“Knowledge is not something that people have, knowledge is something that you create”

Interview with Dario Farcy and Aquarela Padilla from the Bildungszentrum Lohana Berkins


Thank you so much for being here and for your time! Could you start by introducing yourself and the Centro de Educación Popular (CEP) Lohana Berkins?

Darío Farcy: Thank you very much, Andrei and The Left for the interview! I am Darío Farcy from Buenos Aires, Argentina. There I worked with the self-managed movement and was a teacher for almost 10 years in the popular education movement (educación popular). I was a teacher in the Bachilleratos Populares. They were high schools for people who couldn’t finish state high school, and so they didn’t have the possibility to go to university or to have better-paid jobs. I was also part of different left political parties and studied political studies in the University of Buenos Aires.

Aquarela Padilla: My name is Aquarela Padilla, I come from Venezuela. I have lived in Germany for around six years. I am part of the coordination team of the the Centro de Educación Popular Lohana Berkins. I have experience in educación popular in Venezuela, especially in feminismo comunitario with Mujeres por la Vida, and political education with and for workers. I also have experience in alternative or transformative communication and media work.

I would also like to present our Centro de Educación Popular. We are an educational center that was founded a year ago, by and for migrants in Berlin. Our purpose is to create a space to collectively build tools as migrants and improve our reality of life. This also means understanding our reality here, and for this we need an educational process. We implement educación popular, or we are inspired by this political-pedagogical practice, which comes from Latin America but has spread throughout the whole world and is often part of massive movements. We have different educational formats. Our goal is not only to create tools and to better understand our reality, but also to strengthen our communities.

Can you tell me more about who Lohana Berkins was and why you chose to name the center after her?

DF: Lohana Berkins was an activist. She was what we call in Spanish “a militant.” In English that sounds a bit harsh, but that is how we describe the commitment of different activists, because we think there is a difference between being an activist and doing political things, and having a full commitment for politics. That is why we call ourselves and Lohana militants.

She was part of the of the Communist Party of Argentina. She was a trans woman and one of the first trans women to have the possibility to work in the state as a deputy’s assitant. Later, she was one of the key people in developing the gender identity law in Argentina. She died in 2016, but had the possibility to see the approval of this law. Lohana was also one of the leaders in forming a textile worker’s cooperative for trans people called Nadia Echazú, founded in 2008, and one of the few spaces where trans people could have a proper job and legal work. She was also one of the first visible trans activists and militants in society, and fought throughout her life for educación popular. She was also involved in the bachillerato popular, a popular education center in Argentina, and Mocha Cellis, a high school for transgender people.

So we wanted to give some kind of honor to her life and her fight, and highlight her experiences and ability to fight both the state and against a society where trans people were totally obscure. The idea was that we wanted to connect this with migration. Since migrants play a very important role in society, but at the same time, are not visible for most German people. That is the reason why we chose this name.

Lohana was also a migrant, she was born and grew up in the northern part of Argentina, a very racialized region. She went to work during her transition in Buenos Aires, and she also suffered from a lot of discrimination because she was both brown and trans. Her membership in the Communist Party was also very important to us, because we need to have strong structures and training, organization, political identity, all while representing different kinds of identity.

AP: It is important to talk about the original idea of educación popular, both how it works but also why we use it. We came up with the idea of creating the Centro de Educación Popular Lohana Berkins due to the needs of our community and migrants, based on our experience as activists in Bloque Latinoamericano. We were confronted with not being allowed to participate in German spaces due to language. We understood that it was normal for people to want to volunteer in their own language, but it created a huge barrier for us in order to be active. That is why we understood that language is one of the main things in order to defend our rights, which is why we started with language courses. The goal was also to understand our rights and the legal structures of Germany. If you cannot participate in a democratic space in German, if you don’t understand the laws, it’s impossible to defend your rights. So we wanted to create a space which was different from formal German languages course, like Volkschochschule, but a instead was somewhere where alternative learning could take place.

The methodology is different, but so are the debates and the political approaches we discuss. We want to talk about themes and things that are connected with the real life of migrants. We want to talk about migration, we want to talk about racism, we want to talk about political and police violence.

Let’s continue talking about the German language classes. What does a German class in the Center look like? What do you do?

DF: In a normal language course, you have the owners or bosses of the school, you have the teachers, and there’s no democratic process to define the content of the course.

AP: We have a coordination group of three people that get together with the teachers to think through the whole program. We talk about the methodology, the language, the grammatical structure, how to improve the skills of the students, and also the political insight and the political perspective of the course. So since the beginning, the process is a democratic one.

The content and the theme of the course is accumulative. We don’t tend to think like, “there is this new idea, this is a perfect idea.” This is not representative of the students’ experience of the courses. We base it on the needs and experiences of the students, and also our own experiences that we have accumulated from giving these classes.

DF: Educación popular is a political perspective of education that is based on the real life of those involved in the process. Not only students, but also teachers and coordinators, workers in the space. The idea of a popular location is holistic, it is connected with the idea of the whole.

AP: That is why the beginning of each course, we try to find the level of students’ German, how they can express themselves, their needs, problems, but also the interests of the students.

DF: So if someone is interested in gender perspectives in Germany, we prepare the program of the course based on this and their needs. Not only the structural needs, like fighting against racism, but also their individual and rational needs. Housing, the fight for the right to the city, the fight for fair rents. There’s a history in Berlin of organizing against exploitation, against this housing sector. At the beginning we established a preliminary program with some draft ideas regarding the content, but in the process we realized we needed to focus the contents around the topics the community was debating.

AP: In doing that, you have the possibility to create a connection between the individual needs of the students, the structural problems they face, and their skills in German.

Can you talk more about the role of the educator and coordination team, and what they do? As well as the exchanges between yourselves and the students, while avoiding the creation of a hierarchy of knowledge?

DF: From the perspective of popular education, knowledge is not a thing. But knowledge is not something people have. Knowledge is a collective process, it is created by individuals but it’s always a collective thing. That is why we talk about learning through doing. Of course, as the coordination team, we are learning every day. Not only due to the input of the teachers, but also from the students. From a symbolic perspective, the process of doing popular education in Germany creates a new way of understanding popular education. And that is the key point of this process of creating knowledge that is connected to language and political organization.

AP: So the educator is an activist, is a militant. From the beginning, popular education is a different way of doing politics. It’s very important that the whole group understands that the first goal is not knowledge, but political responsibility. And educators need to feel this responsibility, and create this political pedagogical process.

DF: There is also the need to act in solidarity regarding knowledge and tools, which is why we share skills and knowledge. It’s not like you as an individual have some kind of skills as a teacher, and you preserve that, and use these as something you want to sell. Because in the private sector or the market, the thing that teachers sell is their ability and skills to know better. We are trying to fight against this privatization. That is why we talk about this idea of the political responsibility of being a popular educator.

AP: I also want to talk about the connections and similarities between an educator and a student, which are more important for us than the differences.

Both students and teachers need to have these democratic and active commitments in order to reach the goals of the classroom. If some of the parts are not working, or missing that aim, the process is not going to work. Because if we say we learn through doing and everyone in this process is both learning and teaching, the student also has a role of teaching and giving their skills in solidarity.

DF: So it’s not only that the teacher has an active role while the students receive, but both are receiving and giving. Of course, it should be be clear who has the responsibility for which part. But this clear responsibility does not mean that one is active, and one is passive. The idea is that we can create a dialogue between the different levels of popular education.

AP: So the shared idea is the commitment in order to transform society and in doing so, the idea of transforming themselves. This idea is the commitment that we always need to pursue and understand as a goal.

DF: Of course, that puts language and political themes in a second level. But that is the structure that we need to develop. The main goal is to transform reality. And we understand the importance of transforming the people who are going to transform reality. We want to do it through popular education.

I imagine that there are also moments where this doesn’t happen, when people would rather be passive listeners than participating. How do you convince people to participate in educación popular?

DF: I think it works in different levels. For example, there’s people who are more comfortable with lectures, or with books. And so when you present some kind of new topic through a book, maybe 20-30% of the class is going, “okay, that’s great.” But 70%, maybe not, they want to find a way where they feel more comfortable. When we acknowledge that, we ask what tools we have at our disposal, in order to reach the other part of the class. Maybe theater and acting skills, so in the next class we say we will talk about the housing problem in Berlin through acting, one person is the landlord and one the tenant. And you reach 40% of the people that don’t feel comfortable learning through books.

We use different methodologies to reach students, especially when they are at different levels. Maybe one day you use a movie to talk about something, or a song.

With teachers it is more difficult. Because all the teachers, as well as ourselves, went through the formal process of learning how to teach. So with the teachers or the coordination team it’s more about formation and training. We give trainings in order to understand how popular education works. Sadly, you always have some people who don’t understand it. We need to accept that maybe popular education is not for everyone, but in most cases people understand that solidarity is a better way of teaching.

AP: In the beginning, popular education feels strange for many people who are used to silently being given knowledge. When you talk about different methodologies, people will try it feeling like it’s a game. They begin to understand that they can feel good about learning German, they can make mistakes.

You start to connect learning, political insight, inputs, and the creation of community. This is something most people say at the end of their course, that they’ve learned German without it being a painful experience. Most of the things that we do create this idea of solidarity, this idea of sharing skills and collectively creating knowledge and making it accessible for most people.

DF: Again, knowledge is not something that people have, knowledge is something that you create. This is the crucial point to understand that creation is a process which includes making mistakes. And creation is a process of making things. But these products don’t belong to one person, rather they are collective. Property does not disappear, but we get mixed property between the individual and the collective. For me, this is very important to break this privatization of knowledge.

AP: This process, of course, is a challenge for everyone. It’s important to have this commitment in order to accept the challenge, and to admit that we don’t have every answer and that this too opens up possibilities. There is also the possibility that the process doesn’t work. It is an open process, not a closed one, and like every open process there is a potential of failure.

How do you adapt this to everyone? Migrants to Germany have different experiences, different histories of migration, and different ways of being and working in Germany. How do you bring this together and include all of these different experiences in the process of education?

DF: Of course, we try to adapt the experience to the needs of the students and teachers. But this is not an individualized process of education. We try to create a common experience, a common understanding of education, taking into account the needs not as individuals, but as the experience of a collective process. Let me give an example. Say a student asks for an individual teacher. It’s not going to happen, because do not give individual classes. But if there are 15 students and 10 are saying they need a more individualized experience, than we try to create solutions for that. But it should be debated and discussed, with collective answer rather than an individual one.

I explain that because, when we talk about experiences of migration, it’s very important that we can identify the things in common, but also the differences. Our process has three phases. The first phase is before we meet the students. First, we create an ideal subject (based on our experiences as migrants and militants) of what migrants are and need, knowing that at the end this is not real. It is only a way of framing the program and the course.

After that comes the phase of having the course and working with real students. Because we base our program on this ideal migrant, we know we need to make changes throughout the classes. For example once we thought that one of the most important things for migrants is how to deal with visas. During the classes, no one wanted to talk about that. Most of the students wanted to talk about housing, identity and climate justice.

And at the end of the course, we make an evaluation of these processes. Of course, that is a process that has its own risks. We want to work with migrants that come from the periphery or the semi-periphery. But in this course, we now have a lot of people from the United States and other countries of the North. We see that as a challenge that we need to address. Because our idea was working with people that were racialized, or in precarious work.

I think that migration has the potential to be this common ground, as well as the need to talk about politics. Also it’s very important to create this common ground, this idea of being open to sharing and of being open to learn in a different way, this political and pedagogical empathy. I think that is the common ground more than migration.

AP: Migration could be the way to be more organized, or it could be the first step to achieve assimilation. We fight against that. That is something important, because not all migrants are leftists and want to transform reality. A lot of migrants want to be assimilated, they want to be German. That is why we think that migration could be a tool to organize people, but also we need different aspects, we need to bring these aspects into the mix in order to have a leftist course, with students who want to transform reality. It’s not that all the people are going to be active in politics now, they’re not all are going to be deputies of the Left Party, but we aim to create a common ground and ideological ideas to share different perspectives. Through this, and through collective teaching and thinking, we can transform reality. That is the common ground at the end, not just migration.

The center has been active for a year, and now you have a fundraiser until November 7th. So what are your plans for the future? Where do you see the center going?

AP: Yes, we have a crowdfunding campaign at the moment, and this comes from the difficulties we have to self-finance. Projects like these, built both by and for the migrant community, are very difficult to finance. It is also very difficult to explain what we are doing precisely. That is why we need financial resources to strengthen our structures, to pay our teachers, and to rent our space. We are a self-administered project, and that is naturally a challenge. This crowdfunding runs until the second week in November.

The projects for the future are varied. But the first and most important is that we need a better structure. We need more people in our coordination group, but also in our pedagogical team and for communication. We cannot work precariously ourselves. We also want to expand our educational spaces for the community, as well as expanding our cooperations.

And we have begun a beautiful and important project to systematize our experience. Educación popular also has the goal of reflecting, at some point, on what we have done and how we can do better. This is also to identify possibilities: what they are, how our goals have changed, and why. We must reflect on the whole process, and for this we need a systematization. This takes a lot of hours from people. This is important not only for us and to improve our own work, but also for other initiatives. We would like other people in this country to have the chance to create similar centers, and for our experiences to serve as an inspiration for other projects.

DF: Popular education is a process that is alive. And I think that throughout this connection and these new experiences, new processes, this idea of popular education could be enrichened and strengthened not just here but in the Americas, too. That is why we wanted to do this text about methodology and political perspective based on our experience, to spread and expand the tradition of educación popular.

And next week we are going to present an investigation about extractivism, crisis, and debt and how these processes in Latin America affect migration or create new ways of understanding migration. This was a collaboration with an NGO called Movement Hub. We are very proud of creating more academic or theoretical knowledge. We are not afraid of doing that because we approach this from our experiences as activists and militants.

Support the fundraiser for the Bildungszentrum Lohana Berkins here.

Bildungszentrum Lohana Berkins is organising a series of meetings in Spanish in the first half of November.