Skip to main content

Popular Education: A New Take on an Old Approach to Leadership Development

Image Source: WSU Extension Horizons

If I had to name the top three books that have profoundly changed my life, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Friere would definitely be on that list. As an activist since my 20’s, I could never quite get my head around the question of what it takes to move people to take action. I certainly had my share of failed efforts in community organizing, despite what seemed to me to be a strong vision for a better Oakland and a commitment to reaching out, persuading, and …okay, maybe preaching. It was the model of the day, the individual leader influencing others to step up and act, and while there are undoubtedly those who are better at the heroic model of leadership than I was as a headstrong twenty something, popular education offers a different way of understanding change, and leadership. Occasionally, I run across programs like the Horizon’s Community Leadership Program funded by the Northwest Area Foundation that integrate the principles of popular education and the results speak for themselves!


Popular education theory emerged as part of the democratic ideals of the 18th century period of enlightenment, and found a strong place in current approaches to leadership and learning through the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and writer who was concerned about literacy education for poor and politically disempowered people in his country. Popular education uses dialogue to help people to understand how their personal experiences are connected to larger societal problems. Freire saw popular education as a way to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to effect social change. Popular education recognizes that leadership emerges as people with a shared experience make meaning of social conditions and factors that have contributed to their problems and require change.


The Leadership Learning Community was invited by the Northwest Area Foundation to do a case study of the Horizon’s program. I was personally thrilled to have an opportunity to dig deep into an example of popular education. In 2003, the Northwest Area Foundation launched an ambitious program to build leadership capacity as a strategy for helping rural communities deal with issues of poverty. Horizon’s engaged over 100,000 people from rural communities across seven states in a leadership process. Over a five year period, 283 small rural and reservation communities elected to participate in the 18 month Horizons Program which evolved to include a Study Circles program that focused on understanding poverty; LeadershipPlenty (a nine module leadership development program) attended by 6,000 people; and a community visioning exercise that focused 15,000 community members on developing and implementing action plans to address poverty. The communities were supported in the process with resources, mini grants of up $10,000, and coaches from Delivery Organizations (often University Extension Services).


Through the Study Circles process, the Horizons Program focused attention and learning in communities on the problems of poverty. According to an external evaluation, the study circles generated energy and a desire to act that was galvanized in the community visioning and planning process. Horizon communities were able to engage 23% of their residents in visioning meetings during which 1,811 action plans were launched to address the impact of poverty in the life of their community, e.g. youth development, jobs, economic development, and adult education. The Study Circles make a compelling case for the power of popular education. As a result of the discussions, in 82 % of the Horizons communities participants felt they better understood poverty in their communities, and 77% felt they understood the root causes of poverty. More significantly, participants came to understand their own lives and the experiences of others in their community in the context of poverty. With an increased insight into the nature of poverty came the desire for action. The Study Circles, in their own right, can be appreciated as an impressive leadership strategy and important model for the field!