Critical Words and Critical Deeds: From Literacy Work to Collective Struggle (Comment on Young and Subban)

Corey Dolgon <>

There is an important underlying strength to this paper which derives from its commitment to the empowerment of disenfranchised people, linked to a community development and educational approach that recognizes their inherent strength and wisdom. Thus, community development and knowledge production are processes begun from the "bottom up." Projects are shaped by the needs and experiences of people already acting on their own behalf. Literacy, in this context, validates the voices and experiences of participants and expands their critical sensibilities. It also encourages them to transcend simply understanding the sources of their oppression, to challenging those forces on multiple levels. In the language of literacy workers and narrative theorists, this project empowers people by allowing them to name themselves and rewrite their life stories by analyzing the forces and structures that have worked to disempower them, and engaging those forces to create new meanings, new stories, and new worlds. As people do this intellectual and political praxis in struggle with collective organizations, they become parts of powerful movements for change.

I believe deeply in many elements of this approach and in the underlying political commitments that often inspire projects such as the one described by Young and Subban. I hope that this sense of commitment will be understood as the framework for the following comments. Most of the concerns I have with the working paper are provisional. Many of my comments relate to areas where I assume that the desire to be brief interfered with presenting full accounts, details and illustrations to support the authors. Bbeefing up examples and illustrations will strengthen the overall claims the authors make.

There are three particular areas, however, that I would like to discuss in making suggestions for further thinking and writing (as well as for practical project organizing and design) in the future.

I. Politics and Ideology

I would like to see more discussion of practical politics or ideology. We learn that the institutional racism of traditional education has disempowered African Americans and that the literacy program has allowed the participants to critique this discrimination by validating their own language and experiences.

On the one hand, this is a limited critique of traditional education and the impact that racism has on schools and schooling. Eurocentric standards and curriculum definitely invalidate the historical knowledge and linguistic cultures of marginalized Americans, and impose white, middle class values on students. However, multicultural curriculums have yet to demonstrate an impact on the kind of racial, class, and gendered stratification that schools reproduce (Bowles and Gintis, 1976; McCarthy and Crichelow, 1993; Goldberg, 1994). In fact, multicultural projects do not necessarily alter the general ideological and economic focus of the traditional educational mission (Loewen, 1995; Weiner, 1995; Fitzgerald, 1992; Gutman, 1987). While the authors themselves site Omi and Winant and discuss race as "socially and historically constructed,' the role that race plays in the workings of the project seems limited.

On the other hand, this approach to critical literacy seems hardly critical at all of some of the basic precepts of traditional education. For example, the major message is that critical literacy enables individuals to overcome personal deficiencies (in this case a lack of self-esteem and enterprise) by gaining knowledge that encourages them to seek higher personal objetcives. There is no political discussion of the program's goals except a vague reference to participants' needs to "gain the ground they need to make their neighborhoods safe, to find employment that will pay a living wage, or to make decisions about the quality of their families' lives." The reader is never informed how racism may have played a part in this process of disenfranchisement except in that it worked to delegitimize African Americans' collective history and languages, therefore disempowering them in the gaining of marketable credentials. This work ignores the larger issues of racialized economic disinvestment which creates joblessness, and the racialized public welfare state (which regulates everything from wage structures to family structures, to womens' roles and bodies). Even in Wanda's case, the authors tell us that she "went from recognizing racism to dealing with it effectively....She came to find the words to express what she and others she knew had experienced." This personal transformation, while admirable and important,does little to explain how the program enables individuals to create politically empowered collectives that can impact their communities." Apparently the "alumni group" that she and others organized want to maintain their solidarity but towards what end? According to the authors, the participants see the group "as a vehicle for acheiving agency," but the project they seem most interested in is "developing skills through micro-enterprises." Is the project's goal to build more 'legitimate' entrepreneurs? Isn't that just as middle class, reform-oriented as Jane Addams and Horace Mann? This reform sensibility is present from the start when the authors present that the Toyota Program's stated goal is to "improve parenting skills." Toyota's goals and role in the program aside, the language of the program seems condescending.

The focus on racist language teaching and linguistics standards may be an important element in critical literacy work. But it seems at best a first fundamental step that needs to be part of a larger program that critically dismantles the ideology of schooling and the racist economic and political institutions that are responsible for most inner-city poverty. These programs also need to inspire collective political action that works from these critiques; the issue of power and language demands a more sophisticated analysis to link such a dynamic to the 'context' that the authors rightfully claim is so important. Without such a discussion (and project design) I am left wondering what was so empowering about the project in the end.

II. Race, Class, Gender and Reflexivity

For a program that claims to be student centered, speaking "to the needs of the community as articulated by the community," the author's program seems quite directive. While race and racism are major forces in the lives of community members, its centrality in the curriculum seems imposed, playing a dominant role in the discourse. The authors claim this is because race lies "at the center of the oppression of African Americans, cutting across class and gender lines." However, given the the current cultural and political context of the U.S., isn't it just as likely that poverty/class or gender lie at the center? In fact, the authors are probably more accurate in their next statement: "In the case of program participants, race compounds the oppression they experience as poor women." I don't raise this point to argue over the primacy of categories and there is a large literature that investigates the intersection of structural conditions and individual or collective action on the lives of poor, women of color. (Gordon, 1994; Funiciello, 1993; Quadrango, 1994;Rank, 1994; Lefkowitz & Withorn, 1986; Polakow, 1993; and Schein, 1995) Instead, I raise the issue because I believe the discussion of race needs to be more sophisticated and, even more importantly, placed within a more "reflexive" framework. Clearly the focus on race allows for a kind of solidarity between teachers and participants. One might expect, however, that class as a discussion might represent an area of conflict then. Instead of focusing on race where the teachers have a well-theorized perspective on how racial dynamics impact individual and collective experiences which they deploy in empowering project participants, discussions of class might be the kind of subject mater that would allow for real dialogic learning. This way, the group might actually BUILD solidarity based on collective learning experiences rather than ASSUME solidarity based on somewhat reductive racial identities.

To me the discussion of how "participants come to understand...that race remains a fundamental organizing principle...that it is deeply fused with power, order and indeed the meaning systems of every society in which it operates", seems a little patronizing. In working with lower-income people of color (and whites as well) I have met relatively few people who didn't know that racism had a huge impact on their lives and life chances. While American ideology plays heavy on peoples self-doubt and willingness to blame the victim even if that means blaming themselves, they are rarely ignorant of institutional discrimination and oppression. They are more likely to allow both analyses to exist simultaneously, shifting blame depending on circumstances and motivations. (again, see poverty literature). While I don't doubt that, like Friere's work with peasants, the authors were very effective in helping participants become more sophisticated in their analyses and applying their critical sensibilities to their own lives and agency, some of the roots of such analysis must have come from the participants own knowledge and experience.I would like to see the authors offer more detailed examples that demonstrates and honors the complexity of experience and knowledge that participants themselves shared and voiced.

III. Literacy and Education as Political Organizing

In the conclusion of the piece, Young and Subban claim that increased awareness and self-pride inspire a greater willingness to act collectively. Yet, there really is no discussion or plan of action, What kinds of collective actions are participants involved in? While I agree with their premise that literacy programs and other similar projects can be a part of community development from the bottom up, the authors don't really explain how this particular program is actually contributing to such work. I can't help but wonder what kinds of constraints may have been placed on the program given its Toyota sponsorship (which I would like explained).

I would offer a number of examples of important educational projects that work from a similar premise as the authors but transcended the work of literacy and learning as an individual achievement and actually helped build community political empowerment and action. There are good institutional discussions of places such as the Brookwood Labor Institute and the Highlander Folk Center (Altenbaugh, 1996; Williams, 1997). And the Highlander Center is currently engaged in an oral history as community development project that includes some very effective local organizations such at the Labor and Community Strategy Center in LA, Roofless Women Project in Boston, Southerners for Economic Justice in Durham, NC and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Richmond, CA. One important example of a kind of community-based political literacy project is the work of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o in Kenya. As chronicled by Ross Kidd (85)and theorized in Thiongo's own "Politics and Culture," a literacy project evolved into a popular theater which brought the Kamariithu a community solidarity that so threatened the government, that they twice burned down the local theater and imprisoned participants.

I look forward to seeing the ways in which Young and Subban expand upon this piece and lay out a praxis for community practice. I also look forward to others taking up the challenge that they pose by linking education and literacy with the idea of community politics. I hope a discussion of some of these issues might lead towards other suggestions and models for such important work.


Richard Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Lee Williams, "First Enliven, Then Enlighten: Popular Education and the Pursuit of Social Justice" in The Sociological Imagination

Ross Kidd, "Popular Theatre and popular Struggle in Kenya" in Cultures in Contention, edited by Kahn and Neumeier, Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1986.

Theresa Funiciello, Tyranny of Kindness. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1993.

Virginia Schein, Working From the Margins. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Jill Quadrango, The Color of Welfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Mark Rank, Living on the Edge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Valerie Polakow, Lives on the Edge. Chicago: University of CHicago Press, 1993.

Bowles and Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

David Theo Goldberg, Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader . London: Blackwell Publishers, 1994

Cameron McCarthy and Warren Crichlow, Race, Identity and Representation in Education. New York: Routledge, 1992.

JamesLoewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American HistoryTextbook Got Wrong" New York: New Press, 1995.

Jon Weiner, "Don'tKnow Much 'Bout History" The Nation April 3, 1995.

Frances Fitzgerald,America Revised

Herbert Gutman, "Historical Consciousness in Contemporary America," in Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class, edited by Ira Berlin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987).


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