CONSCIENTIZAÇÃO: REOPENING SCHOOLS REQUIRES LIBERATION OF THE OPPRESSED
KIARA BUTLER, CEO & FOUNDER OF DIVERSITY TALKS
EDLOC BOULDER FUND RECIPIENT 2020
I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and as a young child, my lunch was free throughout my K-12 education.To my young eyes at the time, that was freedom. I was receiving free lunch in response to food insecurity, instead of the system addressing why students like myself didn’t have access to high quality nutrition. I wasn’t aware that even in my years of innocence, I was assimilating within an unjust system that positioned “free” as “freedom”. I was a part of a system where the free, yet limited resources provided by the oppressor, out of good will, were disguised as freedom, and this is often the false narrative within systems serving people in poverty. In light of the COVID pandemic, we have to shift this paradigm.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire delves into a phenomenon called false charity. We tend to do too much false charity work in education. We provide resources and opportunities to oppressed populations with the intention of helping them, while still preserving the power of the oppressor. We are only addressing symptoms, not the cause. Since COVID-19 has required the closure of schools, we have shifted our focus to the inequities that Black and Brown people have known to exist and, at the same time, we have increased our false charity work, and cognitive dissonance allows us to feel good about it. Reopening schools requires more than free resources. It requires liberation of the oppressed.
The Portugese language has the incredible ability to encapsulate a concept or feeling in one word, which Freire does so aptly. He argues that in order to truly liberate the oppressed, we must seek to gain a level of social consciousness that allows us to reimagine rules, policies, and procedures that influence what we believe to be the status quo or normal- conscientização. Freire believes that we must shift from the practices of false charity to work that embodies true generosity. And in order to be truly generous, we must eliminate the need to extend our hands in supplication. Reopening schools requires input and direction from those most impacted by oppressive systems, not just free programs and resources. It requires the advancement of multiple solutions by rejecting a one size fits all approach. It demands that we center conscientização within the work.
Distorted Reality: Digital Divide
Before COVID-19, we knew that the opportunity gap between Black & Latinx students and their white peers existed in education. We knew that students were afforded opportunities based on their race, socioeconomic status and zip-code, providing them with only a 51% chance to learn. Yet, false charity allows us to ignore the root causes of the opportunity gap by attempting to alleviate a current symptom — the digital divide.
Since we have been social distancing and not able to attend school, we’ve given more attention to the lack of internet and technology access in our student’s homes. Across the country, more than 163 million people do not have access to the internet at home. Worse still, many students don’t have the basic technology to distance learn. For example, in New York, administrators did not have 300,000 chromebooks available to assist in the shift to distance learning. This is not an isolated issue. It is also where false charity comes into play. Strides have been made to provide free technology, chromebooks have been issued to students in record time, and tutorials have been created to provide instructions. And yet, few districts thought to address the lack of internet access in students’ homes, many suggesting that students come and sit in school parking lots to do their work. Free computers aren’t enough when a student has to sit in a parking lot in order to use it. It’s one piece of a much bigger puzzle that we must solve by first posing the question of why. Why are our students living without the basic necessities for their education? Until we seek to understand the root causes, we will continue to uphold oppressive systems through oppressive practices by providing students and families with what we believe they need to survive and not what they actually need, which is liberation.
COVID-19 has created the opportunity for us to reimagine education in a way that truly liberates the oppressed. This liberation isn’t reached by only receiving the input of students, families, and communities and then redesigning the system ourselves, as this approach only integrates them into an already oppressive system. Instead, we should allow students, families, and communities to identify problems — allow them to see themselves within the reality of these problems and to come up with the solutions for these problems. Then, those with the power and privilege to make the changes needed, do the work with them and on their behalf. When we reopen schools, it cannot simply be for us to get back to work and drive the economy. It cannot be for selfish gain or in the interests of the oppressor. It must be with the health and demands of the oppressed at the forefront.
Oppressed Voices at the Forefront
I founded Diversity Talks in 2017 as a way to completely shift power dynamics between youth and adults. We specialize in creating a space for adults to learn directly from youth. Paulo Freire argues that this shift is necessary in centering conscientização in our work. But this shift in power dynamics requires us to no longer seek to find solutions or be educated by a traditional expert. At Diversity Talks, we believe that youth are the experts of their own experiences. And while this is the driving force behind our organization, within that same thought, we’ve come to recognize that some of their voices have been silenced in ways that may cause them to not recognize their power or they may not have the language to articulate their needs. This is a result of an oppressive system operating as designed. This is a result of our false charity work. These setbacks do not mean that our youth and families are not capable of finding solutions or making decisions- quite the opposite in fact. In liberating our most oppressed populations we must:
- Relinquish power and control;
- Empathize with each individual experience;
- Build authentic relationships with youth and families; and
- Shift our mindsets to work with those most impacted in identifying problems and implementing solutions.
These four strategies working in tandem are what true liberation looks like in practice, and they will be absolutely essential to incorporate in any opening plan that has true equity as a priority. I encourage you to incorporate these strategies as we collectively work to develop plans to reopen schools, instead of creating band-aid, stop gap solutions. We have a chance to rebuild schools with youth voice at the center and false charity aside. Be suspect of any “expert” offering silver-bullet solutions without first engaging families and youth. We all want to open schools safely, but the only way to do it is the hard work of hearing the fears of families and addressing them head on. If you are a systems leader, in addition to giving a laptop away, give some of your power. That is worth far more in the long run.
Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) is a community of more than 300 leaders of color working to elevate the leadership, voices and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education. EdLoC aims to advance a third way that breaks through the polarizing divides that have consumed efforts to improve public education and to forge the alliances needed to realize and sustain EdLoC’s vision of providing low-income children of color expansive and substantive opportunities for the highest levels of academic and economic attainment.