Introducing: Popular Education Alliance

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

Our Beliefs and Our Mission

The Popular Education Alliance (the PEA) is a group of community educators, organizers, university educators and researchers, students, and activists who believe that popular education and the action it inspires are effective means of promoting self-determination and empowerment among marginalized people—and in this way, serves as a catalyst for systemic change. We are a diverse group with many ways of understanding and practicing popular education. But we share the understanding that education is always political, and that in struggles for justice the process of education should be a dialogical one in which everyone participates as co-learners and co-teachers. We also share the commitment to education for human liberation.

While participants in the PEA live and express a range of positions about what constitutes systemic change and how to get there – indeed, the alliance benefits from this diversity of views — all of us in the PEA take positions that are at a minimum anti-imperialist, anti-white supremacist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-capitalist. We further believe that the systemic change to promote self-determination and empowerment (liberation) among marginalized (oppressed) people can only come from efforts that are initiated and led by marginalized and oppressed people.

Our mission is:

…to foster critical learning, discussion, research, art, organizing and other forms of education and action whose goals are the liberation and self-determination of marginalized, oppressed and exploited groups and communities – in order to create a just and democratic society. We do so by bringing together popular educators and those who are interested in the principles and practices of popular education with oppressed peoples to share their collective knowledge experiences, resources and support.

How We Work

The Alliance, currently in the beginning stage of development, is being formed out of a partnership between community organizations and other groups and individuals that work with and belong to marginalized communities throughout the city, and two units within University of Illinois at Chicago– all of whom are using principles and pedagogies of popular education in different ways and to different degrees. We hope to continue bringing together organizers, educators, researchers and neighborhood groups by linking people under the leadership of oppressed people who believe the methods of popular education can be helpful in building a just world.

Unlike many university-community collaborations that are based on an “extensionist” model in which the university partner seeks to extend its knowledge and resources out to the community in a unidirectional manner, the Popular Education Alliance is based on a dialogic, egalitarian model of teaching, learning, and community development in which all participants share their expertise, under the leadership of oppressed populations, in the creation and study of programs and projects that contribute to the mission of the Popular Education Alliance. To that end, a major goal of the Alliance is to create a forum in which people who are systematically silenced or oppressed can give voice to their opinions, teach others about their perspectives and work with academics and activists for systemic change.

Central to the Alliance is the commitment to including those individuals and groups whose knowledge and insights are marginalized, discounted, and thus not included in public discussions as equal or as historically and politically important. By supporting dialogue and cooperation across different communities of learning, we seek to combat the notion that institutions such as our university are uniquely equipped to teach people how to critically understand their world. We know that this attitude is a direct result of our society’s class and race-based ideologies, and that it is used to keep some people oppressed while maintaining the power and legitimacy of an elite.

Where We Came From

The Alliance was originally created through a partnership between Chicago neighborhood groups, two UIC programs; PRAIRIE Group and The Great Cities Initiative’s Neighborhoods Initiative. Since the fall of 2006, when the then-unnamed organization that would become the Popular Educators Alliance met for the first time, the Alliance has been growing through informal networking, group meetings and meetings among small working groups. In these meetings we have established networks of community educators, professionals and community members who are using popular education.

What We Do

Through our meetings, website and other forms of communication, and in particular through the sharing of knowledge and the offering of ongoing education and training opportunities, we function as a central hub for people who want to begin or improve upon their popular education practices. The Alliance fosters a collaborative learning exchange whereby groups across the city are teaching and training each other, thereby breaking down the normal hierarchy of binary relationships such as teacher/student, facilitator/participant, expert/novice. More generally, we hope that through this kind of ongoing exchange and mutual support we will build a greater awareness of and legitimacy for the incorporation of popular education as a means of creating social change – thereby introducing a more radical vision into the dialogue about social change that currently exists in the Chicago area.

We are an open group and would love for anyone reading this article to join us and help shape the direction of this Alliance. We are planning to move forward through working groups that focus on nodes of activity and interest we have derived from group discussion. Each working group is made up of practitioners who are working on—or would like to develop—similar projects, and are committed to sharing experiences and support. The current working groups are:

—Popular arts, media, technology. This could include projects based in popular forms of artistic expression (theatre, performance, dance, visual arts) and that may incorporate use of technology or other media for expression and dissemination.

—Community-based action research and evaluation. This could include community-university collaborations in action research and participatory evaluation; training in action research and participatory evaluation; documentation of neighborhood histories; report-writing and publication; and implementation.

—Community writing projects. This could include small writing workshops in schools and other community settings, Real Conditions magazines, newsletter publishing, public readings, writing teacher trainings, personal narratives, community histories, and other forms of creative expression and documentation.

—Learning networks. This could include the Organizer’s Learning Network (already in existence at UIC), a writing teachers’ learning network, community researchers’ learning network, adult educators’ learning network, developing networks around shared principles of popular education, creating new knowledge for action, and educators working with youth/alternative high schools.

Really, the possibilities for this Alliance are limitless and we hope the development and management of this stays as organic and open a process as possible. We envision these networks creating their own purpose and direction and reconvening with the whole Alliance on a regular basis. We are not going to lead this from the university—rather, we intend to use the university resources to benefit communities as they see fit.

If you would like to join us or just learn more about us, please contact Janise Hurtig at or (847) 491-6017 (home) / (312) 413-3367 (work) or Sarah Rothschild at, (312) 996-8078 (work).

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