Virtual Seminar 2015: understanding communities

Timothy Ireland
Federal University of Paraiba





Abstract– The 2015 virtual seminar following issue 81 of Adult Education and Development discussed communities and adult education. The understanding which emerged from the discussions is that of community as a learning space with resources which frequently require empowering and as a “shared commitment between individual subjects which makes them responsible together and which has to be constantly renewed”.  

In 2015, the ICAE virtual seminar discussed communities and the need to build bridges between local needs and global commitments. What, if any, is the link between the two? Communities both great and small are clearly impacted by our meta-policies such as the Millennium Development Goals and Education For All. Is the reverse also true? Do communities have a say in the formulation of meta-policies, or are they simply targets to be reached?

The virtual seminar was held between 25 February and 20 March, and set out to debate on communities, taking as its starting point four articles included in issue 81/2014 of Adult Education and Development (AED): Alfonso Torres Carrillo’s article on “New and old community sensibilities in Popular Education”, that of Astrid von Kotze on “Vrygond in a changing world”, Venant Nyobewe’s piece on “How the Batwa came in from the cold”, and finally the article by Anna Pluskota and Monka Staszewicz “From vulnerability to resilience – a resource based model of community learning”. A yearly publication has its advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, it is rather static when it comes to debates. Hence the importance of the virtual seminar in order to broaden and deepen our analysis, connect global commitments with local practices and build bridges between local needs and the post-2015 development and education agenda and CONFINTEA’s Belém Framework for Action.  

The many communities

Community is one of those polysemic descriptors which mean different things to different people and the definition of which is elusive. We have already talked about vertical and horizontal communities which emphasised either the common territory occupied by such groupings or their common interests. With the digital era, we invented virtual communities and social networks. ICAE could itself be described as a virtual community with some elements of verticality. Monica Simons refers to the global virtual non-governmental organisation (NGO) AVAAZ and its campaigns. It became clear from the discussions that our interest is in communities as a process and not as a state. Communities occupy new spaces – physical and virtual – and bring together new actors. As Alfonso Torres puts it, “Communities is here not a given, a onceand-for-all structure, but in permanent evolution and learning.” Huber Santisteban Mattos, on the other hand, expands the concept of community by including Mother Earth in his definition as well as humans. This is a fundamental advance on the anthropocentric concept of community as a purely human activity. Shirley Walters refers to the importance of community being understood as a set of values relating to solidarity, rather than just a geographical space.

The bad community

Several contributors warn us against the danger of believing that community is per se good, positive and to be valued for its inherent qualities. Communities exist whose values, practices, beliefs and principles are far from laudable. Community is not necessarily synonymous with democracy and participation in the same way that NGOs are also not synonymous with all that is transparent and horizontal. Although community can be employed in a broad generic sense – the education community or the learning community – the concept was used in a more technical and political sense during the seminar. As Torres comments: “This is a perspective that rekindles the political, ethical, critical and emancipatory sense of community, such as solidarity and commitment between individuals.” Hence the understanding which emerged from our discussions is of community as a learning space with resources which frequently require empowering and as “shared commitment between individual subjects which makes them responsible together and which has to be constantly renewed”.

This same community ethos has been under siege for the last forty years or more, faced by a growing wave of neoliberalism inspired by policies propagated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Tony Judt rather pessimistically suggests that “For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose” (2010). However, he goes on to affi rm that “The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition” (ibid). As John Stuart Mill asserts: “The idea is essentially repulsive, of a society held together only by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary interest.” Judt points to trust, solidarity and common purpose as being central to all collective undertakings: a strong sense of common interests and common needs, the counter side of which is fear and insecurity. The examples portrayed in issue 82 of AED, from Latin America to South Africa, from India to Burundi and from Cuba to Afghanistan, amongst many others, suggest that communities continue to resist wider power structures by learning, by empowering their members and by fostering a new sociability, collective actions and ways of understanding democracy.

Perhaps we should end by taking a cue from Ramon Mapa of the Philippines and recall Bob Dylan’s warning: “The line it is drawn, The curse it is cast, The slow one now will later be fast; As the present now will later be past, The order is rapidly fading; And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changing”.


Judt, T. (2010): Ill Fares the Land. London: Penguin Books.  

About the author

Timothy Ireland is associate professor in Adult Education at the Federal University of Paraiba, in João Pessoa (Brazil). He was national director of Adult Education at the Ministry of Education from 2004-2007 and worked for UNESCO from 2008 to 2011, where he was the focal point for CONFINTEA VI. Since 2013, he has been a member of the editorial board of Adult Education and Development.

Av. Umbuzeiro, 480,
Manaíra – João Pessoa
PB: 58038-180

Adult Education and Development


DVV International operates worldwide with more than 200 partners in over 30 countries.

To interactive world map

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.