I put these four thinkers and practitioners together because the influence they have had on my thinking is similar even though I encountered them in different contexts and at different times: the radical liberatory possibilities that they each insisted remain present, even under conditions of immense oppression (such as the lives of children and those of the impoverished and colonized peoples of the planet), for self-organizing, finding meaning, consciousness raising, and collective action.
Ivan Illich is the only one of the four who isn’t from Latin America, though he lived in Mexico for many years, at least part time, and founded an intellectual center there with Paulo Freire, who was also connected with Augusto Boal. I imagine they all knew each other, kindred spirits that they were, though I don’t know. I encountered Ivan Illich in the 1970s, when Deschooling Society was published in Hebrew. I was never a fan of schools before, and his vision made my distaste credible. Reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the 1990s and learning about Paulo Freire’s teams and the project of conscientization was a boost to my own faith in possibility. The spirit of what I understood from his experimentation, inevitably filtered through my own frameworks, is present in every learning design I have done since to this day. When the time comes to articulate my own understanding of how learning happens, I anticipate both Illich and Freire’s work will be present in it. Augusto Boal’s work I know the least and have encountered him last of the four, when I did an intensive training in Theater of the Oppressed in the mid-2010s. While the medium is different, the message is profoundly the same. Through engaging in specific forms of theater that emerge from actual lived experience and give meaning to it, people find pathways to empowering themselves. The results I am aware of are often dramatic.
Manfred Max-Neef’s focus appears, on the face of it, to be entirely different, since his work is in economics. I still think of it as fully within the same tradition and utilizing comparable methods: offering support, coaching, and consulting to people to find their own pathways to liberation and to full agency in deciding what works for their lives and circumstances. I was completely taken by his idea of “human scale development,” which he describes in his book From the Outside Looking in: Experiences in Barefoot Economics. This is a tragic book, in that the results of the experiment he documents were so successful that the government destroyed any record of what happened. This was an experiment in which impoverished, indigenous groups developed their own ideas about how to lift themselves out of the conditions of their living.
Although my approach to training, design, coaching, consulting, and everything I do as a practitioner is suffused with these threads of meaning, I haven’t yet written anything about it.