Inequity and Literacy

My office sits right between the Occupy D.C. protesters in McPherson Square and another group of protesters camped out in Freedom Plaza. It’s become something of a standard technique now to brand education causes with the “occupy” label, and I realize that this has rhetorical usefulness. But I’m also wondering whether these protests around the world are — or could be — influencing adult literacy advocacy in a substantive way — or at least how we think/talk about the issue.

Yesterday I read the speech delivered by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the Founder and Chairperson of BRAC, upon receiving the first WISE Prize for Education at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) on November 1st. In his speech, Abed made the connection between the occupation protesters and education, referring to education as the “great equaliser.” But what was interesting to me was that improving adult literacy in Bangladesh was BRAC’s first step towards addressing the inequities in that country:

Today, I will talk about how we at BRAC used education as one of the central themes in addressing the issue of inequity over the last four decades. In these difficult financial times, as more and more people rise up to speak for the “99%”, occupying streets across various cities of the world, the issue of inequity has been thrown into the forefront of world politics. How do we begin to address this? We start with education – because education is the great equaliser.

At the time of BRAC’s inception 40 years ago, three quarters of Bangladesh’s population was illiterate. The very first development plan for BRAC aimed to bring 100% literacy to the adult population of the 200 villages in Bangladesh where we were then operating (my emphasis). But the working men and women of these villages saw little utility in literacy and numeracy skills. We therefore put into practice Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s principles on conscientisation, enunciated in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire believed that the confluence of action and reflection created new knowledge and that, through reflection, learners became actors, not mere observers, and authors of their own decisions. Subsequently, all of BRAC’s community and capacity development activities have been based on these principles.

He goes on to discuss the progression of their work from adult literacy to the education of children — describing it as occurring “naturally in the course of addressing inter-generational poverty” — and the use of technology in education. You can read the entire speech here.

Abed’s speech is not a direct call to increase adult literacy around the world in order to address the inequity issues being raised by the occupation protests, but it does put literacy and social change in the context of these protests.

I’d be interested to learn about any discussion of adult education opportunity in the U.S. in the context of the occupation protests. Or any discussion about adult literacy at all in the context of these protests. Are these protests re-framing or influencing adult literacy advocacy? I’d also be interested to hear about any involvement of adult learners in any of the occupation protests.