Freire (1970/2000) calls for anti-oppression pedagogy to have its groundings in analyzing power and oppression and how these forces impact people. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/2000), he discusses unequal relationships between colonized and colonizer as well as culture and oppression, respectively. He basically concludes that within seemingly benevolent relationships in which one group of people is offering to help or modernize a second group of people, inherent within that connection is a “power over” dynamic in which the first group dominates the second group (pp. 44-45 125-138).
Considering specifically the United States, bell hooks (1994) and Cornel West (1994) utilize Freire's philosophy and technique to examine discrimination throughout the history of the country and paint powerful pictures demonstrating how certain inequalities created our current situation and are still alive and well today. In addition, Starhawk, in Webs of Power: Notes From the Global Uprising (2002), distinguishes among three types of power. According to her, there is “power over;” which means institutional power; “power within,” which is the personal power of the participant (student, community member, etc.); and “power with,” which means collective power (pp. 6-7). Starhawk cites examples of nonhierarchical, nonviolent organizing in which power is decentralized, as with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle that challenged “power over” (Shepard & Hayduk, 2002, pp. 52-56) and also the Occupy movement (Crass, 2013). Several social work scholars adapt and utilize these power concepts in their types of analysis as well as include them in their method of teaching and learning (Miller et al., 2011; Mullaly, 2006; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005).
In utilizing the principles of Freire and feminists/womanists in the C.O. course, Martell attempts to demystify the “power over” concept based on the status of “instructor” granted by the academic institution. She begins this process by sharing her history and experiences as an older Puerto Rican woman of color from a working-class background. She welcomes students to do the same—that is, reflect on their experiences through the lens of social identities. This process serves to build trust as quickly as possible with students and create a safe space to allow for transformational learning.
She also attempts to reduce the power differential in the classroom by rearranging the space in which there is no front and center so students can become teachers and instructors can become learners. It starts with having everyone sit in a circle rather than rows during each class session. Martell uses open-ended questions and asks students to talk from their personal experiences using “I statements” rather than talking about another person's perspective. Most students begin to own their voice and develop critical thinking from their view of the world. Martell and the graduate assistant encourage students to contribute to conversations and validate their sharing from personal perspectives. Throughout the semester, most students begin to understand and appreciate Freire's method of teaching as interpreted by Martell. Her goal is for students to use her teachings on critical analysis and share the thought processes in their other classes and beyond, thus creating a ripple effect.
Martell uses several exercises involving the students to demonstrate and demystify power, including a power web in which students draw their definitions of power and the connections among these and also a power grid to identify those who hold power at different levels of society. One interactive activity is the “Ten Chairs,” a simulation of roles that we are assigned in society and how we maintain the current social, economic, and political conditions. The purpose of the exercise, designed by Martell and based on an activity from Popular Economics (“The Ten Chairs,” 2014), is to shed light on systems that privilege and oppress and to define the roles of gatekeepers within organizations and institutions. The instructor tells students to set up one row of 10 chairs and sit in them. At the same time, a group of six students leave the room with the teaching assistant. After the chairs are set up and students are sitting in them, the group of students who left the room are told to go back in and take the chairs away from those seated. In the meantime, the student sitting in the first chair in the row is told to take his or her chair and move to the side, sitting apart from the other nine students. The rest of the students in the class sit facing the 10 chairs as observers. As the six begin to take the chairs and bring them to the place where the single “chosen” student is sitting, they are also told to “make nice” to this chosen one. Once a chair is taken out of the line, the student whose chair was taken moves to the end of the line of chairs, usually resulting in crowding around the few chairs left. When there is a struggle about giving up a chair, or there are no more chairs left in the row, the instructor says “Freeze” and the debriefing begins.
They analyze their and others' roles in relationship to authority, power, privilege, styles of interaction, degrees of comfort, and gatekeeping roles, among other concepts. Reference is made to the other power exercises. Students are not given the rules to the game and eventually surmise that they are acting in a prescribed way. When the class debriefs the game, participants reflect on oppressive systems within society and ultimately begin to formulate how they will resist maintaining the status quo in their personal and professional lives.