Can you think of an instance in which you saw a reversal of power in the name of democracy? The writer Paulo Freire, whose book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed is commonly drawn upon in the field of education, alludes to this frequent occurrence as he comments, “But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors.’ The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped” (para. 8). Conditions that remain unchecked — beyond the individuals ruling — can perpetuate oppression. Freedom, as Freire will claim many times, demands a new way of life. Maintaining a society in which everyone is empowered will require being uncomfortable at times. For all citizens, the willingness to be uncomfortable may include the responsibility of speaking out against bad practices when you see them performed. “Things are the way are” is no longer a valid response. As such, the first step to realizing your power as an equal is recognizing situations in which you are told to respect the power; the second step is using your right to speak out with the knowledge that you are providing the potential for a better world.
The notion of “taking your place” is a complex one because it can have some truth when in the right context. Many mindfulness experts will speak about acceptance being the key to an easy life. Sometimes, letting things play out as they are is the best approach. It will always remain constant that a respect for another person’s life and freedoms should be observed. But, as those with the upper hand may use their power excessively, there can be opportunities to speak out in protest to bring about further justice.
Unfair working conditions do not have to be accepted. Sometimes, garnering attention to the issue is enough. Other times, writing to the organization in request for change may at least spark the possibility of future change down the road.
In the classroom, the opportunity to protest can bring about positive social change. A curriculum applying Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed conceptual framework by means of dialogue, as Freire advocates for, would give students opportunities to interact with the world and remind students that they can change the world. For an activity, students could have a choice in what organizations, issues, and ideas they will examine. They can be graded not so much for the knowledge they gain about the topic as for how they engage with it. Ideally, students will never have to hear “that’s the way things are.” What distinguishes the workplace, common room, and classroom as a liberated society is that students have a role in change. A liberated classroom space would allow students to have, as it would for Freire’s conception of the oppressed, “the freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture. Such freedom requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine…” (para. 87). Students must accordingly be put in positions where they can offer new knowledge. Being able to do so requires as much liberty in discussion as possible. The student’s function becomes not only to follow assignments but to become an involved member of society: in the classroom and out.