Changing Women: An Ethnographic Study of Homeless Mothers and Popular Education

Article excerpt

This article discusses ethnographic research conducted between 1995 and 1998 that studied the impact of popular education on the lives of fifty homeless and formerly homeless mothers. Data collection involved in-depth interviews and participant observation in a family shelter located in one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods. The article argues that popular education increased the women's self-esteem, they were inspired to help other low-income women, they learned to advocate for their rights and they became more involved in their children's education. The findings suggest that popular education can best address the academic, personal, and community goals of very poor women.


Between 1995 and 1998, I studied the impact of popular education on a group of fifty homeless and formerly homeless mothers who participated in a shelter-based adult literacy program located in one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods. When I first visited The Family Shelter, I met with a group of homeless mothers who were studying for their General Education Diplomas (GED). They said they were returning to school to improve their economic opportunities and to provide a better life for their children. They also said they were fortunate to be clients in the Family Shelter's unique popular education program because it provided them with more than basic literacy skills.

The popular education classes at The Family Shelter were rooted in a model of education that involved problem-posing and consciousness-raising activities based upon the problems or "generative themes" in the lives of the poor women. Popular education is a methodology of teaching and learning through dialogue that directly links curriculum content to people's lived experience and that inspires political action (Beder, 1996; Freire, 1990, 1973; Williams, 1996). The majority of the popular education classes I observed in the Family Shelter focused on generative themes related to Motherhood and Parenting, and Social Inequality. The generative themes were also linked to subject matter that developed and strengthened reading and numeracy skills. Teachers used stories written by homeless women, neighborhood newspapers and photographs as "codes" to represent the generative themes in the lives of the women. In their classes, the women discussed the problems represented in codes, how they had experienced these problems, why the problems existed, and what could be done to address them. I observed how the popular education classes inspired homeless and formerly homeless mothers to become actively involved in changing their community, both inside and outside of The Family Shelter. I sought to learn more about popular education and its potential for promoting collective social action.

The purpose of this article is to examine how the homeless mothers were affected by their participation in the popular education program at the Family Shelter. Based on my observations, I argue that the Family Shelter's popular education philosophy and the provision of comprehensive social services addressed the women's personal, academic, and community needs. I argue that popular education had a positive impact on the lives of the homeless mothers that extended beyond learning important reading and numeracy skills.


This article focuses on a sub-set of data from a larger study (Rivera, 2000). Between January 1995 and June 1998, I gathered data from 50 currently and formerly homeless women about their classroom experiences in popular education classes at the Family Shelter. I conducted over 1500 hours of participant observation in popular education classes at the Family Shelter. Most of the observations occurred in classrooms as women participated in discussions based on subject material provided by teachers or injected by the women into the program planning. Research also included an open-ended education history questionnaire.

Over three years, I collected a significant amount of data from fieldnotes, education histories, and transcripts from interviews. …


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