Monday, May 28, 2007

The Coordinator, Promoter, and/or Educator

Here is a reading from our Another Politics is Possible study group in NYC...

The Role of the Coordinator, Promoter, and/or Educator
By Carlos Nuñez Hurtado*

In every educational process that is clearly directed towards social transformation, the raw material and the real protagonists of the process are undoubtedly the members of the groups, communities, and grassroots organizations, in a word, the people. This seems to be clearly accepted by everyone, even many who end up exercising a contradictory practice to this approach, since their pedagogical style – as we’ve already said – revolves around the educator and not the people. Thus, the educators, the leaders, or consultants end up being the protagonists. It’s no wonder that popular and political educators, promoters, and leaders continue to be concerned about “the outsider." Should this person exist or not? What is their role? What are their characteristics? We won’t focus on the first question beyond what the facts show and what prompted this document because, in fact, the reality in Latin America is that this “outsider” exists and has always existed. On occasion, this person has played the predominant role of the promoter; in other instances, the consultant; and in others, the educator. I would say that in reality all of us do a little of everything according to the circumstances and the diverse realities and situations.

In any case, at least in Mexico, for many years, we were all promoters in grassroots organizations. An authentic popular movement, that is, of independent grassroots organizations, was weak in the face of populist politics, demagoguery, and the cooptation of its process by the institutionalized revolution. Many of us tried from there to get the movement to challenge this by promoting the people. The “outsider” assumed the role of organizational manager. As the events unfolded, the popular movement in Mexico gained strength with the creation, presence and development of many class-based grassroots organizations that were independent from the official monopoly and clearly geared towards building a real alternative of structural transformation.

In this new and irreversible situation, we think that the role of the “outsider” should orient and relocate itself to the sphere of support and consultancy for grassroots organizations. Their true location can stop being “foreign” and “outside” if their historical and political commitment coincides with the principles of liberation; only then would they truly fulfill the role of organic intellectual. The degree and level of their militancy would only serve to clarify their role not modify its essence. The protagonist of the historic process of liberation has and will always be the people, including within this category those who – independent of their class origins – choose liberation, humbly offering and not renouncing their knowledge, abilities, resources, etc. to serve the common cause. If in developing their skills and knowledge, a popular leader moves away from their true role, they become by virtue of this an “outsider” to the process in spite of obviously maintaining their class origins. Similarly, if a politically committed intellectual is insensitive to the culture, interests, and dynamics of the people’s process, this intellectual will have a “foreign” or “outside” role in spite of their choices, wishes, and intentions.

To put it simply, one can be an “outsider” to the people’s process by virtue of origin and class status. However, one can’t try to be part of the people’s process without committing oneself to aligning with the working classes and their interests – this is the organic intellectual; although one can also be “foreign” or “outside” in practice. Here, we can see the methodological problems and vices that pervade so many self-proclaimed “vanguard” approaches, enveloping themselves in their complicated and sophisticated theories and concepts, words and attitudes in order to try and maintain – by virtue of the distance they create (a truly aberrant position) – their so-called vanguard role. Authentic vanguardism emerges from the people and their organizing process – we are indebted to it; we interpret and have it as a reference point; we are sensitive to it because its origins, reality, and culture are not foreign; in short, it is furthered as part of the origins and/or choice.

In any case, having sketched out this deeper dimension, let’s return to the central idea and leave aside the concern about the vanguard. All promoters, consultants, educators (or however they are called) who are truly committed to choosing liberation cannot be foreign, even if they have “outside” origins, to the process of transformation and its struggles. They must then be real organic intellectuals. This is their fundamental role. Therefore, a coordinator cannot be neutral. In reality, they are not because even if they tried, that position does not exist. Beyond this obvious declaration, however, a coordinator cannot be neutral since they made a choice and so have taken a position. And that position manifests itself and should be manifested clearly and in the moment in the popular education and transformation process.

There are naïve and simplistic approaches that try to maintain that the educator must be neutral because if they are not, then they are manipulating the group and directing it towards the educator’s own ideas and interests. Directing yes, in the right sense of the word; manipulating, no, because it is precisely about handling (and should be handling) a participatory and scientific methodology and pedagogy that promotes and builds the knowledge and attitudes freely and in relation to the reality of the interests of the actual organization.

The realities that are diagnosed, analyzed and interpreted exist within a context and history. They are recognized and interpreted within a particular framework. The educators as coordinators of the process direct according to their framework and interests. There is no, there can’t be, and there shouldn’t be any neutrality. Yet we insist: to have a position does not necessarily mean to manipulate a particular group; for this, we must gather a series of conditions and characteristics. We will elaborate upon some of these that will help us better answer the question: what does it mean to facilitate/coordinate a process or an educational activity? We’ll refer to contributions, using more precise and concrete educational activities as our reference.

To coordinate is to direct a group towards achieving stated objectives. Every rational process that is intentionally planned should clearly formulate those objectives that are trying to be reached overall and for each phase of the process. The coordinator is responsible for designing the process and leading the group, by means of reflection, analysis, and synthesis, to achieve the stated objectives. It is not possible to discuss a theme or situation without knowing for what it is being discussed and what you want to achieve with it. Therefore, the coordinator should have mastery of the theme and have a clear position. Only in this way is it possible for a group to achieve its stated objectives.

A group often says: “Who coordinates?” And by chance, without any consideration or regard, it elects “democratically” some compañer@. Very often the elected person is limited to giving their opinion only at those times when it is solicited (and this for the purpose of maintaining order), without putting together the theme, without discriminating between the contents, permitting and giving space to whatever opinion and whatever content, without contextualizing it, without questioning, accepting aspects that are not part of the theme, without making a partial synthesis, without concluding the theme, in short…Thus, normally, it doesn’t succeed in developing the stated content and obviously, doesn’t achieve the objectives that the group wants to reach. It produces confusion and discomfort, which causes many to prefer to return to a traditional and vertical method, since in a participatory one, the direction has now been lost. But we want to leave it clear: what fails is the capacity to coordinate, not the style. Even less the methodology or the theoretical base that supports it.

To summarize, to coordinate is not only to speak: but rather to guide the group to achieve its stated objectives, by means of organizing the contents, the continuous syntheses, the capacity to question and cross-examine the group in order to continue searching and constructing the response. To coordinate is to know how to integrate and excite the group.

Whatever group, save that which already exists perfectly formed such as a natural group, needs to pass through a process of integration that permits it to “break the ice”, build trust and in this way create optimal conditions for authentic, democratic, and productive participation. The coordinator should help to create this environment of integration and trust. In addition, they should be attentive to the dynamic that develops in the group in order to keep it lively and active, preventing weariness, boredom and tension. To achieve this, the coordinator should know and master a series of techniques or “dynamics” that they can implement with creativity in those moments when the process requires it.

To coordinate is to know how to generate and favor participation. We have spoken sufficiently of participation as the foundation of an active pedagogy; we even finished by valuing the factors of integration and excitement as facilitators of a participatory process. But it’s not enough to know it, the coordinator should provoke free, conscious, and enthusiastic participation. Much will depend on creating and sustaining a climate of trust, but also has something to do with mastery of the theme and above all, with the knowledge and application of particular methods, as well as the initiating techniques for each of the proposed themes or stages of the process.

To coordinate is to know how to question, to know what to question and to know when it is necessary to question. It has been said many times that the success of a good coordinator has to do with their capacity to question effectively, as much or more, than with their capacity to respond. And this is logical, because in a participatory and dialogic process, the response will be encountered based on the knowledge of the group and of the new elements that they offer. And this group knowledge and interpretation must be obtained little by little, in an organized and systematic form through each new question, timely and wise, that the coordinator puts out to the group like a new obstacle to overcome, when apparently—and only apparently—the group seems to have arrived at a certain limit. With relation to the content, their knowledge of the group and the stated objectives, the coordinator should know if the limit of capacity and interest of analysis is real: or if the moment to stimulate the process of generating knowledge with a new question, a new restlessness that they perceive is latent and that the group should resolve through the coordinators capacity to question effectively. To abound in the causes, to inquire into the elements, to look for unseen relations in the studied phenomena, is the objective sought with this method of questions.

To coordinate is to know how to opinionate and know how to be quiet. We cannot fall in the extreme notion that coordinators should not opinionate, that they should only question. If their pedagogy is good, it is based on their capacity to question. We have said that they are not neutral nor removed from the process and they are involved with a certain cause and certain interests. We have also talked about their directed role with the aim of accomplishing objectives. In all these circumstances, the coordinator should know how to be quiet, how to question and have patience, without getting ahead of the group’s progress, inhibiting it with their own truth. But they should also know how to opinionate, see their point of view and plant their position at the necessary and opportune moment. Effectively, caring for the rhythm of the group’s process, the coordinators involve themselves and form part of the group’s dynamic and its process. An equilibrium difficult to achieve, because impatience can cause the coordinator to abuse their role, falling into a verticalist and banking position; or an excessive "respect" for the group can cause anarchy and loss of control over the process, in other words, they do not fulfill their role as involved conductors.

For the most part, conductors should know how to integrate themselves into the group, because only in this way will they feel themselves in an environment of trust, with the right to manifest their position, their sentiments, their limitations and their contributions. In this way, Freire’s affirmation that "no one teaches anyone, rather everyone learns together", will have more overtones of truth and the role of coordination, being a role of service, will not remove them or separate them from the real process that the group lives, of which they are an active part.

Lastly, we would like to plant a few characteristics or qualities that a good coordinator should try to develop. Many have been implicitly or explicitly formulated while talking about what it means to coordinate; we will simply expand on them. A coordinator should be humble and amiable; which is to say, a compañer@. The more understandings, titles, experiences and abilities they have, their attitude should be more like a compañer@ – not like a pose or like temporal performance. They should not be, or think themselves as, a distanced teacher who the group should "respect" in the traditional sense, which is to say, a formal "respect" based on fear, distance, power or prestige. There are many who deny the validity of a dialectical method – even though they maintain a discourse in the same line – because they either don’t want or don’t dare to be compañer@s. Their arguments fall directly in line with the prestige that envelops them, that way – and only in that way – they can establish their role of authority.

In our way of knowing things, these current and common attitudes hide a large deep seeded insecurity that tries to conceal itself with a distanced position that impedes the question or questioning by groups or organizations. It is not the "authority" it pretends to be; it is authoritarianism. It is not the "truth" it pretends to be; it is secure and/or memorized orthodoxy, that is rarely understood or comprehended at a real level of understanding that allows for analysis, questioning and discussion, without fear of "losing the line." In any case, the practice demonstrates – and there are many examples of real leaders that endorse it – that the role of conductors and the force of their moral authority, not only appears unaffected, rather to the contrary, solidly fortified, when they succeed in identifying themselves as compañer@s, like the best if you will, like the most committed, the one who should do the rest a favor by letting them know, the one who represents the true authority, who is firm and respected because s/he is fraternal.

In any case, a problem concerning the way to approach a pedagogical process cannot invalidate all of a consistent theoretical and methodological approach. The synthesis between theory, methodology, pedagogy and didactics, also doubtlessly encounters a problem of personal attitude with respect to the process. Another capacity or condition that every educator should cultivate refers to the use of language that is used to communicate. As we understand and enter more profoundly in the aspects of theory; as we increase our dominion over a science or a technology; in sum, as our analysis becomes more elaborate and complex, our minds and our language become more complex and sophisticated, the requirements of conceptualization needed to attain a correct abstraction and interpretation of reality require this. The big challenge is in knowing how to use the profundity of thought with humility, without using, or better said, without abusing complicated concepts and terms that are unintelligible to the group. It is not about falling into simplistic terms or generalities that end up saying nothing. Instead it’s about looking for ways to explain, uncover and pull apart complex content, using synonyms and examples, until accomplishing, by using a simple colloquial language, that the idea be comprehended; and therefore the concept at hand, if it becomes necessary, would become incorporated and appropriated to the knowledge and lexicon of the group.

When we spoke of the techniques or in particular about the "codes," we were referring to this from the point of view of the creation, recovery and use of multiple manifestations of popular culture that become tools for Popular Education when adequately approached. The constant combination of these knowledge generating techniques (due to the participation they give rise to), plus the educator’s ability and sensibility to adequately manage their language, in general will give us an excellent didactic experience. A good organic intellectual is not one who separates or differentiates themselves from the masses by their attitudes and complex language. A good organic intellectual is one who accessible to the people and it’s culture, knows how to enrich themselves with the great freshness and depth of thought that the people express in interpreting the world, in multiple and rich manifestations of meaning and significances. Building upon these and beginning from them, the good organic intellectual constructs a creative formulation of the theory, that each time and according to each circumstance, recreates itself, enriches itself, and augments its capacity of interpretation and formulation of a position that is sustained fundamentally but is reconstructed practically abolishing dogmas and questioning the absolutes, because the only absolute is the praxis and its constant creative formulation...and in this the structuring of the language has a lot to do with it, because it is without a doubt a reflection of the mind.

Although we have been obviously referring to oral language, it is worth saying that by "language" we mean all types of expression, attitudes and manifestations with which we communicate with on a daily basis. From this, the coordinator should be very attentive to not neglect this gamut of communicative elements. With frequency we observe a very passive attitude with a frank appearance of disinterest on the part of the coordinator, the rhythm is slow, as is the attitude and position towards the group. Long silences are produced with a solitary and concise question from the coordinator. “What do you all think?” In general a group will not take off with great participation. We have to stimulate, and to do that, in addition to what was said earlier, it is important to have expressive body language. We have to know how to manage the rhythm and not to produce tensions by allowing (or provoking a slow down with our own manifestation) conscious or not, of all of our multiple "forms of language" in front of the group. We want to point out that though patience is an indispensable virtue in every coordinator, this should not be confused with inactive silence that leaves the group with no way out. Coordinating by use of silence is, in our judgment, a grave error that coordinators fall in with great frequency.

In general terms and without falling into a type of manual, we think that we’ve extracted from our experience the most important traits that locate and characterize the role of an educator, coordinator, promoter or whatever name is still used to define the role of organic intellectual. Nevertheless we reiterate (though it might be very obvious) that there cannot be good coordination without theoretical clarity, proven commitment, an attitude of service, mastery of the methodology, and knowledge and adequate management of the topic or situation that is being worked on. These qualities nevertheless, will not be learned by reading this text, any treaty on pedagogy or in a class; they are only developed in praxis.

*Carlos Nuñez Hurtado is a Mexican popular educator. Originally written in Spanish, this text is a translation by Canek, Paula, Priscilla, and RJ for the Another Politics is Possible study group in NYC.

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