What does commitment to equity and anti-racism mean in adult education?

Many of us choose to work in adult education to advance economic and social opportunity through education for adults whose limited foundational skills hold them back. Most of us recognize that foundational skills alone do not guarantee economic success, but they do improve the odds as an essential milestone in people’s education journey. In the context of a rampant triple pandemic of COVID, racism, and economic inequality, the cards are stacked heavily against adult learners.  The brutal inequalities have been laid bare even though they have always existed.  The question for us as a field is what should be adult education’s role in addressing these systemic inequalities.

Like so many of our colleagues and partner organizations, we at World Education are taking a hard look at what does a true commitment to equity and anti-racism mean in our work in adult education and workforce development.  The lives and needs of adult learners have always been our North Star at World Education.   Perhaps the longest-standing, concrete expression of our commitment to social justice in adult education is our Change Agent magazine that we have published since 1995 as a teaching and learning resource.  Through it we lift and honor learners’ voices and experiences around important topics that matter to adults and encourage social action.

Our collective commitment to advancing access to high-quality adult education and digital inclusion does address equity in education opportunity, but in and of itself falls short of active anti-racism even if the majority of adult learners who benefit from our efforts are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), US-born and immigrant.  It does not address structural barriers to help meet people’s basic needs for food, affordable housing, health care, or paid sick leave so that they can focus on their studies.

What then should be adult education’s purpose and role in the bigger context of adult learners’ lives?  Recent interviews with adult education leaders around the country revealed a distinct divide in this regard. As one interviewee put it: “If most students are in adult education because they want to have better economic opportunities and a career, why don’t we have a system that reflects that desire?”  In contrast, in a recent article, Ira Yankwitt, Director of New York City’s Literacy Assistance Center argues, “. . .that it is only by aligning ourselves with grassroots movements for justice that we can hope to also build the movement we need to elevate the importance of adult literacy education, increase funding, and advocate for a system that makes it possible for our students to truly realize their lifelong and life-wide goals”  (AEL Journal, spring 2020). By lifewide learning Dr. Reder refers to learning to meet diverse goals adults have as family and community members, not just as workers.

To begin with, as a field, we need to increase our understanding of the insidious impact of systemic racism and economic inequality. In the US Division, our regular discussions of readings and videos help deepen our understanding and complement a more far-reaching organization-wide plan.   We applaud our colleagues at Literacy Minnesota who offer a free Social Justice in Education certificate program online.  We commit to increasing our professional development offerings that help educators and adult learners to deepen their learning and sharing of lived experiences and elevate their voices.

A more holistic, multi-sector approach could increase the impact of adult education as a driver of economic mobility, and social and racial justice.  We can look to and learn from efforts such as the Literacy & Justice Initiative led by the Literacy Assistance Center in New York City that builds alliances between adult literacy programs and grassroots social justice organizations and connects classroom instruction to systemic change.  In our home state, the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education advocates for adult education AND economic justice, policies, such as emergency paid sick time, and eviction and foreclosure moratorium.  We also draw  inspiration from our SEIU union partners and their tireless advocacy for better working conditions and social justice.

Stay tuned and join our dialog as we ramp up our efforts to advance racial, economic, and social justice in the adult education context and for the benefit of all of us.

Published by

Silja Kallenbach

Silja Kallenbach

Silja is the Vice President of World Education, Inc. where she oversees the operations of WEI’s U.S. Division. Silja has 34 years of experience in adult education as administrator, professional development provider, program developer, researcher, and teacher. Silja is the recipient of the 2014 national award for Promoting Literacy Nationally and Internationally, issued by the Commission on Adult Basic Education.