Largely invisible to the eye of Latinx Studies scholarship stands the Inland Empire (IE), a burgeoning region one hour east of downtown Los Angeles. Noticeably distinct from the affluent urban centres of California, the IE is gradually becoming the Latinx capital of Southern California with a distinctive regional culture that has intricate transnational ties to Mexico and Latin America. As a result of real estate developments and public policies that fail to accommodate the needs of minorities, the IE has become infamous for the marginalization of the Latinx community. Accordingly, this multidisciplinary project in collaboration with University of California, Riverside, USC, UT Austin, UC Merced, UCLA and UNAM and UAM in Mexico sought to develop methods to empower the community to actively dismantle barriers to Latinx learning and participation.
Drawing on the works of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the project sought to develop the foundations of a popular education syllabus tasked with equipping community members in the IE with the necessary tools to introspectively and critically understand the sources of their oppression, and to accordingly, collectively combat it. Different from traditional education wherein knowledge is deposited by the teacher onto the student, popular education eradicates hierarchies and creates space for critical dialogue. Through these dialogues participants engage in experiential learning and seek to identify the sources of their shared marginalization to eventually, rise up in collective action. Accordingly, as Dr. Apostolidis’s research assistant, I was tasked with interviewing civil society groups in the Inland Empire to inquire how public policies are failing them and conducting a thorough examination about the existing secondary literature on popular education to create a literature review.
The first section of my work with Dr. Apostolidis involved reaching out to civil society groups in the IE and conducting bilingual interviews to comprehend what issues they are confronting and what their understanding of popular education is. The interviews proved extremely insightful for the purposes of the project and unveiled that the issues faced by the Latinx Community are varied and intersectional. For instance, when speaking with the California Farmworker Foundation (CFF), we learnt about the concerningly precarious conditions of farm workers and how the already difficult conditions of living in mobile homes are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. More importantly, however, we learnt that these precarious conditions are often internalized and normalized by Latinx community members. This accentuates the need for a popular education syllabus which, in some regard, seeks to bring participants to an active sense of consciousness and awareness about the urgency of engaging in collective action for social change. On the other hand, COFEM foregrounded during our interview that there is a prevalent concern about the high drop-out rate of Latinx students from high school and, overall, a reigning sense of hopelessness when it comes to considering the possibility of obtaining a college-level education. Overall, the interviews offered valuable qualitative data about the main questions that need to be addressed by the proposed popular education syllabus in order to cater to the most pressing needs of the Latinx community in the IE.
Following the interviews, I then embarked on the collection of secondary literature to answer the question of how different marginalized groups –but particularly Latinx groups– have wielded the value of popular education to foster collective action. Ranging from case studies about how Latinx mothers have mobilized against underfunded educational programs that actively sidelined Latinx students to projects with Latinx elders which sought to revalidate their value within their communities and foster civic engagement, the literature offered valuable insights that will guide the creation of our own popular education syllabus in the IE.
Notably, I found that the definition of popular education is somewhat contested and is understood differently by the participant groups. For instance, studies that focused on the oppression faced by Latinx women foregrounded the therapeutic impacts of popular education, instead of prioritizing the urgency of collective action. On the other hand, projects that were centred around indigenous groups advanced the mechanisms through which popular education could revalidate the social capital of the marginalized and how this could be utilized to influence policies like climate change and a just green transition. Further, I also found that popular education relies heavily on being permeated by cultural sensitivity and utilizing cultural symbols to create an environment wherein participants feel at peace and willing to share their lived experiences. Lastly, I also found some variations concerning how strictly designed the syllabus should be and how much space should be allocated to adaptability as participants move forth with the syllabus. Revisiting the literature, the most convincing answer was that the syllabus should offer cycles of redesign and flexibility to adapt to the needs of participants, and that way, maximize the effectiveness and impact of collective action. Overall, the literature revealed that the Latinx community has a seasoned experience with popular education and has successfully used it in the past to protest against and change discriminatory policies.
Although the project is still unfolding, I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Apostolidis. Gaining an academic understanding of the mechanisms and uses of popular education and conceptualizing how it could help Latinx civil society groups in the IE has made the project feel not only relevant but necessary. It has been incredibly enriching to learn about how bottom-up politics lead to tangible and sustainable change– a mechanism that is crucial for gaining a seat in the table for historically marginalized groups in the US like the Latinx community.