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Programs for activists: Education for social change

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In universities throughout the nation, it is admissions time, a time bubbling over with enthusiasm, when prospective students hunt for programs to which to apply, draft the application, approach referees, hope for the best. Now many different university learning paths could be explored in a blog about educational opportunities. However, in line with rabble's commitment to social justice, I want to hone in on the one area that people committed to egalitarian struggle might be especially interested in -- programs which explicitly connect up with activism and social justice. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that activists are best served by tapping into academia -- for who among us does not recognize the primacy of the learning  that occurs in the trenches? Nonetheless, there are programs that help learners become more informed, more aware, more astute activists. That said, if interested in this direction, realistically, where might you turn?

To begin with what is perhaps the most obvious, any program or department with the words "Social Justice" in the name merits being checked out. I would particularly recommend Social Justice Studies at University of Victoria (see here). 

Schools of social work are less obvious, especially these days when there is such an emphasis on the "clinical." Nonetheless, most social work schools place some degree of emphasis on social change work, and indeed, there are social work schools where this is the essence of who they are.

How would you know that any particular social work program is so oriented? It might explicitly spell this out in its mandate statement (be careful here for it is not uncommon to promise more radicalism than is delivered). Correspondingly look at the course descriptions not only for explicit statements but for tell-tale descriptors like "critical social work" and "anti-oppression social work." 

Albeit the school of social work at Carleton was once the indisputable leader, currently, the most politically astute of the schools is York University's social work program.  Its aims -- and it does its job well -- is to help students become "critical practitioners and agents of change." There are some stellar faculty here, one example being Professor Chris Chapman.  And for readers with a passion for prison activism, do take note of their BSW's Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program Elective, whereby incarcerated and non-incarcerated students study together as peers. I would add that if you decide to apply here, do spend extra time on your application, for you are applying to what is hands-down the most popular social work program in Canada.

Also well worth considering is social work at University of Victoria (see here). "The program," announces the mandate statement, "nurtures accountable and oppositional education, research, and practice in the advancement of decolonization, Indigenous focused, anti-racist, feminist, and queer (among other) social  justice struggles."

To varying degrees, historically, departments of sociology and departments of criminology have always likewise been niches for social activism learning. A good place to begin are with the respective departments at Simon Fraser. 

If disability is your area, besides that this is included in programs like adult education, social work, and sociology, many disability programs not only are critical but include an activist bent. An example of a particularly good one is Ryerson's (see here), where you would get the opportunity to study with such engaged and engaging scholars as Melanie Panitch, Catherine Church, and David Reville. You might also check out Critical Disability at York, the very first critical disability program in Canada. The downside is that it you have any kind of materialist analysis, you may find yourself uneasy with the pervasiveness of the critical disability focus, in which case, do seek out more general and more structuralist programs which include disability (e.g., OISE's adult education).

Political science and community development programs are also worth checking out.  And then there is adult education.

Significantly, while people often equate adult education with nondescript continuing education, or even higher education, what such a perspective ignores is that adult education is not primarily about the learning which takes place in institutional settings but informal learning which takes place everywhere in response to the exigencies of life. Moreover there is a vibrant radical tradition in adult education epitomized by figures like Paulo Freire, with an unwavering commitment to social change work. Adult education, as leaders in the field are clear, is precisely the bringing together of theory and action in world-altering praxis.

If looking for an undergraduate degree in adult education, St. Frances Xavier is a good school to check out. You might also take a look at Brock University. For a masters or a doctorate, on the other hand, the choice is clear cut -- the Adult Education and Community Development program at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), one of the oldest, one of the most prestigious , and one of the most activist adult education programs in the world (and yes, I teach here).

Hidden away on the seventh floor of an institute filled with "K-12" messaging and hidden additionally in a department whose name suggests the hegemonic (Leadership, Higher and Adult Education) is this absolute gem of an adult education program with an unwavering emphasis on social justice, on praxis, on the co-creation of a better world. States the mandate statement:

Deeply committed to social justice and activism, the Adult Education and Community Development program focuses on learning that happens individually and collectively in communities, workplaces, social movements, the streets, the virtual world -- any place where people come together to create social change ... Our graduates work with newcomers, youth, women's groups, LGBTQ agencies, organized labour ... In the AECD program, we encourage Indigenous, Marxist, feminist, anti-racist, environmental, anarchist, arts-based, and other critical perspectives (see here)

Faculty have a broad range of interests (as Professor Kiran Mirchandi once put it, "Our strength is our diversity"). Courses range from ones with a general social movement focus, to working in collaboration with the movements of disenfranchised populations (e.g., people who homelessness and psychiatric survivors), to peace education, to transformative learning, to Aboriginal knowledge-building; to the theorizing and building of "the social commons." Significantly, I would add, all faculty contribute to this last course (led by Professor Angela Miles) each out of their own grounding, whether they hail from the community or the workplace parts of the program.

If courses are one way to understand what a program is about, so are various theses that its students produce. With this in mind, what follows is an abbreviated list of the titles of theses completed by Adult Education and Community Development doctoral students over the last year -- something that reflects as well as anything the tenor and the range of what happens in this program: "English as Second Language Education for Social Transformation: (student Bahar Biazar, supervisor, Professor Shahrzad Mojab); "Memory Mapping: An Indigenous Approach to Healing and Community" (student Brenda Wastasecoot, supervisor Professor Jean-Paul Restoule); "Willful Women Creating the World: Life Stories of Feminist and Queer Activists" (student Susan Diane, supervisor, Professor Nancy Jackson); "Challenging Workplace Bullying: The Shaping of Organizational Practices for Systemic Change" (student Adriana Berlingieri, supervisor Professor Kiran Mirchandani); "Bunkhouse Drama: An Examination of Control and Agency Among Migrant Farm Workers in Ontario Canada" (student Adam Perry, supervisor Professor Bonnie Burstow), and "Transgressing Boundaries of Izzat: Voices of Punjabi Women Surviving and Transgressing "Honour" Related Violence in the Canadian Context" (student Mandeep Kaur, supervisor, Professor Bonnie Burstow). And this is just one small sample.

While there are too many activist areas touched on in this program to cover, it is worth pointing out that this program is the Mecca for antipsychiatry activism, also for activism associated with war and learning.

Correspondingly, not only are all of the faculty recognized leaders in their respective fields, so are a number of the students, all of which makes for an extraordinarily rich learning environment.

Degrees offered include: MA, PhD, and the ever-popular MEd (non-thesis masters).

That noted, alternative avenues that folk interested in activist education might also pursue are schools specializing in the political use of the arts, schools that hone in on such radically creative approaches as theatre of the oppressed. On an individual level, do check out Julia Salverson's work at Queen's University; see here). Also promising is the popular theatre course (TDEV 311) in the Theatre Department at Concordia, strategically incorporating as it does both Freire and Boal). Herein we find art for social change.

If any of these directions, schools, departments, or programs interest you, a word to the wise: do check out whatever is piquing your interest soon -- very soon -- for the most common closing date for admissions is December 1 (a date, note, which is fast approaching). Browse through the relevant websites. Talk to faculty, let them know what you are looking for, inquire about the fit. Search the respective websites for dates for information sessions (and in all cases, they are imminent) -- that is, sessions where prospective students can come and learn more about the program -- and if possible, try to attend one or more. Additionally, if you know any current or former students of one of the programs that you are considering, do consult them, for it here that you are most likely to get the "straight dope." One other tip: Be sure to apply to at least two different programs, for the best of these programs are highly competitive.

At the same time, don't be too quick to "settle." This, after all, is your life, your activism, your learning path.

Photo: Bekah/flickr

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