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Learning Through Play

AFSC - TAO Newsletter
September 2004

By Nicole Bradford AFSC – Austin Area Program Committee Member

Over the last year, I have been afforded the honor of attending Austin Tan Cetca de la Frontera delegations to the border where delegates meet with members of the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), or Border Committee of Women Workers. Through these delegations, I have been able to observe the CFO's communication and teaching techniques.

Julia Quiñonez, CFO Coordinator in Piedras Negras, Mexico, gave us an excellent example of their unique educational techniques. CFO members had been talking for long hours, venting issues with rushes of emotion, brainstorming for possible solutions. Everyone was exhausted. Conversation had been driven into the dirt and emptiness resonated loudly throughout the room.

So Julia orchestrated a game of musical chairs to energize everyone with movement and laughter, taking their emotions from the dirt and infusing them with the power to continue. Blending a forum intent on addressing and working through serious issues with what seems to be carefree games is an innovative idea which ultimately serves the purpose of the forum and illuminates the energy and imagination of those participating. These participatory techniques are part of an educational model called popular education.

These activities generate intensified expressions, which is vital when approaching the serious issues the CFO addresses on a daily basis. During business or personal meetings, most people sit in chairs trying not to ruffle their surroundings too much. Truly attentive, involved listening, processing and espousing become stunted under these circumstances, as the circulation of our bodies slows and our thoughts lose momentum and accuracy. The CFO's tactics counteract these stagnant inclinations; instead they involve the whole body in the mind's processes, the two energizing each other in a synergistic feedback loop. To really play along you have to release ideas ingrained and taken for granted, such as the boundaries of your personal space, your definition of productivity, and your acceptable degrees of laughter, release, movement and emotion.

On a delegation to Piedras Negras last year, we played "hot potato." Whoever was left with the "potato" had to sing, recite poetry, dance a jig, or display some other raw talent. The effect of such nonsensical, fast-paced, personal exploration in the context of a large group was hilarious and emphatically effective. In this format you get to know each person a little better in some bizarre way, and everyone is encouraged to open themselves up, so that some raw character has an opportunity to air out. Other games that encourage touching and movement enable us to redefine our personal boundaries within the group; holding hands, rushing around chasing, bumping into one another and the immense physicality of laughing, opens everyone up to deeper levels of intimacy. After such an exercise the entire body is infused with attentiveness to the physical elements essential to listening and sharing; the communication that takes place in this spirit goes much deeper than that of the average conversation.

Interactions in this vein defy language barriers. I am amazed that the need to talk becomes negligible in these situations: words can be a superficial means of communication compared to the expression conveyed by a smile, or the touch of a hand on one's shoulder. These speak volumes. This is one of the rich aspects of this model, since it goes beyond language, culture and class barriers. In Mexico and more generally in Latin America, popular education has been used for decades as a tool for adult education. The AFSC office in Austin also uses this model in their community work.

We have so much to learn from communication skills our hosts gracefully exercise daily. Delegates sometimes fear romanticizing the lives and communities of the Mexicans we meet; however, it's important to understand that sprawling tract homes and cement stretches are not the principal mark of progress many look to in Mexico. It is necessary to separate the state of material poverty from the rich relationship they have with their families, friends, and the communication methods they call on daily to sustain motivation and negotiate the directions their lives take.

This is not to say that infrastructure development is not needed or wanted. However, the CFO makes phenomenal accomplishments through unique methods in community building, education, expression, preserving and redefining traditions, and empowerment of workers in the struggle for dignity. Julia Quiñonez asks that delegates not go home thinking of them as "poor Mexicans." Instead she asks us to understand the incredible progress that is being made by these pioneers in the struggle for dignity. She asks us to understand that the daily lives of those we meet may be difficult, yet there is hope, confidence, laughter, love, progress, and an incredible group of empowered voices that will not be silenced.

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www.cfomaquiladoras.org is produced in cooperation with the
Mexico-U.S Border Program
of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s (CFO)
Monterrey #1103, Col. Las Fuentes
Piedras Negras, Coahuila
C.P. 26010, México