The celebration of Paulo Freire’s legacy and the proposal for a Popular Conference at the University of Cambridge

Alexandre da Trindade[1]

Juliana Spadotto[2]

What could a conference on popular education be, based on the ideas of popular education and Paulo Freire? This question has stimulated us in the last two years.

The second edition of the Freire Conference, “Building the bridge between popular education and university”, which took place between 17 and 21 October at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and in two academic institutions in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was an experience in that sense. It was an initiative organised by a collective of people based in multiple educational institutions and social movements which proposes to broaden the limits and cross the barriers that separate the academic communities (particularly those belonging to the most traditional and hegemonic institutions) from education and popular knowledge by promoting meetings, relationships and democratic spaces that have in common a striving for transformation and social justice.

The first edition of this conference took place in 2021, the year in which the birth centenary of educator Paulo Freire was celebrated. It emerged from a provocative challenge: to think and carry out a “popular conference”, which had its foundations and values based on Freire’s idea of “popular education”. For the Brazilian educator, popular education is carried out with the people, the oppressed or the marginalised classes, from a particular conception of a liberating, political and ethical education. An education oriented to the transformation of society which starts from the concrete and lived context to reach the theoretical context, requiring epistemological curiosity, problematisation, rigorousness, creativity, dialogue, the experience of the praxis and the protagonism of the subjects. 

In this sense, a popular education conference proposal should be (i) essentially dialogical, rather than the typical academic-expository one in which the transfer of knowledge in a unilateral way is predominant; (ii) it must overcome meritocratic proposal selection criteria that assume that some knowledge is more important and valid than others and therefore deserves to be ‘selected or chosen’; and (iii) should break the hegemonic barriers of language, access, format or perspective that exclude or discourage the participation of individuals and groups marginalised by academia due to various limitations – in this way, actions concerned with accessibility and the free access to educational spaces must be a priority.

Based on those principles and purpose, the Cambridge Latin American Research in Education Collective (CLAREC) and the Brazilian popular education social movement Universidade Emancipa developed the 1st Freire Conference, “The Thoughts of Paulo Freire in the Current Research in Education”, at the University of Cambridge. That experience is described and shared by us in a chapter of the book “Paulo Freire e a educação popular: esperançar em tempos de barbárie” (Paulo Freire and popular education: hope in times of barbarism) organised by Joana Salém, Maíra Mendes, and Daniela Mussi, to be launched in Portuguese in December 2022. This chapter has been translated into English and is now available below.


The celebration of Paulo Freire’s legacy and the proposal for a Popular Conference at the University of Cambridge

2021 marked the centenary birth of the most influential educators of all time: Paulo Freire. It motivated a series of celebrations by academic institutions and social movements around the world. Moreover, Paulo Freire’s legacy has contributed to reflections in the social sciences and among popular organisations beyond education. Such considerations also involve economics, politics, culture and critical social issues such as gender, race and environmental justice. In addition, Freire’s thoughts contribute to questions about how power, politics, coloniality, justice and social action are related to the debate about the role of education and how it can be understood as a means for social transformation.

A collective of Latin American academic students from the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University saw his centennial day as an opportunity to foster broader debate on critical, mainstream and emancipatory education proposed by Freire.  From this context, the inspiration of the Student Conference “The thoughts of Paulo Freire the in Current Research in Education” emerged. It was an initiative with a daring and transgressive purpose, developed through a collaboration between the Latin American Collective for Research in Education in Cambridge (CLAREC) and the work front of Universidade Emancipa, part of the Brazilian social movement for popular education Rede Emancipa. The present text aims to produce a historical record of what was involved in the development of this initiative and to systematise this experience to celebrate the legacy of Paulo Freire in his centenary year. 

In the present text, we share some reflections on the experience of organising a conference inspired by Freire’s philosophy. The main goal was to promote a space for different perspectives around the emancipatory education proposed by Paulo Freire. The proposal advocated for a place where curiosity, dialogue and mutual discovery could find a fertile environment for new relationships and ideas as well as strengthening the ideal of popular, transgressive and revolutionary education. First, we briefly present a context that promoted the encounter between a collective of academic students in Cambridge, UK, and one of Brazil’s most active and relevant popular education movements today. Next, we discuss how the proposal to hold a student conference to celebrate the legacy of Paulo Freire at the University of Cambridge developed from a welcoming and fertile environment. In this terrain, there was a commonality of values ​​and purposes of the two groups, CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa and the common desire to promote popular education. By reporting this experience, we discuss some thoughts of Paulo Freire and propositions related to popular education that emerged during the development of this initiative, leading us to reflect on how a “student conference” should be thought of from a Freirean perspective. Finally, we share reflections, insights, utopias, and a deeper level of understanding this experience has promoted in both groups.

The encounter between CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa

CLAREC is a collective of Latin American PhD and Masters students at the University of Cambridge. The collective emerged in 2020 with the proposal to make the knowledge and demands of Latin America more visible in the context of traditional and hegemonic institutions. What is more, CLAREC aims to promote recognition of Latin American epistemologies and support efforts to decolonize the academic environment in the context of that institution (Mignolo, 2018). In addition, according to its manifesto[1], the collective’s mission is to democratise the spaces and knowledge its members access at that university in the hopes of recognizing their privileged positions in that restricted and elitist academic environment. Finally, CLAREC is also a space for social and cultural reception for its members, which aims to strengthen ties and regional identities to make the academic journey more meaningful. It is considered a utopian space open to possibilities in the development of actions and practices that allow for a more comprehensive exploration; particularly of the transformative purpose that the collective aims to achieve[2]. In its most common practices, the collective organises study groups and seminars, which are presented by its members or guest speakers who develop studies and research related to the Latin American context. The spaces and events promoted by CLAREC are predominantly open not only to the academic community of the Faculty of Education in Cambridge, but also to other interested parties from academia and beyond, who share similar values ​​and interests in critical and emancipatory education.

At the beginning of 2021, CLAREC members saw the celebration of Paulo Freire’s centenary as an opportunity to promote a broader debate on critical and popular education and to make the social, political and Latin American culture more visible at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Although Paulo Freire and his thoughts are present in the curriculum of undergraduate and master’s courses at the Faculty of Education and several of his books translated into English are available in several of the Cambridge University libraries, the most recurrent debate about Freire’s proposals tend to be restricted to certain academic groups interested in critical pedagogy and in the theories presented in his main work: “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Freire, 1987). In addition, we realise that studying theories and various concepts developed by Freire particularly from a hegemonic European institution such as the University of Cambridge adds level of difficulty in understanding his texts, considering a significant historical and context distance from the social injustice and oppression in which Freire was involved with which had essentially developed his works. In this way, celebrating his birth centenary also became an opportunity to promote initiatives in which Paulo Freire and his work could be better contextualised and discussed.

The initial inspiration of Freire’s legacy in Cambridge was prompted by the knowledge of the initiative brought forward by the Universidade Emancipa. CLAREC was drawn to the program proposed by this social movement of popular education due to its popular, inclusive and diverse character. This further proposed an interest to develop a collaborative program involving the engagement of various social groups and academic institutions in Brazil and abroad. This proposal motivated CLAREC to approach and present itself as a group interested in developing an activity in partnership. As previously mentioned, CLAREC’s proposal of democratising the spaces that its members occupy, making Latin American perspectives and epistemologies more visible brings cohesive scope in the understanding and decolonization of the academy. This was seen as a valuable and promising relationship between the two groups who shared the desire to expand knowledge around Paulo Freire’s thoughts on how the practice of popular education could be built. The collective also saw a potential contribution by CLAREC to strengthening the movement by fostering new spaces that could extent of the debate promoted by its militants.

While the relationship between CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa was developing, the collective in Cambridge began planning the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Paulo Freire’s birth at the Faculty of Education of which were already inspired by the program that Universidade Emancipa was starting to promote at that time.

Paulo Freire’s Celebration at the University of Cambridge

The celebration of Paulo Freire’s centenary at the University of Cambridge was based on the proposal of a collaborative program through a series of events that would take place over two weeks[3]. This proposal for collaboration with research groups and study centres linked to the Faculty of Education would involve academic and cultural activities that promote discussions around Freire’s work, such as seminars, lectures, reading groups, conferences, round tables and theatrical performances. Considering that Freire’s ideas place education and pedagogy as broad and diverse political, social and cultural processes involving several areas of knowledge (Freire, 1985), the collective proposal was to engage these academic groups in a reflection on how the thoughts of Freire relate to what they investigate and discuss, and from there, develop open activities that would be part of the celebratory agenda. This invitation was also to groups outside the Faculty of Education[4] academic community and extended to scholars interested in Paulo Freire’s proposals to broaden visions and perspectives. Additionally, to make this program as democratic and accessible as possible, all events were planned to be accessed online by participants and speakers, and with simultaneous English-Portuguese-English translation for some of these initiatives.

In this celebration calendar, CLAREC defined five initiatives in which the collective would be coordinating directly through its members, in addition to ten other initiatives developed by the participating groups that accepted the invitation to build this collaborative agenda. Among these initiatives coordinated by CLAREC, we highlight the formation of four reading groups to read the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Freire, 1987). One group was a face-to-face group at the Faculty of Education[5] and three were virtual; one in Portuguese, one in Spanish and another in English. It is worth mentioning that the enthusiastic receptivity to this initiative bore fruit which motivated the creation of a reading group self-managed by the participants themselves, in which CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa currently act as facilitators whose purpose is to continue reading and dialoguing works related to Freirean thought, as in the case of bell hooks’ books (hooks, 2020, 2013). Another initiative promoted by CLAREC was the organization of a cultural event that presented the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. It was the first time that one session of Forum Theatre, a theatrical method based on ideas and proposals by Paulo Freire (Boal, 2019)[6],  was staged at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. It was an activity free of charge, open to everyone interested both in-person and with online participation. There was also the installation and inauguration of a statue of Paulo Freire at the University of Cambridge of which marked an important milestone which was made possible thanks to the  initiative of CLAREC, with the support of the Cambridge University Brazilian Society (CUBS) and the Movimento Sem Terra.

            Finally, we highlight the initiative: Student Conference “Paulo Freire’s Thoughts in Current Research in Education”, an activity co-organized by CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa, which we discuss below.

A “Students” Conference

The Student Conference “The Paulo Freire’s thoughts in Current Research in Education” had as its initial objective to promote a myriad of perspectives and dialogues on education as a means of social transformation based on the thought and work of Paulo Freire, inviting students and former students from the Faculty of Education of the University of Cambridge and other academic institutions to submit abstracts of research carried out or in progress. The planning of this activity was already advanced and followed a traditional format of academic conferences. Subjects such as the conference’s title and calling for abstract submission with objectives and criteria for the selection of works had already been started. In this context, the social movement shared its vision and experiences on popular education in the first meetings. Thus, there was a consensus on the need for a remodelling of the objective of the initiative, which, consequently, made it sufficiently daring, transgressive and challenging for an activity of this type carried out in a traditional university like Cambridge. It means developing a conference with principles and a format as close as possible to what is proposed in popular and Freirean education. However, considering that the project was already underway and followed a very conventional model, this proposal produced a series of dilemmas and constructive reflections in the group on how to adjust the project that had already begun. This report highlights three main issues that produced valuable discussions and lessons learned.

First, the question of what it means to be a “student” in the proposed “Student Conference”. Originally, the idea of ​​holding a conference aimed exclusively at students was due to the fact that in the context of European universities, the spaces for the presentation of works, such as conferences, seminars and congresses, tend to be quite segmented. Thus, it is common to have specific events aimed at students, others at “early careers” (new graduates), and other events at more experienced academics and professors to present their work. In this traditional way of conceiving conferences, it is rare to have events where the three audiences share the same environment as presenters. Contrary to this model, the conference organising group understood that in a popular education proposal, a space for the exchange of knowledge and mutual learning takes place in all directions, between students, teachers and academics, whatever the stage of career development of the presenters and participants. From a Freirean perspective, there should be no unidirectional teaching; one-way, educators-students, and such intellectual hierarchies must be overcome from principles that sustain that we are incomplete beings and that overcoming such “incompleteness” takes place through the reciprocal sharing of knowledge between individuals and social groups in order to achieve a better understanding of the world and the possibilities of relating to it. In this sense, it was agreed that, although it was already named and advertised as a “student conference”, the idea of ​​“student” should be “freireanized” – broadened and approximated to the Freirean proposal. In enabling anyone who could recognize themselves as “students” in that conference proposal and in considering this conception, it was defined by the organising group that not only academic students could submit works, but also anyone interested in learning, discussing and sharing their reflections on Paulo Freire’s theories. In this way, they would be recognized as a “student”, regardless of their hierarchical position in the academic career.

Second, the question of the process and criteria for selecting academic papers for the conference was put in place. In a typical academic conference in the social sciences, the call for paper submission involves a fundamentally meritocratic process and involves the selection of the best abstracts through a classification process based on certain subjective evaluation criteria. As the call for this conference had already been published following this traditional model, the criteria previously disclosed involved (1) relevance of the topic to the scope of the conference; (2) text structure: clarity and coherence; (3) clarity in research questions; (4) description of the scientific methodology; (5) theoretical foundation; (6) robustness of results/observations; (7) creativity and innovation; and (8) critical assessment of the subject. The item “robustness of results / observations” was particularly problematized with greater intensity by the organising group because the question of what “results” means in the human and social sciences is questioned, and the adjective “robust” is subjective and undefined. Furthermore, in the organising group’s first meetings, a consensus was reached that a conference proposal from the perspective of popular education should not result in “selected” and “refused” works. Instead, every author who submits an abstract should have the opportunity to present their study and reflections. Faced with the dilemma of how to act on this incoherent evaluation process that has already been publicly disclosed, and how to handle all the submitted works on an agenda limited by time and financial resources that would cover, would minimise the impact of an excessively meritocratic, hierarchical, unfair and exclusive process. It was then agreed by the group that although the papers would go through that criteria evaluation process informed in the abstract call, the final decision on how the papers would be presented at the conference would be based on three other premises. First, all submitted works would be classified as “selected”; therefore, there would be no rejected works as long as they presented an abstract with a clear and coherent idea with the conference proposal. Second, the submitted works would be divided into two groups of participation models: a group in which the authors would present their works live on the day scheduled for the conference; and another group in which authors should video record their work presentation and send it in digital format to be disseminated through the communication channels used by the conference, such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Third, diversity in the authors’ profile – in terms of gender, geographic regions where they live, languages ​​spoken, affiliated institutions, and whether the author would be at the conference in person or online was of consideration. This would be a key criterion to establish which papers would be presented on the day of the conference and what papers would be submitted in digital format. In addition, the theme of the abstract was considered as a criterion for defining the groups, in order to allow a greater diversity of themes in the presentations that would be carried out on the day of the conference, and thus, explore the scope of the impact of Paulo Freire’s work in different areas of knowledge.

A third issue that is worth highlighting in this report has to do with the purpose of this initiative to foster a dialogic environment considering that the premises added to select the participating groups offered the opportunity to promote an assembly of authors with very different perspectives, but with a common interest in discussing Paulo Freire’s thoughts. Once again, the group was faced with a dilemma: allowing as many authors as possible to present on the day of the conference, allowing more voices to be heard; or devote more time to the dialogue than would otherwise be presented. The dilemma involving the limited time of the agenda was perhaps the most difficult issue to be agreed upon. This was because it involved the decision between favouring the democratisation of that space so that more people could access and present their work as well as prioritising dialogue and the exchange of knowledge between all those who accessed the conference – authors, participants and organizers. The group chose to include more authors presenting their work, which significantly impacted the proposal to promote dialogue, which practically did not exist during the conference. In addition to not having been able to hold a question and answer session, the conference was delayed by more than two hours[7].

Although we are limiting this report to the three issues discussed above, we believe that there is room for many other reflections on what can become a more democratic, inclusive and dialogic space that is capable of promoting a conference based on a truly Freirean philosophy and aligned with a popular education perspective. Fundamentally, we think of a conference model that ensures a welcoming, safe, creative and provocative space for those who wish to exchange ideas that build mutual learning and exercise emancipatory education practices. We believe that, from this partnership between CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa, we have a precious opportunity to test formats, concepts and criteria that, on the one hand, contribute to subverting, transgressing or revolutionising spaces such as those like the University of Cambridge, which through their prestige promote and influence  a global model of hegemonic education that increasingly becomes instrumental and mercantilist; and on the other hand, strengthen social movements by expanding the limits of their action and the reach of the impacts produced by the actions of their militants. In this “students” conference, we can identify some initial contributions and positive impacts in this regard. 

Secondary, master’s and doctoral students, and popular education teachers residing in peripheral regions managed to find a space to present their ideas and access knowledge produced in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. For the first time, Cambridge students had contact with course participants, students, professors and social movement activists who study, reflect and write about Paulo Freire’s ideas from a reality much closer to that context of oppression and social injustice in which he developed his ideas and works which demands urgent transformation. Finally, for the first time, the Faculty of Education in Cambridge promoted a transgressive experience of popular education, which involved the meeting of people interested in critical and revolutionary education thought by Paulo Freire of which were drawn upon the most diverse regions, cultural contexts and areas of knowledge[8]. We hope that this report and this systematisation of what this experience was like will inspire other individuals and groups to promote sincere partnerships, encourage a space of open dialogue and enhance new experiences that are grounded in Freirean philosophy, as well as immersing the subversive and needless to say emancipatory proposal of popular education as a guide.

References

BOAL, Augusto. The theatre of the oppressed (new ed.). Pluto Press, 2019.

FREIRE, Paulo. Pedagogia do oprimido. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1987.

FREIRE, Paulo. The politics of education : culture, power and liberation. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, 1985.

HOOKS, bell. Ensinando pensamento crítico: sabedoria prática. São Paulo: Tadeu Breda, Editora Elefante, 2020.

HOOKS, bell. Ensinando a transgredir: a educação como prática da liberdade. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2013.

MIGNOLO, Walter. What Does It Mean to Decolonize? In: MIGNOLO, Walter; WALSH, Catherine (Eds.). On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke University Press Books, 2018.


[1] The complete manifesto of the Cambridge Latin American Research in Education Collective  (CLAREC) can be accessed at https://clarec.org

[2] See the work “The functions of Education and reflections on the role of researchers engaged in an academic collective” for more information on the purposes that mobized the students to create CLAREC – https://esrcdtpcambridge.wordpress.com/2021/02/12/the-functions-of-education-and-reflections-on-the-role-of-researchers-engaged-in-an-academic-collective/

[3] See more information about the series of events “ Paulo Freire 100th Anniversary: Celebrating his legacy in education”

[4] The groups, institutions and organizations that participated in organizing the celebration of Paulo Freire’s centenary at the University of Cambridge were: Cambridge Educational Dialogue Research (CEDiR); Cambridge Latin American Research in Education Collective (CLAREC); Cambridge University Brazilian Society (CUBS); Centre of Latin American Studies (CLAS); Centro Integrado de Educação de Jovens e Adultos (CIEJA); Decolonising Language Education Collective (DLEC); Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes (ENFF); Faculty of Education Research Student Association (FERSA); Grupo de Análise de Política de Inovação (GAPI – UNICAMP); Instituto Paulo Freire; Knowledge, Power and Politics Research Cluster (KPP); Leadership for Learning (LfL); Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST); Psychology, Education and Learning Studies Research Group (PELS); Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre  (REAL); Universidade Emancipa; Universidade Federal de São Paulo (UNIFESP); University of East Anglia (UEA).

[5] See more information about this initiative at https://clarec.org/reading-group/

[6] Access the recording of the cultural event “Theatre of the Oppressed seminar  & Forum Theatre  Workshop” at https://youtu.be/4kZw5eUFSZo

[7] The issue of lack of time to promote dialogue on the day of the conference led to another meeting between authors and organizers (members of CLAREC and Universidade Emancipa) so that the space for conversation could be established. In addition, at this new meeting, it was agreed to form a working group and create a WhatsApp group, which currently has 17 participants, for those who wish to maintain dialogue and participate in the organization of the II Student Conference, which will take place in the second half of 2022.

[8] In total, 64 abstracts that involved reflections on Paulo Freire’s thoughts in the current research on education by authors from countries such as Brazil, United Kingdom, Argentina, Philippines, China, Spain, France and Portugal, were submitted. Social, cultural, political and economic topics were present in an array of works that discussed pandemic contexts, deprivation of liberty and forced migrations, indigenous, racial and gender issues, teacher training, and learning methodologies through art and culture.


[1] Doctoral candidate in Education at the University of Cambridge and a founding member of the Cambridge Latin American Research in Education Collective (CLAREC).  

[2] Master in Education from the University of Cambridge and member of the Latin American Collective for Research in Education in Cambridge (CLAREC).

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