Emancipatory education is a platform to humanise and redefine the educational process in liberatory terms. Linking theory and practice from this lens can help us explore the role of education as a crucial instrument in the struggle for social change in communities at the margins.
An eye towards liberatory pedagogic practices
The more that traditional schools focus on “one-size-fits-all” curriculums meant solely to prepare individuals for the market, the more they detach themselves from local needs, knowledges, and values. A lack of exposure to critical content about social, economic, and political contradictions in formal education limits people’s ability to challenge the status quo and their attempts to rupture existing hegemonic arrangements.[i] [ii] Moving away from top-down approaches concerned with promoting modernisation processes and exposing notions of oppression and existential violence as authentic and ever-present, emancipatory education advances pedagogic practices that seek to empower individuals to think critically and act upon social and structural inequalities with the aim of transforming their lives and communities.[iii] [iv]
Conceiving education as a cultural act and a two-way process between educators and students based on the co-production of knowledge and critical dialogue, the framework is closely linked to the demands of the community and departs from the experiences and capabilities individuals bring with them to learning spaces. Due to its often more autonomous nature, emancipatory education invites us to embrace non-formal educational platforms as more inclusive learning sites where counter-hegemonic discourses and actions can flourish.[v] From this perspective, the work of civil society organisations can become a source of empowering possibilities and access to democratic life. Results from a case study of a youth program in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil help us bridge the framework’s theoretical and practical dimensions with processes, methods, and experiences reflecting real-world practices.
Realising the potential of favela youth
In the over 750 favelas scattered across Rio de Janeiro, crime and the permissiveness of violence—combined with the chronic lack of services, deep socio-economic deprivation, and a culture of marginalisation of the poor—have, for much of the city’s recent history, confined the majority of its 1,4 million residents to invisibility and intense social exclusion.[vi] As a result, favela youth face serious structural barriers that undermine their social and economic mobility, including exposure to poverty, difficulties moving up the educational pipeline, limited work and income opportunities, and the lack of access to platforms for cultural affirmation. Youths, in particular, are more likely to be out of school and work and are disproportionately impacted by lethal violence and police brutality.[vii]
Within this context, the Networks for Youth Agency program (hereby: Agency)[viii] promotes a capacity-building methodology that supports mostly black and low-income favela youths aged 14-29 in leading actions of social impact by encouraging their protagonism and artistic production. Since 2011, the program—which is now financed by the Ford Foundation and inspires a similar initiative in the UK[ix]—has engaged over 2,500 young people from dozens of Rio favelas, incubating 180 original projects. For a period ranging between two and four months,[x] participants are introduced to several educational instruments meant to stimulate them to cultivate their interests, exercise their analytical and critical thinking skills, and draw from their social history, lived experiences, and cultural identities to advance their ideas.
Linking theory and practice in emancipatory education
An in-depth analysis of Agency points to three aspects of the program’s methodology that are particularly reminiscent of a Freirean emancipatory education. The first involves situating participants as agents of community transformation. Approaching young people as potent individuals and changemakers, the program provides participants with instruments to formulate and carry out initiatives that bear a potential territorial impact, placing them at the heart of local development processes in favelas. The result is an assembling of diverse projects that manage to reach hundreds of residents. From strategies to promote women’s empowerment and youth conflict resolution, to platforms to address education, work, and urban transportation challenges, these localised actions are mechanisms of positive social regeneration that help create a counter-narrative to dominant discourses about favelas and its young residents, which tends to be driven by assumptions of criminality and precariousness.
The program’s bottom-up approach to community development brings us to its second emancipatory education-related dimension of contextualised learning and praxis. The various instruments and exercises applied in the methodology integrate the interests, realities, and demands of young people, creating a dynamic and interactive platform that attract participants to join the learning process as active subjects rather than passive objects. It is, therefore, by first contextualising education to the lifeworld of young people and respecting their dispositions and abilities that Agency can stimulate participants to draw from elements of their social and physical world to advance context-sensitive initiatives that are based on community conditions, resources, and everyday practices.
The third broader linkage to emancipatory education has to do with the adoption of an educational model based on reflective practices and critical dialogue. Agency educators stimulate participants to think critically about their place in the world, their life conditions, and different issues impacting their communities. The advancement of tools that promote a critical analysis of dominant discourses and unequal social structures is, however, meant to go beyond supporting young people in the process of broadening their political conscience and social critique, to encourage them to use that reflection to realise their potential for social engagement by envisioning solutions.
A platform of possibility in efforts to transform education
Conclusions from my analysis of Agency points to opportunities for emancipatory education to play a key role in efforts to capacitate, empower, and more actively engage youth in local development processes via non-formal educational platforms in communities at the margins. The study inevitably also reveals great and multifaceted challenges. For instance, the program must grapple with a series of operational and methodological constraints as well as obstacles pertaining to the social context where it operates. Also, as an incrementalist strategy, there can be no guarantee that Agency’s outcomes are long-lasting—which does not diminish its transformative significance in particular settings and at a particular points in time.
In all, despite its shortcomings, emancipatory education remains a relevant platform of inspiration and hope as we dare reinvent education moved by hopes for social justice and equity. Ultimately, exploring the personal experiences of participants and the local impact of provisions that are helping young people in poor and violence-stricken communities tap into their potential, cultivate a more critical reading of their world, and become agents of social change, is an important step in efforts in identifying and supporting transformative pedagogical initiatives that are bottom-up not only on paper, but also in essence and practice.