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Co-designing popular education materials on human rights and climate change: some early insights

“You’re not just telling us things… you’re making us think!”, said one of the participants at a workshop that CESR co-organized with Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA) and Women Affected by Mining United in Action (WAMUA) in South Africa. As the comment captures, it was a different kind of workshop for both organizations — pushing us outside our comfort zones in many ways. Here, we reflect on some of the highs and lows of designing and facilitating it.

By Fatima Vally, Director of Program at the MACUA/WAMUA Advice Office & Allison Corkery, Director of Strategy and Learning at CESR.

Mining in South Africa has been synonymous with the dispossession, exploitation, and underdevelopment of Black communities. Looking at the extractive sector through an intersectional lens reveals its dependence on the unpaid labor of Black peasant and working class women. This includes the care work associated with pollution of the air and water. On top of this, women and youth bear the brunt of the social upheaval that accompanies an influx of people into new mining operations. They are the least likely to be employed in mining operations. Often, they are the smallholder farmers who lose their land to mining operations. 

How are they likely to be affected by the growing demand for the minerals and metals needed for the renewable sector? Will it simply be more of the same? An economic model that continues to benefit the Global North, while disproportionately burdening Black women and youth in the Global South?

To unpack this, last November we brought together 30 activists from mining-affected communities across South Africa to explore new ways of expanding human rights knowledge within the context of contesting false solutions to climate change across MACUA and WAMUA’s local branches. Our aim was to co-design popular education materials equipping movement members to understand climate change, human rights, and their intersection in defining climate justice. At the end of the three-day workshop, we didn’t have plans for these materials as fleshed out as we’d hoped to. But we did learn some important (and hard won!) lessons about how to use co-design to support movement building. 

Invest time in building a shared vision of success

We spent half a day gathering input from the group on how they wanted to work together and what they wanted us to achieve. This was quite a significant amount of time in the context of a three-day workshop. But we prioritized it for a number of reasons: in an effort to share power; in recognition of how adults learn; and to compensate for the time, capacity, and connectivity constraints, which meant we couldn’t get this input in advance. 

We did this by inviting participants to share stories about positive experiences of learning they’d had. It proved quite challenging to move the conversation from the descriptive to the reflective. People were more comfortable sharing what they had learned, than how they had learned. But we were able to draw up a list of principles and practices based on the stories, which we committed to upholding collectively. 

Shared ownership of these was really key to holding the group together during the workshop. For example, one of the principles was “KISS” or “Keep It Short and Simple”. Blowing kisses at each other became a fun and gentle way to move things along when report backs or questions from the floor were taking too long.

Get creative 

We knew it was important to facilitate, not lecture; to learn together, not teach. Recognizing the different learning styles in the room, we put together an agenda that included a wide variety of activities. We drew, we sang, we “speed dated”, we scribbled on flipcharts and post-it notes, we played “bingo”.  

Of course, the workshop did include a knowledge sharing element to it. This was one of the trickiest parts of the agenda to design. Our previous collaboration had shown gaps in activists’ knowledge related to so-called “positive” human rights obligations. These define what the bearer of a human rights obligation should do. As opposed to a “negative” obligation, which defines what they should not do. 

Instead of giving a presentation of these obligations, we experimented with an activity. We summarized each one on a sheet of paper and set them out around the room. In small groups, participants moved from around the room, spending fifteen minutes at each spot where they read through the summary and unpacked what it meant for them. Paralegals from the Advice Office helped facilitate these discussions. The energy in the room was so high with this activity that it went forty-five minutes overtime.

Start where people are at… but then zoom out

In the workshop feedback, we heard a desire for more space for participants to speak from their experience and to the reality they face in their daily lives. We had structured the conversations to connect the concepts we were discussing back to participants’ context. But this wasn’t always their starting point. 

As a result, we didn’t always get to a point where we were connecting the examples of things people were observing in their communities to the structures and systems that they were part of. For example, burning rubbish was quite a big focus in the discussion about climate change. Local shop owners got almost as much attention as mining companies in the discussion about how businesses violate people’s rights. The abstractness of an issue like climate change made this even harder.

Accept you’re never fully insulated from what’s happening “outside” the room

Grappling with the implication of a 2-degree rise in average temperature and what that translates to—on top of contending with your current reality—is a hard ask, even if you, again, are on the front lines of one of the greatest crises in modern times. This was made plain when participants, organized by the national leaders of the movement, staged an ad-hoc protest action on the third day of the workshop and we had to end the intended program early. The space was refashioned into a platform to articulate internal concerns about the use of financial resources, the distribution of power, and corruption within the movement. 

This was an interesting moment for pause. The workshop was co-designed with the best intentions, underpinned by a candid request by its leaders, and a throng of excitement expressed by participants. But, in a moment, this was ‘undone’. Tangible material conditions became the biggest priority. The protest action—and the conversations to resolve it—brought to the fore just how patriarchy (particularly toxic masculinity, corruption, and abuse of power) is not simply a phenomenon that exists in broader society, the movement itself is littered with it. The struggle is indeed personal, and it is political.

As follow up to the workshop, we’ve set up a co-design working group. Their role is to take forward the ideas that participants shared for how they’d like to turn what we covered in the workshop into popular education for their communities.  We’ll be sure to share what we learn from this next stage in the process.