Thirty-five years ago, I discovered Paulo Freire and his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I was teaching adults to read in Southeast Washington DC and on Capitol Hill, when a literacy mentor suggested his book, and Freire’s insights turned everything we were doing inside out. We threw out our brand new workbooks and replaced them with the words the students wanted and needed to read: instructions for the safe operation of heavy equipment, ingredient lists for the cleaning products they used, and the Bible(!). The shift in the class dynamic was striking: rather than snoozing through a lesson at the end of the work day, the students asked to meet first thing in the morning, and they were there before I arrived, poring over the texts they longed to understand.
We started each class with a paragraph from the gospel of John, and then split up into groups determined by job. The janitors might put together a shop vac or change the pads on a floor polisher, and the cleaning crew talked through what chemicals shouldn’t be mixed on a surface. Each day the learners brought with them whatever they needed to de-code. And at lunch they asked for more time with the gospel.
I’ve gone back to Freire lately, this time reading a transcript of a lecture he delivered in Sweden in 1988. He was speaking to a conference of social workers, but he could have been talking to anyone who believes in the world as it could be. Do you dream of a society without injustice? How can we bring it into being?
He speaks honestly about how often our rhetoric is divorced from action. “It is much easier to talk than to do,” he says. Yet he calls for a convergence between what is said and what is done as a measure of personal and systemic integrity. How can one call on love as a virtue, he suggests, and not engage in practical actions of love?
Second, Freire admonishes us to develop a permanent curiosity toward oneself and in those with whom we work or otherwise engage. Orient your relationships around questions and have the humility to accept how little you know about the other person and what makes her tick. Ask her how she is, what she cares about, what makes her hurt or angry. Balance your search for competence in what you do with your commitment to be in relationship with those you serve.
Develop your tolerance of difference in others, so that you can see beyond it to what you have in common. A commitment to grow in ease with difference leaves you with more energy to fight for change, Freire argues. Further, be patiently impatient or impatiently patient with how things are. Being only patient risks a corrosive complacency and accepting that things cannot change. On the other hand, impatience can often alienate the very partners you need to help shift the status quo. Hold them in tension, he advises.
Lasting change comes not by changing someone’s mind, but through engaging and mobilizing hearts, including our own. Consider this: those who make change are the ones who have been changed themselves. Society is transformed when we transform.
If you call on love as a virtue, what are the practical actions of love you engage in?