The following interview is shared with you by both Justo Méndez Arámburu and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click here. To find out more about Justo Méndez Arámburu and his work, visit nuestraescuela.org and watch his TEDx talk, Todo por mi Estrella (with subtitles).
Isaac Graves: What does community mean to you?
Justo Méndez Arámburu: Community has several definitions. It can mean a neighborhood where people live in the area. In our case, in Nuestra Escuela, we have come to define community as all the participants who are gathered together and take part in Nuestra Escuela’s process. The Nuestra Escuela community is our students, their families, all of the staff, all the people that belong to the place where the site is and the allies who support the development of the project.
IG: How does community play out in your life?
JMA: In my life, community—it’s a key definition part of it because I have devoted my life to belong to a community, to take part in a community, and it has been always (for the last 44 years) underprivileged communities to which I have belonged. My life has been about working with that community to transform its situation into a better one established by a common vision of what would be a better situation for the community.
IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?
JMA: That everything happens in community. Life is life in community. It may be a broader community, a smaller community—but life happens in community. The most meaningful is that community is that place where the people who will be your relatives. You meet the person who will be your partner for the rest of your life. You have your kids, and they will be raised in, by, with the community. Your kids will belong to your family but also will belong to the community. They will learn what you teach in your home, but they will learn what they get as the community values.
IG: What's missing in community?
JMA: Yes, self-sustainability, above all things. In our very particular context, self-esteem. A different self-concept, empowerment—all of that is lacking in our community and is what defines our work, defines what we do. To believe in each member of the community, who is capable of achieving what the community wants to achieve, and to believe in the community as a whole that is able to achieve what we want to achieve.
IG: What is an ideal community to you?
JMA: I live in an ideal community. I devote my life to the ideal community to which I belong. It’s a community of love, it’s a community of learning, it’s a community of solidarity, it’s a community of every person being for the community. It’s a community of support. That’s an ideal community.
"Our communities are capable of building the education they need in order to build the communities they need."
—Justo Méndez Arámburu
IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?
JMA: Democratic education has an individual level and a collective level. On the individual level, it means student-centered and student-led education. The student getting to know and form a personal concept that considers and values all his capacities, all his possibilities, and prepares himself with the tools necessary to build that possibility. On the collective level, it’s a community that takes in account every student of the community—every member of the community, including young members, teachers, staff, old people. Considering everybody a student, everybody a teacher and giving real participation to each member of the community in defining the collective vision.
IG: How does education play out in your life?
JMA: Life is community, community is life because community manifests in life and life manifests in community—and it all happens via education. The activity that we do when we teach or form a class in Nuestra Escuela, or when we have a conversation in the hallway, or when we have an encounter between two of us or in a group, or when we are having a social activity, or when we are having a field trip. In all moments of our life, we look for what we learn from that experience.
IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?
JMA: That it has to be definitely democratic. It has to be because it has to take into account every member of the community. It has to consider and give value to the context in which each member of the community has come to be a person.
It must give the opportunity to each member of the community to see what’s happening, to understand what’s happening, to have critical thinking of what’s happening. To facilitate assuming a position about each situation and giving the tools to go for that position and to build that position. Whatever position, we have to respect every decision, every conclusion that each member who is part of the learning community takes. Education also has to create an environment in which everyone will be respected and every position of each member of the community will be respected. And give us the tools to build consensus on the different positions, and then decide a certain way in which we, as a community, will move. Not decided by a boss or by a leader but by the consensus of the community.
IG: What's missing in education?
JMA: All that I have expressed. That’s not the education that we have in our nation, Puerto Rico, and in many places of the world. What’s missing in education: respect for each member of the community. The teacher understanding himself or herself as also a student, the student as also a teacher. The word “democratic” is missing from education.
IG: What is an ideal education to you?
JMA: It’s in its essence democratic. That is the ideal education, that will just be the activity of a community—of a learning community. Learning together, everybody from everybody, and that builds community and builds respect for the individual criteria for every member of the community. That builds the necessary tools to build consensus, taking into account all those personal positions.
IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?
JMA: That our communities are capable of building the education they need in order to build the communities they need.