Building a Radical Learning Network

Looking ahead to this weekend's PEN retreat in Braemar, and following on from last week's piece on literacy classesLuke Campbell shares his thoughts on another community education event. He shares his thoughts on last week's Radical Learning Network launch...

Last Thursday, I travelled through to the University of Glasgow for the "Shaping The Future – A New Radical Learning Network" launch and networking event. Hosted by Dave Beck, a Community Development Lecturer with the University’s Social Justice Place and Lifelong Education Department, and with a three hour running time, the event was pitched as: "an opportunity to decide what we want to be as a network, what we can do together, and the ways we can get involved". 

With around 55 people in attendance (the majority coming from the immediate area), proceedings commenced with Dave welcoming attendees “as the Radical Learning Network” – suggesting all those in attendance were themselves "the network". Dave set out a vision of the Network engaging “a group of practitioners, activists, students, and academics [with] support from both the University of Glasgow, and The Radical Community Work Journal” (at which he is co-editor).

He spoke of the urgent need for activity on the community development front, and to prioritise this over what he described as “talking shops” i.e. university graduates and community practitioners sat at catered events, talking only to each other about best practice and the ‘difference’ they could make if only they had the resources. Conceived through an ambition of reducing the isolation many practitioners experience in the field, the Radical Learning Network, he stated, seeks to offer “intellectual, emotional, and practical support to its members”.

The introduction was exciting and engaging, with talk of professional development workshops, study tours, online engagement, academic journal articles, and of “recapturing the radical heart of community development”. Each action was designed to aid and to inform professional practice, and to encourage self-reflection. Noting what is perhaps a defining characteristic of our field, an audience member joked about financing of the network, but this was teased off as “a problem for later”.

It's admirable that in just four weeks, prior to tonight, the Radical Learning Network had attracted 416 interested parties. An impressive feat given Dave’s suggestion that community driven initiatives are somewhat “counter cultural” in modern society, with ideals sourced from communities often dismissed in favour of “top-down” pre-prescribed projects designed by various levels of government. Dave suggested that these projects, for the most part, result in short term change (at best) and run their course without genuine lasting social impact.

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Divided up into small groups, attendees entered into facilitated discussion on topics such as: "why we need the Radical Learning Network?", "What would the Radical Learning Network do?" and ‘Why do we need a Radical Learning Network at this point in history?’ Early answers resembled values most organisations would proclaim: inclusiveness, open to all, a forum for sharing best practice, an online network, professional conferences, etc.

There was nothing that would set it apart from the pre-existing networks already in place: the Community Learning and Development Standards Council (CLDSC), who list ‘inclusion’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘working collaboratively’ in their values; and the Scottish Community Development Network (SCDN) who cite "hav[ing] a strong, collective, grassroots voice within Community Development across Scotland" and being ‘part of a strong, dynamic forum to share experiences, exchange information and debate practice and policy issues".

The final session sought to rectify this. Pitches were made for concrete and actionable points – practitioner Facebook groups (at least two exist already – Scottish Jobs in Community Learning & Development; and the Discussion Forum for Community Educators [which I created during my undergraduate Community Education studies]); for a ‘services map’ akin to Google Maps, which would locate community hubs or organisations engaged in ‘radical community practice’; and for regular ‘educationals’ such as those offered by the Scottish Socialist Party/RISE.

Each already exists in some form and in some areas, though seemingly no single organisation offers each of these at the level or in the contexts that would-be members of the Radical Learning Network desire. YouTube tutorials which would help decode the academic language that surrounds policy and legislation, offering digital engagement (my trip involved almost four hours of travel – Pilton to Waverly, to Glasgow Central, to the St Andrews Building, and back), and potentially national secondments or practitioner exchanges (e.g. a Youth Worker Castlemilk visiting a service in Muirhouse) were among the further suggestions.

My own pitch proposed establishing a grant or sponsorship fund (similar to the Educational Grants offered to its members by Unite the Union or the University of Edinburgh’s Discretionary Fund) which could help adult learners or young people with their child care expenses, academic texts, or bus passes (an idea inspired by North Edinburgh Arts-based charity Tomorrow’s People) as a way to encourage enrolment in evening, college, or university classes. This could also tie into another attendee’s suggestion of membership fees.

Fundamental and perhaps of foremost importance was the need to establish a guiding set of principles which the Radical Learning Network and its members would adhere to, radical values that might be at home in the anti-war movements, or in the transnational Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25).

The event closed fairly abruptly. With time quickly running out for the three hour room booking, attendees were encouraged to sign up to a mailing list, enabling Dave and the team of facilitators involved on the night to advise of future steps. But anybody interested in learning more about the network can contact organiser Dave Beck directly here

@chainuptheswing