Since late 2018, I have been the executive director of PeoplesHub, an online social movement school that takes popular education online and makes it accessible and available for maximum participation. Of course, faced with COVID-19 and an ever-increasing call for Black liberation, the content of our trainings and offerings has shifted, too. We have learned a lot over the last three years—and we are also learning as we go, and we welcome your contributions to the discussion.
The initial spark for the school came from Sarah van Gelder, founder of Yes! Magazine, who attended a workshop about online training led by Jeanne Rewa and Matt Guynn through Training for Change. A few years ago, van Gelder traveled the country, logging over 12,000 miles while doing so, and published a book about what she learned about community practices in a book titled The Revolution Where You Live.
In reflecting on her travels, van Gelder identified the following as some of the key barriers that keep us from forming the practices of liberation we desire:
- Meetings so boring you want to tear your hair out
- Conflicts that exhaust everyone
- Lack of focus and nothing gets done
- The isolation that cuts us off from the support of our community
- Lack of confidence, because we believe we aren’t up to the challenge or that others could do it better
Many of these barriers were lifted up by the people who formed the initial advisory committee for PeoplesHub, including myself and a host of others. I have been involved in popular education and community organizing for much of my life, including many years that I spent at the Highlander Research and Education Center. Part of what motivated me to get involved in online education—long before I began to work at PeoplesHub in 2017—were the health challenges that I have had during much of my life.
Back when I was a sophomore in college, I got really sick. I was working multiple jobs and going to school at the same time. One of my jobs was as a receptionist and tax preparer at H&R Block. I was at work in the back, printing out checks, and all of a sudden, my whole right side couldn’t move. I looked down, and my arms were three times the size everything’s supposed to be. I had to call my father to come get me and take me home, because I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t move.
I had to leave the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Over the years, I attended online university programs and have even come within a couple of classes from completing a degree or certificate. I have a ton of information, albeit none of the papers.
A lot of the things I have done have actually been done online because I couldn’t drive or I couldn’t be in places. Online learning has been a huge part of my life because that’s the only way I’ve been able to really deepen it—except, of course, the experiential learning that has also been a huge part of my life.
With PeoplesHub, the training is asynchronous, or at your own pace. We started with our collective knowledge around how anti-oppressive popular education methodologies and understandings are conducted and asked ourselves, “How do we put it all in an online format where you don’t lose the richness of the relationship and knowledge building?”
We’re not skimping on the work of learning, deepening, and growing in all ways. We root our work in PeoplesHub’s 4R Framework of rootedness, resilience, restoration, and reimagination. I have come to realize, “Oh, this is a way for the incredible organizers, solidarity economy practitioner/creators, trainers, and other people that we know from all around the world to come together and share with each other.” People can really dig into such questions as:
- How do we do really good methodology?
- How do we dismantle the Far Right and take down White Nationalism?
- How do we ask the right questions and not just do games and activities?
- How do we get the money or practice shift we need so we are ready to truly create the world we wish to live in?
And it doesn’t matter if your kids are running around. That’s up to you. You don’t have to go anywhere. In our movement, if you can’t travel, if you can’t leave your house, if you can’t go to the rally, our movement has thrown people away and said you are not wanted or needed, and that it is your problem. Here, and in our work with disability justice activists, organizers, and organizations, we are saying, “No! You do have a place. Your insights, experiences, and just who you are—that’s what’s necessary, and that’s okay.”
Now, of course, this requires a fight for internet access. We know that’s there and how. In this fight, we are also fighting for internet freedom, digital security, and privacy. The thing that I think is really important is that we’re at a moment where people who are disabled and are chronically ill are being listened to more.
I have heard from people who really want to go back to the pre-COVID moment, when they could have their gatherings in inaccessible places, with fragrances and scented spaces that people with scent allergies like me can’t go. They want to return to a way of doing work and gathering that has literally pushed a bunch of people out of our movement.
So, the question I’m sitting with is, “How do we create spaces where everybody can be in?” What needs to be considered and included? What needs to be let go?
Really, it’s a question of hybridization and innovation. For me, it is not about being in-person or not in-person. It is about if we are “on site” or “remote,” because due to all of the incredible video technology, we mostly are “in-person”—just remotely.
How do we do a both/and? How can some people be on their devices remotely and other people be on site? It is really, really important for us to not think we’re going to go back to something, because what we were doing wasn’t actually working for our movement. There’s no need to go back to that. The question is, how do we use our radical imaginations to do what actually would be the most equitable, beautiful, liberating thing for everybody? Let’s craft that—and not have some random Pollyanna notion that what we had before wa