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Civic Engagement Project – Student Transformation

Lisa Taylor Svenja Helmes

This particular civic engagement project regarding student transformation was undertaken by students from the University of East London, and specifically reflected on/explored how students perceive their own capability to make a difference to their community as well as the wider society. This was achieved by helping to inspire the students to understand the possibilities and practicalities of becoming active in local or widespread social issues. Additionally this experience felt like an organic effort between lecturers and students, and has been a bonding experience amongst contributors. The project has assisted us in recognising that civic activism requires passion, determination, solidarity and patience. Engaging in this project has helped to identify that there are many ways in which people, singularly or collectively can help make a difference to the lives of others; through acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, consideration and compassion.

The first few meetings of this Civic Engagement Project allowed students to explore social issues that are encountered in everyday life. It allowed us the freedom to choose issues with personal meanings and enabled us to ‘name the world’ and ‘define the problem’. It quickly became clear that the majority of the issues raised, in one way or another involved inequality: the reality that not everyone in society has the same opportunities or prospects. The project began by looking at issues prioritised by individual students, and offered a friendly environment to discuss similar and opposing views with likeminded people. The direction and application of this project allowed students to be a part of the process in choosing the content of the project. Rather than rote teaching, the lecturers offered guidance, and importantly did not monopolise or micro-manage the meetings. Therefore, students felt as if the project was a joint effort. It brought people together and strengthened relationships: a crucial endeavour in activism.

But the humanist, revolutionary educator cannot wait……..From the outset, her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them (Freire, 1970, p. 56).

Through dialogue we learned that some students preferred more radical approaches to activism than others: it is important to acknowledge that there is not just one approach to fight injustice. There are alternative routes to civic engagement through the media of music, drama, video, radical action and dialogue, as well as conventional approaches through local and national politics. This was further explored during two away-days of activities; arranged to help consider and examine different political principles found in society. The first of these took place at the UEL Docklands campus where the guest speaker was Professor Chris Knight. We discussed differing ideas of participatory activism and went on to perform an improvisational political play in which everyone was involved. Professor Knight discussed his street theatre work and how he has used humour and satire to raise social and political consciousness over decades of civic engagement.

He demonstrated how confidence in our own actions gives power to our civic voice; a right that is denied to many people across the world. We were also fortunate to watch a thoroughly thought provoking, original musical and politically inspired performance by the fabulous Banner Theatre. The second visit was to the Houses of Parliament where we met Lord Patel of Bradford and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Whilst the visit was intended to demonstrate how change can be achieved within the existing political system; it essentially highlighted how slow and cumbersome Parliamentary democracy can be in bringing about change: such as ending child poverty, building affordable housing and reversing the growing divide between the rich and poor. However, the politician John McDonnell, (who with fellow activists continues to fight for a better society), provided a ray of hope to our collective group during this inspiring civic engagement project.

In conclusion, the civic process conducted by the “progressive teacher” (Freire, 1995, p.20) allows the possibility of transformation, social and personal, of individual participants. Reinforcing the knowledge that we can, if we so choose; make a difference. Educating ourselves and finding confidence in our own individual beliefs, decisions and actions could mean the difference between an altruistic vision of socialist hope and a depressing form of neoliberal fatalism. Not everyone has the same worries or outlook; however everyone deserves an opportunity to converse in a civil dialectic regarding beliefs, opinions, engagement and possible resolutions.



Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Group.

Freire, P. (1995) ‘The Progressive Teacher’, in Figueiredo-Cowen, M. and Gastaldo, D. (ed.) Paulo Freire at the Institute