Paulo Freire: Critical Consciousness and Community Organization
Jennifer Stanton

Paulo Freire was a world renowned adult educator who influenced the process of education for oppressed people and also the development of programs for health and community development. Born in 1921, in northeastern Brazil, Freire’s middle class family was forced to experience hunger and poverty after the Great Depression influencing Freire to vow, at a young age, to dedicate his life to the struggle against hunger (Collins, 1977.) He later had the opportunity to enroll at the University of Recife where he studied philosophy and the psychology of language while also studying the works of Marx, Bernanos, Mounier and Maritain all of whom would influence his philosophy about education (Collins, 1977.) He later changed his focus to philosophy and the sociology of education and would go on to work as a welfare agent and as the Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in Sao Paulo, Brazil (Collins, 1977.) After working in public service with the urban poor, Freire developed communication techniques that he incorporated into his development of educational theories (Facundo, 1984.) Brazil went through a period of social unrest during the 1960’s which brought multiple reform movements involving socialists, communists, students, labor organizers and Christian militants and during this time Freire used his teaching methods to inspire the pheasant class to political activism by means of increased literacy (Facundo, 1984.) Freire would later be imprisoned and exiled from Brazil, complete work in Chile increasing literacy on a national level, work in the U. S. during the civil rights movement and anti-war activism, travel around the world helping newly developed countries bring empowerment to previously oppressed populations and ultimately, be invited back to Brazil to become the Minister of Education for the City of Sao Paulo, guiding national school reform (Facundo, 1984.) Despite his personal struggles, Freire focused on the liberation of the poorest people in marginalized classes through innovative educational techniques.

Freire began developing his methodologies by teaching illiterate Brazilian peasants how to read through increased understanding of their political and social realities using a concept he developed called “conscientization,” which strengthens the link between community, organizational and psychological empowerment (1970a.) In Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he posits that education should involve a mutually respectful relationship between the teacher and learner and the learners should not just be viewed as passive receivers of knowledge but active contributors to their educational topics with the purpose of liberating themselves from previously oppressive situations (1970a.) Freire raises the question as to whether powerlessness can actually be reinforced through education by treating students as objects that passively receive information. Freire challenged the current status quo in American schools and argued that any curriculum that ignores racism, sexism and exploitation inhibits and blocks awareness and social action for change thereby supporting the status quo and further oppression. According to Freire, education receivers should collectively structure a dialogue that discusses their experiences and determines their needs and problems while the education giver listens and learns from the receivers and provides the educational tools specific to their situations (1970a.) Freire believed education to be the path to permanent liberation for the oppressed by first raising awareness of their oppression, or critical consciousness, followed by the creation of a culture and society by the learners through a process of action-reflection-action. He lists the important characteristics of this process as self-determination, intentionality, creativity and rationality in contrast to the typical characteristics found in oppressive situations such as coercion, reaction, homogeneity and chance (1973.)

In his book Education for Critical Consciousness, (1973) Freire discussed three stages in attaining critical consciousness, semi-intransitive consciousness, naïve transitivity and critical transitivity. Semi-intransitive is similar to the pre-contemplation stages of the Transtheoretical Model of behavior change in that it is a state of mind during which the individual is not contemplating any other matters other than those involved with the basic elements of survival and are not capable of effectively contemplating other challenges. The majority of poor, dispossessed or uneducated individuals may remain in the pre-contemplation stage of change due to their focus on basic needs. Freire observes that when oppressed groups begin to respond to inquiry about their existence, increase their ability to discuss their world amongst themselves and with those outside their social group, they become transitive and no longer just react to a limited sphere of subjects but instead begin to react to a more general sphere of specific problems. The second stage of critical consciousness is naïve transitivity, which Freire characterizes as including behaviors such as over-simplification of problems, under-estimation of ordinary people, a tendency to gregariousness, a disinterest in investigation, fascination with fancy definitions of reality and practice of polemics. He states that naïve transitivity is a lifelong endeavor for people entering the learning process and is never totally overcome. In the final stage, critical transitivity, individuals begin to test their own understanding of problems, attempt to avoid distortion of problem perception, avoid preconceived notions and reject passivity by practicing dialogue. These individuals are receptive to new ideas without rejecting old ideas leading them to action for social change.

Freire’s work fundamentally developed the concepts of empowerment and critical consciousness that health educators use today and has influenced programs worldwide in health, community development and adult education. His philosophy that unity is essential for accomplishing social change for the poor and dispossessed by finding power and strength in a common vision is central to many current community organizing and building theories (1970b.) The first two key concepts in community organization and building listed by Glanz, Rimer & Viswanath are empowerment and critical consciousness (2008.) In addition, Glanz et al., point out that conscientization is a critical element for sustainability in community organizing programs over time and states that it is one of the most important links between community and psychological empowerment (2008.) It is critical that health educators and other professionals utilize such concepts when working with the public. Disparities in health outcomes continue to occur across socioeconomic groups indicating multiple influences (Ezzati, Friedman, Kulkarni & Murray, 2008; Glanz, Rimer & Viswanath, 2008 and Goodarz, et al, 2010.) Typically, health professionals are better educated and have a higher socio-economic status than the community members they are serving. Freireian philosophy indicates that health professionals who give information and health education without first learning about and understanding the individuals in the community and their different experiences will inadvertently reinforce disparities in health understanding and outcomes. By first asking questions about the people and then offering them the ability to discuss the issues specific to their situation, they will be empowered to move forward in the process of objectively understanding the barriers they face and how to remove them. Freire’s concepts support and can be utilized in programs that raise health literacy, that strive to understand community capacity and social capital, can facilitate issue selection from within target populations, as well as measure and evaluate programs from the perspective of the target population. Utilizing concepts of Freire’s methodology will increase sustainability of programs aimed at changing health behaviors, decrease health disparities and ultimately increase satisfaction and quality of life for previously under served populations.

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