Pedagogy of the Oppressed Revisited

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would have turned 86 years old this May. And although
much has transpired since Freire wrote his seminal text,
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, what seems to have remained
constant, or deepened, are the structures and politics of
inequality that breed poverty and human suffering.
Impoverished communities today face the dreadful consequences
of an intensifying economic malaise. Former
opportunities for work and earning a decent livelihood
have disappeared, as communities struggle to maintain
their dignity in the face of monetary collapse. Many
oppressed communities have also been forced to contend
with the debilitating impact of being turned into quasi-laboratories
for the benefit of university educators, researchers
and organizers. And, though some of their efforts may have
been positive, more times than not, the gains are short
lived, as ‘traveller’ educators, researchers, and organizers
complete their projects and move on to slay new dragons.
In Freire’s work, he constantly sought to ask, as should
we, how can those who enter oppressed communities labor
in ways that respect the wisdom, cultures, and histories of
the oppressed. This is particularly important, given a mainstream
culture of ‘expert’ intervention with its emphasis on
quick-fix solutions. Too often such efforts, inadvertently,
splinter and uproot community self-determination (albeit
unintentionally), as community members become objects of
study to be used for purposes beyond their own interests.
By the same token, when efforts are made to honestly challenge
unexamined assumptions or practices, those from
oppressed communities are accused of being too political,
abstract, or ideological, whenever they seek more grounded
dialogue. Again Freire is useful here, for he reminds us
the importance of resisting discourses of fatalism and the
conditioned responses of urgency, in the name of expediency.
The truth is, chronic problems in most poor communities
have existed for generations. Yet, suddenly when
‘traveller’ agents deem the old problems ‘urgent,’ there is a
scramble for immediate repair, even when proposed
actions might stifle community participation.
It is not surprising, then, that the politics of expediency
often functions as one of the cornerstones of liberal
approaches to problematic community intervention.
Rather than to seek organic opportunities for voice, participation,
and social action among community members
themselves, a premature leap, for example, into a welldefined
‘Rights’ campaign can lead to premature solutions.
What must not be ignored here is that solutions anchored
in ‘Rights’ are often much more compelling to white educators,
researchers or organizers, since it allows them to feel
secure, competent, and comfortable leading. This, despite
their lack of lived knowledge about the manner in which
generations of racism and poverty can disable community
empowerment, through conflict, dependency, and despair.
In many ways, Freire’s work strongly spoke to the need
for a decolonizing approach to community education,
research and organizing. He signaled the need for a critical
approach to community development, one that instills a
sense of intimacy and openness about grappling with
class, cultural, gendered and racialized differences, within
the context of any community project for change.
This calls for a community politics that begins from
the lived experiences of community members, with faith
in their capacities to contend with their own issues in
creative and vital ways. Hence, ‘traveller’ educators,
researchers, and organizers must work with community
residents from inception, so that when university agents
leave, the community is left
stronger for the relationship,
rather than more weakened, used,
and maligned.
Central to Paulo Freire’s work is
an expectation that our engagement
with community members
will be anchored in honesty, faith,
and love—which develops over
time. Through forging such relationships,
we are able to participate
together in naming the history of
formal and informal power relationships
that not only reproduce
inequalities, foster manipulation,
and inscribe dependency, but also
the many solutions anchored within
the reality of each community.
This is to say that a recipe approach
to education, research, or community
organizing—whether legal,
scientific, or political in nature—
functions against critical community
In contrast, community work, with an eye toward a liberating
intent, must take into account multiple histories of
survival—including those shaped by racism, sexism, class
inequalities, homophobia, disablism—recognizing that all
community relations and processes are historical and cultural
in nature. Firmly rooted in a complex yet transformative
intent, such community efforts against oppression
acknowledge both the power of indigenous identities and
the power of collective existence.
This is particularly the case where pragmatism and expediency
are privileged over a historical understanding of
complex social phenomena. A phenomenon often aided by
the gaze of ‘traveller’ educators, researchers, and organizers
who spend a few months in a community and then think
they ‘know’ what the community needs, thinks, or who they
are. But now, even better than those who have been
oppressed and have worked for decades to disrupt these
structures of inequality.
In an effort to disrupt commonsense meanings, Freire spoke
to the need for a more transformative approach to our work,
one which acknowledges both the power of subordinated
identities and the power of collective action. Inherent to this
decolonizing perspective are important questions for reflection
that we must hold as central in our efforts.
Who produces, analysis, and makes conclusions about
the multiple and often divergent narratives or political
needs of the community? Whose interests does the timetables
and research agendas of political interventions serve?
Who consumes the program or research and toward what
ends? What leadership and organizational structures, as
well as communication styles, are being utilized to create a
more solid grassroots political mobilization? What privileges
and economic interests enable the production and
consumption of education and research? How can these
function in the interests of the residents’ long-term, as well
as short-term, needs?
Questions like these are key to the manner in which
education, research and organizing are conducted, the
analysis of research is developed, and the products of education,
research and political organizing
are utilized. Moreover, there
must be a manner in which to not
marginalize these questions as
‘abstract’ in favor of ‘practical’
questions, by those more aligned
with mainstream notions of community
At this point in our long history of
battling racism and economic
injustice, there must be a way that
we can sit together with open
hearts and minds, in order to grapple
with a more complex understanding
of what it is that we each
bring to the table. This begins with
recognition that we carry different
knowledge and perspective,
grounded upon our personal histories
of survival and struggles
against oppression.
Above all, we must acknowledge that the work we do
within communities, we also do for ourselves. Our work
as critical researchers, activists, and organizers must be
seen as a two-way street—a partnership that is carried out
through mutual respect, learning, struggle, and vision.
Hence, there is no way that we can be involved in the
work to transform social inequalities, without also opening
ourselves to critique and a decolonizing process that
challenged the negative impact of our own entitlements,
entanglements and privileges.
As Paulo Freire often reminded us, the struggle for
empowerment must be both pedagogical and political.It
requires a solidarity that is founded upon shared power,
where differences and disagreements are not demonized or
falsely contained, but rather welcomed as the fuel for creatively
learning about our place in the world
Such political grace, requires that we recognize that, no
matter from where we enter the room, our labor as educators,
researchers, and organizers must ultimately also be
about ‘saving our own lives.’ For Freire, this meant a grace
born from teaching and learning together, in ways that
affirm our humanity, while yet, steadfastly, challenging the
social and material conditions of alienation, greed, and
There is no question that this requires enormous patience,
fortitude and wherewithal. However, it is also an approach
that, in the long run, may leave communities more armed to
contend with on-going and future issues and concerns of
oppression—long after ‘traveling’ university educators,
researchers, and placeless political organizers are long gone.

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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