Rethinking Capitalism And Community Development – The Strengths Of Praxis, Part 2 (Tony Ward)

The following is the second part of a two-part installment. The first part can be found here.

The Design Process

In keeping with the general mission of the project to build and sustain relationships, to promote learning and to engage the whole community, the management team solicited the help of students in one of the architecture design studios at Unitec School of Architecture in Auckland to work alongside a group of students from the two Whakatane high schools developing feasibility designs for the project. The students themselves represented the very aspects of relationship-building across cultures that the project embodied. We had 24 students of ten different nationalities and languages (eleven if we included the high school students).

Their work involved investigating the appropriateness of eight possible site options, two of which were finally short-listed – an old and disused supermarket on the main street of the working class neighborhood of Kopeopeo, and a vacant site, two hundred meters away belonging to the High School.

The Two Sites

The design process itself involved a critical pedagogy relying on a student-centred, collective (consensus based), decision-making method employing mutually-supportive talking circles in which interdependence is both the pedagogical goal and the means of fostering engagement. Design evaluations and individual grades were and are also student-centered and consensus-based. The intention was to create a space that operates not as a state-initiated institutionalized imposition, but as a community-generated and community-operated system of mutual support and care, to reawaken the social and cultural empathies and compassionate support systems that are latent in the town.

Drawing on and sharing the latent experience and knowledge that exists in every community, it may be possible to rebuild the social and cultural relationships that have been fragmented, isolated, and alienated that are so important, and to recreate a state of community well-being for the people, by the people – not as an end goal or target, but as an integral element of the process of relationship building itself. A return, as Māori would put it, to Manaakitanga, Whanaungatanga and Whakapapa – relatedness based on mutual trust and reciprocity.

In accordance with the principle of universal accessibility, the concept includes a Time Bank, through which citizens can gain access to the facilities and programs by reciprocally donating their time and energy towards the operation of the Hub, thus undercutting the cash economy that has led to such disparities of access to resources. This, perhaps, is what we can learn from our indigenous brothers and sisters.

Research and Presentations

Following a fourteen-week process of community engagement, with five separate noho Marae weekends (staying and sleeping communally at Wairaka Marae), involving continual meetings with community representatives and service providers and through three iterations of design process, the students were ready to present their final proposals to the community. The two presentations were to take place at the new Whakatane District Library and Museum and would involve drawings, models and descriptions of the proposed facilities. They were attended by Councilors, Council staff, Central government politicians and members of the general public.

The Designs

Ground Floor Plan of Supermarket

Site 1: The Countdown Supermarket Building

The Countdown proposal involved a three-stage development to allow for more sustainable budgeting. Stage 1 involved the reuse of the existing building – primarily for the service providers, the youth and elderly facilities with a café, a creche, a toy library, classroom spaces, a commercial kitchen and a computer lab all surrounding a central performance space with an upper level recording studio. These were seen as the primary income-generating elements of the proposal.

The development was planned in three stages to facilitate funding and to allow for an immediate income from the operation of the refurbished existing building.

The primary feature, designed to attract attention and engagement, was a 16m transparent climbing tower, visible from the street and located next to the café. The intention was to bring interest and life to the street and to turn around the seedy economy of the existing street with a state of the art and environmentally and economically sustainable facility. Stage 2 involved the development of a purpose-designed facility for the service providers, releasing more space in the original building for community facilities. Stage 3 involved the development of a connecting gymnasium and work-out facility with associated physical therapies. The three distinct elements of the design were clustered around a central courtyard to be used for farmers markets, cultural and food festival and parkour activities.

Ground Floor Plan of High School

Site 2: The High School

Unlike the Countdown site, the green-field opportunity offered more flexibility to include elements that space had not permitted in the alternative proposal. This was not intended as a staged development but as a once-and-for-all proposal. The three basic divisions of activities were retained but were able to be functionally linked in more exciting ways. The facility is approached down a long, formal driveway which carries on as an internal thoroughfare through the building to the gardens and fields beyond. The service providers are located to the east of this thoroughfare, and, once again, the youth facilities are clustered around the other side of the main social/performance space. The cold southerlies are blocked by the gymnasium, leaving the existing all-weather netball courts well protected. Once again, the facility was conceived on two levels with the service providers having their own wing. Wide galleries around the public performance and gymnasium spaces offer opportunities for extra learning and performance spaces as well as for people-watching.

Feedback from the community was uniformly positive with both the local print and radio media heaping praise upon the proposals and upon the students.

The Next Stage

On Monday, February 24th, the Pou Whakaaro Board of Trustees voted to purchase the previous Countdown Supermarket site and to carry the project through the next stage – the completion of building construction drawings and specifications and the acquisition of a building permit.

They decided that of the two design proposals, the Countdown site was the least expensive if only because 50% of the space is already provided by the existing building. The primary advantage of the Countdown site was that it would revitalize an unpleasant and seedy part of the town that is also closer to the Hub’s target population.

Already, key service providers are lining up to participate in the program. The provider groups have already had extensive discussions with potential funding agencies and are confident that the goals are achievable. They need to be. If we are to turn around the dreadful social and economic statistics that we face, nothing less than a concerted effort by the whole community will succeed.

The aim is to make the facility universally accessible no matter what level of physical, economic or social ability an individual might have – and to build bridges across social, cultural and economic gaps to create a rapport and a sense of awhinatanga or mutual support throughout the town, as indeed, we did in the design project. The medium is the message, as they say.

I also wish to note the significance of working with indigenous groups, and in particular, groups who do not share our dominant language. This is a point to a much larger issue. Since this is, after all, an educational conference, I believe it is important to note the importance of having our students (as well as ourselves) engage with real, rather than imaginary transformative projects – to immerse them/ourselves in the community as a form of critical pedagogy that takes seriously the need for our young people to take up the challenge of systemic change in the world as well as the classroom.

As educators, we ourselves cannot expect to influence the wider community and to help bring about conditions of greater equity and justice if we remain safe behind the walls of our ivory towers and communicate only with each other in our private languages. We cannot, after all, hope to “liberate the masses” if we use language that the “masses” themselves do not understand. To do so would merely extend enslavement to the oppressions of capitalism of which the obscurity of our specialized discourse is itself a symptom.


The most significant pedagogical failing of this project, I suspect, was the inability to bring about opportunities for lasting attitudinal changes in our students that would ensure they continue to work creatively for a more just and equitable world after the project is completed.

The social agenda of architecture that flourished from the 1920s until the 1980s was critically undermined by the advent of postmodernism – which was not coincidentally contemporaneous with the resurgence of free market economics. The ethos of architecture and architectural education since that time has been dictated primarily by fashion and the need to develop an image that can attract future work. With the erosion of the state, private development has become the universal norm – largely dominated by large and profiteering corporate entities for whom minimal capital cost and maximum economic return are the prevailing parameters.

The educational context that emerges from these values impacts directly on the students, for whom the ideal of being a “lead designer” in a corporate office becomes the accepted norm, Design studio projects that have a high social and/or political context tend, in this context, to be seen as fascinating yet eccentric. One of the tasks of such projects is to rebuild or re-establish a connection between architecture and the creation of social and political processes to bring about social change. This is no easy matter, especially over the longer term.

In my previous projects, students who have done remarkable work on community design projects such as this have often later drifted back into the normative professional model of elitist design. We were fortunate in this instance, that the Unitec School of Architecture has a proud tradition of doing social architecture, and many of our students in this project were committed to the community ideals that it embodied. They did a remarkable job in the limited time that we had available. But there simply was not enough time to draw out the broader social, political and economic issues of free-market capitalism and its impact on small communities that I have described in this paper. The broader theoretical base was of necessity left unexplored. It is important, then, to determine how this might be corrected.

One of the difficulties is systemic. The University is the arm of the state, and as such is an instrument of its oppressive tendencies. This has become increasingly apparent over the last ten years with the penetration of academia by the corporate world. As states have cut their education budgets and privatised more and more sections of the education portfolio, as Universities have eliminated tenure positions and relied increasingly on low-paid, non-unionized adjunct teaching staff, we have witnessed a marked reduction in both academic freedom and protest.

It is a brave academic, who, these days can speak truth to power by (for instance) outlining theories for the abandonment of the free market or of capitalism itself. In this aura of intimidation and fear, the language of academia has become increasingly opaque in order to mask progressive intentions, and programmes that might have had a potentially transformative agenda have been reduced in many cases to an apology for the status quo power.

The Unitec School of Architecture is not immune from these social and economic pressures, but has succeeded better than most in providing opportunities for community engagement and social transformation, and it was for this reason that we chose to conduct our design studio there.

The Dynamics of Community Engagement

There are currently innumerable service learning and community engagement courses offered at universities around the world that aim to serve and help beleaguered communities to achieve social and economic self-determination. But many of them have the opposite effect.

Walking the fine line between institutional acceptance and transformative action, they opt to bring prestige and kudos to the academic world – giving the impression that they are contributing to the common good, while invariably, through their charitable ethos, they leave the communities they serve increasingly impoverished and dependent because they presume a pre-existent cultural deficit that must be filled. They ignore or de-legitimate the existing social, cultural and economic knowledge and skills that are already operating in the community itself and that could and should form the foundation of its emancipatory process.

Because of a misguided sense of intellectual or social superiority, these otherwise well-meaning but privileged academic programmes steal from their recipient communities their opportunity to liberate themselves, invariably, using high-academic language that the community members themselves do not understand.

Any attempt to confront this academic game directly risks peer and institutional censure – accusations of lack of academic rigor, of political bias and indoctrination – and exclusion from the game itself. Witness for instance, David Horowitz’s invective about “dangerous academics.” Confronting the University’s own culpability in state hegemony and social, cultural and economic oppression is risky, and walking the fine line of institutional acceptance and social activism is difficult, but absolutely necessary. Despite these difficulties there remains still the hope and opportunity for creative academics to resolve these tensions and contradictions through programs that combine both critical theory and praxis in a form of community engagement that avoids the pitfall of charitable and therefore patronizing work.

Theory – Practice: Community Praxis

One of the difficulties confronting academics who wish to engage in community praxis concerns the tensions that exist between educational praxis – critical pedagogy – which sees the problem of developing pedagogies that flow from and can reflexively inform educational theories, and community praxis that is concerned with social, cultural and political change in the world beyond academia in a direct engagement in community activism. For many academics, the conscientization of students confines itself to the academic environment, to the classroom, and rarely, if ever, extends beyond this in a relationship with what I have elsewhere called a “critical other” – the non-academic real world of the oppressed.

This engagement between the academic and the “real” world does exist, of course, but it is often framed as “service learning” and is often associated with organizations that while supporting the needs of the poor and disenfranchised through work with non-profits, charities, and multifarious social service entities, does not have as one of its goals an agenda of structural change and social and political transformation. It is often a safe way of engaging with the community that accepts the status quo power. Such projects and relationships are designed to ameliorate the worst effects of existing social and economic disparities rather than to eliminate them. Within the capitalist system this is often the only avenue available for social engagement.

Direct engagement with the community is often seen as social activism in academia and is characterized by the academy as violating the ethic of social and cultural neutrality that has been socially constructed to validate, protect and legitimate that other illusory notion of academic freedom. This self-censorship effectively emasculates social and political engagement of any consequence and curbs the ability of the academy to pursue its (mythical?) role as the conscience of society. It also prevents the academy from constructing a domain of actual (rather than supposed) relevance to the struggles of the oppressed. Taken together, these two constraints make it difficult for academics to effectively participate in processes of social transformation.

In the context of our work on the Whakatane Community Hub project, we encountered this same dilemma. While working through committed and conscientious social service agencies we continually strove to engage directly with the community (through our survey) public exhibitions and utterances etc. The dilemma also impacts directly on the process of engagement. In projects of this kind, the tutors must strive continually to establish both an authentic, critical and collaborative pedagogy within the studio, while at the same time advocating on behalf of and protecting the interests of the engaged community.

Often communities that have suffered hardship and systemic discrimination (like those I have described earlier) are reluctant to trust “do-gooders,” having been previously exploited (and disappointed) by those seeking to serve their own research interests rather than those of the community. This is particularly true in indigenous communities such as Māori. The tension between these academic and social and cultural imperatives continually shapes both the pedagogy and the design outcomes, and it is one of the main tasks of the tutor to continually channel the attention of the students towards direct community engagement. Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo make this very clear:

It is very common to find intellectuals who authoritatively discuss the right of the subordinated classes to liberate themselves. The mere act of talking about the working class as objects of their reflections smacks of elitism on the part of these intellectuals. There is only one way to overcome this elitism, which is also authoritarian and implies an inconsistency in intellectuals’ revolutionary discourse. These intellectuals ought to stop speaking about and start speaking with the working classes. When educators expose themselves to the working classes, they automatically begin to become re-educated (136).

The task of a critical pedagogy is two-fold. First, to transform the awareness of the students, and second, to bring about a process of social transformation in the larger world. These two forms are related, and ultimately the former can only be accomplished through an engagement with the latter, or, as Freire has put it:

Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth. Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were. (25)

In the Whakatane Hub project this was an ongoing task, which left little time to also critically explore the social problems and to link them to their root causes in historical colonial oppression and ongoing colonialism in the form of contemporary free market capitalism. The project was just too short. In the future, I see the necessity of a parallel course in critical social theory, alongside such design studio programmes as one way of helping students to make these theory-praxis connections.

One person who has done this successfully is my friend and colleague, Tom Dutton at Miami University’s Centre for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. His continuing involvement in this largely African-American community for almost 20 years offers an exemplary model for those of us who are committed to social change. Tom’s residential programme places white, privileged students from multiple disciplines within the black community and teaches them the essence of solidarity, carrying out real, live action design projects that are developed against a seminar-based critical exploration of the ideology of free-market capitalism. The results are invariably remarkable.

Final Thoughts: Evaluation and Grading

It was one of the key characteristics of this pedagogy (as it is in all of my design studio projects) that the students grade themselves and that I act only as a mediator in the process whereby grades are assigned and agreed by consensus. There are several reasons for this. The first is, as Freire has made clear, that classroom interactions operate on the basis of power relations between the “teacher” and the “student.”

In the normative “banking system” of education this relationship is clear. The teacher teaches, the student learns and the teacher evaluates what the student has learned. In a pedagogy for liberation, on the other hand, the distinctions between teacher and learner must be dissolved. As Freire notes:

For the anti-dialogical banking educator, the question of content simply concerns the programme about which he will discourse to his students; and he answers his own question by organising his own programme. For the dialogical problem-posing teacher-student, the programme content of education is neither a gift nor an imposition – bits of information to be deposited in the students – but rather the organised, systematised, and developed “re- presentation” to individuals of the things about which they want to know more (65-6).

This representation cannot be determined in advance, but must evolve from the dialogue between the teacher-learner and the learner-teacher, and this dialogue requires, above all else, the establishment of trust. This trust cannot be established in a context in which some voices are suppressed by others, where the “teacher’s” voice predominates. Henry A. Giroux notes:

It is important to construct a pedagogy of voice and difference around the recognition that some practices (voices/stories) define themselves through the suppression of other voices…(160-1)

The key to the erosion of trust in the normative power relationship between “teacher” and “learner” is the issue of evaluation and grading. Too often, critical pedagogues fail to make the connection between their acceptance of the existing institutional regimes of evaluation and their pedagogies in the classroom. Gregory Baum has described the dialectic beautifully:

True dialogue takes place only among equals. There is no dialogue across the boundary between masters and servants, for the master will listen only as long as his power remains intact and the servant will limit his communication only to utterances for which he cannot be punished. In fact, to recommend dialogue in a situation of inequality of power is a deceptive ideology of the powerful, who wish to persuade the powerless that harmony and mutual understanding are possible in society without any change in the status quo power (43-4).

In the absence of mediating others, the power relationship between the teacher and the student is unfairly skewed in the direction of the teacher, and always comes down in the end to the issue of grading. As long as the critical educator clings to the power to grade his or her students, so does s/he fails to grasp the key element of liberation. The power to grade is the ultimate academic power, must itself become a part of the dialogical process required both to build trust and to democratize the teacher-learner relationship. Trust is something that the dialogical process itself produces and which becomes one of the focus elements of dialogical production. This process takes time as each participant experiences the others in the context of a critical appraisal of the consistency between their pronouncements and their actions. Freire states:

Trust is contingent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true, concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with his actions. To say one thing and do another – to take one’s own word lightly – cannot inspire trust. To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to discourse on humanism and to negate man is a lie. (64)

For critical pedagogues to proclaim their commitment to liberation and transformation while clinging to the power to grade their students, and thus to hold on to the ultimate instrument of that power is a lie! What this means is that critical pedagogues have no alternative than to relinquish the power to grade and to find alternative forms of evaluation that are democratic and empowering. This requires a reciprocating trust, that the “learners” will not abuse that power. This is not an easy process, but it is very necessary.

In “mainstream” pedagogies that stress individualism and competition, it is particularly difficult. But in co-operative learning situations it is less so. In these cases, the “learners” themselves are invariably more aware than the “teacher” of the effort and quality of that they each have contributed. So, it makes more sense to tap into this collective experience in the evaluation of the work. In addition, if one of the goals of a critical pedagogy is to help “learners” to acquire a realistic understanding of their own abilities and accomplishments, then evaluations by the “teacher” steal from the “learner” the opportunity to develop this critical awareness. In addition, the perceptions and evaluative experiences that critical others (peers and colleagues) have of one’s work constitutes a realistic counter-framework within which self-evaluation can develop. As Freire and Macedo note:

One has to respect the levels of understanding that those becoming educated have of their own reality. To impose on them one’s own understanding in the name of their liberation is to accept authoritarian solutions as ways to freedom. But to assume the naiveté of those becoming educated demands from educators a most necessary humility to assume also their ability to criticise, thus overcoming our naiveté as well. (41)

Freire goes on to make the important point that creativity, as a process of thought, is always a social, and never an individual act. Even when it is done alone, the act of creation is an act in which the creator conducts a silent co-operative dialogue with invisible others (136-7). Taking seriously the commitment to critical pedagogy therefore means both an acknowledgement of the primacy of co-operative learning and co-operative evaluation – all carried out in the presence of a community’s struggling to rid itself of oppression. It was in this context that we carried out our collective work on the Whakatane Community Hub project.

Tony Ward is Lecturer in Education at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, New Zealand. He was
Distinguished Visiting Professor in Education, Psychology and Architecture, at Miami University in Ohio from 2009-10 and Associate Professor of Education at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, New Zealand from 2000-2006.  Director of Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, New Zealand 2000-2006. He was a practicing architect in Britain, the USA and New Zealand until 2005.

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