I am reading “We Make the Road by Walking” by Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, as part of a book club started by Bryan Alexander (and with participation from many great colleagues, see #HortonFreire). I’ll try to blog about the book every week or so. Here is Bryan’s post about the first two chapters. Adam Croom also has a great reflection post here; and fresh off the presses, here’s Ben Scragg’s fantastic post.
1. An intro
You can read a good synopsis on Bryan’s blog. Do that now. In chapters 1-2, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire provide personal histories that set the stage for their conversation. Though I am very familiar with Paulo Freire’s work and story, Horton is pretty unfamiliar to me. I resonated with parts of Horton’s personal story (more on that later) and I am excited to dig more into his writings. There is a lot to unpack, mostly from the lengthy chapter 2, so let’s get started.
2. The conversational turn
We Make the Road by Walking is written as a transcription of a conversation between Freire and Horton. It can be a jarring narrative form—feels less sophisticated than text written for paper—but, so far, it’s working for me. I have experienced this style of writing with other authors/academics I love, such as bell hooks, who sometimes publishes conversations between her “writing voice” (bell) and herself (Gloria Watkins), or conversations with her colleagues (like the wonderful Ron Scapp in Teaching to Transgress). The conversational approach brings personal stories to life and adds layers of emotional and interactional nuance that I find fascinating (like the layers and layers of imagery in Waking Life). Because of the conversational writing style in We Make the Road and Teaching to Transgress, I have reflected a lot on the role of trust (in yourself, in your conversation partners) in difficult conversations. You see, I’m a bit reserved—shy, even. Have I ever mentioned that? I struggle more often than I admit with conversations, especially conversations that involve vulnerability and/or conflict. I struggle with trusting myself and my conversation partners to get somewhere productive with such a conversation. I usually bail out, shut up, give up. These conversational chapters stir in me a willingness to commit to more conversation.
3. Brazil meets Appalachia
I have always been drawn to Freire because I grew up in Brazil and have a strong Brazilian identity. Hey, did you know that Freire is pronounced “fray-ree?” (emphasis on the “fray”). But as I said earlier, Horton’s back story has also resonated. This book is a strange intersection of two parts of my identity: a missionary kid who grew up in Brazil, and an American with family ties in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Tennessee.
In each of the men’s descriptions of their upbringing, I recognized landscapes and cultures from my childhood. I grew up in a coastal city of ~2 million people—a place called Vitoria, Espirito Santo. A place of extreme wealth and extreme poverty (and not much in between); a place with favelas, a horribly polluting shipping industry, and moderate levels of crime. I had the good fortune to visit Recife and São Paulo, two places that are key to Freire’s story. My experiences in Brazil put me in close contact with political, social, educational, and economic realities of the Brazilian people on a regular basis. When Freire talks about the trials and tribulations (oh, and joys!) of the Brazilian people, I know those well.
Horton’s Appalachian narrative also hit close to home, but in a different way. My father’s family hails from and is mostly still located in the Tri-Cities area of eastern Tennessee. My contact with that side of the family has been minimal (growing up in Brazil, our trips to the U.S. were few and stilted by family illnesses and death) but I know the family stories and the Appalachian influence on my father. My dad’s home town of Kingsport thrived—and then didn’t—around the giant Kodak plant. As a child, I always looked for the enormous smoke stacks filling the air as a sign that we were arriving in Kingsport. I always thought of Kingsport as a specific kind of place (Horton: “…I need to think in terms of place”) and wondered how people ever managed to leave it. Not because it was a great place, but because it had a grip.
But the most impactful part of Horton’s back story for me was his description of encounters with missionaries. I began doing mission work in Brazil with my parents as far back as I can remember. Because my mother was a nurse, I mostly helped translate for the free medical clinics we did in nearby favelas (and sometimes in the favelas of Rio). I was 8 when I began translating in the clinics, helping out in the emergency section first, then the triage section, the family doctor room, the dentists (the worst—you had to hold the flashlight for the dentist!!!), and finally, my favorite, the pharmacy. Every month or every other month or so, we would welcome a fresh set of volunteer medical staff and start a new clinic. It was exhausting, but…
I thought of this as important work—as social justice of sorts. I witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Brazilian favelas and felt that I was doing something to combat those horrors. Saw children my age with severe (preventable) injuries or illnesses and tried to help heal them. Helped countless people get as much medical help as we could provide in short weeks of 12-hour days. I felt good about what we did. But over the years, I have started to question that work. How much good were we really doing? We weren’t addressing any of the systemic issues that these people faced. We weren’t going to lawmakers and demanding change. We weren’t raising money for them, or partnering with existing health organizations to provide ongoing health care. In only a couple of instances, we paired medical clinics with health education on topics like breast self examinations. Were we offering a band-aid for a severed limb?
I guess what I’ve been realizing, and I’m probably the last to realize this, is that too much mission work is only focused on conversion—not on social justice, not on activism, not social change. Missionaries don’t necessarily want to improve the lives of the people they work with in a tangible and sustaining way, they want to convert them. I guess the rationale is that conversion is the highest priority; if that’s taken care of then nothing else matters? I know some folks in dire situations who would dispute that perspective.
It took me a long time shift my own perspective because, to me, the mission work always felt like activism. It felt good, right, just, helpful. But I question how good it was.
Horton writes: “The reason I was aware of that was that here in the mountains we had had missionaries of all kinds-religious missionaries, economic missionaries, government missionaries, political missionaries-all coming down to save the people of Appalachia. I thought a lot of those programs had been detrimental, and I resented the exploitation of people by somebody, particularly from the outside, who came in with an idea they thought was good for people. I didn’t want to be another missionary coming in with outside ideas and imposing them on people; that was part of my reservation that I was struggling with.” (54)
Much of the missionary work I had seen, and the work Horton describes, was a religious colonialization, not liberation. People coming to impart salvation onto others—to tell them what they need to know, to make them followers. Horton talks about teaching that looks like missionary work and then contrasts the missionary mentality to the story of Bernice (71). Horton and a few of his colleagues wanted to start educational programs to teach Black men and women how to read so they could vote. Horton needed teachers, but “there was the problem of the tendency of white people everywhere to dominate black people” (70). Instead of recruiting White teachers, who may have approached the work with a missionary perspective, Horton and his colleagues found people like Bernice, a Black woman who had part of a high school education and who cared deeply about “her people.” Bernice approached the work differently, saying “I’m not a teacher. I don’t really know why they wanted me to do this, but I’m here and I’ll learn with you. I’ll learn as I go along.” [author’s emphasis] This, to me, is the foundation of activism, the real catalyst of social change. If you have read anything by Freire, you’ll recognize that he shares this perspective. Teaching, social change, whichever your goal, cannot be about imposing, colonizing, telling to, or pushing toward. It can’t be about converting. It must start from the oppressed, from their own conscientização.
Many years ago, I rejected the religious ideologies with which I was raised. As Horton said, I had seen: “the contradictions between what I had read and what I had come to believe and what I learned experientially. They are altogether different things.” (33). This book brought a fresh reflection on how I was raised and the work of a missionary, in contrast with what I have read, what I have come to believe, and what I have learned experientially…all at the precise moment that the election results came streaming in (and let me tell you about some cognitive dissonance about “christians” who voted for Trump). I don’t mean to offend anyone who maintains religious beliefs, and I don’t mean to offend missionaries or their supporters with this post. But, seeing the work we have to do, now in sharp relief because of the election results, I realize:
I can’t be a missionary. I won’t be a missionary. I am an activist.
I am for you. I am with you. I’ll learn by your side.