Practising Community Activism


Phyllis remembers the moment when she became a social activist in the community beyond the university.

It was 1970. I was in the UK on leave from Memorial. My husband was a graduate student in German Literature and I was mostly at home with our two small children. As I watched the Biafra Crisis unfold on TV I was jolted from the position of sympathetic observer of disasters (as I'd always been) to the position of a person who could no longer stand by and watch such suffering without trying to take meaningful action.

Phyllis believes it was her powerful identification with mothers who had to watch their children starve that shifted her from sympathy, distress and outrage to the knowledge that she had to seek out ways to bring about change. She started that week by collecting blankets to send to Biafra.

OXFAM volunteering

On her return to St. John's in 1972, Phyllis went back to university teaching. She also volunteered for Oxfam Canada. The local group, being more overtly political than Oxfam in the UK, worked for structural changes at home and abroad, trying to get at the root causes of poverty and aiming for sustained, long-term change. Phyllis acknowledged, "Of course I knew that meaningful change required more than blankets!" In Canada she worked on local, regional and national Oxfam boards and projects. Most important, it was through Oxfam that she started to develop a theoretical and political framework for her social concerns and actions.

An Oxfam/Memorial colleague set up a discussion series on the liberation pedagogy of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, specifically his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Phyllis remembers: "On Friday afternoons we met in an old downtown building, which we renovated ourselves (a building still owned and used by Oxfam). Two were retirees, perhaps two or three were students, and the rest of us were working at MUN, raising our kids and renovating our own old houses. These were heady days. We developed a strong sense of community around our shared values and activities. We funded the travel of a political refugee from Chile, gave him a job at the Oxfam Centre, and for a few months a home with me and my family."

From the 1970s on, the work of Freire and his followers informed Phyllis's university teaching and research as well as her community activism. According to Freire, says Phyllis, the teacher's role is not to fill students' heads with pre-digested knowledge. Instead teachers and students are learners together; they collaborate in the creation of knowledge and the reshaping of society to liberate us from destructive hierarchies of power and oppression. "Freire's approach provided the structure I needed to question and strengthen my emerging (and intertwined) academic, political and community commitments, and my parenting," she told Liz.