Popular Education in the Organizing of Unión de Vecinos
The crises in capitalism lead resistance from one skirmish to the next. Wearyingly, activism synchronizes itself to capital's tempo. On the other hand, political organizing, whose pace distinguishes it from activism, has the potential to organize time differently. The disorganization of the temporality of the crises in capitalism is one device in the conjuncture between political organizing and the cultural actions of popular education. Were it scored for musical performance, popular education would be denoted andante; a walking pace sustainable over the long haul.
The tempo of popular education becomes a central theme in the conversation that follows. The dialogue took place on a Thursday afternoon with three members of the sound art collective, Ultra-red. Gathered in an airy room on the upper floors of the Raven Row Gallery in Spitalfields, London were Elizabeth Blaney (Unión de Vecinos, Los Angeles), Elliot Perkins (Rural Racism Project, Torbay, Britain) and Dont Rhine (Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, Los Angeles). It was the 14th of May 2009, on the fourth day of our time together and the conversation turned to Elizabeth's political work with the East Los Angeles tenant rights organization, Unión de Vecinos; specifically, the role of popular education.
By way of introduction, we should distinguish between various notions of popular education. Much of what we know as popular education begins with the problem-posing teaching of Brazilian radical pedagogue, Paulo Freire. In the United States, education reformers in the 1970's and '80's adapted Freire's techniques to develop a method for individual student empowerment. The important exception would be people like Myles Horton and the work of the Highlander Center whose experiments with radical education began years before Freire. For example, the Citizenship Edu Schools initiated by the Highlander Center in the 1950's pursued a direct link between radical pedagogy and political organizing. At the same time, Freire's ideas took an alternative detour via the civil wars of Central America, particularly in El Salvador. As John Hammond notes, Freire conceived of popular education as preparation for political action. In the context of the Salvadoran war, popular education became a means of organizing popular movements through the production of collective and critical knowledge within social action.i
The civil wars in Central America provide the back-story for the forms of popular education that arrived in Southern California. During the 1980s waves of refugees fled the horrors of United States-backed death-squads. Many brought with them the militant knowledge of revolutionary struggle. These same migrants began to transform the working class political culture of Los Angeles; the labor movement, the struggles of migration and autonomous community development. The Unión de Vecinos, with their roots in (and dramatic break from) the social justice Catholic parish of Dolores Mission became one site among many where that transformation manifested itself.
The common United States model of political organizing used by mainstream civil rights groups and Labor has been historically based on the ideas of Saul Alinsky. In contrast, Unión de Vecinos draws upon the liberation theological notion of the preferential option of the poor.ii This framework asserts that the poor have the power to act as protagonists in their own struggle for liberation. Not only can the poor author their own actions but also the political analysis tested in those actions. The organizer serves that protagonism by providing procedures for the poor to reflect on lived experience, author an analysis of that reflection, test that analysis in direct action, and then reflect on the new experience of that action. Those protocols originate in the cultural practices of popular education. Beyond teaching illiterates to read and write, popular education becomes a way for communities in struggle to produce literacy of the contradictions that condition experience.
A dialogue between art and popular education poses enormous potential for those committed to the role of art within the larger fields of cultural action and the production of radical knowledge. Such an exchange may help articulate the very terms for a practice of art and organizing as strategically and tactically distinct from the heretofore predominate discourses of art and activism. While a synthesis of popular education and organizing locates the participatory procedures across the cycle of reflection, analysis and action, much of activism limits its procedures to action alone. As Elizabeth emphasizes, the keystone but by no means the totality of organizing as popular education (and vice versa) is a different conception of time.iii Working within that framework, the problematic of art and politics demands numerous inquiries. One such inquiry examines the contribution of visual art strategies by artists to radical politics. This research is familiar terrain in the discourses of art. Whether representing an analysis or critiquing representation, the artist (usually singular) occupies the center of the problematic. Such an inquiry often marginalizes other actors, not to mention erases the importance of scientific and practical knowledge necessary for a movement to effect real change.
To correct that error, another inquiry needs to be undertaken. That inquiry considers the aesthetic autonomy of social movements. Instead of an exclusive focus on the artist as aesthetic patron, attention to the aesthetic autonomy of struggles takes seriously the creativity of political organizers and the protagonists of struggle. Such an inquiry would examine how those agents of change invent their own forms and processes for the production of radical knowledge.iv For example, in addition to the visual images by art collectives in the AIDS activist movement, one can also research the social and political forms employed by grass-roots organizers of clinical trials during the 1980s and '90s, needle exchange programs or the cultural practices of HIV education projects in cities such as Philadelphia. Similarly, the cultural forms invented in the Black Panthers extended well beyond Emory Douglas's powerful graphic art. Embodied formal invention occurred at the level of the organization of the Black Panther Party itself, particularly in terms of its community schools and other participatory projects. In these and so many other examples, cultural creativity expands beyond the image to the larger field of the performative organizing of politics. It is an expanded field largely obscured in the histories of political art. And it is in the framework of precisely this kind of an expanded inquiry into the forms of organizing that the conversation with Elizabeth takes place.
The story Elizabeth tells comes from the perspective of a community organizer. It portrays Unión de Vecinos' history, demonstrating in ordinary language the necessity for an intimacy between popular education and political organizing. It is a relationship to method that is fundamentally aesthetic; a trust in process. As a creative activity, organizing develops its aesthetic operations on the basis of that fidelity to process.
Analyzing the aesthetic autonomy of social movements in the example of Unión de Vecinos, we can begin by reflecting on the experience Elizabeth recounts. We hear how popular education requires the context of organizing and how organizing requires the protocols of popular education. To help avoid reproducing a split between organizing and popular education, we put ourselves in process as listeners. To assist with this, a copy of the "Protocols for a Listening Session" accompanies the dialogue between Elizabeth, Elliot and Dont.v Protocols like these have become a regular feature in Ultra-red's sound investigatory work. The below text alternates between explicit prompts to listen to selected sound recordings (or, in the language of Freire, codifications) and excerpts from the Raven Row dialogue. Readers are encouraged to go to the website of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest where they will find links to each of the sound recordings noted in the text.
After the reader listens to each sound recording, the protocols invite you to reflect on the question, what did you hear? The question reminds us that the purpose of the story is not merely for expression or to deliver theoretical principles or to be critiqued. Neither does the story seek to confirm or correct what has been heard in the sound recording. Hearing the story becomes its own object for reflection. The terms that the various intentions of listening generate can then be tested in collective action. In this way we refuse the error in what passes for critical thinking: Critics think and readers act, wherein the mental and manual division of labor is presumed and naturalized. Such a process always takes time. It is in the take that popular education re-organizes temporality itself.
/ Protocols for a Listening Session / have been composed by
Ultra-red for organizing collective listening to pre-recorded
sounds. The protocols seek to put the recording and its listeners
into process by privileging the ear that hears over the sound
recording itself. [Los Angeles, 90 min, 25. 06. 2011]
1 Introductions — Explain the listening session procedure and its purpose.
2 Listen to the sound recordings — Play two sound recordings one to two minutes in length, one at a time over the sound-system without introduction.
3 "What did you hear?" — After playing each sound recording, ask the group to write what they heard
on the paper covering the table and speak into the microphone. Announce "Time" after one-minute.
4 Tell the story — Invite the person who made the recordings to tell the story behind them, not to validate
or invalidate the responses but as another object to be heard.
5 "What did you hear?" — Ask the group to write what they heard on the table and speak into the microphone. Announce "Time" after one-minute.
6 Repeat steps #2 to #5 for each sound recording.
7 Analyze what is heard — Form small groups where participants compare responses to all the recordings
and stories. Keep a written record of the discussion. The tendency in the discussion may be to reach
agreement on the important themes by resolving differences in experience or knowledge. Attend to your differences as issues to be investigated rather than as problems to be solved.
8 Write the theme — Review the record of the discussion in each small group by asking the question, "What did you learn?" Write exactly what is said onto flip-chart paper.
Sound Recording: "Canción De La Posada," from Structural Adjustments / Ajustes Estructurales (CD MP 078) Mille Plateaux, January 2000. Site recording made on 19 December 1998 during a Christmas Posada through the public housing neighborhoods of Aliso Village and Aliso Extension.- (Listen)
What did you hear?
Elizabeth Blaney (EB): To understand what Unión de Vecinos mean by base-community organizing, you have to know something about Liberation Theology in Latin America -- at least, in the context of this particular part of East Los Angeles. Leonardo had been working for the Dolores Mission Church beginning in 1987.vi In a one-mile square radius of the Church approximately thirteen-hundred families lived in a mixture of public housing and rental housing for low-income families. The majority of those thirteen-hundred families lived in public housing developments. Working with the Church as a lay-organizer, Leonardo began forming small community groups around these families. Each group would include anywhere from five to twelve people. These groups would meet weekly with Leonardo and the other lay workers and priests from the Church attending different meetings.
In the beginning, each group would gather to read parts of the Bible. Reading and studying the Bible very quickly moved onto attempting to apply what was read to the reality of everyday life experienced by the people in the group. In this way, the meetings differed from a kind of individualized or strictly meditative Bible study. [. . .] Instead of asking, how can I be more like Jesus, the groups would ask themselves; what does this passage from the Bible mean to us in our lives as a community? How are we seeing this exemplified? How is the community dealing with whatever issue we are experiencing together? Perhaps, for one group, the most important issue is living with gangs and gang violence. For another group, the issue could have been jobs.
Elliot Perkins (EP): But the people involved in these small groups, obviously, they are religious and they have some familiarity with the Biblical texts? It is not a religious indoctrination kind of thing?
EB: The purpose of the groups was not to evangelize new Christians. Furthermore, this is primarily a Catholic Latino community, low-income, and immigrant. The vast majority of the people lived in social housing because they had no other opportunities for income to move out of social housing. For these reasons, the people in the community groups among those thirteen-hundred families dealt with the issues prevalent at the time. At that moment — we are talking the late 1980s — the most urgent issue in the community happened to be violence. In the Pico Aliso area there were nine gangs based within this small area. The women and men in the community groups knew that either their own kids or the children of their neighbors belonged to one of those gangs.
Dont Rhine (DR): Is that why the families came together, to talk about the gangs?
EB: No, they had come together before that to read the Bible. Over time, they used the groups and the process to deal with the issue of gang violence. [. . .] Each group followed a similar process; reflecting on the Bible, discuss and analyze what they had read in terms of their own community in social housing, and then acting collectively in response to what they had discussed. In other words, the point was not to just have a conversation and arrive at some kind of understanding of the world around them. Rather, the groups eventually confronted the question of how what they had discussed was going to change their social condition? This entire cycle of reflection, analysis and action served as the whole process taken up by all the base community groups.
As a result of following this process in the small groups simultaneously, the groups would take up different actions that engaged the community in social justice around different issues. In the early years, gang violence quickly became the most important fight. Initially the community experienced tremendous fear of the gangs. People simply did not know how to talk to the gang members. As a result of the process of reflection and analysis, a group of mothers mobilized around an action that involved taking the streets. Every Friday night a group of mothers came together and walked as a group to the areas in the neighborhood where gang members dealt drugs and hung out all night. The women walked right up to the gang members and began talking to them. They said; "Hey, we have some tacos and some chips here. Let's sit down and talk." And with that simple act, they began to build a relationship with the gangs. Doing this consistently, Friday after Friday night, the women overcame their own fears. The mothers began to take on the role of curbing violence in their community. Areas of the neighborhood that used to have drug-dealing on a Friday night had no drug-dealing any more because those spaces were being used in a different way.
I still find it very difficult to talk about. I remember a particular time in 1994 when news went through the community that two gangs planned a gun battle between them. With the gang youth assembled in the street, the mothers gathered together. They came out into the street and walked in front of the gangs to stop the gun fight. The women did not respond to this situation by saying to themselves, "Let's call the police." Rather, they said to the gang members standing there in the street, "I know you. I have been talking to you every Friday night for a month. You don't have to do this." That's how these women intervened. They would pull the kids back.
On another occasion, there was a funeral for someone who got shot. After the funeral, news would travel through the community that the other gang planned to retaliate. Once again, the women would just stop the kids from perpetuating the violence. Those women had incredible power that eventually led to a truce between the street gangs.
What did you hear?
Sound Recording: "Vivienda Contra Autoridad," from Desarrollos Sostenibles / Sustainable Developments (CD BB06) Beta Bodega, May 2002. Site recording made during a protest at the 12 March 1999 Commissioners meeting of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. - (Listen)
What did you hear?
EB: In 1996, news came down from the Federal government that the entire community of public housing was to be demolished. The Federal government awarded a small amount of money to the Church and its non-profit that led to the Board of Directors telling Leonardo to stop organizing the community against the demolition. They told him to be quiet. Leonardo said, simply; "Screw you. I'm accountable to the community who built this organization." A third of the Board of Directors were people from the community. Every single one of them said that they did not want their community to be demolished. So, Leonardo continued to organize. As a result, the Dolores Mission fired him and I quit. It was then that we formed this non-profit organization, Unión de Vecinos, "united neighbors."
We were very clear that we wanted to create a structure for the organization that was accountable to the community as well as run by the community. We wanted something very different from the usual non-profit structure. We did not want a Board made up of people from the outside; with lawyers, bank people, real-estate people, and a token third of community representation. We felt that the same people most impacted by the situation should also run the organization. As a result, our Board was made entirely of public housing residents — every single one of them. Likewise, Leonardo and I were also accountable to the community.
DR: How many families were there in the beginning?
EB: Unión de Vecinos started with the same thirty-six families who received the initial eviction notices from the Housing Authority. When they stood up and refused to simply move out, that was when we started. On one level, we fought to preserve public housing and stop the demotion. We also made sure that every member in Unión de Vecinos had housing whether the demolition happened or not.
The method that we used to organize differed from other organizations involved in housing justice issues. Unión de Vecinos rooted itself in being transparent and democratic. The organization used consensus decision-making and not majority rule. In the latter, you always have a minority group who walks away from every vote filled with resentment. Consensus-building takes a lot of time. It meant a lot of meetings. When you work with a group of twenty to thirty-six families, trying to build consensus on something, you are not going to be successful in the first meetings. We did not move forward until everybody in the group was ready. [. . .]
About the same time that Unión de Vecinos began organizing in East Los Angeles, another organization in South Los Angeles was working on gentrification issues in poor neighborhoods around the Staples Center development along the Figueroa Street corridor. The developers had plans to relocate entire neighborhoods in order to accommodate hotels, shopping centers and other forms of commercial development in the area around the stadium. This particular community organization in South Central built up a coalition of local groups in response to these development plans. The same organization also built up support from the residents living in the area. However, the residents were not, in fact, leading the organizing. When it came time for the final negotiations with the developers from the Staples Center, the negotiation team included representatives from the non-profit community organizations but not the residents themselves. The residents found themselves effectively shut out of the negotiations.
I mention this example to highlight the difference with how we did things in Unión de Vecinos. summarize... At a key moment in our fight, Unión de Vecinos also entered into negotiations with the Director of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. Our negotiation team was comprised entirely of residents from Pico Aliso. This is not to say that Leonardo and I were uninvolved. Actually, Leonardo attended the negotiations but as a translator for the Spanish-speaking residents. We also had present an attorney who watched out for legal issues. I attended the negotiations as the note-taker. But when it came to the introduction, talking about the issues and presenting the demands, all of this was done by the community residents.
Who does the representing and who does the speaking become key opportunities to not just advance a political agenda. It also creates a particular kind of political space. I remember numerous occasions where we faced deadlines with little time to train community members for public inquiries or negotiations. Typically these meetings were scheduled around the demands of the demolition and not around any kind of fair or even legally-mandated consultation process. We would say to ourselves, "We can't get the community trained in time because, the demolition is going to start in, January. We have only six months to prepare. We can't do it." Nevertheless, we insisted on our process. We made a space for that time. We organized role-playing sessions with the residents. During the preparatory meetings, we brought in friends whom the residents had never met before. These people performed the role of the Director of the Housing Authority. The residents who made up the negotiation team sat down at the table and acted out the negotiations with our friends. The rest of us observed the performance closely. Afterwards we would say, "Watch out for this or that trick. He is going to distract you and you are not going to get your demand in."
Organizing this kind of role-playing and going through the long process of training each member of the negotiation team required an enormous investment of time. It may even mean that some important opportunities for action have to be passed over because the timing is wrong. It may mean losing a battle here and there. The important thing is that we built this team who ran the negotiations. For Leonardo, myself, and for everyone in Unión de Vecinos, organizing is about who stands in front and how that happens. In other words, for us, organizing is about who leads the process and whose voices get to be heard. By which I mean, voices need to be heard in an active way. It is not merely good enough that we hear the voices of residents. How those voices are heard is just as important as whose voice we hear. An organizer cannot just say, "Okay, because I'm going to put in front this resident from public housing, now she runs the organization." A voice has to be trained and given the support of everyone's experience and knowledge.
The process by which a voice comes to speak, that process for us is based in popular education. Our methodology of reflection, analysis, action, and then back to reflection again, this comes from popular education. The process remains highly circular; moving from analysis to action. Through those cycles of repetition, the collective builds itself and develops its leaders; people who go forward and whose voices take us forward. Of course, Leonardo and I bring specific skills to that process due to our own experience. In my case, that includes even my accounting background in managing funds, finances and raising money. While the residents paid the rent on the office through their food sales, I helped to write a grant that allowed us to receive money for training and hiring community residents to be organizers. I do not want to give the impression that Leonardo and I had no role in this work. Clearly, between the two of us we brought very specific but different skills to the organizing. But the one would not have happened without the other. If the residents decided they did not want to fight, Leonardo and I would have left.
In this way, Unión de Vecinos struggled, fought its battles against the demolition and organized the community for six years. In the end we did not succeed with our first goal; to prevent the demotion of public housing. However, regarding our second goal, Unión de Vecinos saved three-hundred twenty-two housing units and secured guarantees of replacement housing from the Housing Authority for our members. Based on that victory and many other smaller victories, we decided to replicate the model across the East Los Angeles area of Boyle Heights. This area has a population of ninety-thousand residents. While some of our members from public housing relocated completely out of the community, many of our members entered into replacement housing in other parts of Boyle Heights. Since they were our base, we, as in Unión de Vecinos, followed them to where they relocated. [. . .]
What did you hear?
Sound Recording: "Unión de Vecinos at Japan America Museum," from Articles of Incorporation (MP3 PR 2.01.006) Public Record, October 2004. Site recording made on 12 October 2002 within the exhibition "Boyle Heights: The Power of Place" at the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, while members of Unión de Vecinos reflect on five years of struggle against the demolition of public housing. - (Listen)
What did you hear?
DR: Some organizations approach Popular Education as a way of breaking down a pre-determined content so that it can be disseminated. In your own work there is a huge difference around how Unión de Vecinos uses Popular Education.
EB: Where I see Popular Education as a process other people tend to see it as a moment or as a particular event. [. . .] Some organizations will consider themselves Popular Educators because, instead of delivering this information in PowerPoint or in a presentational format, they create visuals, exercises, games or some other kind of tool that breaks down information to make it more easily understood. I would agree that Popular Education has an element of that to it. For most organizers Popular Education stops there. For them, they have done Popular Education if they have simplified an analysis of power or explained the mayor's housing plan and all the technicalities about density and bonuses in a way that normal everyday people can understand how it impacts them. But the question remains, having delivered that information in an accessible form, what do its recipients now do with that information?
EP: Typically, this process brings constituents to a point where they have a vocabulary to complain about a problem but nothing more.
EB: Popular Education delivers more than just a pre-determined vocabulary. It also raises the question of the relationship between the people in the room. I remember on one instance, Leonardo and I showed the residents in Pico Aliso a graph depicting the number of all housing units built by the government and for whom they were built. The graph showed how people with incomes of over one-hundred seventeen-thousand dollars had a huge advantage in terms of access to housing.
If you look at the same information written in a report it remains largely illegible. Not until the information appears into a chart with pictures and anecdotes does it become legible and the average person can see clearly that they are not part of that group with the income advantage. To help illustrate this fact, the image in the Popular Education materials shows one house and a large number of people fighting to live there while, on another page, we find an image of a house with a much smaller number of people vying for it. The Popular Education materials can present crucial information as a way that helps to start the analytical process. [. . .]
EP: Some believe that Popular Education is nothing more than constituents learning what experts already know.
EB: This is one way that it gets used in different organizations. After constituents go through some sort of lively and informative training, passing along to them some important revelation, after that, it does not go anywhere. For Unión de Vecinos, we will convene information sessions. But we also include a step before and a step after. We get a sense for where people are at and the conditions of their lives. We will create situations where they talk to each other and collectively build a common analysis around concrete issues. For example, in the Pico Aliso work, the families built up a shared analysis of the situation around the demolition. They discussed how the Federal government and the House Authority wanted to tear down the public housing. We would then ask the question, "Why do you want to preserve the housing?" They would answer that they wanted to save their community. We responded by asking, "What is good about your community?" Our role was to pose questions as a way of moving the process forward, provoking a conversation. Eventually we got to the question, "Why are they demolishing your housing? What is their interest with this part of the city? What is causing this to happen? Who are the powers at play in this?" These questions would then bring us to the point where we could analyze those powers involved in the struggle. The residents could then see where they fit in this power analysis, who were the players, and where they could go with that understanding.
Other organizations begin immediately with an analysis of the situation. For us, the analysis follows a lengthy discussion where people reflect on their lived experiences. Then, rather than ending with the analysis, the residents discuss what action they should take collectively in response to what they have learned and how they should go about testing what they have learned through action. So, the group reflects on their current situation. In the process, they develop a social bond among them and a form of cohesiveness. We then take that one step further and analyze the different points of information that have emerged during the reflection. While for us the process of analysis extends the development of a bond and of cohesiveness, many people using Popular Education begin right away with the dissemination of an analysis but go no further to test that analysis in action.
What did you hear?
Sound Recording: "City Hall Action," unreleased (WAV). Site recording made on 20 May 2011 in City Council chambers during protests by the over one-hundred members of the Right to Housing Collective, including testimony by Unión de Vecinos member Maria Rodriguez demanding that the City Council put a moratorium on rent-increases in Los Angeles. (Listen)
What did you hear?
EB: During an early discussion around the fight against demolition, we learned that the Housing Authority was spending fifty million dollars on the demolition and reconstruction of the housing projects. We asked the residents to reflect on how they would spend fifty million dollars in their community if given the chance. This led to an art exhibition where we hung letters written by the residents in response to that exact question.vii The residents took the next step and used these ideas when speaking at a meeting of the Housing Commission for the City. They bombarded the Housing Authority with letters and flyers every week. Action after action grew out of their analysis of the situation. After realizing these actions, we then brought the residents together again to reflect on what they had learned from their actions. They not only evaluated the action but also talked about the new information they felt they had learned as a result. They also reflected on the new questions that had emerged.
It did not take long before the Housing Authority started to respond to what the Unión de Vecinos was doing. Up until that point they had been going around the neighborhood asking people to sign a document in which residents gave up their rights as tenants of social housing. Suddenly the Housing Authority had to respond to the residents and their demands. At each step along the way, the residents discussed what kind of information they needed to move the fight forward. The process remained consistent; a circular movement. After each action, we returned to reflection, then further analysis followed by another set of actions and then back to reflection. So it continued. Even after we won a particular battle, we went right back to reflection again. We never just celebrated a victory and called it a day. Every win provided another opportunity for the membership to gather and reflect on the experience.
EP: It is my experience that you never win something and then just call it quits. [. . .] Winning always makes you completely unpopular with the people that lose. And, typically, the people that lose have influence and power.
EB: That is also how we knew we were winning and that we were actually pissing people off.
EP: But practically, that translates into more obstacles.
EB: In the first neighborhood of public housing to be demolished, the Housing Authority pursued the demolition in phases, moving people out of the housing blocks in gradual stages. We took advantage of this. We exploited their plan so that more people won guarantees of replacement housing. The residents had realized that if some people stayed on site while others moved out, then those who remained had rights. They could make demands for housing guarantees. If a family moved out, they forfeited their rights and could no longer fight for a place to live. The Housing Authority learned from our actions. When they came to the next public housing community across the street, they simply evicted everyone at once. They abandoned the whole plan of allowing people to stay on site while others moved out. As a result of our initial victories, the conditions changed. That is why it is necessary to follow every victory with reflection; this circular process. Our opponents learn from our wins and so must we. The community members have to go back, reflect and analyze the new situation with its new conditions. [. . .]
EP: Often it is the salaried people who make all the decisions about analysis and strategy.
EB: And not the people directly impacted by the issues. The organizer has to ask herself, who is in the room and how does one structure the conversation? The point of departure has to be the experience of the people in the room. [. . .]
DR: Listening to you, Elizabeth, it occurs to me that as you go through the process, the community begins to see how their actions produce a reaction on the part of whomever or whatever institutions responsible for the inequality. After each reaction, the community reflects on the experience, analyzes it and puts into action another intervention. Then you go through it again. That action produces a new reaction. What begins to emerge is an accumulation of understanding about how these institutions work. Patterns become legible through the way those in power respond. When faced with a set of options, the institutions never choose one option but they always choose another. Or they always have the same reaction to what the community does. The institutions never imagine that they could adopt a different set of reactions. By witnessing that repetition and reflecting on those patterns, the community can begin to develop a critique of the underlying ideology.
For example, every time the Housing Authority imposes another obstacle to community control, the community asserts their autonomy. At no point does the Housing Authority actually change course and see a struggle as an opportunity to restore community control to the residents. Increasing the number of public housing units, for instance, is never on the agenda. Using fifty million dollars to improve and expand the housing stock never comes under consideration. Rather, every maneuver taken by the Housing Authority is designed to preserve the agenda of demolition. Any other option is foreclosed. As the community begins to see that foreclosure in a material form, then the question begs to be asked; why is that option foreclosed? Why is the preservation or even the expansion of public housing never a possibility? At that point the community can talk about the ideological constraints that make certain options, such as the right to housing, impossible.
The tendency, I think, in political education is to start from the ideological critique. The activist wants to explain to the community the ideological formations that foreclose the possibilities of universal access to quality housing. Most anyone who has a kind of Leftist perspective would begin there; the people need to understand how ideology works. Whereas in the process of reflection, analysis, action and then back to reflection, given how every collective discussion begins from direct experience, then community members begin to experience ideology in very concrete ways.
EB: The Popular Education process develops our leadership and develops their ownership over the struggle because they have that investment as a result. As an organizer, you have to be conscious of the process, methodical, and take the time to plan. [. . .] Popular Education takes a lot of time. It is precisely for this reason that you find the resistance to it; Popular Education takes too much time. Organizers will say, "If we follow the process thoroughly, we will lose precious opportunities." We have made very conscious choices at times to pull away from a coalition or pull away from a political moment because we knew that our leadership was not ready. As organizers, we would rather take the time to build the community leadership to be proactive about the issues than to be only in this constant reactive mode that exists outside of the Popular Education process.
What did you hear?
i See John L. Hammond, "Popular Education as Community Organizing in El Salvador," Latin American Perspectives 26, Issue 107, No. 4 (July 1999): 69 - 94.
ii See also Jacqueline Leavitt, "Art and the Politics of Public Housing," Progressive Planning 164 (Fall 2005) — updated for online version posted March 2007 at www.plannersnetwork.org.
iii The larger project of placing critical and social art practice in conversation with the praxis of popular education has been at the center of Ultra-red's art and organizing for nearly fifteen years. See also Ultra-red, "Art, Collectivity and Pedagogy," in #08-32: Theatre of Accomplices, ed. Dmitry Vilensky (St. Petersburg, RU: Chto Delat? / What is to be done?, 2011): avail. online at http://www.chtodelat.org (17 August 2011).
iv For more on Ultra-red's inquiry into the aesthetic autonomy of social movements see, Dont Rhine, "The Second Encounter: Notes on the Problematic of Art and Political Practices," in PUBLIC 44 (Fall 2011): forthcoming.
v The date on the protocols, 25 June 2011, mark the occasion when Ultra-red first presented these particular protocols during a Listening Session held at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery in Barnsdall Park.
vi Leonardo Vilchis is an organizer with Unión de Vecinos as well as another member of Ultra-red. The Dolores Mission Church located in the flats area of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles is probably best known for its gangs-to-jobs programs for at-risk youth such as Home Boy and Home Girl Industries. The Dolores Mission also played an exemplary role in translating the base-community and popular education practices of Latin America into a community organizing context specific to Los Angeles. Before the demolition of public housing began in 1998, this area contained five housing neighborhoods; Pico Gardens, Pico Extensions, Aliso Village and Aliso Extensions. The name, Pico Aliso, referred to the neighborhoods as a whole.
vii The installation "Structural Adjustment" appeared in the exhibition Without Alarm II curated by the Arroyo Arts Collective in February 1998 in the former Los Angeles Lincoln Heights Jail. The installation was produced in collaboration between Unión de Vecinos and a group of artists working under the name, Public Works Administration (Karina Combs, Frank Gutierrez, Valerie Tevere, Cecilia Wendt and Ultra-red members Marco Larson and Dont Rhine).