Praxis and Critical Consciousness
“Praxis” is Freire's term for the process of reflection and action in order to impact social change (Freire, 1970/2000, p. 79), also known as self-reflective and critical practice by feminists/womanists and progressive social workers (Joseph et al., 1991; Mishna & Bogo, 2007; Pyles, 2013). One way praxis is put into action today is through the methodology of popular education. Freire referred to the pedagogy he created as “educacion cultural popular” (Choules, 2007, p. 162).
According to Wiggins (2011), although there is no one definition of popular education, a working definition is
a philosophy and methodology that seeks to bring about more just and equitable social, political, and economic relations by creating settings in which people who have historically lacked power can discover and expand their knowledge and use it to eliminate societal inequities. [Popular education] maintains a shifting, sometimes uneasy relationship to hierarchical political parties and organizations. (p. 36)
For Freire, one of the key aims of social analysis is to promote the development of critical consciousness in order for people to “emerge from their silence, find their voice, capable of changing and determining the conditions in which they live” (Freire, 1970/2000, p. 36). In her work Teaching to Transgress, hooks (1994) speaks about Freire's influence on her development as a critical thinker. hooks discusses Freire as a catalyst for her development of critical consciousness and resistance against the “colonizing process” (p. 46). For hooks, Freire's work provided a global understanding for liberation struggles that begin with “that historical moment when one begins to think critically about the self and identity in relation to one's political circumstance” (p. 47). In social work, critical consciousness is also embedded in the core principles of social work identity and practice: self-awareness and conscious use of self (Burghardt, 2013; Jones, 2009; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005).
hooks (1994) reminds readers that “conscientization” (“concientizagao”) as used by Freire (1970/2000, p. 67) means the development process of critical consciousness but does not end with awareness about oppressive systems and our role in them. Rather, hooks reiterates Freire's assertion that recognizing the dehumanizing state of our current reality compels people into action. She discusses how experience verifies theory and how through joining reflection and action in praxis, people engage in an essential practice of living their politics.
The students in the C.O. course begin to critically deconstruct and gain an understanding of oppression and other social issues through exercises that stimulate dialogue and develop critical consciousness. One of these is the creation of an “oppression grid.” The oppression grid uses concepts that students generate in drawing a collective map of their ideas and then discuss how they experience power in their daily lives. The oppression grid creates a visual representation of the ideologies, institutions, actions, and internalization of oppression within US society that challenges the students to reflect on their place within the grid and their role in perpetuating oppression in their daily lives. The outcome of the activity is that students analyze power and oppression through writing and drawing in order to express collective images of power. Students then have a visual tool that the instructors bring to each session to hang on the wall that they can refer to throughout the course sessions. As students are exposed to organizing campaigns and other projects/activities happening on the ground, they make connections to concepts learned in the oppression grid to the techniques and organizing models that groups and organizations employ to work in attempting to dismantle systems of power and oppression. For example, students can look at the oppression grid they created to see that an anti-police brutality campaign is addressing the “action” of racism through violence occurring in the “institution” of the criminal justice system. At the same time, they relate the campaign to the root cause ofwhite privilege in the ideology section of the grid.
Drawing and movement-based activities are a way in which the course integrates the biopsychosocial-spiritual model of social work into the C.O. course. Artistic and kinesthetic exercises prompt students to shift from what neurobiology explains as left-brain hemisphere functioning of logical and linear thinking into right-brain hemisphere activities of processing visual, spatial, and emotional information (Miehls, 1997, pp. 83-84). Images are a way in which students can process deep, analytical information in order to connect their experiences to abstract theories (Huss, 2012).
To reinforce a critical consciousness perspective linked to the possibilities of making social change collectively, Martell engages the students interactively in the final session using the following example:
I begin this story by giving them all a condom and ask, “What did I just give you?” They all say a condom. I say “no; it’s a Life Saver!” I tell them the story of how as a youth worker in the 1970s I was known as the Condom Lady. It was against the law to give out condoms in the schools and a community center hired a white gay young man and a Puerto Rican straight young woman to give out condoms in our community and run a peer education groups. This was before HIV/AIDS. We were dealing with the epidemic of teen pregnancies and STDs. I ask them, “So what happened that you can now receive free condoms right here at the Student Health office?” Usually there is no answer. I remind them that in the 1980s and 1990s, community activists demanded health care, including free condoms. Organizations like ACT-UP (2003), which we read about this semester, not only used social action tactics like “dead-ins” but they also did legislative work, and more. They inspired a generation to organize and today we have free condoms in schools. “Yes! Organizing is hard work; yes, some organizers don’t make lots of money, and yes, we have to continue to fight for our rights. But our work saves lives. I know you will never look at a condom the same way again.” I make this presentation fun and uplifting. I give them information about safe sex. For some, this is the first time that they had this conversation in public. I am still “the Condom Lady.”