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Community Education: So Much More than a Course

On a bright summer’s day in 2017, around 8 of us gathered in an upstairs room over a busy community centre on the outskirts of Limerick city. All of us had been working in community education in some shape or form for several decades. Some of us were on the front-line, organising and sometimes delivering community education, others worked in advocacy organisations whose role it was to create networks for practitioners and promote the work. The rest were academics who in a previous life had worked in community education and were still connected to the sector. Had we done the maths, there was probably around 100 years’ experience in the room if not more. I won’t name the people there as I’m bound to forget someone, what matters more is the reason we were there. You see we were each passionate about a particular version of community education; one that is about people’s needs, about democracy, participation, equality, social change. We were worried this was being erased by government policies that viewed the work as not about needs but about outputs. And only outputs that could be measured.  This was a ‘bums on seats’ approach that was drowning in the language of work-readiness and up-skilling for employment.  Where did it all go wrong? Vocational education is important, but it’s not the only factor. 

We knew that we were not the only ones feeling this way in fact many people working in community education were just as fed up as we were. Certainly, many practitioners enjoy aspects of their work but they can also feel trapped in roles where they are not able to exercise the freedoms to work to well-established Freirean principles of community education (Fitzsimons 2017). People felt paralysed by previous brutal cuts that have been inflected on the community and voluntary sector as recently as the 2010s. Nobody wants to jeopardise funding to their project.  At that meeting in Limerick we gave ourselves a name ‘The 3-Pillars Group’.  One of the first things we did was to reach out to the two largest national community education provider networks in Ireland; The AONTAS Community Education Network (CEN) which is a network of over 100 independently managed community education providers; and Community Education Facilitator’s Association (CEFA) which connects public-sector employees who work as Community Education Facilitators (CEFs). It did not surprise us that these networks were having the same sorts of conversations as we were. So, the 3-Pillars group decided it was time to reassert the principles and values that underpin our collective understanding of community education. We did this by drawing from facilitated conversations within CEN and CEFA and came up with the following:   

Community education……  

Is rooted in equality, justice and empowerment. 

Creates a voice for those who are furthest from the education system.   

Is about social inclusion in its broadest sense.    

Is needs based, driven by the community and reflective of lived experiences.   

Recognises the value of accredited and non-accredited learning        

Promotes critical thinking 

Is learner centred, flexible, supportive, and developmental.   

Is facilitative, group focused and open to new things.   

Centres on relationship building.   

The charter was launched at a hugely successful webinar on the 29th of April called Reasserting the Politics of Community Education.  

A charter for Community Education

Mae Shaw and I (the speakers) took the title to heart and did not hold back on asking critical questions about whose side we are on. Do we, as practitioners want to be accountable to students, communities and social movements, or to neoliberal governments whose policies re-enforce a model of capitalism that allows a small number of people to get extremely wealthy while things get worse for millions of people. We encouraged people to make strange the familiar, to question such stalwarts as ‘community’ and even ‘education’. As Mae Shaw reminded us, community and community development have its origins in colonial policies that were put in place to create compliant citizens. Education is also worthy of interrogation as something that successfully   corrals people into very particular jobs and life-chances depending on your socio-economic background.  But the event was hopeful too, not least because the Charter is a wonderful celebration of the values held dear by community educators, but because of the work that is still being done that asks critical questions about the sort of world that we want to live in.  

Fitzsimons, C. (2017) Community Education and Neoliberalism, philosophies, policies and practices in Ireland. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319459363  

Camilla Fitzsimons is a Lecturer in the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University. She hails from Dublin and has been working in adult and community education since the 1990s. She has worked with women’s groups, residents groups and campaign groups all as part of wider community development and leadership initiatives. Camilla’s practice is influenced by feminist critical pedagogy and her research influence extends across the breadth of adult and community education where the emphasis is on equality, social justice and dialogic, democratic learning. Camilla has published extensively in adult and community education, with an emphasis on the neoliberalisation of grassroots community education. She has also researched and written about broader feminist issues relating to equality, health and reproductive justice. All of Camilla’s work seeks to uncover asymmetries in power and privilege. At Maynooth she works across a range of programmes at under-graduate and post-graduate level. Camilla is currently the Course Coordinator of the Higher Diploma in Further Education.

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My Doctorate; An Insider-Outsider Viewpoint

Giving voice to Black and Middle Eastern student experiences of inclusion and belonging on campus

My name is Fionnuala Darby and I have been working in higher education for over twenty years. One of the best decisions I ever made professionally and personally was to embrace the Doctorate in Higher and Adult Education at Maynooth University (2016-2020). It is my pleasure to contribute to this blog on my experiences of returning to formal education as a student, while simultaneously working in education as a lecturer, and the insider-outsider viewpoint that these dual roles bestowed on me as a result.

I had reached a stage in my career where I felt that I was revolving instead of evolving as an educator. Taking on doctoral studies was the accelerator that I needed, while also being a natural step in my career progression. All the people that I encountered during the EdD  handed me a torch to reveal and challenge my meaning making systems. Our learning on the programme was social, participatory and involved mutual engagement with others in negotiating meaning. I devoured and savoured this pedagogical approach, a perfect fit for me and my personality.

For most of my life in a formal education setting, I have believed that knowledge is located in books and in more recent decades, knowledge has become more accessible to me through advances in the Internet. What I have come to realise is how important it is to unearth what constitutes knowledge with regard to how I learn, teach and research. I will never think the same again about who authorises knowing and dominant knowledge claims in the curriculum.

I undertook research at TU Dublin, my place of employment, on the experiences of our Black and Minority Ethnic students on campus. Many people have asked me why I chose to research this topic. In reality I found that the topic picked me!

Reflected on our campus is the ethnic and cultural diversity of the students that I encountered over the years because of the shifting demographics and patterns in our society and communities.

Limited research exists documenting the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic students in Irish higher education. I wanted to give voice to these students and to hear about their experiences of inclusion and belonging on campus. The research was underpinned by developing a race consciousness from critical race theory.

From the research participants I learned the most and I continue to use my research to make our campus more inclusive. I am currently working on an initiative through the IMPACT Project at TU Dublin to diversify the curriculum by ‘building multistories’. Dr. Ebun Joseph, was the external examiner for my research. Ebun provided me with valuable insights for my work and engaged in a public conversation with me on her recent publication and how it integrates with my work. This event was hosted by the EDI Directorate at TU Dublin.

It takes courage and a change of mindset to unlearn-learn-relearn, but the rewards for me have been numerous. In cultivating my intellect, the doctorate studies keep me young and curious, rather than jaded and cynical as I endeavor to continue research on this topic.

In particular I would like to express my deep gratitude to many colleagues at TU Dublin for their support and encouragement. Reflecting on my career trajectory for this blog, with over two decades of experience, and having encountered thousands of learners along the way there is still much to learn, and that excites me.

TU Dublin Blanchardstown Campus

Biography of the author, Dr. Fionnuala Darby

As a Senior Lecturer with the School of Business, TU Dublin (Blanchardstown Campus), projects that I am currently involved with include the Campus Champion for unconscious bias, Team Lead on the IMPACT University wide project on the celebration of teaching and learning for student success, Team Member on the University’s Athena Swan Working Group and Research Champion for the School of Business at TU Dublin Blanchardstown Campus. I teach modules on Diversity in the Workplace, HRM and Organisational Behaviour. My recent doctorate research (EdD 2016-2020) focuses on inclusion and belonging in higher education for BME students. My ORCID is 0000-0002-5296-5416.

Enquiries to:

Fionnuala.Darby@tudublin.ie

Dr Fionnuala Darby (@DarbyFionnuala) / Twitter

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Welcome

Welcome to our blog!

An introductory post from Mary Ryan, Head of Department, Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University.

When Michael and Bernie asked me to write a blog, the phrase that immediately came into my mind was ‘Hello and Goodbye’. Interesting – why that phrase and why now? When I google it, I find the words to a song – ‘Hello and Goodbye ‘sung by Jill Ireland. I have no memory of ever hearing the song, I look up the lyrics.

“Some have a lifetime, some just a day
Love isn’t something you measure that way
Nothing’s ever forever, forever’s a lie
All we have is between ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye”

March 12th 2020 – suddenly and shockingly we say goodbye to face to face contact with our students, colleagues, and many of our families and friends. Overnight we transition to remote teaching delivery and struggle to find new ways of saying hello and maintaining relationships. It reminds me of being in the Gaeltacht – total immersion in an unfamiliar language, perpetually anxious.

Suddenly broadband emerges as the significant criterion for inclusion and exclusion. The reflexive dialogue at the heart of adult learning was compromised by remote delivery as the focus was on connectivity and staying connected. I found it very difficult to adjust to working with learning groups online, how to get a feel of the group dynamic and emotional temperature. My pedagogical model of group facilitation, crafted over 30 years, seemed no longer appropriate to remote learning. I am forced to be more structured and directive, there is less opportunity for members to engage spontaneously with each other. At times it feels we are forced to revert to the banking model of education despite our deep commitment to a more collaborative and participatory Freirean approach.   

We search for ways to stay connected and support each other – daily remote coffee breaks where we anxiously explore possibilities for more participatory approaches to remote delivery. We stay in remote touch with students, offering opportunities to make sense and meaning of their ongoing experiences of COVID. We offer a weekly mindful session remotely. We encourage students to include their experiences and reflections of living with COVID in their research and assignments.

All that is familiar is disrupted but together we do our collective best to support students to complete their studies. It was a privilege to read assignments and research which explored themes in adult development such as loss, the meaning of life, life choices and collective responsibility for a just and equal world.

We have no collective opportunity to say goodbye. We miss the rituals that celebrate the ending of a course, that acknowledge the unique contribution of each member in creating a learning community. Endings provide an opportunity to celebrate achievements, acknowledge the learning and insights, take leave of valued colleagues and friends, and internalise the rich learning experiences and relationships. Endings can also encourage us to name what has not been achieved, acknowledge loss and sadness and in the process begin again, engage in new learning and relationships.

Amid completing courses, despite COVID restrictions  we focus on gathering new students remotely, “Though we live in a world that dreams of ending, that always seems about to give in, something that will not acknowledge conclusion, insists that we forever begin’’ Brendan Kennelly – ‘Begin Again’.

September 2020, first semester – no tea and coffee – social distancing, yellow X’s marked on the floor and face masks the norm – a new unfamiliar beginning. And yet some of it is familiar, we move chairs, find flasks, set up tables and ensure despite all the restrictions that we create a welcoming learning environment. We encourage learners to share their experiences, talk with each other, make sense of the last few months, and explore possibilities.

One of the narratives in COVID is that we are all in this together. However, COVID has been experienced very differently by individuals, groups, and communities. Some of us have been lucky to maintain our incomes and health, others have lost loved ones and their livelihoods.   Many on the margins and who are disadvantaged have been most negatively impacted, especially so in regions and countries impacted by global climate crisis, war, inequality, human rights, and political instability. 

Living with COVID is disruptive and anxiety provoking, it can impact on our thinking, relating, and feeling.  It can be a relief to believe that those in power can provide the answers. Yet in adult education, we believe we are responsible for our individual and collective actions. We need to be able to reflect on our experiences with others, ensure that all stories are heard and learn from this knowledge to create a more just and equal world.

And what about love – relationship and care are at the heart of adult education.  Freire reminds of the need for ‘courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world on behalf of the increasing liberation of people) (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1972, p. 144) and “because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation.”

During all this uncertainty and anxiety, I know the value of being connected and in relationship. I know the power in people meeting together, reflecting on our experiences and creating knowledge.  Freire reminds us that to be human is to engage in ‘relationships with others and with the world … knowledge is built up in the relationships between human beings and the world’ (Education the Practice of Freedom, 1974, p. 3).

In this year of Covid, I am struck by the kindness of many people – there is a deeper appreciation of the fragility of life, and that we live creatively with uncertainty.  

Mullaghmeen Wood in November 2020.

Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us that

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow,

You must speak to it till your voice

Catches the thread of all sorrows

And you see the size of the cloth’.

As Christmas approaches, I am reminded of the importance of hope, of light and new birth. This time will pass, it is important to consider any learning that we can take into the future. Issues of care, health, housing, life work balance, human flourishing and climate change are now to the forefront.  

More than ever I am reminded of the significance of hello, goodbye, love, and the preciousness of time. COVID may provide us with opportunities for new learning and insight if we take the time to reflect on our experiences with others and apply the knowledge in creating a more equal and just world.