André Luis Leite de Figueirêdo Sales

There is no better time to affect change in our teaching styles than now; in order to do so, each one of us must spend some time thinking carefully about our own goals and desires as educational workers. Introducing the concept of prefiguration and its relevance to contemporary social movements, this article presents two cases in which prefigurative practices were used and explores the potential of this idea to address the current challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the field of education.

Accurate questions and careful attention to details can lead to powerful research projects. In the human sciences, a clear-cut initial question will guide scientists towards a considerable number of other questions. By the end of the research process, the ideas framed by these questions allow one to produce a compelling explanation about a phenomenon. It is not by chance that WH questions – What? When? Where? Which? Whose? Whom? Why? - are taught to young researchers [1]. These question-words are potent tools to trigger scientific investigations, especially those intending to denaturalize the world and expose the perishable nature of social practices. When I started researching contemporary social movements, I learned the importance of a specific WH question that I have been keeping with me: why not now?

While studying the Brazilian ativistas, I was introduced to the concept of prefigurative practices. This notion has been framed as new but is not unprecedented. It was part of the repertoire of protest used by members of the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960s and by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico in the 1990s. The idea is simple, and as usual, is easy in theory, hard in practice. Prefigurative practices can be defined as attempts to enact, in the present, utopian or alternative social relations, aspired to in the future. Ana Cecilia Dinerstein qualifies them as "the art of organizing hope" [2]. They are carried out, collectively and cumulatively, by people's efforts of producing through their daily choices the desired reality they are committed to creating. It is an open-ended strategy for producing social change in the present as the “mini form here and now” of a better society (Maeckelbergh, 2011) [3]. These practices come into reality thanks to deliberated and agentive choices and efforts against the status quo made by activists to bring into their daily lives the values and the principles they are fighting for.

In November of 2015, a youth uprising occurred in the public high school system in the state of São Paulo in Brazil. Public schools were occupied by high school students in response to a government plan intending to restructure public schooling in São Paulo. Instead of spending their hours scrutinizing their limitations and the caveats of the public school system, the young ativistas stood up against oppressive systems by asking themselves: what if we reconstruct our schools here and now? Regular classes, in which the curricular content looks completely different from students’ daily lives, were replaced with a curriculum suited to their concerns, hopes and dreams. Using resources available in their communities and inviting parents and other members of their neighborhoods to attend aulas abertas [open classes] promoted by them, the protestors debated politics, economics, history, machismo, and sexuality, among other topics. A student participating in a sit-in in a public high-school in São Paulo convinced me about the utility of their strategy, saying:

They told us that we would achieve nothing, that we were too young to try, that we were too immature, that we were irresponsible. Nonetheless, we created here a kind of school that neither state nor the market were able to create. We created a school full of culture in which the students are in charge (Sales et al., 2020, p. 09) [4].

In 2020, the alleged impossibility of expanding access to affordable health care services or the supposedly fatal risk produced by a State intervention in the economy were defied. The effects of a dogmatic free market, no-intervention paradigm ruling governments worldwide have been called out both by activists and even institutions like The World Health Organization and The World Economic Forum. The World Economic Forum’s latest Chief Economists report, published in July, recognized that inequality was aggravated globally by the pandemic and must be urgently addressed by reforms in governments’ tax architectures. Assuming that the pandemic poses an opportunity to address the immoral imbalance in wealth distribution, the report states the importance of increasing social protection measures to safeguard against future shocks and informs timidly that "a slight majority of respondents to the Chief Economists Survey feels that some form of unconditional basic benefits should remain part of the social policy toolkit beyond the crisis" (WEF, 2020, p11) [5].

Discursive changes like these expose the constructed nature of the existing state of affairs. For worse and (hopefully) better, the pandemic has asked us to reconsider what we think is impossible. In considering the many unprecedented changes that have taken place in the wake of the pandemic, we are each called to think about the commitments sustaining the way we live. How might this moment urge those, who might have felt that our conditions could not be changed, to heed the calls for social, economic, and political transformation that so many have been issuing, long before the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that some impossibles have “already happened.” From late March to early July, New Yorkers were told to avoid the streets; a curfew tried to force the city that never sleeps into bed from 8 pm to 5 am, and the Times Square subway station was seen empty and clean. In an article published in The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit framed this process with the image of a spring thaw.

It’s as if the pack ice has broken up, the water starts flowing again and boats can move through places they could not during winter. The ice was the arrangement of power relations that we call the status quo – it seems to be stable, and those who benefit from it often insist that it’s unchangeable. Then it changes fast and dramatically, and that can be exhilarating, terrifying, or both [6].

The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements conceives prefigurative practices as a distinguishing feature of contemporary activism. “Prefigurative activism involves taking the political personally – either by engaging in lifestyle changes and hoping they will spread, or trying to create ideal organizational practices within one’s own activist group” (Saunders, 2013) [7]. The activists engaged in the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power - ACT UP have been using similar organizational principles to guide their direct actions and public demonstrations since 1987.

Created in response to the fatal lack of state attention to the HIV epidemic, this alliance of diverse organizations has been committed, since then, to improving the living conditions of folks living with HIV. Their strategy still hinges on people's empowerment and, in the 80s, adopted a framework that "condemn[s] attempts to label [folks living with HIV] as ‘victims,’ a term which implies defeat” [8]. Facing an unknown disease that was killing them and their loved ones, ACT UP members were impelled to learn about science, politics, health care and protest while taking care of themselves and assumed a pivotal position in the development of public policies related to HIV in the United States.

In researching ACT UP’s prefigurative activism, I have been attending their ongoing Monday meetings and other events. In May 2020, when New York held the title of the world pandemic epicenter, Jim Eigo, an activist who worked on several campaigns with ACT UP and helped remake federal AIDS drug research and regulation, summarized in ten principles the guidelines used by ACT UP to create their response to the AIDS epidemic. Two ideas resonate throughout the principles drafted by him and express the core of prefigurative activism : a) act as if you had the power to produce reality; b) identify potential allies to discuss and support your actions, and make sure you discuss and support theirs.

In March 2020, following a viral campaign on social media in which students pressured CUNY administration to stop in-person classes due to the threat of the pandemic, 95 percent of CUNY’s 50,000-course sections were converted to distance learning instruction. Without a clear warning sign, or the proper preparation, faculty members, teaching assistants, and other educational workers mobilized and improvised means of broadcasting lectures, developing digital content for students and managing their classes using digital technologies. Despite lack of training and uncompensated additional labor, the CUNY academic community was able to foster and develop collective agency.

To avoid misunderstandings, let me be explicit. Following from Anna Stetsenko’s work, agency is not the same as free will, lack of constraint on action, or an ability of self-determination. Agency is a fundamental trait of how people engage in communal practices to produce these practices, and, at the same time, are produced by them. As Stetsenko writes, agency is "situated and collectively formed." According to the Transformative Activist Stance (TAS) [9] proposed by her, each person acts as both a "a community member" and "from a unique position and stance on a given community's predicaments and conflicts." Agency stems from the active part played by how people "co-realize the world and themselves while challenging the existing status quo and contributing to social practices with a particular horizon of possibilities in sight” (Stetsenko, 2019, p 148) [10].

Given this understanding, it is arguable that when you were learning a new skill to manage your Youtube account, receiving help from your students to deal with Zoom settings, or discussing with your peers how to deal with all the stress caused by remote education last spring, you were an active member of a community developing a collective agency in order to achieve the impossible goal of teaching during the end of the world as we knew it. On the one hand, one can say that these are forms of further neoliberalization and deferral of responsibility from the administration onto precarious workers, and I must say that you are correct; they are fruits of the pervasive effects of the neoliberal rationale. But they are not only this, and in order to recognize what else they are, we must have a clear sense of the sought-after future we are committed to producing.

The CUNY Board of Directors' decision to maintain remote teaching for the rest of the year and the World Economic Forum’s discourse about universal income did not stem out of a radical sense of transformation of the economical rules organizing modern societies. These decisions certainly can offer some protection to the thousands of people affected by the effects of COVID 19; however, they also come from these institution's commitment to improving capitalist efficiency. They are strategic moves to reinforce the long narrative that "there is no alternative" other than capitalism.

However, recognizing that we are also active actors in our relationships with these institutions and regaining agency and power that we usually feel like was stolen from us is possible and necessary. The inspiration to find ways of doing this comes from the vast majority of people interested in improving social equality: it is crucial to have a more precise sense of the agendas we are pursuing in our personal lives. Our commitments and acts are the arenas in which the battles for the future happen. According to the Transformative Activist Stance used here, "the commitments to and identifications of possible futures provide the frames of the horizon within which it can be determined what is good or bad, right or wrong, and most critically, what to do next" (Stetsenko, 2019a, p 09) [11]. So, to recognize your agency amidst all the oppression and exploration of the capitalist society, it will be necessary to ask yourself: what are the principles, values, and ethical projects you stand for?

The new school year is dawning under much uncertainty, so, thinking about the achievements of the last six months, and reflecting on ACT UP’s decalogue is useful to deal with a critical question: what can we do to augment, develop and advance an activist stance in the pedagogical activities imposed by distance learning? Being aware that the future relies on our commitments in the present, acting as if we had the power to produce part of the changes we believe are necessary in our communities, and finding potential allies to prefigure pedagogical utopias with us seem to be crucial steps to move towards a more meaningful and inventive experience in the classroom.

Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s metaphor, as the winter succeeds fall, the river thawed by COVID-19 will start to freeze again. There are several forces in the public field disputing how the educational system should be reshaped to fabricate the "new normal." Some of them are certainly trying to move forward agendas that will increase instructors' exploitation and make educational experience more mechanical and meaningless to students. However, the lake is not totally frozen yet, so it is time to use our energy and our unique standpoints to increase the tension into the field. With the correct amount of collective pressure, we might be able to keep part of the water warm and invent a manner to sail during the winter.

If you have no idea where to start, let me suggest more critical WH questions that might guide you towards a more agentive position related to your own pedagogical interests and pursuits: Who are you as a teacher now? What would you do if you had the power to create an ideal learning experience? Where are the potential allies you can mobilize to build this utopia with you? What have you learned about yourself and your students during this impossible year? Who is the teacher you are trying to be?


NOTES

[1] A reader interested in an exciting application of this idea will enjoy reading Sara Ahmed's investigation on the uses of the idea of use. In "What's the Use? On the Uses of Use" (Duke University Press Books, 2019), Sara Ahmed follows an insightful feminist perspective and guides her audience to a reflection on the challenges faced by those engaged in questioning the useless and fatalist position attributed to them in the society.

[2] Dinerstein., A. C. (2014). "The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope." The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137316011

[3] Maeckelbergh, M. (2011). Doing is believing: Prefiguration as strategic practice in the alter-globalization movement. Social Movement Studies, 10(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2011.545223

[4] André Luis Leite de Figueirêdo Sales, Eduardo Vianna, Flávio Fernandes Fontes & Silvio Yasui (2020): "Prefigurative Brazilian ativismo through the lens of the transformative activist stance: renewing radical political imagination through 'collectividual' agency," Mind, Culture, and Activity. DOI: 10.1080/10749039.2020.1740935

[5] World Economic Forum, 2020. Emerging Pathways towards a Post-COVID-19 Reset and Recovery. Available at https://bit.ly/2ZWXDno

[6] "[The impossible has already happened': what coronavirus can teach us about hope," The Guardian, originally published in 7 Apr 2020 at https://bit.ly/2PrtRl6

[7] Saunders, Clare. "Activism." The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social & Political Movements. (2013). https://doi.org/10.1002/978047...

[8] People With AIDS Coalition, 1983. The Denver Principles. Available at https://bit.ly/33OPpiq

[9] Stetsenko, A. (2018). The transformative mind : expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

[10] Stetsenko, A. (2019). "Radical-Transformative Agency: Continuities and Contrasts With Relational Agency and Implications for Education." Frontiers in Education (Lausanne), 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc....

[11] Stetsenko, A. (2019): "Hope, political imagination, and agency in Marxism and beyond: Explicating the transformative worldview and ethico-ontoepistemology." Educational Philosophy and Theory. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2019.1654373

Contributors

André, an olive skin Brazilian in the mid-30s with short hair is photographer with a timid smile, blue and red short sleeve t-shirt, sunglasses and a scarf around the neck.

André Luis Leite de Figueirêdo Sales

André Luis Leite de Figueirêdo Sales is a Brazilian Social Psychologist who loves untold stories, music and movies. He is a Post Doctoral Associate Researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, a fellow at São Paulo Research Founda...

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