Paulo Freire

Learning about Paulo Freire: Lisete Arelaro reflects on the thinker’s life and legacy

In an exclusive interview with the Landless Movement's website, the teacher speaks fondly of the thinker and recalls stories about Paulo Freire
Professor Lisete Arelaro was part of Paulo Freire’s team in the São Paulo Municipal Secretariat of Education between 1989 and 1992. Photo: Reproduction/FE-USP

By Fernanda Alcântara
From the MST webpage

Thinking about popular education in Brazil necessarily implies understanding Paulo Freire’s legacy and how his writings have guided several thinkers in the struggle for an egalitarian education. In this sense, one of the names that could not be left out of this celebration is that of Professor Lisete Arelaro, pedagogue and doctor in education, who was part of Paulo Freire’s team in the Municipal Secretariat of Education of São Paulo between 1989 and 1992.

Just like Paulo Freire, the work of professor Lisete Arelaro is guided by the idea of an educational practice that considers the learner. In this exclusive interview, she reflects on her personal coexistence, the legacy and the teachings that have remained in memory and in history together with Paulo Freire.

Currently, Lisete Arelaro is a senior professor at the Faculty of Education of the University of São Paulo (USP), working for at least five decades in academic life, a responsibility she assumed and carried out in a committed way with her history of struggle for the population’s right to quality public education and for the reduction of social inequality.

Paulo Freire, emancipatory education and method

Professor Lisete Arelaro not only worked with Freire: she shared a friendship which brings together elements of her academic life, social struggle and political action. With a pluralist trajectory at various levels of Brazilian education, the teacher had her first contacts with Freire’s work in the early 1960s.

“I was a secondary school student and we had a commitment, like the UNE [National Students Union], to teach literacy classes so that we could have a new man and a new woman and, obviously, a new society. At that time, we received some materials by Paulo Freire, we taught the class thinking that we were being “super Freirean”, but we did not have any concrete material. I mean, we would only get to know [the books] in the 1970s; in practice, we had photocopies“, recalls the teacher.

These materials were the basis of what these groups interpreted as the Paulo Freire method, and so they created cultural centres with these experiences, generally in partnership with more progressive groups. “In practice, however, it was a little exaggerated to say that it was a Paulo Freire method, but we were sure that we were changing Brazil and the world. We used pictures, recordings, or slides, most of the time they were even made in shoe boxes, in the simplest way imaginable.

Arelaro met Paulo Freire after the Amnesty Law, when he returned to Brazil, at a large meeting at Tuca, the theatre of the PUC [Pontifical Catholic University] of São Paulo. “From then on we have kept in reasonably regular contact, partly because the moment was also historical, we always needed and counted on Paulo Freire in these meetings of resistance to the dictatorship in the 1980s.

Lisete Arelaro and Paulo Freire worked together in defence of public schools. Photo: Reproduction/FE-USP

At this time, a particularly rich moment in the country in his view, there were different political groups actually proposing reforms. “A big concern of Paulo Freire was the use of all the technology you had available for an educational experience that would really lead to a process of reflection of the young and the adult, who were our students. This is not just any discussion because, in general, the poor or working class student is never asked what he thinks about things. He is never a subject, and therefore, he is someone who follows orders. Even to turn off the light, it meant that it gave them a bit of courage to start talking.”

The teacher carries this analysis with her in general. “Even today in our teaching, how often do we teachers stop to give the pupils time to express what they think? Sitting in a circle and not at desks one behind the other, for example. Paulo Freire used to joke that it is much better to look at the other’s face than to look at the back of one’s head, one behind the other. It was an issue that moved us as students, it got us, no wonder they had more than 10,000 classrooms under our responsibility. And when you didn’t know what to do, you improvised, all in the name of Paulo Freire.”

When we take Paulo Freire’s theory, it’s a bit like admitting that, and he always has a very beautiful phrase, “nobody fights for what they don’t understand”. This is a question that we would have to have more historical patience to understand, that the process of conscientization, as he always emphasized, is a collective process.”

According to the teacher, Freire insisted that it is praxis that will generate the need for a new theory, and in this sense, education becomes transformative precisely because it follows this process of moving from a naive vision to a critical vision. And for him, it is the critical vision that allows us the possibility of opting for social transformation.

Paulo Freire often insisted: ‘Look, freedom is not a simple thing, and it is not an easy thing. Because it is a choice you make every day. You and the collective where you act.

“I had the historical privilege of having Paulo Freire very close to me”, says Lisete. Photo: Reproduction/FE-USP

On her time with Freire, the teacher affectionately highlights the thinker’s charismatic figure. “He was a 21st century man in the 20th century. He used to joke ‘Did you like it? Do you believe me? Re-signify! That is, do it differently, translate to the present moment what you found interesting that we were doing”. At the same time that he provoked, Freire also extended his help. “From the concrete point of view, he was an extremely gentle man, always in a good mood, extremely attentive, he was a man of dialogue and above all a man who liked to listen. He had infinite patience for various subjects, even those that didn’t even need that much attention.”

Paulo Freire at São Paulo City Hall

Following her story, Arelaro talks about her concern with public education and, in 1988, with the victory of Luíza Erundina as Mayor of São Paulo, she was invited by Paulo Freire to join the team. “From then on I would say that we have never been apart again. I had the historical privilege of having Paulo Freire very close to me.

As head of the Secretariat, Freire made several changes. “We arrived with a proposal to reformulate the structure of the Secretariat of Education, which historically, and indeed the entire City Hall, had an extremely hierarchical structure. Remember that we took over the post-Jânio Quadros government, and Jânio Quadros, an extremely polemic man, had the most right-winged cadre of his entire administration in the Education Department”. He continues: “Just to give you an idea, we found schools that were inaugurated without being built, with 600 students enrolled, for example; schools that were inaugurated without any material inside; schools that had their exterior walls erected, but had no internal division, no bathrooms, no kitchen, nothing.

The expectations of this administration were high, mainly because it was the first left-wing party to take office as mayor of São Paulo. “Even more so a woman, a Northeasterner, a social worker, who liked the poor, and single to boot. Luiza found in all the secretariats situations that made us cry. But this did not bother us, nor Paulo Freire. So it was a bit like this, what were we expecting? That they would leave everything nice and neat for us to govern properly? No! It was the worst possible [scenario], and in the worst possible, we turned it around and did a good government, considered today, in an evaluation that is not necessarily ours, the best government that the city of São Paulo has ever had”.

The teacher also remembers how much Paulo Freire loved to visit the school. “He went to the schools almost every day and he really liked to talk to the children and find out about things, sit down and eat with them. Thus, the thinker also exercised what Arelaro calls democratic management.

“The democratic management that we are talking about is not only in the creation of councils, but it is with each teacher, in each classroom, with his or her class; it is there that the child, the young person or the adult really learns exactly what it is to be democratic, what the right to divergence is, the right to base one’s opinions. It is the right to be able to diverge and not necessarily to break away and it is the ideal space for you to confront the so-called “banking education”.

Professor Lisete in the classroom; she comments on Paulo Freire’s vision of collectivity and leadership. Photo: Reproduction/FE-USP

According to her, this great commitment of Paulo Freire. “When he entered the Secretariat he had a commitment, which he kept to the end, like a coherent man that he was: nothing would be published in the Official Gazette, which is the language of bureaucracy, of institutionality, nothing was published that had not been discussed beforehand with those involved in those decisions. And that is what happened in the almost three years of his stay in the Secretariat of Education.”

From this period, Arelaro also highlights the change promoted by Paulo Freire from Youth and Adult Education to the Education portfolio (previously in the Secretariat of Social Welfare), but also his vision of collectivity and leadership.

“Paulo Freire always had a concern: the world does not begin the day I take on a leadership role; the world is already coming, it is resistant, it has misunderstandings, it has gone, it has come back, it has already decided. So it is fundamental that I know the history of the community.”

“Thus, Paulo Freire published, in agreement with Luíza Erundina, on January 1, 1989, in the Diário Oficial, the two important things in education. First, curricular proposals had been elaborated in the previous government which Jânio Quadros had ordered to be burned, that is, to annul all the production that had been done with the community. Paulo Freire recovered them and also the common school regulations, since they had been produced by discussions with teachers and there were some proposals that advanced in the direction of creating more horizontal collectives within the schools.

Another highlight for Arelaro is the change in youth and adult education. “As soon as he arrived at the Secretariat of Education, Freire already knew that there was a more traditional Youth and Adult Education programme, known as EDA, but he created Mova [Youth and Adult Literacy Movement of the City of São Paulo], precisely trying to seek out those who would not be incorporated by institutional programmes. It is important to remember here that a great achievement of dignity to people, and forming popular supervisors to accompany the experience”.

“So that was Paulo Freire: collective, always. He had no problem admitting, sometimes, that he was not right as he had thought at the beginning, proving that it is from collective discussion that better alternatives can really appear.

Conjuncture of Education in Brazil and hope

For Professor Arelaro, Paulo Freire, if he were alive, would be at the forefront of inclusive education, thinking about how teachers, professors and school managements themselves can seek and meet in the face of the pandemic.

According to the professor, the confrontation in relation to Paulo Freire’s thought at the conjuncture of the Bolsonaro government “is a political” and “ideological dispute, which is no small one”. Photo: Reproduction/FE-USP

“This is a question that I think marks Paulo Freire in his actuality, that Paulo Freire always defended, ardently, that each school has the right to elaborate its political pedagogical project. He was against any printed material; so much so that even if his method, that proposal of his was kept as the Paulo Freire method, he did not like it to be identified like that because method and model, to copy and do the same, and if it is one thing that he never wanted it was this.”

About the national curriculum base, the teacher is emphatic about the dispute that happens today in Brazil about the process of unification and standardization of curricula and merit on the index of student learning. According to her, those who follow the theme know the mistake that is these theses represent, and the evil or setback that this can bring to education. “Today, for a so-called Common National Curricular Base, known in the square as BNCC, the situation has been getting enormously worse. And from the Temer government to here the situation has been accelerating, remembering that the people who proposed, for example, the high school reform, they are all from the right, and they all intend the disqualification of education for the majority of the Brazilian population, specifically for the poor population.”

In this sense, the standardization process is not about what is understood as “quality of education”, but about the possibility of making the public networks a privileged space for the sale of materials. “And this is only possible if you go standardising, because if each one has a system, it’s no fun at all, because no one will be able to cope, and therefore the profits won’t be significant.”

That is why, and not by chance, Bolsonaro already said before being elected that he has to be against Paulo Freire. First, because he spoke a truth that the right, the extreme right and the fascists, do not like to admit that education is a political act. To give this or that content is to think that they will be more or less significant for the group; the content will also be chosen according to the worldview that one has, and therefore, the confrontation that Paulo Freire is a political dispute, an ideological dispute, which is not a small one.

Faced with this conjuncture, Arelaro also brings a message of hope, since “to propose Paulo Freire is to resist. It is something that encourages us, something that takes us forward in the struggle”. And he concludes. “It is still very common to find Paulo Freire’s famous phrase out there that ‘the world is not. The world is being’. I think this is Paulo Freire’s proposal of hope, to remind us that what we are living today is not permanent. Nobody has a destiny, we build our destiny. And the way it is being, it can be different. We are collectively contributing for it to be different, to be better every day, fairer, less unequal, and obviously, more supportive.

See the full interview below in portuguese:

*Edited by Solange Engelmann