Pedagogy of the Poor, the Poverty Scholars Initiative, and Lessons on Ending Poverty

Pedagogy of the Poor: Building the Movement to End Poverty, by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehman

(This is a slightly expanded version of a review by Lew Rosenbaum to be published in the July issue of the People’s Tribune)

The final chapter of Pedagogy Of The Poor begins with these words: “This book has focused on poverty as the defining issue of our time and theoretical and practical educational methods to address the root causes of poverty and build a social movement to eliminate it.”  Published in June, 2011, this book sums up 40 years of activity within the housing and homelessness movement.  More than that, the book helps provide a theoretical framework for understanding a moment when suddenly the disparity between wealth and poverty in this country has been encapsulated in the phrase “99% vs. 1%.”

Poverty: a year ago, this discussion might even have been considered abstract or academic. References to Martin Luther King, Jr. that populate this book might have been considered obligatory but inapplicable bows to a fallen leader.  Not today.  Not any more.  The practical implications of the Occupy movement require that we must take this book seriously.

Teachers may want to skip to the last section, which has the elements that describe how the writers have engaged in the pedagogical activities they have.  While “Teach As We Fight, Learn As We Lead” is rich in detail and in implication, what leads into this chapter is the foundation upon which the scaffolding stands.    The central format of the book is a series of interviews with Willie Baptist, conducted by co-author Jan Rehman.  Baptist describes how he learned what he needed to become active in the anti-poverty movement, and relates that to the major political and economic developments of the last 50 years.  Growing up in South Central Los Angeles during the Civil Rights movement shaped Baptist’s outlook; studying the change from the industrial economy to an electronic/robotic economy showed him how the class and racial struggles he witnessed as a youth have entered a qualitatively new phase.

Interviews are interposed by more theoretical chapters by Rehman himself, for example on the causes of poverty and on the significance of Italian Marxist theorist Gramsci for the poor people’s movements.  Other sections are taken from conversations among the Poverty Scholars Initiative at Union Theological Seminary, the model which the book showcases.  Baptist relentlessly hammers home his theme, that study was necessary to put into perspective his activism — activism required by the disintegration of society. The dialectical relationship between action and theory is illustrated well by the remarkable section in which Baptist discusses Gramsci with John Wessel McCoy:  “Gramsci was dealing with fundamental relationships in society.  He was trying to consider, ‘How do you take power?’  This is what is often lost in discussions about Gramsci – the movement of the dispossessed was toward a common ownership of the means of production, and they needed power to accomplish that.”

This book is not another pedagogy aimed at training the elite to lead the poor. So it is important to recognize the allusion to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire’s seminal work, published first in 1968, has been widely circulated far beyond its Brazilian origins.

Baptist and Rehman translate Freire to the urban experience of 21st century North America while paying tribute to their important ancestor.  Ultimately what this book is about is how the dispossessed can get the theoretical and practical education necessary to take power;  what does a poor people’s movement led by poor people look like; what does leadership mean at a period of time qualitatively different from anything we have seen?  This is book is an indispensable tool for any collective grappling with these questions, when the only tools that revolutionaries have is influencing the ideas of the combatants.

Pedagogy of the Poor, by Willie Baptist and Jan Rehman, available from Teachers College Press ISBN 978-0-8077-5228-9 $28.95



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