By Shea Howell
June 5, 2017
As the Michigan Elite gathering on Mackinac Island for their annual celebration of one another came to a close, another gathering took shape in Detroit. Actors, musicians, writers, poets, and cultural workers of all kinds gathered in the heart of the Cass Corridor for the 22nd annual Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference (PTO). Its theme was “Breaking the Silence.” Sessions explored storytelling and transformation, inclusion and collaboration. Conversations on language, power, choreography, and laugher flowed through the gathering.
The Saturday morning session focused on “The struggle for education in Detroit.” Simona Simkins and Rebecca Struch, of the conference leadership team were joined by Nate Mullen, Kim Sherobbi, Tawana Petty and me for a conversation about what people are learning in Detroit about the kind of education we need to shape a more human future. We were joined by two Detroit Independent Freedom School students who had participated in an earlier workshop and had much to offer the larger gathering. Chevon read her poem WHY (see below) and pressed us to think about the relationships between teachers and students. T. Jones, talked about young people becoming change makers.
I began the conversation with an overview of the role of the state in privatizing education and undercutting democratic decision-making. Since 1999 a combination of greed and hubris have taken a solid school system and twisted it beyond recognition into a form of child abuse that lines the pockets of folks like Betsy Devos and her friends. Kim Sherobbi emphasized the difference between education and schooling, and invited us to think about the many places we have for learning and growing in all aspects of our lives.
She also asked us to think more deeply about the question of what is education for? What is the purpose of education? Nate talked about the unique clarity we get in Detroit, where contradictions are so stark. Detroit makes it is clear that the old way of approaching schooling is dying. As a result, we have the opportunity to reimagine what we mean by education, by school, and by the development of children. Seeing children as capable of creating solutions to our common problems, rather than as empty beings that need to be controlled, he said, takes us in very different directions as we think about schools. Tawana Petty stressed that we need a new paradigm for education. We are not talking about personal problems or individual failings, but a system that is in collapse.
The dialogue with the audience began with a request by Rebecca for us to prioritize the voices of young people and Detroiters. The first person to come to the mic was a young woman from Detroit who recently graduated from the University of Michigan. She began by saying she wanted to acknowledge that this was the first time in her life that her status as a Detroiter and as a young person were honored.
In the course of the conversation people shared imaginative and creative possibilities for how we can learn and grow together.
The PTO supports “a world based on radical love and social justice instead of oppression and violence.” Inspired by the theories and practices of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, the gathering fosters “collaborative connections to share, develop, promote, and document liberatory theatre, popular education and other revolutionary actions.”
In his provocative essay on education and liberation, Friere offers us a perspective that is important for us to consider. He observes,“The power which creates an educational system in its image will never allow education to be used against it and therefore a radical transformation of the education system can never take place unless society itself is transformed.
And he challenges us to love the questions we face in this transformation, saying: Our hope lies in questions, whether in the school system or outside it. What must we do to promote liberation? How? When? With whom? For What? Against what? And in whose favor?
By Shavon Hopkins
WHY are the schools closing?
WHY are they taking away our learning?
WHY aren’t our educations valued like others?
WHY do we have to be managed?
WHY can’t we all be our own bosses?
WHY can’t we be welcomed instead of wanted?
WHY can’t we be trusted?
WHY can’t we have our phones?
WHY can’t we have freedom in the right way?
WHY can’t we make our decisions instead of the school board?
WHY can’t we get a say in our education?
WHY didn’t Hillary Clinton win?
WHY are teacher’s checks decreased?
WHY aren’t our teachers appreciated for their knowledge?
WHY do teachers say they know kids learn differently, but they still teach us the same way?
WHY do they let kids fail?
WHY don’t teachers think the failures might be theirs?
WHY do teachers make kids take tests that aren’t right for them?
WHY do teachers settle for mediocrity and structure?
WHY don’t teachers teach with their hearts instead of their fears?
WHY do you have to have a teacher’s certificate in order for us to learn from you?
WHY do we have to pay to be educated?
WHY does intelligence have to have a number assigned to it?
WHY can’t our youth step up and take a stand?
WHY can’t we all come together and defeat these situations?
WHY so many unanswered questions?
WHY OH WHY