Imagining Ubuntu from Latin America: Julia and Joao (or an unromantic story of schooling, love, and hate)

Gustavo E Fischman, Professor | Arizona State University

            When N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba asked me to reflect on the CIES 2015 conference theme of Ubuntu,[1] the memories of my encounter with Julia and João were too strong to ignore. I met Julia several years ago, when I was doing research about Escola Cidadã (Citizenship School) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. [2] I wanted to meet Julia because she was considered a controversial figure: an exemplary leader, somebody to consult on pedagogical issues, who was also a fierce critic of the ways the reform was being implemented. I was very curious to find out if there were “political pressures” or limitations placed on a principal who didn’t share the “official” political discourse about Escola Cidadã.

It was not difficult to schedule the visit to Julia’s school. Julia’s presence commanded respect and her voice, well-trained after 20 years as a teacher and 10 as a principal, was both respectful and imposing. After half an hour of a very engaging conversation and feeling that our initial rapport was good, the interview was abruptly interrupted by screams and knocks at the door of the school.

Julia: What’s going on? (Sulina, the school cook came to the office and was showing signs of discomfort)

Sulina: It is João, again. He wants to get in.

Julia: How is he? …

Sulina: (interrupting the principal) completely drunk and crazy as always

Julia: Let him in, give him some food and call Sabine (the assistant-principal) and if there is somebody from EJA (the Youth and Adult Literacy unit) call her too. No, let me handle him first. I will get the food and you call them.

At that point Julia looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, if you want to wait, no problem. I’ll be back”

I answered, “Oh, no problem, I will wait,” thinking that Julia would be back in 15 minutes. How long would it take for a principal to deal with a drunken student? A few minutes later Julia, her assistant-principal, an instructor from EJA and João got together in the principal’s office. While leaving the office, I was quite impressed by João. He was a very skinny, but tough looking black kid, of around 16-17 years old, missing all his upper front teeth, and smelling of alcohol and dirty clothes. That combination and my background in North American schools made me think again, “Well this is going to take only 15 minutes.”

An hour passed and from the next office I followed a vivid exchange between João and the teachers. Summarizing the long exchange between them, João simply wanted to be back at the school and the educators explained to João that:  he could not come drunk, and that since he was older now he should legally attend the adult and youth education program and not the regular school but that he was welcome to use the school and the library as often as he wanted. Finally, the principal asked him to sign a commitment promising that he was going to start the EJA program that same day. After that they sent him to take a shower, change his clothes and get ready to start the EJA program. Once João and the other teachers left the office I entered at the principal’s office again, and in an effort to regain the initial rapport I smiled at Julia and said:

Gustavo: You must love João to spend all this time and energy …

Julia:  Love? I hate him. I could lie to you and tell you that I love João, that all the students are like my kids, but the truth is very different …

I remained silent for a while, trying to control my facial expression because I didn’t want to suggest to her that I was looking for a determined answer.

Gustavo: What is the truth then?

Julia: The truth is that I’m the principal of this school, I’m a competent professional, and as you know I disagree with the authorities, but I was elected to be the principal, I get a good salary to be responsible for the education of all the kids that come to the school and even those who were abandoned by the school system. In this job, I’m the educational leader of this community. This community elected me as the head of a pedagogical group and we are trying very hard to educate all the kids. The ones that I love and also the kids that I hate.

While taking a bus towards downtown Porto Alegre I couldn’t stop thinking that Julia was the first educator who in a formal research interview said to me: “I hate a student.”  Perhaps Julia didn't hate João, but the structures that produces situations as desperate as Joãos, but she was very clear in her expressions and I believed her words, but for some uncanny reason, her expression of hate, could not erase my smile and my thought that Escola Cidadã was more than a slogan. That afternoon I saw a different school.  Perhaps for the first time, I saw what a caring, hopeful and intellectually demanding school could look like.  Some time later, I wrote in my field notes.

Julia’s school is really different!


  • Because this school affirms Ubuntu and the radical equality of all human beings.
  • Because Julia, the principal of the school, has assumed her position of “leadership” acknowledging the importance of working with a team in order to be an effective leader
  • Because this school is an institution that does not blame João for dropping out, drinking or not speaking the right type of Portuguese.
  • Because this school is an institution that does not punish João for not sharing the same cultural values as the teachers or the “model” good kids always present in textbooks and other curricular materials.
  • Because this school is an institution that demands from João the effort needed to learn without ignoring his existential conditions.
  • Because this school allows Julia, and every member of a school located in a poor neighborhood in Porto Alegre to look in the eyes of João, a poor toothless kid, without shame or guilt.

For many the situation described above could be dismissed as a simple case of another good principal, one more isolated case of good practice, or a nice anecdote. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Julia and João are not exceptional but two regular participants of a reform project, which over time, and through many conflicts, contradictions and struggles developed the conceptual framework, built the material conditions that allowed the emergence of a realistic pedagogy of Ubuntu and the idea that “There exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities.”

Once you meet somebody like Julia or somebody like João --and who has not?-- it is hard to stop to imagine that a pedagogy of Ubuntu is not only possible but necessary.  Granted, a pedagogy of Ubuntu will require understanding of the economic and sociopolitical conditions facing many aggrieved communities within the current global order, and the seemingly endless challenges involved in ensuring that educational institutions embody community decisions with socially acceptable outcomes.  But the message of Ubuntu and critical hope is finding fertile ground and happening in many parts of Latin America.

While the dominant trend in educational reform world-wide promotes privatization, high-stakes testing, quantitative indicators of accountability, fragmented and shallow curricular packages that began by ignoring the starting point of poverty and marginalization that characterizes the lives of millions of students in the region, and ultimately blame teachers and students for the lack of relevance of urban schooling, there are hundreds of pedagogical experiments that are an example of a realizable utopia, based on ideals that are rather similar to those exposed in Ubuntu.

Escola Cidadã showed that it is possible to create alternative spaces where more effective pedagogical articulations can be forged and where a new common sense around education can be created. It is possible to create a space where kids and the community feel connected to their schools and feel that their school serves them. Democratizing access, knowledge, and relationships in the current context of global capitalism is not easy, but the fact that the effects of Escola Cidadã are still operating after 20 years of structural adjustment in Brazil and has expanded its service to include an increasing proportion of the impoverished communities of greater Porto Alegre reflects the power of a critical discourse of hope and community organizing in the struggle for democracy.

A Pedagogy of Ubuntu is not an illusion, a fantastic creation blinding us from reality, causing us to imagine impossible scenarios, following the typical Hollywood feel-good plot. Julia and João show that in enacting a Pedagogy of Ubuntu there is no alternative but to try to be as aware of racial, class, gender, capabilities, and any other relevant dynamic. A Pedagogy of Ubuntu will always be constrained by structural conditions that cannot ignore the daily pedagogical and political conflicts of teachers, students and their communities and for the same reasons will be active, creative, complex, and very likely imperfect.

            A pedagogy of Ubuntu, will need to generate new understandings of “public education”, accepting that a renewed notion of the publicness[1] will require that students, teachers, principals, families and communities have no other possibility but to struggle to affirm themselves by increasing the opportunities for democratic dialogue and participation; be accountable for the success of everybody involved in teaching and learning with or without “love”; and establish common pedagogical and political goals, including the goals of accepting diversity and conflictive dialogue as intrinsic to the construction of a more efficient and democratic educational experience. It is up to them and to us as scholars and practitioners to imagine fruitful ways to identify the dangerous areas, the spaces for hope, and those extraordinary times in which collective action demonstrate that history is always in the making.


[1] I understand Ubuntu based on the teaching and reflections of South African Nobel Laureate and Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu as: “It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."

[2] For a description of structural elements of Escola Cidada see Fischman, G. E. and Gandin, L. A. (2009) “Pedagogies of Inclusion:  Lessons from Escola Cidadã” in Tressou, E. Mitakidou, S. Swadenber, B. B. and Grant, C Beyond Pedagogies of Exclusion. Transnational Conversations, New York, Palgrave-McMillan, 65-80.; Fischman, G.  E.  & Gandin Luis, A. (2007) “Escola Cidadã and Critical Discourses of Educational Hope.” in McLaren, P. & Kincheloe, J. Critical Pedagogy: Where Are We Now? New York, Peter Lang, 209-223.

[3] In calling for a new understanding of “public education” I borrow on the ideas developed by Masschelein, J. & Simons, M. (2014) In Defense of the School: A Public Issue. Leuven, Belgium. E-ducation, Culture & Society Publishers.