A Space for Rebels: MST’s Florestan Fernandes School

A look into the Landless Rural Workers Movement’s autonomous,  international political formation school.

By Maria Gorete Sousa*

ENFF (Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes/Florestan Fernandes School), was born out of a decision made by the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Terra/MST) to create a political education system for activists from the cities and the countryside. It enables workers who are denied their basic rights,  from all over the World, to meet, talk and share knowledge and experiences within a Latin American perspective. From the day it was proposed, it was always envisioned as an internationalist project.

The school was inaugurated on January 23, 2005, in the countryside outside of Guararema, Sao Paulo, after the physical structures were collectively and voluntarily built by comrades from the MST. It was our social movement’s base who raised the walls and transformed them into classrooms, auditoriums, cafeterias and a library. We then started an adult literacy program and created an atmosphere for fraternization and solidarity among activists from all over the World. Education is built into every brick that was laid by the voluntary workers from the MST who built the school.

The walls of the ENFF contain the energy of thousands and the utopian dream of a world with no exploitation or oppression. We strove for autonomy from the very start and were supported by Chico Buarque, José Saramago and Sebastião Salgado, who donated their CDs, books and photos to support the project. People from around the world helped any way they could to contribute to this dream construction through an international solidarity campaign. Today the ENFF continues to operate through activism and through voluntary professors with partnerships with public universities like UNESP, UFJF, UFRJ, the Oswaldo Cruz Public Health Institute and through international solidarity from the Association of the Friends of Florestan Fernandes School.

The school is named in honor of the late Brazilian sociologist and politician Florestan Fernades because of his working class origin, his tireless fight against social exclusion, the knowledge he generated on the struggles of his time and his commitment to socialism. The ENFF was built with mysticism and in memory of other warriors like Frida Khalo, Patativa do Assaré, Antônio Cândido, Marielle Franco, Patrícia Galvão, Vito Gianotti, Rosa Luxemburg, Paulo Freire and [Brazilian socialist football legend] Dr. Sócrates, who all have rooms at the school named after them.

The school’s political education strategy uses socialization and knowledge production to break from the logic of the mercantilization of knowledge. It builds skills for various different areas and dimensions of life through popular education and scientific discipline. It has created new areas of knowledge through a mixture of political formation and technical training. Due to our partnerships with the public universities and professors, ENFF offers graduate and postgraduate courses.

Our participatory methodology uses collective and individual study, collective labor, organicity, mysticism, culture and art in ways that recognize the humanist and socialist values that are part of our communal living philosophy of day to day life in the school. Our educational project is linked to the fight for and construction of human emancipation. Themes that are taught include agrarian reform, agro-ecology, Marxism, feminism, Latin America, diversity, racism and popular social movements, always striving to link theory with practice.

The goal is to amplify the appropriation of knowledge, prioritizing popular, class based education from pre-school to university. Knowledge is an instrument of transformation for the MST. The organization of courses encompasses a wide range of knowledge for building a new standard of life that promotes a re-connection between human beings and nature.

ENFF’s internal organization is based on the values of education and work and the division of tasks. All students are responsible for the maintenance of the school’s physical space through collective working groups. Between school periods the maintenance of the ENFF is coordinated by the Brazilian internationalist Apolônio de Carvalho Brigade which is made up of a rotating group of militants who take turns contributing to the consolidation of this educational project.

We know that transformation doesn’t happen magically. It has to be made by conscious people. In this way, activists learn political clarity, the capacity to interpret events, analyze and create tactical and strategic plans, and to create solutions for issues that arise in the day to day class struggle. These skills are imperative for anyone who wants to destroy the system of exploitation and build a new society.

Education is not envisioned as an end in itself but as a moment of class consciousness that is important for understanding the contradictions and determinations of society and building historical autonomy. This process of educational and political formation can not be seen as a recipe or a formula that is ready and complete, but as a process of permanent creation. This is why our learning project aims to deepen knowledge on issues of regional, ethnic, racial and gender diversity without losing sight of the total reality of the processes, enabling a reading of the problems, challenges and potentialities of the international, regional and local class struggle. We consider this relationship fundamental in the learning process, which always maintains its revolutionary vigor, strengthening and giving continuity to the struggle, as well as preparing for the future by creating a generalized feeling of transgression against the order of capital.

The ENFF was born out of a desire to criticize the way society produces knowledge, and those whose interests this process serves. It was created to form organic intellectuals who are anchored in their reality and understand the contradictions of the class struggle, with the skills to continually extract elements from this to make qualitative jumps in their class consciousness.

Florestan Fernandes School works for subjects to become protagonists in their own stories and begin demanding social changes. This is a task that requires a lot of courage and dedication to our ideals and dreams for a just, solidarity society. This transformation can take the form of new ways of engaging in politics, restoring the historic struggle of the exploited and oppressed and building solutions for our times. Our school goes beyond walls, geography and symbolic borders. It is a school that aims to decolonize knowledge and consciousness.

*Maria Gorete Sousa is an organic farmer and MST leadership member who was the founding academic coordinator of Florestan Fernandes School. She currently lives in the Território Cristina Alves agrarian reform settlement in Itapecuru-Mirim, Maranhão, Brazil.

This article was originally commissioned and translated by Brian Mier for Lumpen Magazine’s International Issue, and has been reprinted her with its consent.