Two programs at Chapman University are working to bring social justice to the world — one neighborhood at a time.

The Paulo Freire Democratic Project and Padres Unidos, programs centered at Chapman’s College of Educational Studies, provide residents in nearby neighborhoods with continuing education and training in social justice and civic involvement.

Padres Unidos

Woman sits at table with children, playing a game.Padres Unidos is a grassroots community program based in Santa Ana that has trained more than 1,500 people in volunteer work at schools, churches, community centers and juvenile halls. Several years ago, Chapman launched a two-year extended education program called the Padres Unidos Community Workers Award to further educate its volunteers with parenting, teaching and community leadership skills.

The program is offered through Chapman’s Office of Extended Studies and enables participants to focus on one of five areas: parent education, child education, teen education, case management and group facilitation. Seventy-three parents have already completed from the parent education certificate program, and 40 more are set to complete it next year.

“It contains an authentic, organic curriculum dedicated to improving the conditions of families,” said Chapman University Professor Suzanne SooHoo, a former elementary school principal who is a co-director at the Paulo Freire Democratic Project and works closely with Padres Unidos.

“People who come from Mexico with a sixth-grade education are studying at Chapman University on computers and in the library,” SooHoo said. “They can see a promise, a hope, that they’ve never seen before. And they are setting an example for their children; they are giving them a view of what is possible. And they, in turn, have taught us at the university how to be good community partners and helped us envision new ways to work together.”

Paulo Freire Democratic Project

Dr. Peter McLaren, Professor, Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies; Co-Director, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice

Dr. Peter McLaren, Professor, Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies; Co-Director, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice

The larger Paulo Freire Democratic Project describes itself as a collection of local, regional and international initiatives that promote the work of Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian philosopher and pedagogist — a legendary educator revered throughout the world who developed approaches to literacy that stressed dialogue, critical reflection and political transformation through a combination of theory and practice known as “praxis.”

Freire was mainly concerned with social justice. The College of Educational Studies formalized the Paulo Freire Democratic Project in 1996 and has since organized workshops, conferences and research projects locally, regionally and internationally.

“I believe that Chapman University can become the center of making a profound, transformational change in our schools and in society at large,” said Peter McLaren, who joined Chapman’s faculty last year at the College of Educational Studies, where he serves as distinguished professor in critical studies and as co-director and international ambassador of global ethics and social justice at the Paulo Freire Democratic Project.

McLaren is a prominent figure in critical pedagogy, an approach to teaching and social activism pioneered by Freire that creates educational environments for the dispossessed to empower themselves and challenges the status quo.

“My mission is to build alliances with progressive organizations of teachers and also with social movements worldwide,” McLaren said. “While the project is about impacting local communities, it is also about changing the world — and by that I mean identifying social and economic injustice and working with teachers, community activists and cultural workers throughout the world to rethink the very nature of public and civic engagement and to redefine the very premises of what it means to live and teach democratically.”

McLaren said some might find it odd that a university centered in a conservative community has built such a strong program committed to social justice and ideals found in the lives and works of Karl Marx, John Dewey, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg and Bishop Samuel Ruiz García. But he said that part of what makes Chapman so strong is its dedication to diverse political ideas.

“There is no university in the United States that can rival Chapman University in its commitment to the work of Paulo Freire and its determination to carrying Freire’s legacy forward,” he said. “I believe that Chapman can become a focal center of critical pedagogy in the United States and internationally.”