Elpida Varvandaki, SNAE.C
Η στιγμή της παρουσίασης μιας τόσο σπουδαίας εκπροσώπου της ριζοσπαστικής Εκπαίδευσης Ενηλίκων, ακτιβίστριας και καλλιτέχνιδος, στο πλαίσιο της Πρωτοβουλίας για Κοινοτική Δράση που αναλαμβάνει η Μη Κερδοσκοπική Οργάνωσή μας, το ΕΔΕΕΚ, κρύβει ιδιαίτερη συγκίνηση και μεγάλη ευθύνη. Όμως και μεγάλη τιμή, αφού εν τέλει η «επίτιμη προσκεκλημένη», ακόμη κι αν δεν παρευρέθηκε με την φυσική της παρουσία στο 2ο Πανελλήνιο Συνέδριο ΔΒΜ-Εκπαίδευσης Ενηλίκων και Κοινοτικής Ενδυνάμωσης, εν τέλει μας εμπιστεύτηκε για να μας αποκαλύψει τον άνθρωπο που κρύβεται πίσω από την διεθνούς κύρους αδιαμφισβήτητη εμπειρία της διάσημης Jane Thompson …
Το πλησίασμά μας με αυτόν τον σπουδαίο άνθρωπο θα μείνει χαραγμένο στην ψυχή και την μνήμη μας, ωστόσο δύσκολα αποτυπώνεται με τρόπο τέτοιο ώστε να μπορεί να μοιραστεί με συνεργάτες, φίλους ή δικούς…Για το λόγο αυτό αποφασίσαμε απλώς να παραθέσουμε αποσπάσματα από την μεταξύ μας ηλεκτρονική επικοινωνία, μέσα από την οποία διαφαίνεται το σταδιακό ξεδίπλωμα της Σχέσης Εμπιστοσύνης που γεννιέται ανάμεσα σε ανθρώπους που όταν αποφασίσουν να συναντηθούν μέσω της σκέψης και της ψυχής τίποτα δεν τους σταματά! «Εμπιστοσύνη», λοιπόν, και «Απόφαση» δύο λέξεις τόσο απαραίτητες, για να μπορέσουν τα άτομα να χτίσουν ένα νέο εκπαιδευτικο-κοινωνικο-οικονομικο-πολιτικό οικοδόμημα στη χώρα, τον καιρό της Κρίσης των Αξιών …
Μέσω της επικοινωνίας και της ανθρώπινης σχέσης που αναπτύξαμε με την Jane καταφέραμε να εκμαιεύσουμε κάποιες σκέψεις της, συναισθήματα, όνειρα και έργα ζωής, τα οποία στη συνέχεια επιχειρούμε να μοιραστούμε μαζί σας! …
1 How did you grow up involved in Adult Radical Education (your vision and your contribution to the empowerment of the vulnerable and/ or marginalized social groups)?
I was born in Scotland into a family descended from Irish Tinkers (travelers/gypsies) on my grandmother’s side and communists on my grandfather’s side.
My father was English…so we moved south…where we lived a happy life in a working class community. My mother was a socialist and I grew up with a strong sense that politics to end poverty and inequality was vital. My parents both believed that for children like me, education was the best way to improve our life chances and to help make a difference in the world.
As the first in my family to go to university, I was lucky to be a student in the late sixties because it was a time of student protest in Britain…against the war in Vietnam, against racism and class inequality in Britain, and against all forms of oppressive, top-down education regimes.
We spent a lot of time boycotting formal lectures and occupying our university buildings to replace them with what we believed to be more democratic, free universities, full of the kind of knowledge we wanted to learn.
Most important for me was the rebirth of Feminism and the development of a lifelong commitment to feminist principles and to empowering women. For most of the 70s and 80s, when I became a school teacher and then a university teacher, I used every opportunity I could to secure better educational opportunities for working class children and working class women. But not just ‘any old education’…I was convinced that developing critical political intelligence from personal experience and artistic – in the widest sense – creativity should be at the heart of any relevant education curriculum. Its purpose – to help powerless groups transform their lives and resist the systems which acted to oppress them. The 80s was a particularly vicious time in British politics when a right wing government led by Margaret Thatcher set out to destroy all forms of opposition, including trade unions, local government, public services and community activism. But it was also a great time to be involved in Adult Education because there was lots to do to try to change the world for the better.
For most of the 90s I taught at Ruskin College in Oxford…which unlike the rest of Oxford University took adult students, with no formal qualifications, from trade union backgrounds and civil society/ activist groups, into 1 and 2 year, residential, education programs. By this time…when I wrote ‘An Open Letter to Whoever’s Left’….the neo-liberal education market place had become the dominant ideology and holding onto the radical tradition in Adult Education was much harder. But at Ruskin , students were politically aware and eager to learn. Many had additional social problems and some had learning disabilities but it was always invigorating and empowering to hold to the underlying principles of developing critical intelligence and humane creativity. The curriculum was based around women’s studies, people’s history, trade union studies, community studies, political economy, creative writing and performance. We also had an outreach programme for local people to take part in shorter versions of our courses on a day-to-day basis.
I spent the last six or seven years of my working life at the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE). It was the only time in nearly 40 years when I wasn’t teaching on a regular basis. By this time the radical tradition in Adult Education was virtually extinguished. Our National Institute was far too busy servicing government strategies and initiatives which, although it was a Labor Government, were far too preoccupied with managerialism, educational consumerism, training and testing, rather than developing critical intelligence or education and the joy of learning for its own sake. Because of my ‘international reputation’ I was treated rather indulgently by those in charge and ‘allowed ‘ to do my own thing most of the time. It was my least satisfying period working in Adult Education although I did make sure some serious radical writing got published and that some creative work with disadvantaged students was given a lot of exposure and publicity.
2 Which are the most worth remembering moments of this journey (what did you learn and gain)?
I am choosing 3 moments to tell you about.
- Some of my most rewarding work in Adult Education took place in the 1980s despite the relentless shift to the right in British politics. Working with a dedicated group of part -time tutors and community activists from women’s groups, we established a Women’s Education Centre in a run down part of town. It flourished for10 fabulous years despite the awfulness of Thatcherism and neo- Liberalism. Although it took some of its funding from public bodies, the Centre was entirely self organizing and sustaining. The women enrolled on our main programs were predominantly working class women, many of them single parents, with no previous educational qualifications. These programs acted as ‘access to higher education’ courses before such courses were invented in Britain. Over time many of them went on to complete degrees and to take up jobs in law, social work, public services, education and other socially useful employment. We also ran lots of short courses, day schools, drop-ins, residential week-ends and social events. The programme was developed from the suggestions and requests made by members of the Centre. They ranged from making short documentaries and radio programs, through women’s history sessions, writers workshops, maths and literacy classes to self defense workshops, welfare rights workshops and community organizing. When the University tried to cut funding to the Centre, the women staged a demonstration, with babies in buggies, piling into the offices of University officials, and quickly getting them to change their minds. Although the failure to compromise on deeply felt and hugely effective principles often angered my employers, the work generated a national and international interest which the University could not resist. A book, collectively written by women from the Centre called ‘Learning the Hard Way’ was published by a prestigious national publisher and lots of my own writing (e.g. ‘Adult Education for a Change and Learning Liberation’) was being translated into Japanese, for example, and studied across the world. The Centre closed when the building we were using was reclaimed by the local council. For ten years we flourished as a free education Centre, which charged its members no fees for its courses and activities and which changed the lives of many for the better, in ways they would not have believed possible.
(ii) Whilst I was working at Ruskin College in the 90s some of the outreach work I was able to develop took me to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had long been a troubled region of the UK. A hopeful Peace Agreement, made between long standing enemies – based on religion and nationalism – had only just been signed by the politicians, but on the streets communities were still very much divided. I was working in a community Centre in Derry – which was where the British army had killed unarmed civil rights demonstrators in what became known as Bloody Sunday and where hunger strikers, wanting recognition as political prisoners, had been allowed to die in custody – and where catholic and republican loyalties were dug deep into the sympathies of its citizens. The women’s group I met there had known nothing but ‘The Troubles’ in their youngish and middle-aged lives. Some had hidden IRA (Irish Republican Army) rebels – who were also their husbands and brothers and fathers – in their houses and carried guns hidden in their children’s prams past British army checkpoints. The men, who were regarded as heroes, and the priests of the catholic church, preaching a religion that did not tolerate pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion or divorce, held considerable power over their lives. The windows of the community Centre where we met were still barricaded against bombs and hand grenades lobbed by rival protestant militias from the other side of town.
Of course the women were wonderful! In the privacy and security of a women’s- only group they were irreverent and funny and boisterous. We started an autobiography workshop and once everyone got used to the idea of writing about their lives and discussing the stories they wrote with each other, there was no stopping them. Stories about their part in ‘the Troubles’, about their factory jobs, about their illicit sexual experiences, about domestic violence at the hands of ‘the heroes’, all led to profound and gripping discussions, in which sophisticated theories and understandings about the political and structural position of women in Irish society were constructed from the authority of their own experience. In one memorable discussion it transpired that a woman who thought another in the group was her sister, discovered that in fact she was her mother. Her ‘sister/mother’ had felt forced into this subterfuge because of the shame of illegitimacy and chose the autobiography workshop to finally speak out. When I have written and spoken about the women’s writing in other contexts I have tried to encourage adult educators to deploy these kinds of approaches to help students develop critical intelligence, to develop empathy and understanding and to attach importance to the significance of their own roles in public history. With knowledge such as this comes insight and increased consciousness and with these come the possibility of political action and social change.
(iii) Of all the twenty or so books I have written over the years, I have never done so for academic hubris or reward. I have only ever written out of love for, and solidarity with , the people I have known along the way. Whilst I value greatly the role of public intellectuals…Yannis Varoufakis being an obvious example….I have never thought of myself in this way. But I have never ceased to be amazed how others, in very different circumstances, in different parts of the world, have discovered truths in my writing which they can apply to their own situations and circumstances. I remember being in South Africa at a gathering of adult educators and being hugged with great affection by a woman who told me I had changed her life. She had got hold of a book I wrote in six weeks, in a tiny caravan, on a portable typewriter, in a farmyard in deepest Wales, with no access to the internet or a library, about the relationship between women’s education and women’s liberation and the work I was then doing back in England. She was working in a South African township, helping women build themselves houses. I have had similar experiences in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand, in the US, in Sweden, in Ireland, in Wales, in Scotland. The book I wrote in the caravan 35 years ago is still being read in Japanese! When you contacted me about your conference I was amazed that you tracked me down. I am going to be 70 in December and have been retired for almost 10 years. I have tended to refuse all invitations to speak at conferences and gatherings because I am no longer on the front line as you are. I didn’t know that references to some of my writings are still on the internet. It just shows the power of the written word….a book or article or chapter gets written…and takes off with a life of its own…with the opportunity to influence and hopefully inspire others to carry on the struggle.
(3) Which are the moments or aspects of this journey that you’d probably let go (difficulties, disappointments…)?
I didn’t enjoy being in conflictual relationships with my bosses and some of my colleagues across the years and had to endure some fairly harsh and critical dressing downs that seemed to me to be politically motivated and often patriarchal. On those occasions when I was confronted about my misdemeanors on my own, I took to placing a portable tape recorder on the table and recording what was being said to me. Not surprisingly that usually did the trick and toned down the hostile diatribe considerably. Then I wrote about it, and spoke about it in public gatherings of adult educators, as an illustration of the contested nature of knowledge and pedagogy. It was harder for the university authorities to carry out their threats to discipline me when, in other contexts, my immediate bosses were being congratulated on the ground breaking and inspiring work I was doing.
My biggest disappointment/anger has been the erosion of radical practice in Adult Education over the years and its replacement with forms of consumerism and training designed to adjust students to the unsatisfactory nature of their lot and to persuade them to see their future in individualistic rather than collective terms. The stigmatizing language of ‘low self esteem’ and ‘lack of confidence’ and the pseudo-motivational language of ‘setting goals’ and ‘devising action plans’ have all served to decimate the notion of education as a powerful democratic resource, for a journey of political hope and common purpose, towards the creation of a more just and equal society. It has cast ‘disadvantaged’ groups of students as somehow deficient and incompetent, who need to be ‘helped’ by largely uncritical functuaries, employed to preserve the status quo rather than to challenge it. In the process the adult education on offer is rarely life changing, hardly mind blowing, never free and always easily expendable. In times of rampant austerity it has been one of the first casualties of increasingly unequal societies.
(iv) Which are the new ways that you choose in order to express yourself and feel fulfilled today?
When I retired I thought I would spend a lot of time writing. I have been very fond of writing all my life and could not imagine a life without the creative and intellectual challenge of putting words on paper on a daily basis. But the first 5 years of my retirement were taken up by looking after my elderly parents who were now in need of my undivided attention. I don’t regret this in the slightest. I loved them dearly. But by the time they died I felt as though words had left me completely. I couldn’t write much more than a post card and I felt as though I no longer had anything worth saying.
It was totally by chance that I turned to Art. Among the very few possessions my mother left me was a box of paints and a handful of brushes. I had never painted anything in my life before and had no desire to join a painting class where I would be set goals and action plans! Instead I drew upon a long standing tradition in Adult Education of women and men who were autodidacts – those who have tended to pursue their own interests and passions in their own way, and with others of similar persuasions, to teach themselves from experience and ‘by doing’ whatever it is they want to learn. This was 4 years ago now. Since when I have more than filled the creative void that had opened up in my life by becoming absolutely absorbed in painting.
I quickly moved from water colors (too thin!), to gouache (too dull!), to acrylics (too plastic!), to oils (organic and bold and textured!). The brushes and canvases have got bigger and bigger and the approach more and more emotional and expressionist. From my earliest paintings to my most recent, the subject matter has been people. Perhaps its not so surprising. The sorts of private issues and public concerns that I have spent a lifetime caring about – to do with class inequality, working class life, sad men and strong women – still populate the paintings I produce. They are not pretty or decorative paintings. They express strong emotions and they are intended to provoke the viewer into emotional responses.
(v) According to you, which is the deeper meaning of the journey of an Adult Educator- Social Animator?
I have always believed that the work of a teacher is not simply a job from which to earn a living. It should also be a political and social calling. It is a way of contributing to the struggle to make the world a better place. You have to decide which side you are on. The side of powerful and privileged elites who have the most power in society? Or the side of less powerful, frequently under-valued and often exploited majorities?
If you choose the former, it is your job to keep the masses in check, letting only one or two at a time improve their situation individually, as a lesson to the rest. If you choose the latter, it should be part of your life’s commitment to try to assist in their struggle, to increase their knowledge and critical understanding, in every way you can, as part of a social movement, as an ally, not as a therapist!
(vi) If our small network was about to start a project of social empowerment of a Greek community today, where should we emphasize? (In which principles and values… what would be the message that Greece would send to Europe or the rest of the world? Where to begin and with whom? Where to target? What kind of networking would be helpful (which institutions or organizations nationally and internationally would you suggest)?
I am really not qualified to tell you what you should be doing! I don’t know enough about the current social and political climate in Greece, except that it is challenging to say the least, and that the Greek people have a hard road ahead. I appreciate that funding and resources for Adult Education will be minimal.
But I would have thought that with political consciousness and political participation – arising out of the contradictions in Greek society, the terrible impact of austerity, the social cost of EU membership, the tragedies of migration for example – all well developed, there is a hugely important role for Adult Education to supply the tools that can inform the struggles of ordinary people to deal with these challenging times. You and your fellow citizens are the ones who can best determine what is needed.
I do believe that the approaches you use should be rooted in the lives and struggles of those with whom you are working. They should be imaginative, creative, relevant, life-enhancing, and hopeful. Above all they should be democratic. You should be working side-by-side with your fellow citizens and making sure that all voices are heard. However, this does not mean working along side repressive and reactionary groups like Golden Dawn whose purpose is not to make a better and more just society for all. Choose which side you are on and get on with it!
I don’t know which national or international organizations would best be able to help you. But if it was me, I would be joining the international network of popular Adult Education workers called ‘The Popular Education Network’.
I would also be trying to send a delegation to the next ‘World Social Forum’ (WSF) which is the largest gathering of civil society in the world, meeting to find solutions to the problems of our time.
Jane Thompson, Μάιος 2016