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June 27th, 2013 by Melat Seyoum

The journey to Critical Dialogue

While I was a junior in high school I heard about volunteer opportunities for students attending private schools at the local YWCA in Ethiopia. The Youth Volunteers Program intended on inculcating civic engagement within school systems by having volunteers from affluent private secondary schools within Addis Ababa spend two months of their summer teachings Math, English, and Values to marginalized students (beneficiaries) from public elementary schools with the intention of narrowing the attainment gap in educational achievement. At the time my incentive for volunteering was to fulfill my CAS (Creativity, Action, and Service) requirements for the IB diploma. I remember walking into the school where I was to teach and being completely astounded; it was the most rudimentary of schools built of mud bricks with earthen floors and open windows. I had felt like a foreigner in my own community. Stepping into these children’s world I began to acknowledge my unearned privilege and recognized the advantages that I have gained from a system stacked in my favor due to circumstances of birth.The program grew on me as I developed a relationship with my students who were from an entirely different socio-economic background, a world I was shielded from. My purpose for creating Critical Dialogue stems from the sense responsibility I feel my privilege has granted me.

I had hopes of expanding the Youth Volunteers Program so during my sophomore year at Clark I contacted Professor Eric DeMeulenaere in the Education department for some guidance. He shared his experiences and theoretical framework with me and recommended books to read including my all-time favorite Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The material I read had challenged my perspective on the educational intervention model that I had thought so highly of. I came to realize that the solution to the problem of educational inequality will not be found as long as interventions such as the Youth Volunteers Program continue to be grafted onto unequal education systems through employing deficit discourses and compensatory models that focus on what communities’ lack. In traditional education there is a one sided narrative in which the teacher narrates and the student is a listening object – an empty vessel to be filled – conditioning the younger generation into acceptance of society’s status quo the so called “banking concept of education”. I saw a need for interventions that departed from these assumptions and decided to entirely restructure the Youth Volunteers Program.

I incorporated ideas on critical pedagogy and liberatory education to design a program in which youth engage in dialogue and empower themselves though the process of critical thinking to address society’s most pressing social problems.With funding from the Davis Projects for Peace foundation the previous Youth Volunteers Program is currently being transformed into the Critical Dialogue pilot project. The project is divided into three components 1) Four- Stage Learning Process, 2) Mutual Mentoring, and 3) Student Journals- Praxis.

More on the details of these components in a few days :)

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