UNSIF operates with collective knowledge.  Teams of adjunct faculty members frame the discussions, but we seek to learn from everyone.  The pedagogy follows critical education and circular learning, similar to the work of Freire (2000) and other critical pedagogues (for example, Apple, 2004; hooks, 2003; Lather, 1991; McLaren & Kincheloe, 2007).  Everyone shares their knowledge rather than self-defined experts presenting their ideas to passive recipients presumed by “the experts” to have no knowledge of their own. Instead of competing for who can come up with the most “correct answers,” we put everyone’s knowledge on the table.  Elders and youth learn from each other.  People with important knowledge and skills to share may lack school-taught skills such as writing, and we realize that education takes place in many ways and in many places, often far from a classroom.  We respect these special means of learning, particularly those that have served communities of color.

“Popcorn” pedagogy allows anyone to pop into a discussion whenever they have something to say and creates a form of free-wheeling brainstorming in which quicker, extroverted (not necessarily deeper) thinkers with loud voices and self-confidence gain more power.  We emphasize, instead, constructivist (Hmelo, Duncan & Chinn, 2007; Piaget, 1967) pedagogy in which everyone has knowledge to share.  In our discussions we go around the circle in a Round Robin to encourage each person to offer their thoughts and knowledge unless they wish to pass.  Participants do not raise their hands to show what they know. When we break temporarily into small groups, we use the Round Robin process to report back to the large group rather than having one person speak for each small group.

The classes aim to awaken a certain inquiry, accepting that we won’t be able to answer all of the questions during the class session.  Some mini-lectures, handouts, and other sources speed up the learning process, but mainly the session focuses on sharing what is in each person’s brain, sometimes after reading a short document.  At the end of the class, everyone writes a one-page reflection on a question that intends to link what was learned in class with what participants are trying to understand and/or do as activists, individually and in organizations.  One or more note takers document and edit the learning occurring in each class. After each of the classes in a course of study, we use the lesson-plan, the notes, and the reflection papers to create a synthesis of the cumulative shared learning and thinking, compiling these into a one-page summation of the course’s conceptual core value. All of the notes and syntheses constitute an archive of each semester at the campus.

Courses and Faculty

All seminars and classes refer back to the Four Core Curriculum Areas that serve as the frame

for specific content and they are: (1) the economic history of capitalism and globalization; (2) colonialism and liberation; (3) internal development and awareness of our selves, organizations, and social movements; and (4) emancipatory education, learning and culture based in liberation rather than oppression. For example, a course on “Contextualizing The Blues Tradition: African Cultural Resistance

To Transatlantic Enslavement, 1600-1850, ” examined the dominant narratives about enslavement and

resistance in the Americas, transatlantic relationships that fed the creation of blues music, and invited

reflections on a quotation by Amilcar Cabral, African revolutionary leader from Cape Verde and Guinea

Bissau —  “In what ways has imperialist domination in our present-day attempted at eradicating (directly

or indirectly) the core cultural elements of the oppressed people in the U. S. South?”

Course work for UNSIF is organized according to a semester system. Liberation Spring runs from January to May, Freedom Summer runs from June to August, and Emancipation Autumn runs from September to November. Seminars, classes, and courses during Liberation Spring launch the year, involving study that enables us to spring forward and flow into the Freedom Summer, which involves planning and carrying out hands-on action work within the anchor organizations.  Emancipation Autumn is more reflective and research-oriented, building on the lessons learned during the Freedom Summer as preparation for the next Liberation Spring.

The adjunct faculty volunteers as the teaching staff or professors at University Sin Fronteras. They are people who are committed to emancipatory education and decolonizing it.  Adjunct faculty comes from each community where we have a campus and are often part of the campus committee. The adjunct faculty’s role is to put together the lesson plan following UNSIF guidelines. They frame the topic for each class in the first 15-20 minutes of the two-hour class.  They ask the first question (“What is?”) and facilitate the round robin discussion.  Based on the shared knowledge coming from the round robin, the adjunct faculty uses examples to lead to the second question (“How does it operate?”).  Another round robin occurs in the small group and the adjunct faculty summarizes the discussion to lead to the third question (“upon reflection, what will you do immediately to implement the new knowledge starting tomorrow?”). In addition to supporting semester classes on a particular campus, individual instructors often present seminars to several of the campuses in support of organizing work.  For example, seminars at the Unite to Fight Institute in Atlanta in 2014 allowed people to work together while also making plans for their individual sites.

University and campus organization

Currently, eleven people serve as members of the board, representing each of the campuses, the anchor organizations — Project South (GA), Southwest Workers Union (TX), East Michigan Environmental Action Council (MI), Caribbean Institute of Social Movements (PR), the New Jim Crow Movement (FL), and the Indigenous Environmental Network (MN) — and one board member each from New Mexico, Minnesota, and Washington, DC.  A three-person executive committee consists of the president, vice president, and secretary.

Campuses.  A campus is held by an anchor social grassroots movement organization in a specific place.  Each campus represents the importance of the role of that particular space, place and processes.  The coming together of six campus sites brings together six places and spaces with a body of practice and knowledge that becomes part of the whole.  The University Sin Fronteras is what the six campuses bring together and the synthesis of the six places and people who make it real.

Anchor Organization.  We did not want to become a university involved only in study and knowledge, burdened by a super-bureaucracy, and lacking any clear connections to social change organizations. Through the anchor organizations, decisions about courses come from people involved in practice in the field rather than from an office of isolated scholars. Each of the local campuses and our university as a whole seek to support the activities of the anchor organizations, particularly by offering classes about their fronts of struggle.

Based on the history of working collaboratively to organize the first U.S. Social Forum in 2007, Project South, Southwest Workers Union, and East Michigan Environmental Action Council were the first three UNSIF anchors. Additional anchor organizations are required to embrace to the OLE framework, where all classes seek to enhance, deepen, and advance (O) Organizational Development, (L) Leadership Development, and (E) Emancipato­ry Education that serves activist organizations and their leaders. More importantly, they must demonstrate rootedness in the community, a reputation for building open, collaborative and converging spaces, and a base of relationships in order to ensure relevance and accountability to the community. These organizations also commit to selecting and supporting a campus coordinator from within its staff or community.  Most important is that these organization create entry points into social movement and collective action by communicating the story/narrative of the purpose and history of the UNSIF as an intellectual, political, and structural anchor that relates to the specific politics, climate, and culture of their location.

Anchoring the campuses in organizations involved in community activism makes it more feasible to understand the context for and needs of each of the communities served by a campus.  We develop a stronger understanding of what works in different contexts when people from different campuses engage in occasional joint meetings and classes, sharing campus materials, and other forms of communication.  Interconnectedness can also involve student and faculty exchanges, through travel or Web meetings.

The Campus Committee. The campus committee is composed of volunteers who were student-participants in the University Sin Fronteras courses and classes and want to get more involved.  The CC is usually about 12 people who give time to develop the campus and the campus curriculum.  The CC meets to brainstorm the curriculum based on needs of the local anchor organization and fronts of struggle, the core curriculum for the upcoming semester, the adjunct faculty to teach the classes, the time and place, as well as to assign people to bring snacks and to take notes, photos and videos for the entire course.

The Campus Coordinator. The campus coordinator is the anchor organization’s coordinator for the local campus of the University Sin Fronteras.  The campus coordinator is the overall coordinator and formal liaison with the Director of the anchor organization and the overall UNSIF office.  When there are funds available to UNSIF, this is a paid stipend position.

Notes, Reflections and Synthesis.  Formal notes are the record of the proceedings of the class, but moreover are records of the new knowledge-creation taking place in each of the semesters, classes, and courses of the University Sin Fronteras.  The notes become important for student-participants’ reflection and synthesis.  The notes are archival data on the process of decolonizing education, learning and the very roots of epistemology.  Notes are shared with student-participants.

At the end of each class, participants create a one-page reflection paper written during the last 10 minutes of a two-hour class. The reflection answers an essential question (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Participants reflect, put name and e-mail address on the one-page paper and turn it in.  It is digitized, and returned to the student-participants.  All one-page reflection papers are compiled into one narrative and which also is returned to the participants.

The synthesis is a written summation of the knowledge shared, discovered, or created and its meaning.  The synthesis is a collective process that goes deep into the essential meaning of the lesson(s) to the knowledge identified and created knowledge, into the roots of knowledge. The synthesis process allows for new knowledge to take the place of old assumed knowledge (decolonizing), and establish a new radically different infrastructure supporting a raceless society.