Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements

To mark the publication this week of Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements, the author, Aziz Choudry, provides the following background, as well as thoughts on how the book might be used in the undergraduate or graduate classroom. The book launches this Wednesday in Montreal at the Immigrant Workers Centre, 4755 Van Horne Ave., Suite 110, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. Visit the McGill event page here.

Learning Activism

Learning Activism is primarily about the intellectual labour—the learning, knowledge production, and research—that takes place in the course of organizing and activism. Indeed, in this book I suggest that some of the most radical critiques, understandings, and theories about the world we live in, its power structures and dominant ideologies, and the fragility of the environment—and indeed the most powerful visions for social change—emerge from ordinary people coming together and working for such change.

For teaching purposes, I'm often drawn to books that incorporate, in different ways, narrations of the author’s everyday observations and experiences—to make their points as well as review and reference selective areas of scholarship. This book tries to balance insights derived from some of my own organizing and activist education practice with scholarship about activist learning, knowledge production, and research in sufficient depth to be helpful to both student and broader audiences. Drawing from a range of contexts, Learning Activism discusses the significance, dynamics, and politics of forms and processes of informal and non-formal learning, education, research, and other forms of knowledge production within social, political, and environmental activist milieus. Examples include anti-colonial currents within global justice organizing in the Asia-Pacific, activist research and education in social movements and people’s organizations in the Philippines, migrant worker struggles in Canada, and the Quebec student strike.

The book is born out of many conversations, debates, and arguments and is in dialogue with many other people, ideas, theories, and struggles. It should be of interest to people working in several disciplines concerned with learning, knowledge production, research, and social action/social movements. Besides education, this includes sociology, political science, international relations, critical anthropology, community development, social work, and international development. Learning Activism could be integrated into undergraduate courses and graduate seminars as well as serving as a reference for scholars in these and related disciplines. It may be adopted as a text in courses related to social movements, learning and adult education, organizing and non-formal learning, community development, international development, global education, and social justice, for example. It’s written in a style that should also be accessible to activists, community, trade union, and NGO practitioners and broader publics.

Throughout this book I highlight the intellectual contributions of informal and non-formal learning, knowledge production, activist research, and organizing to the academic field of education and learning, and educators in general. I also address some theoretical, analytical, and pedagogical questions in ways that should be relevant to organizers and activists. It is neither a social movement studies reader nor a traditional text on social movement learning or adult education. Along the way, it engages critically with some of the literature in the field of social movement studies as part of a broader project. It tries to break the serious analysis of social movement learning out of the particular sites where it usually takes place (like adult education programs and literature) to make it more widely accessible. It is not meant as an exhaustive text on the study of social movements, but instead, points readers to further sources that include many theoretical works as well as more popular or activist literature.

I do not believe that activism can be neatly packaged into boxes labelled “organizing,” “education/learning,” “research,” and “action.” Academic scholarship commonly demands and generates such categories, but it is not always analytically helpful to carve up and analyze people’s activities in the world, nor is it an accurate reflection of how things actually happen. For that reason, dividing the book’s content into chapters and sections reflects convenience rather than rigid categorization or narrow compartmentalization. The book can be read in the order in which it is presented, or its chapters can be read to complement themes of courses in any order.

At the heart of this book is the simple idea that people struggle, learn, educate, and theorize wherever they find themselves. The forms this takes may change, but the importance of spaces and places for collective action, learning, reflection, and intergenerational sharing is crucial to building, sustaining, and broadening resistance to injustice and exploitation. A critical eye to history is vital, together with an openness to valuing processes of informal and non-formal learning, and knowledge created from the ground up. Indeed, this lens is necessary for those who want to link critical knowledge to action and for action to be informed by deeper historical understandings of how and why we are in the state we are in. This, in turn, connects to my collaboration in this book with photojournalist Orin Langelle’s powerful photography, including the striking front cover image. In Langelle’s words, his photographic work aims to “counter the societal amnesia from which we collectively suffer—especially with regard to the history of social and ecological struggles. This is not merely a chronicling of history, but a call out to inspire new generations to participate in the making of a new history.”

The politics of documenting earlier and contemporary histories of social movements is an important thread running through the book, and one which also points to future prospects for change. I think it can be instructive and sobering to reflect on how ideas and causes once viewed radical, subversive, and even criminalized can sometimes become mainstream (and perhaps, how this can happen in reverse, sometimes). The strategies, tactics, and methods used, the dilemmas they have grappled with, and many of the people involved are often airbrushed out of dominant or ‘common sense’ accounts, affording instead dangerously sanitized and sometimes wildly inaccurate misrepresentations about the dynamics and histories of social and political change.

In conclusion, although you won’t find many neatly packaged answers in Learning Activism, the book puts forward lots of questions—and a strong sense that the struggles for social, political, economic, and ecological justice are unfinished business. In that sense, freedom may well become, as Angela Davis suggests, “not a state for which one yearns, but rather an incessant struggle to remake our lives, our relations, our communities, and our futures.”

Aziz Choudry is Associate Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University, and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.

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