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Popular education and movements... like free software

by Stephen Mahood Contributions Published on Nov 23, 2015 04:09 PM

One of the great challenges in life and movement work is connecting ideas and philosophies from one group to another. Oftentimes, while unintended, the discussions may trail away from each other and parts of the community can be left out or disconnected from the rest. This occurs in both tech and non-tech communities, as well as among experienced and inexperienced activists in different communities.

In attempting to address disparities between different communities, one can look at popular education. Some may be familiar with books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed or We Make the Road by Walking. The methodology is to connect to people where they are, which may require learning about the participants' backgrounds and understanding. The education model works in both directions from the student to the instructor. It is a common thread in the work of various social movements, such as labor unions.

In October, I participated in a popular education experience that tackled the topic of free/libre software in social movement work. Software Libre Izquerda ("leftist free software"), is a conference, or what some may call an "unconference" with no predetermined agenda. A theme is agreed ahead of time, but the structure of sessions is left open. It brought together a number of people from various organizations stemming from groups involved in struggles across the world, with a focus on Mexico and Latin America. Attendees had diverse backgrounds and many were not technical at all, so some did not understand concepts like "software libre." To address this, we tackled different parts of the overall theme, including licensing, free software, free culture, digital security, and cooperative hardware. We visited each theme to discuss and submit questions. Questions were then shared with interested participants to develop a session to try to answer them.

Our group on the theme of free software and free culture had activists with backgrounds in radio and education. Together, we created a scenario to connect with the larger group. In our scenario, we developed a radio show featuring a very popular dish in Mexico and Latin America called mole, which has many different recipes. One of the disc jockeys (DJ) shared their grandmother's recipe. When we opened up the telephone lines, the first caller asked if she could make it without chicken, as she is vegan. After discussion, another person asked if they could use it in any form that they wish. Another caller inquired whether they could modify it and then distribute their modifications. These discussions brought up the four freedoms of free software. For a juxtaposition, I called in posing as a representative from a multinational company offering to buy the recipe and make the DJ millions of dollars, but my company would copyright the recipe and never allow it to be shared without permission.

Through these popular education methods, we included the experiences of the facilitating group and connected to the local cultural norms. We focused on the four freedoms to express the importance of them without focusing on the technical end, which not only kept interest but brought understanding to the concepts and the base of the movement. We should celebrate these methods, while sharing with everyone how to connect the groups to that struggle. Come to and share your ideas with us on ways you have connected.

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