Hazel Wilson: “You are the owner of your classroom. You decide what you do in this space.”

05 February 2012

Some conversations can´t be shortened. It is the case with this interview held mid-January in Bluefields with FADCANIC´s Education Program Coordinator, Hazel Wilson Nash. The topic? Education for Liberation, the subject of a conference Ms Wilson attended last December in Pretoria, South Africa and which, as she found, is not necessarily an easy subject. One might find oneself exposed, for example, to vagina monologues from young women who, by baking with blood, have come to the realization that, at the end of the day, nobody liberates anybody else. Change can only occur, one person at a time and always from the inside out. But then again, nobody liberates themselves all alone, and herein lays the challenge for and the hope of transformative education.

These notions are at the heart of a pedagogy for liberation first put forth by Brazilian Paulo Freire in the 1970s and now the motto of the Norwegian Student´s and Academic´s International Assistance Fund (SAIH), who convened the conference in Pretoria, December 9 -20, 2011. The event was the highlight of SAIH´s commemoration of 50 Years of development education cooperation and advocacy in both in Norway and abroad. So we began our conversation with Ms Wilson by inquiring into the details of this exchange that brought together over 90 representatives of SAIH partner organizations from various countries in Latin America and Southern Africa. Here is the interview, in full:

Hazel Wilson Nash, FADCANIC´s Education Programs Coordinator: "Charities give financial support. Solidarity organizations share in all the process of transformation. They get involved in this transforming moment to learn from each other and to help each other. " (Photo: Courtesy SAIH)


Let me start, Hazel, by asking you about the specific goals of the SAIH Conference on Education for Liberation in Pretoria. What were these?

We had different sessions and each session had its own goal. One goal, for example, was to learn about SAIH´s history and what they have achieved over the past 50 years. We also went to learn more about SAIH´s new solidarity strategy over the next four years, to learn more about Paulo Freire and his ideas and discuss our collective experiences regarding how students and academics have influenced or participated in transforming society. This last was the main, as the conference gave us an opportunity to share and learn about the work of other of SAIH´s partners.

Regarding the history of the Norwegian Student´s and Academic´s International Assistance Fund, is there anything you didn´t know about SAIH and that you learned at this conference?
I hadn´t realized SAIH had such a large amount of partners around the world. Nicaragua is one of the eldest, and it is important to know that it is a relationship of solidarity, not charity.

Conference participants in Pretoria. (Photo: Courtesy SAIH)

Can you give us a specific example of how this solidarity is manifested?
SAIH has been working with education efforts carried out in Caribbean Nicaragua by FADCANIC, URACCAN, CEEIM and CEDEHCA. We have all come to learn that with other projects you can have a lot of strict vertical orientations. So we value SAIH´s openness and the fact that they are accepting of some of the realities of its partners, and willing to try to adapt their contributions to the needs and reality of the people. Another important aspect of their solidarity is that they value exchanges. They work with the base to try to learn about what we are doing. Norwegian university students come here to Nicaragua and sometimes Nicaraguan students go there, to Norway. If you try to learn more about the people and you understand them then you are much more flexible in the kind of efforts you make to help them try to change their reality.

On the other hand, donor organizations might have very strict administrative policies because they are concerned with the proper use of funds. This flexibility on SAIH´s part, wouldn´t it give like more opportunities for mismanagement of resources?
No, because when you partner with SAIH they visit you very often. Sometimes we have two visits per year. And they go directly to the base. You have to build confidence with the partner. That is one of the things that make for a real partnership. You build confidence by being open and flexible in the relationship and this in turn gives you more freeness for initiative and to undertake activities that are to the benefit of the people. That is the nature of our relationship, and as I said, they follow up and stay informed about what we are doing. This dialogue is another one of the strengths of the relationship. We maintain fluent communications with SAIH, via internet, via emails, via reports, besides the monitoring and evaluation visits that they themselves do.

What would be an example of a typical situation where you need to be able to understand the needs on the ground and where you can justify the need for this flexibility?
Recently at the Center for Environmental and Agroforestry Education in Wawashang we realized we had to improve the livestock conditions. The students are rearing animals there and they didn´t have the adequate conditions for this. The extension of this basic need only became fully apparent to us when the project was already very advanced. We were practically in the last phase, but FADCANIC submitted an amendment of the project, requesting this additional funding to make the necessary improvements and SAIH approved it even at this late stage. This is not common with other programs. Now, SAIH has programmed a visit this February to see how we have spent the funds and how the conditions have improved. After they read our reports, then they come to the field and verify. This is how we have been working over the past 15 years.

An issue with the conditions for rearing livestock at the Center for Environmental and Agroforestal Education in Wawashang, was the strain on students to provide the water supply. In October 2011, students recorded both the problem and the beginning of the solution. Here, a new well was dug to be fitted for running the water down to the pig farm. Above, a glimpse of the roof for the new poultry shed.

What have you learned about the work that SAIH is doing in other parts of the world?
Several things. Young people are very important to the work SAIH is doing. They themselves are a lot of young people collaborating to create leadership and to transform society. So in South America, for example, they are working with the Bolivians to promote the leadership of young women. They are actually carrying out several projects with the Bolivians. But one of the initiatives that called my attention is the way they are helping young women who work as domestics, in private homes or in offices, to fight for their rights.

How is this being done?
They are advocating for their legal rights to a just salary and a just treatment on the job. And these young women are well organized in the struggle for their rights as workers. Drama is one of the strategies they use to communicate how they feel about their situation. They call it theatre of the oppressed, and they carry their presentations to different social spheres where they can communicate their concerns to the leaders and to the public in general.

Another group that called my attention is this art group involving young women who are being abused, violated, oppressed, raped. They too are using the arts to fight for their legal and sexual and reproductive health rights. These women are also very organized and very strong.

Says Hazel Wilson: "To me this is very inspiring because we are working a lot on issues of sexual reproductive health, and rights and gender equity in Caribbean Nicaragua. But in our region the conversations are not that open. We work more on a workshop basis. We don´t have a lot of public meetings and manifestations like that. But you can see that these groups over there are empowered and they are free."

Who and where are they?
They have groups in Zimbabwe and in Zambia. I was impressed by the Kwatse Sisters and by the Vagina Warriors. When they presented their vagina monologue that was very strange to me. We are not accustomed to talk out freely about what we feel, especially what we feel concerning our private life. But these young ladies, they write their life stories and speak openly about their sexual life, whether it is about their level of satisfaction in regards to orgasms or about if they have been raped or experienced other situations of abuse like that which they might be living in their homes behind closed doors.

And then they dramatize their experiences too. They make that public as a way of getting out of hurt and getting others to know how they feel. That way others can adopt the work and get involved in the struggle to stop these things that are going on. They also have a group of activists who manifest openly carrying banners with powerful reflections like “RAPED BUT NOT SILENCED” and a lot of good nice slogans like “I AM MY SISTER´S KEEPER”. You look out for one another´s rights. 

Can we build on this first contact with these organizations even though they are all the way across the Atlantic and the Andes?
I think so. They have another group working with curriculum development using (plastic) arts as a way to manifest. This arts group encourages young women to paint just what you feel. Something similar to what FUNARTE (Foundation for the Support of the Creative Arts of Children) does to prevent psycho affective disorders and develop self-esteem among young students. Right now we have FUNARTE facilitators carrying out a workshop with the primary teachers in Pearl Lagoon as part of the Cultural Revitalization Program that is also supported by SAIH.

The strength of the strategy is that sometimes only the painter can tell what the painting means, so that gives the person that opportunity to explain to someone else what that means. In Pretoria, for instance, a young lady made a painting with red marks all over it and just this short text: “In my kitchen I bake cake with blood.” Nobody could interpret it. Then she explained that every time she´s raped by her stepfather, she goes to the kitchen. The kitchen was the space where she went to cry. Baking was the way she brought down that pain and took out that hurt.

In doing these practical exercises, we even found a poster of Bluefields. We immediately recognized the place. The poster had a blank space below for writing anything one felt and what one of the groups wrote was: “For better, for worse, together we stand.” When I told them “Well, this is Bluefields,” they were surprised too and gave us several copies of the posters to bring back with us. They also recommended that we replicate some of these types of exercises. 

"The women´s movement over there distributed these posters from over here. So, yes, it is possible to build upon on these contacts even across the Atlantic Ocean. I am sharing the posters with CEDEHCA because they work with young people too and their work is specifically directed to empowering youth to defend all their rights."

Considering the realities of our own culture, did you see other experiences that can teach us how we can build up more solidarity with youth who are struggling for their own rights?
It is so adequate to empower young people in the struggle to defend all their sexual rights, their right to have a different space for themselves, to express freely, and to be heard and to be respected. These are things for advocacy and in Pretoria it was really interesting to see how they use the media. If you have a well organized media, you could use this as a pacific tool to do manifestations and advocacy, to avoid violence and conflict between the leaders and the people. You just use the media to express freely and when the message reaches the leader, you have that impact on them. In the discussions about this, some people had the opinion that it is hard to bring about change without violence. They put the example of apartheid, wondering how these same people who mistreated you and killed out so many people could be pardoned. So some were expressing how hard it is to pardon easily and then start giving positive messages. Some were specifically saying, “No, these people need to be judged and to be put into prison because it was horrible what they did to the people.” Others were insisting that you can use the media to be less violent in your manifestations, and still be effective in the fight for your rights and in all your advocacy process. I think so too. But you need to have a media that is well organized so that you can put that through.

When you talk about the media, you are talking about exactly which media?
Mainly they were using examples on radio and TV that has a big audience and a lot of people watch and listen to that. It can be the newspaper too. But the main thing is that you reach more people and if you have it well structured, well you impact people with that and you bring about changes. That is something that we can start practicing because that is not hard.

But we do have a tradition here, for example, of a lot outspokenness in the radio, especially in terms of what people would like to see changed with the handling of public affairs. But it doesn´t seem to be working. What is lacking?
I think it is the way you transmit the message. And you have to be really like more independent and free. You really have something going on in our media, but it is like more tied up to special interests. And well, you know, some of these media definitely belong to the political parties. And some things you really don´t want to say out freely because you have some connection. Maybe you are getting payment from them. Maybe you depend on them for big sponsorships to keep your program on the air. So you need to be more honest in what you are doing and define clearly if you are there to defend the people´s right and say things the way you really feel. Because your attitudes betray your words and you might be saying one thing and doing something else. And in our case we have the media saying out loud, but it goes out more like words and less like action due to some of those links and ties.

I have a concrete example. A group of people from right here at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University and from the Humboldt Center made these studies about the African palm (processing plant in Kukra Hill) and the damage (her emphasis) that it is doing to nature, to the quality of water, and to people. But have you heard anything concrete and public about that? There is just this one little spot that Bluefields Creole News airs every day saying that we should use organic things because the chemicals are causing all this social, economical, and ecological damage going on here. But otherwise, all you have in the media is a big silence and the heaviest part of this whole situation is how it is making life more difficult than it is already. Same thing with the case we had recently with all the dead fish in Pearl Lagoon. Have you heard any answer about why all those fish died? Things like these are affecting the majority of people but you don´t want to say out everything clearly because you are going to affect a minority and maybe somebody might even get vexed and close you down. We have another concrete example in what happened to the two ladies who speak out about demarcation. The leaders probably are not in favor with what they are saying, and so they just closed them out the radio station. They went to another station, and again, they close them out. So you do need these more like independent media who are not afraid to say out and are not depending on a specific group to survive.

You are talking about the leaders of the Bluefields Creole Communal Government…
Yes, specifically Miss Dolene Miller and Miss Nora Newball. These women are saying things that don´t please the other leaders. But you are trying to see benefit for the majority so things have to be said and with this kind of media, well, they won´t help education for liberation.

FADCANIC has involved Pearl Lagoon students in creating their own media. (May 2010) Among impacts, the municipal government is now taking active interest in keeping public schools clean. (January 2012)

Connecting the issues of education and the right to public information, and community mobilization for, let´s call it―
The common good, well! Education for liberation must be present for everything.

Yes, common good. But one thing is that you have the ownership of the media allowing you the independence in the type of communication that you do, and another is having the will to exercise that independence. A lot of times you censor your own self even if you have your own media, so my question is to what extent you need to have an awareness of how you might be replicating policies and systems that work against your own people? And where are we in those terms?
That is the whole point. Education for liberation is about preparing people to be critical thinkers so that we are capable of analyzing situations deeply. If we don´t have that base education to be critical thinkers, then we still have like this mental slavery that does not enable or empower us to transform society and reality. And our type of education has so many limitations and obstacles to reach that state of liberation.

What can be done?
It begins with the teacher. If I am a person who believes or am convinced that the true purpose of education is to liberate my mind and open up my heart to change and prepare me for life, then I cannot continue reproducing the same type of education by which I prepare intellectuals but I don´t prepare critical thinkers. So the question we have to keep asking ourselves is: are we preparing change makers, or are we continuing to replicate the system by just preparing professionals to work for the state?

I believe that if we reach that point where we can have these kinds of exercises in our classrooms we will be arriving to such a stage where teachers can become totally convinced of the need to do something different within our classrooms. And if doing things differently means having to be part of a “hidden” curriculum, then so be it. Because we know that you have a have a strict control on education but after analyzing the level of education our children and our young people are getting in primary, in high school and at university level we have also come to this conclusion that even if you can´t do it openly, things still need to change.

Concretely, what changes are most needed?
We don´t need more intellectuals. We need to prepare more creative people. We need people who can take initiative and create their own jobs rather than just continuing to replicate what we already have. Above all we need people who stand up and speak freely for their own rights for the rights of other who are being oppressed. But first we have to start listening more, because right now everybody is talking but nobody is listening, especially not to the children and young people.

Was this a common conclusion among the conference participants?
It was. There were like 90 of us from Bolivia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Norway, and South Africa, Nicaragua, and a few other countries. The moderator, for example, was from Jamaica. And we all came to the same conclusion. We need more people who can think more critically.

And as FADCANIC now, where are we in terms of fostering critical thinkers?
In FADCANIC we have a very little advancement in this process. We are not too far off from the reality that we are living in our region because our people are product of a larger system that has not opened spaces, for example, to question. But you can question your teacher, in fact, as Pablo Freire said, you need to learn the roots of why there is this or that problem and then come up with action plans about how we can solve this.

Still, we, as products of a system, have a situation where if the student keeps questioning and questioning the teacher then you feel like it is disrespect. In some cases you even take the student out of the classroom because you are following an organized structure, a program, the Ministry of Education. Education for liberation is hard to do in the formal setting because like the education authorities pay more attention to these kinds of structures and that is why our education is in crisis. Even so, we are trying to build quality education and that means encouraging students to be more critical, ask more questions, come up with more suggestions, and give them space for their initiatives and creativity. You are the owner of your classroom. You are the one that can put aside the program and say this is what my student really needs and I am going to open space for this. When the Ministry of Education is coming to supervise you, they want you to present where you are going with the book and they want you to that as a requirement of the formal education. But in the interaction within your classroom, you can be more creative in it and so this is what we, as teachers need to learn. We have to first change our own attitudes.

And have confidence?
Yes, we cannot be afraid to question our leaders. And then when we have that confidence and we get empowered in this, then we can lead someone else to that same level of confidence.

Learning about domestic electrical wiring during the 2012 Cultural Revitalization Program. "We have gone far in creating spaces for informal education where it is much easier to exercise methodologies that develop critical thinking and build skills that can help young people find ways out of this economic depression," says Ms. Wilson.

You said that we have ways to go yet, but we are not too far off. What is that bit we have gone forward in?
Well we have gone far, for example, in enriching the curriculum that we are working with even in the formal setting. We are including more practical things and more things that would interest young people, young students.  We have gone far in opening spaces for experience from other countries and other people who can and have helped students and teachers to begin to think critically about the things that are happening around here, so that we can begin to change our concepts, and actions. And we have gone far in involving parents in making decisions about the things we are going to do in the school, be it in the curriculum and other areas of activity.

What about this “poor me” way of thinking. Have we made an impact on that?
We have, maybe not to the extent that we need, but we are dealing with these issues of mental slavery. All of a sudden you might see a teacher take the initiative to involve their students in things like fixing their own chairs. (See video snapshot in the cover of this article). That is positive, that is preparing for life, that is what we call quality education: it is pertinent to your reality and it is useful to transform your daily life. And that is the real test. If what we learn cannot be applied directly to the practical reality, then we know that we are only following an empty and meaningless curriculum. So we too, as FADCANIC, we are far way off from education for liberation, but we have begun this process of transformation and we believe that we are on the right track. Let´s keep working on this one by one then we will see even more positive changes.

Now I know this is long interview, but I have this last question. Considering that one FADCANIC´s mandate is to make an impact on regional policies. How we can leverage more support to the Autonomous System of Education (SEAR) particularly vis-à-vis the Ministry of Education and our overall struggle for more and better bilingual and intercultural education?

We most definitely have to make an impact on all this monolingual education that is coming from the Ministry of Education. We see that even in the context of the Teacher´s Training Program that we are carrying out hand-in-hand with the Escuela Normal. They are not totally immersed in this program for effective bilingual intercultural education and this is not right because we are always trying to attend the people who are most vulnerable and these continue to be the indigenous and afrodescendant communities. We had achieved some advances in this understanding, like four years ago. But with the change of administration at the Escuela Normal we went right back to the monolingual setting and for some reason, the Regional Secretary has not been able to instill and influence in the Escuela Normal that you have to do both.

What we as FADCANIC want to do is to have the SEAR see that we are all speaking about the same principles: preparing our people for life, providing pertinent education, strengthening the process of autonomy, building equity, and exercising intercultural practice. And with this new strategy of education for liberation that SAIH is laying out for the next four years, we have a wonderful space to act upon the same values. In this 15-year endeavor which is the teacher´s training program, one hundred percent of the funds has been coming from SAIH. And all that support has been coming without any structured system of authority on top of you. Now we will have a new opportunity to present new profiles of projects and these must be ready by August 2012. But it we have to change some of the ways we have been doing things. We have to be aligned to these strategies of education for liberation.

Teacher Pastora Tellez García, from Punta Gorda strikes a bold pose for the camera. Says Hazel Wilson: “People liberate themselves in fellowship with each other and this is what tends to occur when a person´s critical thinking and reflections rids them from mental slavery.”