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Teaching Dissent, Building Mass Movements

This month, we are exploring the connection between popular education and movement building. Without radical education, there can be no radical practice.

For as long as popular movements around the world have existed, they have used different means to propagate their ideas, agitate among their communities, and build bigger organizations. To take complex ideas and translate them into something people can understand requires skill — and an intimate knowledge of your community. This intimacy is unique to social movements on the ground, and no flashy, professionalized communication plan can replace it.

We would be remiss to not include one of the most recognized forms of popular education in the United States: Black History Month. Born as “Negro History Week” amid the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and after the struggle against Birth of a Nation, it grew in prominence and importance as it countered pro-Confederate nostalgia amid Gone With the Wind’s popularity in the 1930s. It became an entire month of celebration and reflection thanks to activists in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s.

The founder of the week that would eventually become Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson, recognized the crucial link between popular education and resistance when he wrote, “When you control a [person’s] thinking you do not have to worry about his actions… He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

Our partners, on the other hand, are continuing to challenge Black, Indigenous, peasant, feminist and working-class people’s “proper place” in the oppressive capitalist system. And we’re with them in that challenge every step of the way.

Popular Movements Use Popular Media

From Haiti to Honduras, from Brazil to Palestine, movements have built diverse infrastructures of dissent. Community radio has allowed movements to connect across dozens and hundreds of miles of rural areas. Newspapers and social media, symbols of both the past and future of popular media, also have their place in our partners’ attempts to educate and organize.

The Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) has run their Peasant Voice radio station for decades, from the days of the Duvalier dictatorship all the way to today’s crises. From a small, dimly lit room in the countryside, now powered with solar panels, the movement has reached tens of thousands. As we wrote a few years ago, they use their radio station as a crucial aspect of their “organize or die” motto.

“Haiti has a strong radio culture,” then-Solidarity Program Officer Mina Remy explained. “Many people may not see a newspaper. The MPP and others use means that will connect them to their communities and build their movements.”

Likewise, COPINH and OFRANEH in Honduras both maintain their own radio stations for educating and organizing the Lenca and Garifuna peoples. COPINH has Radio Guarajambala and two Radio La Voz Lenca stations in Intibucá and Lempira. Meanwhile OFRANEH and the Garifuna maintain stations in Triunfo de la Cruz, San Juan Tela, Sambo Creek, the city of Trujillo, and Punta Piedra. Their first and primary station, Faluma Bimetu (Coco Dulce), has been in operation since 1997. These community radio stations have allowed the communities to organize after the 2009 coup, both for cultural preservation and against land invasions.

The combined repressive forces of narco, corporate, and state militaries and paramilitaries know the power these community radio stations represent. Over the decades of its existence, Faluma Bimetu has faced threats, had equipment stolen and even had its building set on fire in 2010 — a crime which the authorities refused to investigate.

Newspapers and Digital Media

There is a long history of socialist movements of workers and peasants using newspapers as central organs of dissent. Today, movements continue to use these tools while adding more digital ones. For example, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) helped to launch the Brasil de Fato newspaper amid the World Social Forum in 2003. Since then, the media project and movement have continued to support each other and their shared goal of building the Left in Brazil. Grassroots has provided funds for both.

The MST, the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), la Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (La Cole) in Puerto Rico, World March of Women, and others of our movement partners also use social and digital media to great effect. Over social media and the feminist website Todas PR, La Cole has lambasted successive regimes on their failures to end femicides in Puerto Rico. The MST is currently organizing a public campaign across Brazil (and beyond, with Grassroots International’s support) to oppose the end to the eviction moratorium implemented during COVID.

These movements combine “old school” street corner distribution of paper newspapers with vibrant online videos, graphics and social media posts. They use whatever tools they have in their toolbox, new and old, to educate and organize.

Training Centers: Schools of Dissent

Yet mass media is far from the only means of education and movement building our partners use. Even during COVID, training centers have remained essential spaces for base-building and growing grassroots leadership.

The MST, for example, runs many different training centers and educational spaces across Brazil. Over the years, Grassroots International has resourced the Paolo Freire center in particular. The 800-person-capacity center has provided space for training MST organizers and teaching peasants agroecology. The MST even offered the space as a field hospital early on in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Likewise, we have supported centers like COPINH’s “Utopia” and agroecology schools like the ones Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) runs in Guatemala. But our support has gone beyond just funding, we’ve also joined movements to defend these centers from attacks — including the successful fight against the Paolo Freire center’s eviction.

Building Both the Base and Global Links

Popular education offers two ways (among others) of building movements. It can build the base inside communities who are educated and organized from the bottom up. It can also help cohere links between movements, even across language barriers.

The Zapotec Indigenous movement UNOSJO in Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, has written children’s books and cookbooks. They wrote these children’s books to explain the importance of Indigenous non-GMO corn (and UNOSJO’s struggle to defend those seeds) and the importance of water conservation. They hope to spread their message to young children, but also to the children’s parents. Similarly, the cookbook can keep the Zapotec culture alive and unified in their resistance, not only to agribusiness and mining corporations, but to assaults on their culture as well.

Zooming outward, global spaces have utilized art, song, and ceremonies of reflection (known as misticas) to stitch different movements together. As Paul Nicholson, a founding member of Via Campesina from the Basque country describes, the mistica is:

“a spiritual, 10 minute “performance” relating to the commonalities of all the persons who are present… The mistica doesn’t require any translation but communicates very strong emotions… The mistica helps us work on our commonalities, not on our differences.“

The International Feminist Organizing School (IFOS) has similarly shown videos, provided poetry, played music, and held their own misticas (all online) to transcend differences in language, geography and experience. West African movements have even used physical caravans to stitch themselves together and educate disparate farmers across the region.

Conclusion

Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. But popular education remains critical for turning that theory into a real tool for action by communities of regular people around the world. To agitate and organize, movements must educate in ways that connect widely. It’s how movements become truly mass movements.

Grassroots International has accompanied this movement building by providing crucial resources for these and other projects. As February draws to a close, let us reflect on how we can continue to build these infrastructures of dissent for all the struggles to come.