Reflections on the Université populaire: from individual activism to collective action

This month’s COCo Note brings you reflections from last week’s “Université Populaire: From individual activism to collective action”.  Several COCo staff and Board members participated in the event and we had a chance to interview COCo’s Kit Malo about her experience and reflections.  Enjoy!

Could you describe what the “Université populaire” is?

This particular Université populaire is run by COCAF  the regroupement of training groups of Québec. It is a space for reflection and connection between community groups, where people come together to explore thematics that effect their work. This year focused on “from individual activism to collective action.”

What were some of the specific conversations you think were most relevant for COCo and the groups that we work with?

How do the groups that we work with understand concepts like “activism” “professionalism” and “collective action”? How do they engage with these terms?

Activism means more than organizing demonstrations and strikes. For many of the community groups we work with, “activism” might mean action research projects that push a social justice analysis, community assemblies or supporting individuals struggling with injustices in their personal lives.

It is especially important that we broaden this definition of “activism” because some groups work with people that cannot necessarily participate safely in demonstrations where they could risk arrest and deportation.

What themes emerged that might be useful for community groups to explore in their own organizations?

I think it could be powerful to have a conversation in organizations about how they see volunteers – as engaged people? As more traditional volunteers? What are the differences and similarities?

There was an interesting distinction being made between “Engagement” vs “Volunteering”. Imagine if someone in your community group said, “I’m not a volunteer here, I’m engaged here!” The notion of a volunteer reinforces organizations as service providers who need “extra hands” to get work done.

Someone who is engaged doesn’t separate their “volunteer time” from the rest of their life in the same way – they do it as an integrated component of who they are. In turn, the organization sees them as much more than a set of hands. This idea of engagement questions the power dynamics between “volunteers” and “staff”.

Could you give a quick sketch of the types of groups that participated this year’s Université populaire?

The UP was comprised of mostly Francophone community groups from many different regions and generations.There were some anarchist groups and syndicat but most were community sector organizations.

Despite the fact that there were groups from many regions and that it was very intergenerational, it was still mostly white and Francophone. There were groups missing from the dialogue. As well, there are always people who work for organizations present, but rarely do we see members of those organizations.

One person reflected that they wished there had been more conflict and divergent opinions, and I think this in some ways reflects the lack of diversity.

What do you think about this kind of setting and format – how did the space itself allow for specific types of conversation and connection between participants?

It’s really important to have spaces where a multitude of groups can make connections and strengthen our network. The unstructured social time the UP offers is invaluable as a form of exchange and relating, as much as the structured conversations and activities.

I think there is so much potential for the Université populaire to be an extremely valuable space in regards to mobilizing. It gives groups an opportunity to connect and share resources just before fall programming. For its potential to be fully realized it would be awesome if a more diverse range of community groups were involved!