Remarks from the 2011 Circle of Change Awards
The “Gardener of Change” award is presented to an educator who works to create fertile ground for social change through reflection & teaching. Mónica Hernandez is the best kind of educator – the kind where you never feel she’s teaching you – but you always leave more educated. A proponent of the “popular education model,” Mónica says, “I believe that popular education starts from personal experience and builds a deliberate intentionality … to help people look at the conditions and issues they are dealing with and make things better.” She first learned about popular education while doing HIV prevention work in San Francisco. She says “I became convinced that movements need to be led by the people most affected. Not to just go in and say, “This is what you’re going to do,” [but] to start from where people are and honor their experiences. Immigrants and poor people in general are always being told that their knowledge and experiences don’t matter. Folks have a lot of self-esteem issues because the education system has failed them, and they believe it’s their fault – they think they’re stupid and dumb and ignorant. Popular education has the potential to strengthen their self-esteem around their own life experiences.”
A native of Mexico with roots in both countries, Mónica came to [Tennessee] to work with the Highlander Center after working at the Northern California Coalition for Immigration Rights for 13 years. She was a key developer of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and was the organization’s founding Board Chair. To me, Mónica epitomizes the saying “still waters run deep.” She is quiet and unassuming, but she also has a great sense of humor and a tireless commitment to change and to education. In her own words “I believe that the only way change is going to happen is from the bottom up. Popular education is a key part of that process.” Mónica Hernandez is also a key part of the process, and that’s why she’s our 2011 Gardener of Change.
Shelley Wascom, Executive Director- Community Shares
- Monica Hernandez
Thank you, Shelley. Thank you, Community Shares for this honor and a very special thank you to Fran Ansley for nominating me. And, thank you to my families: my Hernández Weissner family, my Highlander family, my TIRRC family, and my chosen family of friends and loved ones, all who have taught me the intrinsic—and intricate—connection between love, dignity and justice.
I first came to East Tennessee 9 years ago to work at Highlander. I had no experience with the US South, and other than a very general understanding that this region’s history of racism, oppression, and resistance made it critical, I knew little else. On my drive cross country from California, my first official event as Highlander staff was an immigrant rights conference in Nashville, where I learned, much to my surprise, that immigrant rights activists here had succeeded in restoring the right for all immigrants regardless of status to obtain a driver’s license, something we had fought for unsuccessfully in California for 4 years. That was just the beginning of what has become almost a decade of learning and growing from a community that I am proud to call home, a community that— while it may not have the most or the best resourced organizations—is fierce and unrelenting in its work for social justice, and against indignity, injustice and oppression.
It is important to take pause, to celebrate, to honor our social justice community. But I don’t need to tell you that there is a great deal to do:
Next week, for example, the Tennessee legislature is threatening to require the public school system to collect and report data, such as social security, visa and passport numbers from all students enrolling, effectively discouraging many immigrant families of mixed or undocumented status from participating in the public education system.
This, and many more issues, requires our attention, our energy, our commitment. But there is something to me that is even scarier than all the threats and the attacks that we are facing from the reactionary forces of this country, and that is the state of our Movement and our organizations. As we all know, social justice organizations, especially grassroots groups, have taken enormous hits during this economic crisis. The Right has also used various despicable tactics to undermine the work that we do, targeting a range of organizations, whether it’s ACORN or Planned Parenthood. But perhaps an even bigger threat comes from the inside, and that threat is our failure to look critically at how we do our work, to be in a continued reflective dialogue between theory and practice, to use methodology such as popular education not only as a tool to organize our constituents, but as a critical component of our own internal processes. This disconnect weakens us and makes us extremely vulnerable and it diminishes our impact to create the world we envision. So, when we all go back to our work on Monday, I implore us to ASK OURSELVES QUESTIONS LIKE THESE:
WHAT ROLE DOES REFLECTION/STUDY PLAY IN OUR WORK? HOW DO WE ENGAGE IN A CONTINUOUS PRACTICE OF ACTION-REFLECTION-ACTION TO HELP STRENGTHEN AND INFORM OUR ORGANIZING WORK?
HOW DO WE MOVE OUR WORK FROM FOCUSING ON SINGLE ISSUES OR CONSTITUENCIES AND LIFT UP THE INTERSECTIONS, THE PRINCIPLES, THE VALUES, THE ELEMENTS OF OUR VISION OF JUSTICE?
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THOSE MOST IMPACTED BY THE ISSUES WE ARE WORKING ON IN OUR MOVEMENT, AND IN OUR ORGANIZATIONS? WHAT ROLE DO I MYSELF PLAY IN HELPING OR HINDERING THE LEADERSHIP OF THOSE MOST AFFECTED?
HOW DO WE, AS ORGANIZATIONS, LIVE THE VALUES AND THE PRINCIPLES THAT ENCOMPASS OUR VISION FOR A JUST WORLD?
There are many other questions we could ask ourselves, but these are foremost in my mind lately.
Paolo Freire said, “The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity.” I believe this to be true not only about individuals, but of organizations, of movements, as well. Let’s continue to strengthen Knoxville, East Tennessee, and the South into the transformative communities we all envision. Thank you.
Mónica Hernández, April 16, 2011