Like most people, when I first read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I reread it several years after working with Indigenous communities in North and South America that I could finally appreciate its relevance. It’s not surprising I didn’t get it on the first read, considering I’m a white male who grew up in an upper-middle-class household in the United States. By comparison, I gave the book to a friend who grew up in Ethiopia; she said she couldn’t put it down and how it explained so much to her about the world. Pedagogy of the Oppressed is also difficult to read. Numerous scholars and activists have pointed out how his ‘leaden philosophical prose’ tends to obfuscate the practicality of work.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in 1968, with the English version being released just two years later. Yet his work remains as relevant as ever and continues to be cited in academic books and journals. His influence is widespread but I find that very few community workers understand how to apply his concepts at a practical level. My goal in this brief blog post is to attempt to distill what I believe are the most valuable concepts from Pedagogy of the Oppressed for Community Workers.
Freire’s philosophy, at its core, is existentialist, which is the belief that the norms, values, ideas, and practices that define our culture are not fixed or preordained. Instead, we humans, as participants in communities and societies are not only reproducing culture but also actively creating and shaping it. In fact, for Freire, the ability to shape and create culture is what makes us “human” and what really makes Freire’s ideas liberatory. Human culture can vary dramatically around the globe, from the Bushman of the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic to the industrialized western societies – we have all developed different subsistence strategies, political organizations, kinship patterns, religious beliefs, etc.
This is where red flags might be going up for some people, and for a good reason. The notion of cultural change can and should evoke painful colonial images of forced assimilation and missionization but also more contemporary Eurocentric theories of cultural and economic modernization. Rest assured, this is not what Freire has in mind. In fact, these practices, since they are the imposition of culture, are what Freire refers to as dehumanizing, a concept that is diametrically opposed to the process of humanization.
Allow me to provide an analogy. Slavery was an acceptable practice in the Americas from the first colonies in 1492 until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Notions of white supremacy and institutional racism are still prevalent features of American society. However, these practices likely wouldn’t have changed much without the Abolitionist movement and Civil Rights movements. These movements were made up of people who didn’t just accept the culture of white supremacy as being fixed but instead were able to critically analyze it, and envision something different and a path to changing it. In fact, this process and struggle is still taking place with movements like Black Lives Matter. Other examples can be found around the world the movements for indigenous rights, women’s suffrage, landless peasants, the list goes on and on.
For Freire, an oppressed person is a person who accepts culture and their station in life as being fixed, someone who is incapable or unwilling to critically analyze the culture they live in. According to Freire, these people live in a false reality – a reality where they have been taught to accept slavery, racism, sexism, and other injustices as being fixed components of their culture. Both oppressors and the oppressed can exist a state of false consciousness. The slave may have been taught that he or she is incapable of learning to read and owning his or her own farm, and the wealthy slave owner may falsely believe the slave is fully human and capable of the qualities necessary to manage his own farm. Of course, in reality, both are humans and equally capable if provided the same opportunities, but it’s their false reality that prevents them from questioning the injustice of the situation. Of course, the slave may be fully conscious of the injustice but terrorized to the point of inaction. This helps illustrate Freire’s argument that in order for there to be true, lasting liberation, both the oppressor AND the oppressed need eject these false conceptions of reality and, in the process, become liberated.
The process for breaking free from the false reality is called praxis which is a cycle of analysis, action and reflection. Essentially, it’s a process of identifying and challenging your conceptions of the world (accurate or false). To illustrate praxis, I’ll use an example from my work with indigenous communities in North America. Today, for most Native American Reservations in the United States, more than two-thirds of the farms and ranches are controlled by non-natives. As might be expected, this disparity in land use has had a dramatic impact on the ability of Native Americans to fully benefit from their natural resources. Statistics on income reveal that the total value of agricultural commodities produced on Native American Reservations in 2007 totaled over $2.1 Billion dollars, yet, only 16% of that income went to Native American farmers and ranchers.
The unequal land-use patterns seen on reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically, Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native landowners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening it up to non-native farmers and ranchers.
Despite the exclusionary policies of the past, today, Tribal members have more options available to them but because they’ve been alienated from their lands for so long, they oftentimes don’t know where to start and in many cases, have been given false information by Government authorities. For example, in strategic land planning workshops I facilitated across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, several Native landowners said me they were told the government would not conduct a necessary appraisal because the appraisal would cost more than the value of the land. I double-checked this, and the government is required to do the appraisal regardless of the value of the land but this one piece of false information prevented countless people from taking action on their land that could have impacted their families for generations. False information and the general lack of information available to tribal members about their lands and the laws governing them contribute to a false understanding of the world around you, one where there is no path forward aside from the one that is prescribed for you.
This false reality is also shared by the oppressors. For example, the general American public has far from an adequate understanding of the ongoing struggles of Native Americans. In fact, I would argue that most Americans will agree that Native Americans were treated unfairly in the past but have trouble accepting that oppression continues to this day. Few Americans today could even explain the recent 2010 class action lawsuit Cobell vs. Salazar, the largest class-action lawsuit in American history brought by some 300,000 Native American landowners who argued that the government failed to pay them nearly 42 billion dollars in lease revenue collected by the government over the past 120 years serving as their self-appointed Trustee. Even fewer Americans know the government settled for only 3.2 Billion dollars, less than 7% of what was owed. This was a huge injustice but was only allowed because there was little fear of public outrage.
A praxis in this example would be to begin to challenge the limit situations you encounter day to day. For example, challenging the contradiction that despite most people on the Reservation would like to live on and utilize their lands, most of the land is leased to non-tribal members. So it might start with trying to move forward in that direction – towards acquiring some land. In doing so you will likely encounter what Freire refers to as “limit situations”, according to Freire.
“Once perceived by individuals as fetters, as obstacles to their liberation, these situations stand out in relief from the background, revealing their true nature as concrete historical dimensions of a given reality. Men and women respond to the challenge with actions which Vieira Pinto calls “limit-acts”: those directed at negating and overcoming, rather than passively accepting, the “given.”
A limit situation from the example above would be the false information that “you can’t get an appraisal if the appraisal process costs more than the value of your land.” This, for many, prevents action, but if tested, we will discover that it is not true and thus beg to clear a path forward for others. If we continue on our journey we might find that the Government appraisal process, once initiated, is itself an obstacle because of the massive backlog and processing times. This can then be the next limit situation we can confront and reveal the true nature of the problem – hopefully exposing the injustice and causing reform.
The example above, I feel it illustrates well the necessity for liberating both the oppressor and the oppressed. I feel it also illustrates another principle of Freire’s theory, that the oppressed must lead the process. According to Freire;
“It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors…As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.“
According to Freire, oppressors are unable to recognize their privilege.
“The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own “effort” with their “courage to take risks.”
If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because are “ungrateful” and “envious,” the oppressed are regarded as enemies who must be watched.”
What does Freire say about people from oppressive classes seeking to become allies with the oppressed?
“Given the preceding context, another issue of indubitable importance arises: the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. Theirs is a fundamental role and has been so throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and more to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the peoples’ ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background, they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.
Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly. This conversion is so radical as not to allow of ambiguous behavior. To affirm this commitment but to consider oneself the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom — which must then be given to (or imposed on) the people — is to retain the old ways. The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived. The convert who approaches the people but feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer, and attempts to impose his “status,” remains nostalgic towards his origins.
Conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth. Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were. Only through comradeship with the oppressed can the converts understand their characteristic ways of living and behaving, which in diverse moments reflect the structure of domination. One of these characteristics is the previously mentioned existential duality of the oppressed, who are at the same time themselves the oppressor whose image they have internalized. Accordingly, until they concretely ‘discover” their oppressor and in turn their own consciousness, they nearly always express fatalistic attitudes toward their situation.”
Freire describes this relationship as collegial, the point when the oppressed “figure out” the oppressor. I interpret this as the point when titles, status, and qualifications wash away and that both the oppressed and yourself realize that all that is a facade – the only real value you have to offer is your solidarity (which is a sacrifice you are finally willing to make). It’s the point when all people involved are equally willing to listen to each other’s ideas as they are to challenge and criticize them. I once was talking about this idea in a training, and I noticed a group of people start whispering to each other. I asked them what it was about. They said, “they just realized they did something wrong,” they recounted a workshop they were hosting in a rural community where they, as facilitators, had a disagreement, so they decided to pause the meeting to go outside to discuss. I asked why? and they said, “because we didn’t want them to see that we weren’t in full agreement, but now we realize doing so was dehumanizing.” Precisely! They were talking about THEIR community, and a point of confusion or disagreement should be utilized not to exclude the community but instead the engage the community in helping to find a solution. Furthermore, admitting their disagreement would only help the community to “figure them out” – to demystify their qualifications, making it easier for the community to share their ideas and criticisms.
Ironically, our insecurity as community workers can be just as, if not more, oppressive than our privilege. When you’re new to a community or situation your instinct is to try to be helpful, especially when you’re there as a community worker – you want to prove your worth, and your value to the community by sharing what you know, your ideas, connections, possible solutions, etc., etc. However, this overeagerness gets in the way of what your real objective should be; listening, asking questions, and just making connections with people. I feel it’s best to assume from the outset that you have nothing to offer besides your willingness to listen and learn about their world. Don’t give into the temptation to “be useful” until you’re confident you really can be but also until people are comfortable enough with you to tell you when you’re wrong.
I’ve just touched the surface of Pedagogy of the Oppressed here, but hopefully, I’ve provided some insight into its practical application in a community development setting. I plan to write in future posts more about the practical applications of his ideas as well as ways we at Village Earth have interpreted and even departed from some of his ideas.
If you’re interested in learning more about Freire, I strongly encourage you to participate in our online Community Mobilization course, which is part of our online certificate in Sustainable Community Development at Colorado State University.