Mobilizing Communities for Collective Action

mission

“[N]ot even the best-intentioned leadership can bestow independence as a gift. The liberation of the oppressed is a liberation of women and men, not things. Accordingly while no one liberates himself by his own efforts alone, neither is he liberated by others. Liberation, a human phenomenon, cannot be achieved by semihumans. Any attempt to treat people as semihumans only dehumanizes them. When people are already dehumanized, due to the oppression they suffer; the process of their liberation must not employ the methods of dehumanization.”          –Paulo Freire

What is it that turns a group of unconnected individuals into an organization or social movement? What structural, social, or even psychological barriers inhibit or prevent individuals and groups from working together? Community mobilization is both an initial and ongoing process in any community and social change effort that seeks to build support and participation of individuals, groups, and institutions to work towards a common goal or vision.

Community Mobilization is one of the most overlooked and most misunderstood dimensions. The reason for this, I believe, is because it’s one of the most difficult areas to quantify. Where it may be easy to count the number of wells installed or the miles of irrigation canals built, it’s much more difficult to understand the ways we are impacting the ways people perceive themselves and their world around them. But another reason this dimension is often overlooked is because the misconceptions that the so-called “helpers” have about what it means to experience poverty and oppression. The fact is, as people who are able to go to get an education, fly around the globe, and have the luxury of being able to work in a field like this (either as paid professionals or volunteers) means they live in a very different reality than the people we are trying to help.

The impact of poverty is profound and spans generations, a cycle that tears apart families and communities. This is what many scholars over the years have referred to as the psychology of oppression. One of the earliest and most famous of those scholars was the African born and French educated psychologist Frantz Fanon. Fanon grew up the Caribbean island of Martinque, a French colony from 1635 to 1946. He was deeply concerned with the abuse of his people by the French army but was particularly concerned about the self-hatred that colonization created among his people and all black colonized peoples. In 1952 he wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks which described the contradiction where oppressed people hate themselves and desire to be like their oppressors. Later, in the 1950s he became involved in the Algerian Independence movement, joining the National Liberation Front. This experience radicalized Fanon influencing him to write The Wretched of the Earth, published shortly after his death, which encouraged all colonized people to rise-up and overthrow their colonizers. Fanon, argued that the oppressed could regain the dignity and humanity taken from them by their colonizers through violent revolt.

In the words of Fanon:

“it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization a simply a question of relative strength.”  ― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Fanon’s work was influential in many revolutions and liberation movements around the globe, and even inspired influential Civil Rights leaders in the U.S. such as Malcolm X and Bobby Seal, founder of the Black Panther party. Today, his writings are required reading in many Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, Psychology, and Social Work Departments.

One of the most famous scholars influenced by Fanon was Paulo Freire. Born in recife Brazil in 1921, Freire studied philosophy and law but worked for a state run secondary school teaching Portuguese in the 1940s. Towards the 1950s, he became increasingly influenced by the Liberation Theology movement that was growing throughout Latin America. The movement interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ as a message of social justice, economic and political liberation. At the time, literacy was a requirement for voting in Brazil so it was clear that education was a matter of social justice. But like Fanon, he believed the oppressed lived in a state of false consciousness, a reality largely shaped by colonizers or the elite. As psychology that keeps them from changing the status quo. However, Freire disagreed with Fanon that violence was the path to psychological liberation. Rather, Freire believed that the use of violence was just using the tools of the oppressor. And that a movement born from violence would likely recreate the same social stratification as the old system. In order to break this cycle, for liberation and true social change to occur, it was necessary for both the oppressor and oppressed to engage in a dialogue. This is what Freire called “critical pedagogy.” At it’s most basic, critical pedagogy is a literacy program where students learn how to read and write by critically analyzing the world around them. But critical pedagogy is much deeper than that. It’s also a way of actively and critically transforming the culture and world around you. Freire described his philosophy and method in his famous 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire has heavily influenced our work at Village Earth but have also influenced some of the largest and most successful development programs around the globe. Including the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the Organi Project in Pakistan, the NAAM and Greenbelt Movements in Kenya, the Sarvadoya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka. In all of these movements, the founders have stated that they are drawing on the ideas of Freire.

Village Earth, since it’s founding, has been deeply focused on understanding the ideas, principles and practices of community mobilization. We’ve synthesized much of this in our online training titled: Community Mobilization. Our approach in this course, like most of our training courses, is not to give you a set formula or how-to manual, but rather, provide ideas, case studies, and models which become the basis of an open and critical reflection by the course participants. The diversity of people and ideas in these discussions is often enough to give people the confidence to being applying mobilizations practices in their own community or program. Here’s what past course participants have had to say:

“Now I see all the ways I got that wrong. This was mentioned in the Interactive Participatory model—the community may have ideas different than your own,  be open and flexible, no fixed ideas.  Further, I realized I was stuck in the notion that since I started this, I’m somehow still in charge, when the goal of community mobilization is a community that identifies its needs, how to meet them, makes a plan– owns itself. My role is solidarity with, not ownership of any kind. I’ll be much more aware and intentional moving forward.”

Topics discussed in this article are also discussed in the following courses in our Online Certificate Program in Sustainable Community DevelopmentCommunity MobilizationCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentApproaches to Community Development, & Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation.

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