By Edicio dela Torre
When the Education for Life Foundation (ELF) held its first course for leaders of grassroots movements in the Philippines in 1992, the organisation was strongly inspired by Grundtvig’s ideas about education for life, but it also employed methods suited to local conditions. The first pedagogical tool ELF used was unique for adult education in the Philippines and was directly inspired by Grundtvig. This was the workshop for life stories known as Kwentong Buhay.
In small groups, facilitated by one of the staff, participants exchange their experiences and reflections by pursuing questions such as “what are the three greatest achievements and blessings in your life?” and “what are the three greatest disappointments and fiascos in your life?’ After this, they share some of these stories with other groups in a plenary session. At the first ELF course, participants were taken by surprise, as they thought the course would start with a whole series of lectures. But, after three days of the life story workshop, they told us what they had learnt: “We had no idea that we already knew so much.”
Grundtvig and Paulo Freire adapted for the Philippines
The background for establishing ELF was that, after President Marcos’ dictatorship ended in 1986, there was a group of us political prisoners who were newly released and who wanted something more than to simply return to the democracy that had been in place before the state of emergency and which had been dominated by the elite. What we were pushing for was a ‘people’s democracy’ with broader representation. To promote this cause, we committed ourselves to three interconnected projects: the organisation of local communities, the education of the people, and the training of leaders of grassroots movements.
When, in 1987, I discovered – pretty much by chance – Grundtvig’s philosophy for learning for life and the folk high school, I could see that the folk high school was an example of what we were dreaming about: a school to cultivate the grassroots. The folk high school had, in addition, the advantage of having been tested over many years, albeit in a country that was very different from our own. But what lay behind the birth of the folk high school movement was the early democratisation of Denmark, and in this the situation was similar in the Philippines.
Aims, target groups and structures
Grundtvig’s strongest influence on us was his philosophy of learning for life, which we combined with the work of Paulo Freire (1921-1997), the Brazilian ‘teacher for freedom’, who became especially well known for his work Pedagogia do Oprimido (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed) (1968). Education for life resonated for us because we noticed that leaders of grassroots movements, who had grown up through political movements and developmental organisations, had too narrow a training when it came to implementing projects or to political action.
We regarded ‘education for life’ as an essential way to correct this. We interpreted it as an education for life in its totality, a holistic education that was not limited to economics and politics but included Filipino psychology, culture, family relations, neighbourliness, spirituality, and so on. Our second interpretation of education for life was all about method.
Instead of making particular use of books and lectures from people with resources they could draw on, participants were to learn from life – from their own experiences, observations, and reflections. And their learning should be for life, applicable to their life situations and their wishes. In our native tongue, this is: Hango sa buhay, tungo sa buhay, habang may buhay – to learn from life, for life, throughout your lifetime.
Edicio dela Torre
Since our focus was on leaders, the educational programme was designed for those who already had some form of leadership role in their local community. On this point, we differ from the policy of Danish folk high schools, which are open for anyone to attend. We tried to establish something resembling the folk high school’s form of residential school, but, as we did not have the resources to build a school, we had to rent premises round and about. So, instead of a six-month course, we created one of six weeks with a short break in the middle. These grassroots leaders would not have been able to be away from their families and group members for such a long time, even if we had received money from Denmark to support their participation in a longer course.
ELF has neither a campus nor any buildings in which to conduct internet courses but is an organisation that, in partnership with others, spreads the message about education for life and extends the education of grassroots leaders.
The variety of students
The three core skills that we have tried to develop in grassroots leaders are communication, negotiation, and peaceful conflict resolution. We studied and adapted insights and methods taken from Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology), from researchers who had developed theories about the psychology and culture of native Filipinos, and especially anything that could be regarded as being common to the country’s many and varied population groups. We started by working in a region closest to Metro Manila, where there was a long tradition of social movements and where our partner NGOs had a presence. After this, we moved out into other regions, and we also tried to employ staff from a variety of regions, so they had a good sense of the multiplicity of the course participants.
At the same time, we told participants that they should expect conflicts to crop up during the course of their stay and that part of the learning was finding out how to tackle this form of conflict without expecting that we, as the staff, would solve conflicts for them. We had a policy to aspire to a 50/50 distribution of men and women among the participants, but we also had a course solely for women, which we called “a course for women with exceptionally jealous husbands”. This was because we had found that in some cases, men would prevent their wives from returning to the course after the break in the middle because they suspected that the women might be attracted by their male classmates. We also developed courses that were only for leaders of an Aeta group, a group of natives living in sparsely populated and isolated mountain regions on the island of Luzon. They told us that in the ‘mixed’ courses, they did not feel free to express their thoughts and ideas when there was a predominance of lowland people present.
Ecological farming, female mayors and the rights of native people
From 1992 to 2004, ELF received financial aid from Denmark via Folkekirkens Nødhjælp (DanChurch Aid). This support made it possible for us to offer 6-week residential courses to more than 2000 grassroots leaders. In addition, we developed a distance learning programme, which took in a further 2000 grassroots leaders. The participants in these programmes regard themselves with pride as graduates of what we call the Filipino-Danish Folk High School, or in our language Paaralang Bayan, Paaralang Buhay – the School for People, School for Life. Each of them has a unique story and each in their own way incorporate the philosophy of education for life into their everyday lives and their local communities.
For example, a male graduate from the first course we held, which bore the title Unang Ani (the first harvest), has put pressure on the system to introduce reforms to strengthen the management of his agricultural cooperative. He also adopted organic farming methods on his farm, which encouraged his neighbours to follow suit. Furthermore, over the past four years, he has taken the initiative to organise an association of leader graduates from ELF in the six provinces of his homeland.
A female participant on the first course in the Bicol region has organised women from surrounding villages in her township, taught them about their rights and helped them to set up small businesses. With their support, she has since been elected vice-mayor in the town, just as another woman from the ELF course in Bicol region before her was elected vice-mayor in another town – and she has even been urged by the current mayor to stand as his successor in the coming elections.
“If you had simply given us money from Denmark to carry out projects, we would have spent all the money by now. But what you taught us is how we can develop faith in ourselves, how we talk to those in power, and how we negotiate with state employees. The projects we have managed to get through by negotiating are worth far more than the money you could have given us. And even more important is the fact that we pushed it through thanks to our own efforts.”
Edicio dela Torre
A male participant on the first course that was run exclusively for Aeta people fought right up until his recent death for the rights of the Aeta people, and he succeeded in getting the government to recognise their right to the land of their ancestors, which includes the volcano Mount Pinatubo. He also led negotiations to have a pump installed to ensure the watering of their ancestors’ land and to provide clean water for their villages in the highlands. Before his death, he was negotiating with the government to set up the first Aeta upper secondary college, where young Aeta people now learn about their native culture and traditional farming methods. He once told me: “If you had simply given us money from Denmark to carry out projects, we would have spent all the money by now. But what you taught us is how we can develop faith in ourselves, how we talk to those in power, and how we negotiate with state employees. The projects we have managed to get through by negotiating are worth far more than the money you could have given us. And even more important is the fact that we pushed it through thanks to our own efforts.”
Only a few ELF participants have gone directly into politics and governance. The majority prefer to remain leaders of their local or civil communities.
Thoughts about Islamic folk high schools
We are increasingly seeing a need to promote participatory democracy among the people, because there is a tendency towards authoritarian populism among political leaders and their supporters in the Philippines, as is also the case in other countries. One example is in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which was established as a result of a recent peace agreement between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The creation of BARMM offers us new opportunities to spread the word about education for life and extend the training of grassroots leaders, so that the new government can be open to the idea of meaningful participation by ordinary people. Such forms of education will also reduce the risk that widespread dissatisfaction could make Islamic extremism appear attractive to people. ELF and several of our partners are now working together with various local community leaders and with our contacts in the new government to develop programmes to ensure that local communities get to enjoy the fruits of peace. We have begun to enter into discussion about the possibility of developing ‘Islamic folk high schools’. I wonder what Grundtvig would have thought of that idea.