Teaching through Community Organizing: Being the Unacademic


That’s me in the middle there. Black dress. Being inflammatory.

As someone who writes pop culture at the intersection of feminism (see my home blog for a list of publications if curious) and also does community organizing (see: Edmonton Slut Walk that’s me). Within such a broad term as feminism the people that I attract with writing are all sorts. There’s the inevitable blow back from people who call themselves anti-feminists, there’s a contingent we call white feminism which is feminism that doesn’t seek to address other levels of systemic oppressions.

Paying attention to intersectionality is a huge mind-shift for many white feminists, while many (I would say all but there’s special ones like Camille Paglia) are familiar with patriarchy far less understand what it is to consider gendered racism. This is critical for any anti-oppression work.

In organizing an event like Slut Walk unlearning is one of the most important components. You need to unlearn the idea that the onus to avoid being assaulted lies on the victim. You need to unlearn that worldwide there’s a tendency to examine what the woman could have done, should have done, to avoid being harmed. You need to then learn why these ideas are insidious and harmful. I need to unlearn even while I am teaching. I need to sit and listen to the criticisms of women of color who say, well this movement is ok, but I don’t see myself in it. I have to learn to check self-defensiveness when a criticism of the work calls Slut Walk white supremacist.

As the lead organizer I need to help you unlearn these things, and I need to listen. It can be exhausting, as anyone who has tried to challenge an ideology will know.

Community organizing is a unique kind of teaching. It isn’t academic but you sometimes use academia. It isn’t self-improvement but you must reflect and work to undue your own prejudices. It isn’t just online or in the classroom it is everywhere, and all the time. I’ve had mentors for this work and so I understand the need to have someone around when things get uncomfortable.

The fact is a lot of the work in community organizing isn’t done at the march it is done before or after–the marches and demonstrations tend to be a part of the catharsis. They give a sense of community to people who feel marginalised.

It’s a different kind of teaching. This means that there’s just-in-time learning involved–for me as well as the participants.

For more on Coalition Politics and non traditional ways of learning and gathering there’s a beautiful essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon called “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century“.

Week 2 – Enforcing Independence #Rhizo14

2012-07-07 06.39.44My jaw practically dropped as an undergraduate when I asked my English teacher what a word meant and he told me to look it up.

What? Can he say that to me? I thought. He’s my teacher.

The rationale was that by taking an active interest in my own learning, I would be more likely to remember the word. It was a small way of enforcing independence, but it is effective.

ENFORCING INDEPENDENCE is, as David Cormier acknowledged, an inflammatory way of stating something that encourages the students to think critically and take responsibility for their own education. We could also call it what bell hooks did, Teaching to Transgress. Liberatory education.

The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In the field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

I really had a Cheshire cat grin on my face when Cormier brought up this idea of forcing learners into being dependent. He mentioned that his audience is often 40-50 which is the same age range for students as mine. I’ve never worked in k-12 or with twenty-somethings on a regular basis, so at 26 I tend to be the mirror in which I consider millennial learning differences through. However, I do not believe that all 40-50 year old buy into the centralized power structure in the traditional classroom. In my cohort at Royal Roads the average age was around 43 and I believe the majority of people were very independent learners.

However, in the vocational training that I develop, hand-holding learners is often the norm. I’m the training development coordinator, so I mostly interact with subject matter experts, but I do advise students on a distance course in written communication. These have intersected for me in strange ways at times.Being one of the few non technical courses I moved away from the need for multiple choice tests for compliance, and sometimes the other advisor is not a fan of my work.

But they’ll be frustrated!

They are supposed to be at least a little uncomfortable (at least if they aren’t used to thinking about their communication skills). Given that considering your audience while writing it is a whole new way of looking at the world for some people, I would be surprised if they didn’t feel ill-at-ease. In the same way I felt a little jolt when told to look something up for myself.

Our differing perspectives have cause me to reflect a lot. For my students I like them to flail a little, not fail, but maybe panic a tiny bit. I think they come away knowing that they are able to think for themselves.