How Community Organizing Taught Me to Teach

 October 19, 2017

CKUT Homelessness Marathon 2009

I can still remember the excitement and confusion of my first years out of college. Not yet sure what I wanted to do, I didn’t spend that time publishing peer-reviewed articles or attending conferences—I spent it working and volunteering as an activist, an independent media journalist, and a community organizer. But here’s the thing about those years: what they taught me about teaching, collaboration, and creativity has been as valuable to me in the academic world as the lessons of any class I’ve ever taken.

As a volunteer for CKUT—an anarchist-run community radio station in Montreal, funded by McGill University—I had the opportunity to interview artists and public intellectuals, to get to know grassroots movements and the people who make them, and to teach. I and my fellow volunteers would host skills workshops where everyone from college grads to folks without housing would show up to learn how to use recording equipment, turn facts into narratives, and speak the truth in ways that would inspire people to take notice and take action. (Here’s a more recent example from after my time there: The Dragonroot Project – A Workshop Series on Gendered Violence.) Like so many teachers, I found out right away that I had more to learn from “my students” than they had to learn from me. Workshop attendees were people with radically different backgrounds, beliefs, and struggles, and while I had come to CKUT to volunteer as a journalist and speak truth to power, it soon become obvious that I could accomplish a lot more by listening.

CKUT taught me that the world is full of voices, most of which are drowned out by disenfranchisement and the unequal distribution of privilege. I decided that the best thing I could do would be to get a microphone into the hands of as many silenced people as I could manage, to help create the conditions of possibility for voices that many of us never hear to be heard. In that regard I was like a lot of other volunteers at CKUT, doing what I could to run workshops, edit recordings with respect, and work through the night of our annual Homelessness Marathon to provide food, coffee, and a widely broadcast public forum to the city’s uncared for and forgotten.

CKUT Homelessness Marathon 2013

All of these experiences taught me valuable lessons about working hard with groups of very different kinds of people, and in time my volunteer work as a kind of teacher began to shift out of the realm of practical skills and to take on a more conceptual character. I increasingly directed my time working with the community toward collective conversations about power: about the underlying structural conditions of our lives and the ways they shaped us as people—both in terms of the validity of our unique perspectives and the problems of our implicit biases. That work is what started me on the path of really, truly reading. As a biology major I had never studied the thinkers from whom we get concepts like “structural conditions” and “implicit bias,” and it was at CKUT that I first experienced life as a productive combination of research and teaching, a process that allows conversation to drive a collective experience of learning in which everyone’s voice is heard.

CKUT Homelessness Marathon 2/26/2013

Eventually I had to go back to school. I had too many questions and too much trouble making sense of certain French philosophers not to pursue a master’s degree. After that, I was hooked. I’m now nearing the end of a dissertation on nineteenth-century biology and British fiction, a project that has taken me further than ever into the deep questions of who we are and how we got here as a culture, and I can honestly tell you that there’s a direct connection between everything I’m doing now and everything I did then. My early lessons in teaching as a practice of listening have informed my current practices as an adaptable teacher. They have allowed me to help my students understand some of the very things I came to graduate school to learn by making it possible for me to figure out how to help them formulate difficult concepts in their own voices. My students continue to surprise and humble me, and to remind me that while I might have certain kinds of knowledge or technical skills, all people bring their own distinctive insights, perspectives, and modes of understanding. Sometimes that fact can get a little harder to see in the traditionally hierarchical space of the classroom, but community organizing taught me that teaching is listening, and I’ve been listening, or trying to, ever since.


Phillip Stillman

Ph.D. candidate, English; Graduate Student Affairs Administrative Intern, The Graduate School

Phillip Stillman is an intern in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs and is preparing to defend his dissertation on biology and British fiction in the nineteenth century. He studies the work done by novelists to manage the contraction between Enlightenment notions of personhood and the modern science of human biology, arguing that in the nineteenth century, it fell to fiction to imagine the human being as both autonomous individual and a biological organism at once. You can find out more on his LinkedIn page.