was the first in a series of three events which provide opportunities to learn about existing practices, and to meet and think about different forms of democratic adult education and imagine new forms of critical engagement.

Fifty adult educators, from across the UK, with others from Bulgaria, Canada, and Italy, joined together to listen to presentations and discuss key questions and emerging themes in small and large groups. During, and after, this first event participants highlighted the power of learning about existing practices and ways of re-shaping new forms of adult lifelong education.

“This is one of the first times I’ve actually spoken with people who share my visions – beyond books!!”
“To keep going we need events such as this. It raises the spirits, and that is so very important in what are very nasty times…”
“Thanks to everyone; this has been really uplifting!”

The possibilities of an education for social change were woven through each presentation. 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. Rob Peutrell and Mel Cooke continued this emphasis on 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. Nalita James then asked how diverse forms of ESOL, in Leicester, related to different communities of place and multiple senses of belonging.

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, 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 re-thinking practices. Similarly, 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 each of the other presentations. Williams’ letter to WEA tutors, in 1961, 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.

The power and richness of each presentation was highlighted by other participants:

“Today has sown some seeds and demonstrated a collective impetus, for which I’m grateful.”

This impetus can draw on Williams’ resources of hope and continually remind us that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’ (Williams, 1989).

As one speaker emphasised, through our collective action we can create a place for ‘remembering, not forgetting, past practices’, enabling us to store and share our memories of creative policy responses and practice.

One of the research circle summed this up after the event:

“I felt all the presenters, in their different ways, were saying something similar: [we need] spaces in which dialogue, cooperative learning, democracy and community can begin to thrive.”

We are increasingly having to do this work outside the state, as well as within it, after swathes of funding cuts to adult/community education infrastructure and a new neo-liberal onslaught within some universities on the humanities, targeting budgets for art, music, theatre, literature, sociology and music. We seek to keep alive the conversations which focus on making learning “part of the process of social change itself” (Williams, 1983) and continue to develop ourselves within this process as brokers, advocates and critical thinkers.

As Williams said, ‘There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future’ (‘Towards 2000’, Williams, 1983).

The next Research Circle events are on Friday 2 July and Friday 17 September. Some places are left. Details and how to register are here.