Autonomous popular education (APE)

Autonomous popular education is a means of guiding community action. It is also an essential foundation for such action, because it is about transforming an unjust, unequal and inequitable society rather than adapting people to the constraints of that society.

Autonomous popular education is based on a bond of trust between the people involved in the process. It is important to take the time to get to know each other and commit to working in a spirit of respect for each person, of confidentiality where appropriate, of mutual assistance, and of acknowledgement of the equal importance of all. Every person’s voice counts, and we must make sure that every person can speak.

An APE approach is founded on the concerns of the people who attend our groups.

For example, we found that a majority of Atout-Lire members identified health as a priority issue or problem. How can we talk about it, how can we take into account all the determinants of health, including especially social determinants? What can be done to promote better health?

After a few meetings, the discussions led to a first observation. We realized that in our society, most of the time, health education focuses on good lifestyle habits and behaviours that are considered healthy. This approach mainly addresses the individual “I”. Thus, the emphasis is on individual responsibility.

But, as the discussions progressed, we situated health issues in their social context and the perspective widened and changed. We are referring here to what is now known as “social determinants of health,” or socio-economic and environmental factors. The World Health Organization’s definition seemed very useful to us because it covers all relevant socio-economic conditions: “The social determinants of health (SDH) are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” These conditions are easily illustrated as follows: education, income, access to quality health care and food, safety, housing and working conditions, exposure to pollutants, etc. To this can be added stigma and prejudice that also affect people’s health. These determinants deteriorate or improve according to policy choices, as well as the programs and institutions put in place by the state.

In an APE process, I can ask myself, for example, whether the housing I live in is good or harmful to my health. Whether I have access to local health services. Can I find stores in my neighbourhood with food that is affordable, varied, and of good quality? Do I have access to leisure activities? Can I afford them? What about transportation? What about the quality of the environment? Etc. What do I know about public policies and social programs in my society? Do I find that our governments are investing enough and in a fair and equitable way for all in the conditions and institutions we need on a daily basis to live well and live healthy lives? These questions make it possible to realize that there are many factors that have an impact on our health.

Collective discussion

From our collective reflections, a sociocritical perspective emerges. Am I personally and individually responsible for my income level? For the accessibility of health services? For a healthy environment? For access to safe, healthy, secure and fairly priced housing? No. We clearly realize that it would not only be absurd, but also unfair to answer yes to these questions regarding responsibility.

Even though we have long known that there are differences in living conditions within society, we become aware that most of these differences can be described as unjustifiable, inequitable social inequalities. Do we have to submit to such injustices? So, we have to change things in society? When these differences are revealed and recognized as injustices, they provoke outrage.

Therefore, the social transformations required cannot be the sole responsibility of individuals. We need to use another form of responsibility: collective responsibility. It is not only “I” who am responsible, but also “We”.

This change of perspective is a great breath of fresh air. On the psycho-emotional level, the work done during this journey builds confidence and esteem for oneself and others. We feel the need to know more about this “We.” We become interested in grassroots groups that deal with social housing, those who defend our rights, groups that work for equality between women and men, those that fight racism, etc. These struggles form a kaleidoscope whose myriad mirrors revolve around demands for justice: social, fiscal, environmental justice, and respect for the dignity of all. We are now working more and better on the causes of social injustice and inequality. As far as health is concerned, we can be confident that we are taking meaningful action in a preventive and not just a curative way.

People who have never had much power in society discover their strengths. We choose together to share our insights with other grassroots groups. We create tools that are used to stimulate discussions, facilitate workshops, and carry out awareness activities on social health issues. We are particularly proud of a facilitation tool we developed, which is called Changer notre regard sur la santé. In this document, we illustrate the transition from the individual to the collective, from “I” to “We.”

All this collective work needs to incorporate research in order to build solid and credible arguments in all settings, including in particular those that have little sensitivity to, or even interest in, social inequalities and their impacts on people’s lives.

In fact, the people to whom society gives the least importance have a lot to say about what promotes or hinders the maintenance of good health. Autonomous popular education can greatly benefit from research that contributes to a better understanding of social inequalities, including social inequalities in health, in order to achieve greater social equity. Unfortunately, there are still too few researchers who use methods that take into account and integrate, in all aspects and paths of research, the concerns and experiential knowledge of people living with social inequalities on a daily basis. It is this need for truly participatory research that led us to support the creation of the ENGAGE site.

Finally, we are convinced of the need for broad-based and well-informed solidarity within our society. Through this solidarity, individuals can take their place in a meaningful “We” that is guided by shared values of democracy, justice, equality, freedom, and equity. We have a responsibility to create together a better society for all, a society that is concerned about its responsibility in the world.

Text by Johanne Arseneault