Making justice: Youth restoring their own humanity and the humanity of us all

In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which worldingoodhandsthey find themselves;  they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.   

– Paulo Freire

 

As soon as I reread the work of Paulo Freire and began to put his thoughts in conversation with the making education organizing at Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn, I remembered this rap poem “Let’s Show Off!”  A few years ago, Mel King and I were working with a group of teenaged youth teachers and considering how to help them get ready for their role as teachers and STEM ambassadors among Boston’s elementary and middle school-aged youth.  One day during our circle-up, Mel asked the youth teachers to create poems or raps about why they believed STEM was important.

 

Jammy Torres, a 17 year old youth teacher at the time wrote this:

 

Let’s Show Off!  

 

When people look at us, do you believe they see,

Our knowledge, our accomplishments, our ambitions?

 

All they see are the colors, nothing more,

From the color of our hair to the skin that we wear.

 

Instead of taking offense, let’s show off. . .

Put them in a state of convolution

when the words flowing from your mouth are words of wisdom.

 

For once, let’s show them we too can create.

We too can transcend above the world

 

So, let’s show off!

Let’s diminish the misconception of us and the life we live.

 

Let’s not retaliate against the ignorance of others with violence,

Because that will only hurt them physically,

And that is morally unjust

 

Let’s retaliate with our knowledge because that will get us

A home, one without bars.

 

This will get us a dream and help us prevail to the stars!

 

So let’s show off!

Let’s help them not to misconstrue,

But to see depth in the real you.

 

Break barriers, pave paths.

You lead the way and you change the world.

 

Thinking with Paulo and Jammy, I realize there are a number of interesting insights about how maker education spaces can also be structured as liberatory spaces, especially for our youth of color, young women and youth living with low incomes.  I believe that makerspaces can counteract both the oppressive forces that youth face in both their communities and in schools.

 

Creating conditions for praxis for liberation while we build robots

 

“Authentic liberation — the process of humanization — is not another deposit to be made in [youth].  Liberation is a praxis:  the action and reflection of [youth] upon their world in order to transform it.”  

— Paulo Freire

 

From the beginning of Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn eleven years ago, we have always been guided by hands-on making in the constructionist spirit of Seymour Papert, giving youth opportunities to reflect on and share the process of making and what they make with others.  According to Seymour, having what youth make become “public entities,” allows for the most technology and engineering learning to happen.  When our youth engage in the spirit of hands-on learning through creating authentic STEM projects that are chosen by and meaningful to them, they also interrupt some of what Paulo calls  “education as banking” model where information is deposited by teachers “into” students’ minds.

 

I am sure that you, like me, find that the very nature of imagining and creating hands-on making projects with our youth nearly always involves unanticipated challenges for us and our youth to be “simultaneously teachers and students.” For youth to be successful, you probably have also found that, as Paulo says, it is necessary to have a “profound trust in [youth] and their creative power.”

 

This is essential, but insufficient.  Paulo also calls on us to imagine how to push further.  He urges us to have the action and reflection we do with our youth — our “praxis” —  also be about finding creative ways to analyze the ways that current education practices dehumanize us and how together we might create changes in how we learn together so that our learning becomes love-in-action and allows our humanity to be acknowledged and shine through.   Our work as education organizers is to create conditions so that, as Paulo says, “sooner or later being less human leads [our youth] to struggle against those who made them so. . . become. . . restorers of the humanity” for themselves, for us as teachers and for the mandated education structures that too often dehumanize them.

 

When I think about Jammy’s rap poem, I see that in her heart — as in many of the hearts of our youth — she has moments of developing her “power to perceive critically the way [she] exists in the world with which and in which [she] finds [herself].”  Her reflection — addressed to herself, her peers, the caring adults around her and the community— is that,

 

“When people look at us, do you believe they see

Our knowledge, our accomplishments, our ambitions?

 

All they see are the colors, nothing more

From the color of our hair to the skin that we wear.”

 

Jammy doesn’t stop with her reflection on the conditions that dehumanize her, she also argues that, in acting out against this dehumanization, youth must strive for liberation, not strive for the power of those who oppress them.  She is cautioning against youth taking on oppression as their “model of humanity.” This is something Paulo also points out, arguing that often the “structure of [youth’s] thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped.”  Jammy says,

 

“Let’s not retaliate against the ignorance of others with violence

Because that will only hurt them physically

And that is morally unjust.”

 

She also suggests how “showing off” her skills and inventions as a creative maker with technology and engineering can be a transformative act:

 

“For once, let’s show them we too can create.

We too can transcend above the world.”

 

“Let’s diminish the misconception of us and the life we live.”

 

“Let’s retaliate with our knowledge because that will get us

A home, one without bars.

This will get us a dream and help us prevail to the stars!”

 

“Let’s help them not to misconstrue

But to see depth in the real you.

Break barriers, pave paths.

You lead the way and you change the world.”

 

If youth show off what they have the capacity to make and teach they can interrupt the oppression that they experience in the community because of their cultural, social and economic position in the world.

 

What would Paulo add to Jammy’s poem if he were in conversation with it?  I believe he would point out that when youth engage in the “problem-posing” education approach of making, they also have the capacity to heal and transform the wounds they have experience with the public education system.

 

Youth often struggle with making because they have been socialized for banking education and often have not had many opportunities to exercise the muscle of their own imagination, analysis and dreams. As Seymour says, “. . . so often do they hear that they are good for nothing, no know nothing and are incapable of learning anything. . . that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness. . . Given the circumstances which have produced their duality, it is only natural that they distrust themselves.”  Making and showing off presents a transformative opportunity for youth to turn away from some of these beliefs and for developing a deep self-efficacy, when they look at what they have made and say, “I can do that!”

 

When we go out into the community or speak to groups about Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn, Mel often asks people who are interested in our model to read Jammy’s rap poem out loud and reflect on it.  This has had a tremendous impact on people.  Recently, we participated in a nationwide funding competition to seed STEM mentoring programs in a handful of cities across the United States.  Finalists from different city groups gathered to brainstorm how to strengthen and improve their mentoring program designs.  As we listened to each city group’s mentoring plans, they all focused on the role of caring adults in mentoring youth, a kind of “banking model” of mentoring.  Mel had the whole group read Jammy’s rap poem out loud and asked why no one believed that our youth had the capacity to be mentors and role models for each other.  After experiencing Jammy’s rap poem and Mel’s question, almost every city group included youth and peer mentoring in their STEM mentoring model.

 

Indeed, if we create liberatory conditions in our makerspaces, youth have the capacity to not only make cool things like robots.  Through their praxis — of reflecting on the deeper meaning of their actions — they can help point their peers and the adults around them towards acting in ways that acknowledge the humanity of all.