We woke up bright and early on Tuesday morning, July 9th, in anticipation of meeting with the Minister of Education.  However, as was the case with all of our meetings during our time there, this was mainly dependent on luck. Meetings with anyone were dependent on the connections our guide had, if the person was available on short notice to meet, and how much time they had available.  That morning, the Minister was unable to meet with us, which led us to Misión Robinson (Mission Robinson), which was close by.

We walked there planning on just taking a tour, but what we received was so much more.

As an educator, I took this trip not only to gain knowledge on what is actually happening politically in the country, but also to meet with other educators and students to see how the educational system operates in a country that has eradicated illiteracy since 2005.  I had heard about the method to teach reading by combining numeracy and literacy skills and was curious to see how this method was implemented.  I was also curious as to how educators incorporated the social movements of the country into their curriculum, if that was even done at all.

The entrance to Misión Robinson. We walked through the door across the room and up a flight of stairs to reach the classrooms.

Within the country of Venezuela, Bolivarian missions operate for different reasons, but function as free social programs available to the public. These missions began under Hugo Chavez, and continue to operate under Nicolás Maduro.  To learn more information about missions and their history, you can click here, here, or here (Spanish Source).  In short, missions provide a variety of programs included but not limited to: adult literacy programs, free community health care, low-income housing construction, and subsidizing food and other consumer goods. We also heard from the people we interviewed that day that missions in other states provide services such as dental care, veterinary services, and whatever needs may arise out of their surrounding communities.  These initiatives are completely funded by the government. However, what I came to learn about Misión Robinson that made it especially unique was that the entire mission was run on a volunteer basis. This mission’s specific purpose was to help eliminate illiteracy throughout the country and educate the people. As we heard from so many people we talked to throughout the trip, “education is freedom”. The passion and commitment behind this statement is what keeps Misión Robinson open and thriving to this day.

One of the classroom spaces in Misión Robinson
More students gathering in a classroom to speak to us at Misión Robinson
Another classroom space in Misión Robinson
Another classroom space in Misión Robinson
Speaking to a variety of students at Misión Robinson
Delegation interviewing the students

Misión Robinson opened its doors in 2003, and when we climbed the stairs to the classroom space, it looked like it hadn’t missed a beat since.  One class was about to start, and we asked if we could observe. In a corner of the large open room was a group of about 5 students and a facilitator.  Out of the 5 students, 4 women were elders and one was a young, adolescent girl. The facilitator was also a woman. We began with introductions, and explained to the group why we had come to visit Venezuela and what we hoped to learn during our time there.  The group was enthusiastic about our visit and were ready to share their stories with us.

We will be posting translations to their testimonies at a later date.  For now, I will summarize what was discussed during this time together that functioned more as a conversation as opposed to an interview. Señora de Vargas is one of the oldest students we met that day.  At 78 years old, she is beginning her first year of her high school/secondary education. In Venezuela, throughout the entire country, all education through a bachelor’s degree is offered completely free to everyone.  This is not exclusive to citizens. All people residing in Venezuela have a right to a free education, be it through a public school or a mission. All the readings and school materials are provided in the student’s native language.  All students are issued a Bibliotecha Familiar, a family library, to take home. Included in the reading lists are not only stories, but historical texts and primary sources from revolutionary figures as well.  

The cover of the “Yo, Sí Pudo” literacy workbook
Page showing the number and letter connections in the workbook
Page from one of the advanced workbooks
Page from one of the advanced workbooks
Students signing a copy of the “Yo, Sí Pudo” literacy workbook they gifted to us
Delegate member Valeria Vargas asking questions about the workbook
Page from one of the advanced workbooks
Page from one of the advanced workbooks
Delegate Members Richard Berg (left), Valeria Vargas (center), & Fabiana Casas (right) holding a set of the Bibliotecha Familiar given to each student
Student pictured with her personal copy of the “Yo, Sí Pudo” literacy workbook

We also got a copy of the “Yo, Sí Pudo” literacy workbook, which all the students took pride in signing that day before giving it to us.  When we asked Señora de Vargas what her motivation was behind continuing to learn, she expressed how President Chavez explained the importance of education to the public and prioritized it by making it as accessible as possible.  She told us that prior to President Chavez coming to power, during the Fourth Republic, she was never given the opportunity to learn how to read or write. It was a privilege that was only available to the upper class or government officials and their families. A rough translation of her experience is below:

Before Chavez, the government did not care if you could read or write.  If you couldn’t read or write, then you could not vote or create change.

Señora de Vargas, student at Misión Robinson
Testimony from Señora de Vargas at Misión Robinson

When the opportunity became available, her husband encouraged her to pursue her education, and so she did at Misión Robinson).  She continues to attend school because she has seen the benefits of it. With education she is able to vote, and use her cell phone (which is provided for her at a low cost through the government), and access basic services that normally would be impossible to navigate without literacy skills.  She became emotional when expressing her gratitude for having the opportunity to learn and keep going because she wants to be a positive example for her family. Her lifelong dream was to become a lawyer, and she is living proof that it is never too late to start working towards your educational goals.

I hold Chavez in high regard for writing our right to an education into the constitution.

SEÑORA DE VARGAS, STUDENT AT MISIÓN ROBINSON

Multiple students spoke of their positive experiences at the mission and how critical they are in other areas of the country based on the services they provide.  They expressed that the mission would not still be open or as successful as it is if it wasn’t for the belief that all members of the community have a purpose. They continue to receive volunteers for facilitating classes of all ages and backgrounds because of the collective understanding that they cannot be unified as a people if they cannot communicate effectively.  Ensuring that all people have access to the democratic process begins with ensuring that all people have the literacy skills to participate effectively.  

Also, all students were aware that one of the goals of El Plan de la Patria (The Plan for the Motherland) was to increase the self-production of materials in Venezuela in order to become more self-sustaining and less dependent on other countries for imported items (especially food).  The current class was working on learning how to produce paper (a scarce item in the country) and how to make the process both sustainable and able to be produced using domestic materials. This project is normally worked on on Fridays, known as “practica productiva” (productive practice).

We had the honor of speaking with mission coordinator Lilian Oropeza, who shared her journey towards achieving her role and her experiences at Misión Robinson.

She was beaming with pride when explaining to us the accessibility of the missions. Missions that center on education and learning are all inclusive, meaning they accept students regardless of age, physical disability, and they schedule classes in order to accommodate the needs of its students.  They do not discriminate against race, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. Even if you are a vocal member of the opposition, you would still have access to these services. From my understanding, they operate differently than a public school in the sense that they teach students of all age levels and even help acclimate school age children by closing the literacy gap before sending them to a public school.  A primary school education can be completed in as little as two and a half years. Missions also give credit for existing knowledge based on the student’s performance on the educational diagnostic given before they begin classes.  

If the student is physically limited and cannot perform jobs that require extensive manual or physical labor, as a way to accommodate, for example, the mission focuses on empowering students with the skills needed to manage a business.  Government issued textbooks are produced for all grade levels and issued to all students for free. The government also issues a personal tablet, computer, or comparable technology to each student. Whether or not they finish their schooling, they are allowed to keep the laptop.  Missions also communicate to students that they are responsible for the growth of their communities and are encouraged to bring new students who may need literacy or other skills to learn. When describing what it takes to keep the mission going and growing, it is called, “un acto de justicia y solidaridad”, an act of justice and solidarity.

When she began as a facilitator, she pursued and got her bachelor’s degree from Misión Robinson, and pursued a path in journalism through Misión Sucre.  Every Wednesday, all facilitators at Misión Robinson receive ongoing training during their time with the mission to learn new methods for teaching, study new methodologies, and participate in ongoing learning.  She continues to facilitate classes at Misión Robinson because she believes and supports El Plan de la Patria, President Chavez, and President Maduro. Currently, there are over 116,000 facilitators across the country, all of which are volunteers. 

As time went on, more and more students began to show up for the class and the conversation grew.  We have many videos we will be posting in the upcoming days that will shed light on important parts of our conversations.

We left Misión Robinson hugging each other and exchanging numbers and contact information for future visits, hoping to follow up with all the amazing people we met that morning.  They wanted us to also communicate that the visit was unplanned and unprompted.

¡ Nos aggararon de piñata!

SEÑORA DE VARGAS, STUDENT AT MISIÓN ROBINSON

“You hit us like a piñata!” one of the students laughingly said, meaning they had been caught off guard by our visit.  This is an important distinction since US media discredits accounts directly from Venezuela stating that the accounts from the public are practiced or rehearsed, but they truly want the world to know that missions are successful because of the passion of the people who run them.  They may be government funded, and that funding is essential, but they are able to distribute services effectively because they are operated entirely by the communities around them. It is common practice to distribute a census or survey to the community in order to determine its individual needs, and develop missions and implement social-programs in response to those needs.  Therefore, the government does not determine how funding is used, the people do. The people here are highly organized, they know what they want, and they are willing to fight for it.

In the words of el Presidente Eterno, Hugo Chavez,

“Más que mil autopistas y más que mil viviendas es importante un ser humano que aprenda para que vuele libre. De qué vale más de un millón de autopistas si por allí transitan personas ignorantes. Si queremos acabar con la pobreza demos poder al pueblo y el primer poder es la educación”

“More than a thousand highways and more than a thousand homes, it is important that a human being learns to fly free. What are a million highways worth if ignorant people pass through them.  If we want to end poverty we give power to the people and the first power is education”

President Hugo Chavez, from his commencement speech during the graduation of El Plan Piloto de la Misión Robinson II

You can find Misión Robinson on Twitter @Robinson_Vzla