Invitation: Let’s Talk Openly about the Livelihoods of Popular Educators

A vulnerable field report and an invitation into collective inquiry – Alan Webb, January 2020

In 2018, I declared a sabbatical from organizing the Open Master’s and Alt*Div communities and became a sojourner—with intention, but with an aching heart. 

It was honestly a move born of despair and desperation. Externally, I had a clear story, but anyone who knew me could see right through that. I said I was journeying to reconnect with the “living roots of liberatory learning around the world today,” and that was true, on the surface. But I was also searching for hope; I didn’t know it, but I was walking with deep fear and looking for medicine. Real medicine. Not medicine to bypass the pain of the times we find ourselves called to live in, but medicine that sees, touches, and heals the real.

I was carrying with me questions like: Will our movements be enough for this moment? Is what I am doing enough? Are we too late? Will we ever bend the arc back toward justice, in a world unraveling before our eyes in truly nightmarish form and speed? Do our movements have the strength, tenacity, analysis, tools, time, and people we need—and maybe even just the good luck and good graces of the universe—to bring about the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, the beloved community, the great turning? 

My despair was at least part projection. I wasn’t sure the world was going to make it in part because I wasn’t even sure that I was going to make it. Open Master’s had never paid me enough to survive—six years in, as well as a successful Kickstarter campaign, a few grants and a few loans, a big name partnership, and a “product” that never succeeded in creating as much passive income as it did work, into the journey. I wasn’t sure my clear calling and chosen work as a popular educator and community builder would ever pay me enough to live. And if I couldn’t, with all of the access and privileges I have, who could?

I knew that whatever I was meant to be doing, something wasn’t working. All I could do was change everything. I left my apartment. I left my relationship. As a friend said later, maybe I was “clearing the deck for spirit.” But at the moment, I just felt like I was recklessly disassembling my life, without a clear vision of what would replace it. It was a “dark night of the soul” as Eckhart Tolle forewarned me.

But I’m glad I did. My intentions did bring me to the medicine I needed—or at least to the questions I want to hold more deeply now, to find that medicine together with you, in community. My journey brought me to the edges and fringes of radical experiments of decolonizing education and community—today, and in the past two hundred years.

It brought me up alongside ghost ships adrift on the ocean of history from bygone eras, like most of the People’s Colleges—Poconos People’s College and Waddington People’s College, for example, which W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1931 he was “convinced” were “a light and a way here for the American Negro… and I believe they will be successful”.  My journey brought me to the legacies of forgotten multi-million-dollar experiments of prior generations—the “Experimental College” movement, University WIthout Walls—that nevertheless left us with institutions who carry on their founder’s lofty dreams for a radical education, to varying degrees of course: Goddard, NYU Gallatin, Antioch, the Work Study Colleges, Warren Wilson, Berea, Evergreen State College, Bennington, Deep Springs.

And my journey brought me, perhaps most importantly, to the living manifestations of the movement today that have picked up the never-broken lineage of our ancestors fighting for freedom and liberation: Freedom University, Detroit Independent Freedom Schools, Swaraj University, the Zapatista Front, Unitierra y Uniterra, Nav Gurukul, Station1, the Arete Project, Summer Freedom Schools, Guerreiros Sem Armas, Red Crow Community College, Free Minds Free People, Educafro.

I am left with this reflection and feeling: on the long road of radical and popular education’s history, we don’t just inherit methods, frameworks, books, legacies of teaching, we also inherit the bones on the side of the road. There are lessons to learn about how to survive, about resilience, about how we make it, and about all of the ways that lofty hopes, and projects, so often falter, that are worth heeding. 

 

ENGAGING THE ELEPHANT THAT IS ALWAYS IN THE ROOM…

I was confronted with an eerie reality check, and surprisingly practical, mundane questions in the muck and mud of our projects. I was left, in particular, with curiosity about the often-invisible stories of our funding and finance, and in the swept-under stories of the economic struggles (and creative responses) of us as project initiators and community members. In the history of our movements, it was so often this undiscussed or undisclosed history that brought a project down.

In response, I have become just as fascinated by the post-mortem of our failed experiments as by our canon of successes and most popular teachings. I am hungry for more real-talk about money, alternative economics, and sustainability among the creators of our projects today. I’m hungry for more brave, open conversation to bring these realities out of the shadows, to perhaps increase our chances of avoiding the pitfalls of the past, or of suffering or sacrificing in silence, and with real hope of creating and modeling the economics of the future (and past) within our projects, teams, and communities.

I want to invite us to talk about things that are hard to talk about in some of our cultures: How do we “make it work?” Where do we struggle? And, most excitingly, what bold, creative experiments might we try to bring more economic solidarity and mutual aid into our modern ecoversities and popular education movements? How might we set up our projects up to thrive in the long-term, outside of extractive capitalist-rooted markets and funders? How do we make ourselves resilient to changes in the world that could “bring us down” outside of our control, like the changing whims of billionaire or institutional funders (that killed the University Without Walls movement) or the changing whims of the market (that killed the People’s Colleges). And how are we, personally, the leadership and community builders of our projects and movements, doing at creating sustainable lives?  

We could start by sharing the various models and frameworks we are experimenting with:

  • How many of us are able to do this work because of privilege, because of shared income with partners and family, because of institutional posts that provide enough security and freedom for us to set up a robinhood kind of arrangement? 
  • How many of us benefit from creative strategies outside of the market economy—from the gift economy, from “sponging” as Claude Alvares creatively suggests, from the fact that we live very cheaply in more intentional communities that share childcare, grow food, etc., from voluntary simplicity and minimalism? 
  • How many are working two or more jobs to support this work with a kind of Robinhood strategy?
  • How many of us have experimented with some kind of cooperative enterprise to sustain this work?
  • How many of us support our work with other income streams or saved money we keep as a lifeline from the capitalist economy, like savings or pensions from a corporate or government or large foundation job we once had, or consulting gigs, or rental property, or a book? 
  • How many are getting support from individual sponsors and well-wishers? What are the challenges and trade-offs of this?
  • How many are getting support from foundations? What are the challenges and trade-offs of this?
  • How do we really begin to build intersectional, trans-class and trans-border economies of mutual aid and solidarity between us and our projects?
  • If you could ask for support in any way, what might it be? 
  • What could we learn from talking more candidly about all of this?

 

My journey of the last two years also, as a twist and cherry on top, brought me into relationship with many monastic communities. I lived and walked as well with the Zen monks and nuns of Thich Nhat Hanh’s order. I lived with radical Catholic sisters and liberation theologians who have successfully built communities that have been resilient for hundreds of years, without support, and even with confrontation and oppression, from the patriarchy of the church. In every case I was inspired that we too can find ways to survive anything the world might throw at us. I was inspired by their ways of building deep resilience through radical example of shared economics—living by the “rule of benedict”, for example, which includes generating a right livelihood through simple cottage industries like brewing or woodworking, that don’t take away the primary focus of prayer in their community, or living by a “vow of poverty,” which is really a “vow of mutuality” in service of something greater. 

I learned that the word in Sanskrit for monk or nun, भिक्षु, bhikṣu, literally means “beggar.” A radical approach to economics is at the very heart of what makes these communities sustainable and gives the nuns and monks I’ve met the freedom that they can freely protest without fear, that they can speak the prophetic truth to power, and they won’t starve or lose the roof over their head no matter what comes of it.

This is a short personal story, and a tiny toe in the water, of what I hope will become a rich collection of shared stories that the Ecoversities community can weave together with our own brave and innovative sharing. It is the kickoff of a praxis on economics in our community, and an invitation into bravery to talk about what is often hidden, what is hard, and what hope and inspiration we might have in the story of our projects. Conscious experiments with sustaining ourselves and this work have to be woven into our visions and pedagogies.

I want to invite the wisdom we have as a community about this topic, and together construct lessons to help us navigate the road ahead. To get there, let’s start with just sharing in containers of trust and vulnerability.  Will you join me in this exploration? 




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