blog post

Transformative Education for the Betterment of the World: An Interview with Dr. Chitra Golestani

Dr. Chitra Golestani is Associate Director of the Wilmette Institute offering online courses in Baha’i Studies and Social Transformation for learners in the U.S. and abroad. She serves on the faculty for the Institute for Humane Education’s graduate programs with Antioch University New England. She is co-founder of the Paulo Freire Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she is a research associate and lecturer and serves on the editorial board for Global Commons Review, a magazine published by the Paulo Freire Institute and produced by the UNESCO-UCLA Chair on Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Science and Comparative Education from UCLA and a Master’s in Education from University of California, Santa Barbara. Her areas of interest and research include Human Rights, Social Justice and Global Citizenship Education, Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice, Youth Activism in Extended Education, Conscious Living, and Social Action. To those of us who work closely with Chitra, she is one of those rare blends of extraordinary intellect coupled with profound kindness and compassion.

IHE: Would you share how your family’s experiences fleeing Iran, and the oppression they endured as members of the Baha’i faith, influenced you and helped lead to your work in humane education?

Chitra: I think the hardest part of fleeing Iran to seek religious freedom in the U.S. was not just leaving loved ones behind, but the fact that our family had to live with the constant feeling of helplessness as our uncle would be taken to prison for having a Baha’i gathering, or people we knew were killed because they served at a Baha’i institution. Stories of people who would not recant their faith under hideous pressures, such as forcing families to choose whether the parents or kids would be killed first in front of the others, weighed heavily on our hearts. While the international outcry regarding the human rights abuses curbed killings, the persecution became more sophisticated, marginalizing the members of the Baha’i community from birth to death. Even at this moment, Baha’is are given long prison sentences just because of their beliefs and are entirely barred from higher education, government jobs, and education positions, and are not even permitted to have a business license.

In the midst of the persecution and economic strangulation of the Iranian Baha’i community, I had to ask myself time and again, what was fueling such intense multi-faceted persecution even though light had been shed on this oppression? I realized that while obvious Baha’i principles such as equality of women and men and no clergy perturbed the government, one main threat was the principle of the harmony of science and religion, because the chief instrument the government used to keep persecution alive in Iran was religious fanaticism.

I was raised with the idea that religion without science can degrade into superstition and fanaticism, and science without religion/spirituality can become an instrument for materialism. In my doctoral program, I set out to discover various aspects of social sciences and was disappointed with mainstream epistemologies such as positivism that seemed limiting in the face of interrelated and multi-dimensional issues. Critical, feminist, and indigenous theories provided alternative perspectives on social reality, yet the theoretical and methodological encampments failed to provide a holistic conceptual framework for sustained social change.

It was not until I came upon humane education and read Zoe Weil’s work that I realized there is an organization – the Institute for Humane Education –  which partnered with institutions of higher education to understand the interrelationships between humans, animals, and the Earth though critical systems thinking and solution-based pedagogy. Exploring the connections between human rights, environmental ethics, and animal welfare deeply correlated with my intellectual and spiritual outlook and praxis. Moreover, unlike my experience in other institutions of higher education that were focused on unpacking social problems, IHE took an interdisciplinary approach that was focused on “solutionary” praxis. 

In my new position as the associate director of the Wilmette Institute, humane education and solutionary approaches permeate my thinking, whether working as an administrator, educator, or community activist.

IHE: You co-founded the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA. How has Freire impacted your thinking and teaching?

Chitra: The work of Paulo Freire has shaped my philosophy of education and praxis for social transformation in profound ways. His classic book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, followed by Pedagogy of Hope, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage, and We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Myles Horton and Paulo Freire) are on top of my list. I will comment on Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as that book impacted me the most as I formed my educational philosophy in graduate school. 

Due to my experience with the oppression endured by the Baha’i community of Iran, Freire’s work on oppressive relations, humanization (becoming fully human) and dehumanization, pedagogy, critical consciousness, and social transformation spoke to me on many levels. As I gained more experience in the field of education, I built on Freire’s conceptual framework.

Upon reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I asked myself, if humanity is to move toward recognizing universal ethics, and people are to become more “fully human,” what is the role of the oppressed and the oppressors in the liberation of humankind? From a Freirian perspective, there are politically and socio-economically privileged people who are oppressors and marginalized people who are oppressed. The oppressed are dehumanized by the oppressors; however, it is not the oppressors that can liberate the oppressed. Freire contended that only the oppressed can liberate themselves from the injustice they face through a raised consciousness about determining their own destinies. Freire elaborated about this relationship by saying that the oppressed are not the only ones dehumanized in the process of marginalizing others. He argued, “As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.” He demonstrates that all humans are inextricably linked in their material and spiritual oppression and liberation.

In my current understanding, I believe the oppressor and oppressed binary is conceptually limiting and was used to make clear points by Freire who also recognized that oppressive relations are far more complex. In the same book, he also stated that the oppressed, in their pursuit of change, can become oppressors and sub-oppressors. For me, oppressive relations are too fluid to be categorized and can not only be manifested within one population or community but even within a single person!

Just as the oppressed must break the cycle of injustice through a critical consciousness that acts as a catalyst for becoming an agent of change, the oppressors must also have a raised consciousness and proactively choose to regain their humanity and change their perceived destiny as oppressors.  So, how can humanity end oppressive relations?

Freire’s conceptualization of liberatory pedagogy rests on conscientização – raising critical consciousness – through education. He is not talking about the more typical kind of education that promotes intellectual competition. Rather, he’s promoting education that goes beyond the concept of “read the word” (or technology) to “read the world” (social reality). His goal is to “name the world and change it.”

Whatever category – oppressor and/or oppressed – we may be ascribed on a given day, “In order for the oppressed [and in my view the oppressor] to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation they can transform.” In order to arrive at a raised consciousness about our role as agents of change in society, we must first critically analyze the causes of oppression, “so that through transforming action [we] can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity.” To do this, we need to have “love, humility and faith,” because changing the world is not only about changing minds but also hearts and consciousness.

IHE: We have been so fortunate to have you teach IHE’s graduate level Human Rights and Culture and Change courses for many years now. Can you share a story or two about how you’ve seen humane education impacting student’s lives and their communities?

Chitra: It has been an amazing experience to be in IHE’s intellectual community of students, faculty, and administrators who approach the world’s most pressing issues with innovative solution-based thinking; compassion for the earth and its inhabitants; and authentic commitment to creating a more peaceful, sustainable, and just future. The students I have had the pleasure to work with truly demonstrated how “It always seems impossible until it is done” (Nelson Mandela). Whether it is an M.A. student who writes an impactful article reconceptualizing how to dismantle racism from the grassroots, an M.Ed. student who employs stimulating pedagogy in the classroom, or an activist who creates an ethical tourism social business, this community of learners are engaged in changemaking praxis.

I remember meeting a married couple at an IHE residency in Maine. I was struck by their authentic commitment to be their best selves so that they could contribute to building a better world. One student transformed his personal life by taking charge of his health through a plant-based diet, created his own organization, and met unprecedented goals he had set for himself. His wife combined her interests, talents, creativity, and knowledge to create her own social business. Together, they demonstrate how humane education can penetrate various aspects of our lives: from health to education to consciousness raising to implementing solutionary thinking and action. Each year it was a gift to read student self-evaluations at the end of the graduate program as many students expressed that IHE’s graduate program was “transformative.”

IHE: You’ve been working in transformational education throughout your career. What positive changes have you noticed in the field of education since you began your work?

Chitra: In the last 20 years, I have increasingly witnessed graduate schools of education include critical pedagogy and Freirian philosophy in their programs. New educators look down upon the “banking concept” of education because they value dialogical learning and teaching characterized by a teacher-student relationship that is “horizontal” rather than “vertical.”

Unfortunately, for minorities and the poor in economically-deprived communities, ineffective educational policies and practices continue with crowded schools, teachers desperate for support as students fall through the cracks, and lack of funding for needed programs that paralyze progress. Social, political, and economic systems that are built on ethically-bankrupt foundations clearly affect the field of education. Yet, we are also witnessing a transformation in education as it is re-defined from training masses to conform to the status quo, to building capacity in learners to use their skills and talents towards creating a world in which we can all thrive.

In schools with adequate funding, education has come alive with educators employing dialogue and problem-posing education to get students to think and innovate instead of memorize and regurgitate. Educators use many aspects of humane education, including eco-pedagogy, social emotional learning, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and global citizenship education to teach about empathy, diversity, and civic responsibility locally and globally. 

IHE: What is transformative education to you?

Chitra: Education is a process of gaining knowledge, critical consciousness, universal virtues, solutionary thinking and tapping into our capacities to contribute to the advancement of society. Not any kind of education can produce this lofty outcome. Transformative education engenders collaboration and a collective consciousness for the prosperity of all. For me, it includes gaining both scientific knowledge and spiritual insights as we are multidimensional beings. When knowledge and insights translate not only into awareness but also into a lifelong will to work toward the betterment of the world, that is the power of education.