The Concept of "Sustainable Activism"
I have been giving a lot of thought recently to activism and how important effective activism is in effecting social change. Many examples of this come to mind including the fight for emancipation from enslavement, women's rights, civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights etc. Since June of 2020 when the death of George Floyd spurred international outrage and protests, I have been seeing a number of clients coming into therapy to get help with balancing their activism with their health. It brought to mind an important piece of writing on the subject by Tracey Ollis whose article Activism, Reflection and Paulo Freire – An embodied pedagogy discusses the importance of engaging in activism in a sustainable manner.
I have started to revisit my musing about this article which I first encountered while in training to become a therapist. Many of the takeaways have lived with me long after graduation and, in order to encourage people to think about their role in activism, I am choosing to share my thoughts about this here.
The first quote which stood out for me is “activism without purposeful reflection has the potential to become what he [Freire] termed ‘naïve activism'”. This impacted me because it speaks to the separation of action and thought occurring when one focuses on one aspect of activism or views one component as more salient than the other. The challenge arises in balancing the two components of activism. College students are often passionate about causes but forget to do the critical reflection necessary to impact the cause meaningfully. This may explain why when young, passionate people take a stand for a cause, it is often dismissed as “youthful exuberance” or “naïve idealism”. When constructed in such a diminishing manner, even the most passionate young activist can feel exasperated ultimately harming the larger cause.
This is where Freire’s suggestion that reflection is essential for productive activism becomes key. A productively engaged activist is one who recognises that the landscape of activism is not static but requires alteration to the “message” and its delivery in order to produce the most effective outcome. In order to come to that understanding, reflection on actions, thoughts and strategies is essential otherwise, with the best of intentions, one’s deeds can simply fall flat rather than contribute to the cause. Activism is a process of life-long learning requiring ongoing reflection to produce a useful intersection of theory and practice which cannot be separated. The space I currently occupy has made this very clear as I continue to learn from numerous sources both formally and informally.
The second key learning point for me was the idea that teachers as individuals should avoid taking a “neutral” stance on matters of political importance to avoid challenging or influencing students. The prevailing view in education is that teachers are all powerful and are in a position of tremendous influence. For that reason, they are discouraged from sharing their political views with students even when the larger society has promoted systems that oppress. The education system in its current form seeks to uphold a status quo which may be unhealthy for the citizens it serves. Freire’s encouragement of teachers in sharing their views is important in the specific sense that he believes it is respectful towards students to provide a point of comparison. This is far more empowering and educational than attempting to keep the teaching/learning environment devoid of critical engagement. He stated:
“In the name of respect I should have towards my students, I do not see why I should omit or hide my political stance by proclaiming a neutral position that doesn’t exist. On the contrary, my role as a teacher is to assent the students right to compare, to choose, to rupture, to decide” (Freire as cited in Ollis, 2012 p. 3).
This point of learning was further expanded for me in that educators as a collective should not support a sick system by attempting to portray neutrality on issues of a political nature as to do so would be very limiting to the ability of our students to develop the capacity for critical thought. ‘Education never was, is not and never can be neutral or indifferent in regard to the reproduction of the dominant ideology or the interrogation of it’. In other words, the hegemonic ideology of those in power is simply reinforced by educators who remain silent on important issues (passive reproduction). By not attempting to bring into the classroom open discussion about the systems in which the populace lives, the dominant ideology will continue to be passed down without question regardless of the true feelings of those who function within it. In this case, silence means consent to the current status quo and the continued oppression of others.
Finally, the most salient point in the entire piece for me was the idea that activism is only transformative and empowering when the oppressed are invited to the discussion about issues affecting them. Often, those in power or holders of privilege, with the best of intentions, seek to prescribe for those they seek to help rather than to help them in a way that is uniquely meaningful. The quote which articulated this in the way that resonated most is:
“Freire believed that we must involve the oppressed in every form of the process and dialogue, without this our actions could be an act of oppression in itself and could possibly be a form of manipulation. He argues strongly that we should trust in the ability of oppressed people to be able to reason and become active agents constructing their own liberation.” (Ollis, 2012, p. 10).
This point brings to mind the fact that often, people are using their own lenses of privilege and detachment to conceptualise others unaware that they are ultimately oppressing those they seek to empower. To not work with the oppressed in changing oppression, is to doubt their abilities to realise what is happening to them and to take appropriate actions to eliminate their mistreatment. That is ironically very marginalising to those whom activists seek to include. This is why when we see panels of men talking about women's issues or all white panels talking about anti-Black racism etc., there is such public outcry.
My last job before leaving Jamaica and moving to Canada was teaching undergraduates critical thinking and analysis for 11 years in a post-emancipation and post-colonial, predominantly black society. I felt as though Freire had a clear grasp of the issues that the liberal arts community in the Caribbean grappled with as we attempted to educate and expand our students. As one of the professors who felt strongly that in a university, ideas should be allowed to contend, I was horrified at the manner in which the faculty was stifled from encouraging students to critically engage with certain types of issues while being encouraged to promote it with other less politically significant ones. It became clear to me that the concept of “neutrality” was a farce as it is impossible to have no opinions on the linkages between social factors and observable outcomes.
One that stands out in my mind is in relation to the view that Jamaican creole is not a true language as it originated from slaves and is the language of the lumpen proletariat and therefore lacking in value. This was juxtaposed with the idea that the Bible should not be translated into such a lowly language since it compromised the apparent “sanctity” of the text. As an educator, I was incensed that the discussion was stifled as it challenged the view of many in power that Christianity was a superior religion the message of which should be held static in a hegemonic language for all time. The fact that the religion of the masses was a means of social control in a socio-historical context of slavery and colonialism was ironic to me. Those of us who sought to open that discussion publicly were chastised by others who felt that our “radical” positions were detrimental to proper socialisation of future Jamaican leaders.
Those within the society who were creole speakers with little proficiency in English, the official language of Jamaica, internalised their place at the bottom of the hierarchy in many ways. Access to certain types of jobs, opportunities and social mobility are largely closed to this group of people regardless of their level of intelligence which is often questioned and ridiculed. Some with social power and good intentions made a case for them with solutions that were ultimately quite prescriptive and constructed through the lens of a middle class which felt that its norms were shared by everyone. This is the danger Freire warns of wherein activists are not engaging the people they are seeking to empower and ultimately end up creating another kind of oppression.
Freire’s point that the oppressed must be included in their own empowerment is a very significant perspective to take. It assumes that there is personal agency among the oppressed which, when fostered by those who have social power, has the capacity to lay a stronger foundation for consistent development. To treat oppressed populations as if they have no capacity to comprehend what is happening to them is to further demean and stigmatise. Such an approach is hindering as it may promote a learned helplessness which can persist for generations causing further distrust between societal groups.
In my work with people struggling with substance abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressive perspectives, Freire’s words ring truer than ever. To assume that my clients who misuse substances do not know about the damaging effects of the drugs they take is to demean them and to impose potential biases about drug use and people who use substances onto them. This compromises the acceptance required to forge a therapeutic alliance as judgemental practitioners risk quietly judging the client whom we claim to help in the same manner as activists who do not engage the oppressed. It is important to ask questions about what their circumstances mean to them rather than to tell them what they are experiencing based on my views. Only through the provision of space for the voice of a vulnerable client can therapists ever truly meet the client where he or she is currently situated. If I am unable to meet the client where he or she is situated, then helping that person is impossible and the entire process would be rendered futile.
In the same manner that as a professor Freire encouraged critical examination, it is important to take that same position to therapy and help the client to recognise that there are systems of oppression informing his or her circumstances and therefore, part of the frustration experienced is not attributable to the individual. The recognition that one is kept vulnerable by a system does not provide the client with an excuse, it merely helps the client realise that in a lot of ways, he or she is set up to fail and therefore, new ways of approaching problem situations may need to be created to take control of the rest of his or her life.
Freire envisioned a society in which activism is praxis resulting from the inextricable link between action and critical reflection. As a therapist, the action is the intervention used but, without honest reflection, it is possible to break the first ethical consideration of therapy, “do no harm”. As therapists who work to empower our clients, we are obligated to engage the rest of society in a strategic manner to question established views about the oppressed populations with whom we work. Activism for us therefore, should exist not only on the individual level, but at the level of the wider society as well. It is in this way that reflection and action become praxis.