- Education as a Human RightThe Real Great Society and a Pedagogy of Activism
Loisaida came into my life; it was in the back of a van, you know, and I said Chino I found the name and I came back to the Lower East Side and there was the whole parallel between Don Quixote in the fifteenth century and Chino and I cause we think we’re in love with this community that nobody wants. So there, how could there be decay and there could be growth in the same place? It’s because creativity is taking place here.1—Bimbo Rivas, Viva Loisaida
In the mid-1960s, when Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was developing the framework for critical pedagogy in exile in Chile, President Lyndon B. Johnson was implementing his antipoverty programs across the United States. At the same time, Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre was in the midst of writing his seminal Le Droit à la ville (1968) in France. In the context of these global and seemingly unrelated events—all of which helped shape what we now call the capital-S “Sixties”—a group of former Puerto Rican gang members founded the Real Great Society (RGS) in New York City’s Lower East Side to solve what President Johnson’s Great Society programs were unable to properly address: educating gang members and poor or at-risk teenagers from the bottom up. I examine the efforts of this community activist group to develop its own educational philosophy, which [End Page 123] was both a grassroots reaction to President Johnson’s programs and a radical critique of a public school system that offered inadequate support for Puerto Rican children whose first language was Spanish. The work of RGS followed in the wake of Article 26 of the United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as agreed upon in Paris in 1948. Paragraph 1 demands that “everyone has the right to education” and Paragraph 2 specifies that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”2 Rather than just discussing RGS within the context of Loisaida alone, I argue that RGS was an activist community group that adhered to global ideas of human rights in the arena of radical education.3 I term this philosophy “pedagogy of activism,” which is a grassroots educational philosophy that achieves its goals of educating poor and at-risk teenagers through concrete work and community activism rooted in real-life subject matters. I deem this a radical practice because RGS turned apathetic neighborhood residents and gang members into community leaders and teachers, effectively creating a Puerto Rican activist network on the Lower East Side.
In an interview with LIFE Magazine, founding member of RGS Angelo Gonzalez stated outright that the group “knew President Johnson was trying to get to [them] . . . but he just didn’t know how.”4 So rather than hiding their criminal pasts, RGS openly admitted that their members “fought each other, fought other people, robbed them—even tried to kill them—and sometimes went to jail.”5 Gonzalez used this language to demonstrate the credibility of RGS, to tell fellow gang members and at-risk teenagers that RGS members had been involved in gangs themselves and may have solutions that could help those living in impoverished or neglected urban neighborhoods. In the group’s open letter, Gonzalez summarized three key elements of RGS that addressed, implemented, or predated the much larger ideas and programs of Freire, Lefebvre, and President Johnson: (1) the right to neighborhood space for economic security, (2) the right to educational space, and (3) the right to respect as human beings. Specifically, they established a small business called the Fabulous Latin House, which was used as the headquarters as well as the primary source of income for the group, and also created the University of the Streets in 1967 to provide an educational space with content [End Page 124] “that was related to the things [they] wanted to accomplish and was right for the people who...