The Path to Liberation and Social Change

Pritpal S Tamber

February 23, 2023

A conversation with Katherine Zappone, an educator and feminist, and one of the architects of same-sex marriage in Ireland

In Ireland, two people can get married irrespective of their sex. This became possible in 2015 when the country’s constitution was amended. That amendment, its 34th, was the result of a social movement that can trace some of its roots back to the early 1980s when Katherine Zappone decided to do a doctorate at Boston College, MA. The other doctorate student was Ann Louise Gillighan. As Katherine tells it, they fell in love within a month and it was “the beginning of everything”. 

Katherine Zappone is the latest guest in our podcast series on community power (Ratio/Apple). 

The story of how Katherine and Ann Louise helped to transform Irish society has been turned into a documentary (it was on Netflix and is now available here). I’ll never be able to do it justice in the ‘800 words or fewer’ limit that I set myself for these posts. Instead, I want to reflect on their early work as educators, specifically as educators of women from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Education as a Path to Freedom 

Katherine and Ann Louise went to Ireland to teach in 1983. Katherine at Trinity College Dublin and Ann Louise at Dublin City University. Conscious of how patriarchal Irish society was, they wondered how, as both educators and feminists, they might share their privilege with local working-class women. Their initial focus was on personal development, to help the women build their confidence. They invited them into their home and offered ‘classes’ on things like literacy. However, their approach was not didactic. They saw education as both a dialogue and as a way to spur action. 

Katherine (left) and Ann Louise in November 2014 (Flickr)

Perhaps the most famous proponent of this approach is Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator. In the 1950s, he was alarmed by the fatalistic outlook of people who lived in favelas (slums) and in response started ‘culture circles’. He would ask people to draw pictures of their daily lives and invite them to talk about them. He would listen for signals of how people saw themselves in the world and encouraged them to reflect on why they held those views.

Freire believed that education is never neutral. It either reinforced or challenged the social forces that kept poor people passive. He saw the purpose of education as human liberation. Katherine agrees with this. She and Ann Louise saw education as a “path to freedom”. All too often, education is seen as a path to work, the more education the better the work. Katherine has no truck with that as long as being part of the workforce is part of your freedom. 

The dialogue that Katherine refers to is not just between teacher and student, it’s between community members too. The idea is that everyone has knowledge to offer and it’s the combined knowledge that will help people make sense of their lives. Part of this sense-making is to understand how daily life is influenced by social, political, economic, and historical contexts. The process also helps people to bond with each other and create a social identity. 

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty 

From this position – often called critical consciousness – people are encouraged to act. Early acts are likely to be small. People may seek more information about their situation or they might decide to meet other members of the community to widen the dialogue. It doesn’t matter how big or small the action is, what matters is that after the action there is a period of reflection. How did it go? What did we learn? What does it mean for what we might do next? 

This cycle of reflection and action is called praxis. I always thought praxis was a synonym for ‘practice’ – ie the act – but I was wrong, it’s both action and reflection. This is important because a community’s actions will not always succeed. At moments of failure, it’s important to get back together and discuss what happened, not only to be more effective next time but to support each other and prevent frustration and disillusionment.  

As educators, Katherine and Ann Louise understood their role to be facilitators. They’d create the space for women to talk about their lives. They’d listen out key themes, the signals that Freire listened for that are often called ‘generative words’, around which to facilitate a dialogue. And they’d ask the women what they wanted to do to change their circumstances. The praxis that the process generated, the cycle of action and reflection, has been shown to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. 

Changing the Constitution

In the community organising world, Katherine and Ann Louise’s work might be described as part of ‘base building’, the process by which people facing a similar circumstance build relationships with each other. The circumstance in question was the oppressive nature of a patriarchal society, particularly for working-class women. But Katherine and Ann Louise realised that they too were being oppressed, specifically as lesbians. 

As Katherine tells it, people who knew them tended to know that they were a couple but it was something they kept private. But in the early 2000’s, they realised that if one of them were to die and leave their assets to the other, they’d be taxed whereas that would not be the case for a married couple (which at the time meant a man and a woman). They decided it was time that they turned the spotlight of liberation on themselves and make same-sex marriage possible in Ireland. 

You can hear all about that journey in the episode (Ratio/Apple) or in the aforementioned documentary. While there are a number of twists and turns, the one thing that really struck me was how at the core of that work was only a small number of people, only 10 or 12. It reminds me of the famous line by the anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Until next time.

Pritpal S Tamber 

PS: To learn more about Ratio’s work, sign up for their newsletter or drop them a line:


  • Katherine and Ann Louise called their approach to education ‘community education’. Others have called it ‘popular education’. 
  • My description of Paulo Freire’s ideas and practice are based on Problem-Posing at Work: Popular Educator’s Guide by Nina Wallerstein and Elsa Auerbach (available here)
  • Katherine and Ann Louise turned their home-based education into An Cosán (The Path), now Ireland’s largest community education organisation. 

Previous Episodes in the Series 

The photograph behind the title is by Neil Webb / Ikon Images.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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