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Renewing and Reinventing Freire:
A Source of Inspiration in Inner-City Youth Education

by Pedro Noguera
New York, New York

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph.D. is a professor in the Steinhardt School's Department of Teaching and Learning at New York University.Click here to open a second browser window to view references and footnotes.

Paulo Freire’s work has had an enormous influence upon educators, social scientists and activists throughout the world. The appeal of Freire’s major books -- The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Education for Critical Consciousness (1973), Education as the Practice of Freedom (1969), to name just a few, is based to a large degree upon its unique approach to addressing the plight of the marginalized and oppressed, and the uneven distribution of power, wealth and status in the world.

Through his writing and his work Freire advanced a distinct approach to the process through which oppression and exploitation could be challenged and subverted and changes in social relations and material conditions could be achieved. It is vision rooted in a belief that genuine transformations in the structure of society are only possible when those who have historically been marginalized and rendered powerless are able to participate as independent, self-conscious agents capable of critically analyzing the conditions that constrain their lives and acting upon those constraints with creativity and resolve. More importantly, because Freire, recognized that the condition of oppression is not only material and structural in nature, but also contains important psychological and cultural dimensions, he reasoned that the systematic oppression of human beings can only be countered through deliberate actions taken by the oppressed to eliminate the condition of oppression. On this point Freire writes: “The liberation of the oppressed is a liberation of men (and women), not things. Accordingly, while no one liberates him/her self by his own efforts alone, neither is s/he liberated by others.
(Freire 1970: 55)

Freire’s commitment to grassroots social change, and bottom-up empowerment of the poor and powerless, and his insights into how this could be achieved has made Freire’s scholarship a source of inspiration to many. In countries such as Nicaragua, Guinea-Bissau, Grenada and Mozambique, his ideas served as a guide for national literacy campaigns and a source of insight into how disenfranchised people who had long been excluded from sharing in the wealth generated by their labor and their nation’s resources could be achieved. Despite the fact that much of his early work was rooted in the experience of a specific context -- conditions of the poor in northeast Brazil -- Freire’s work has had an appeal that has transcended national boundaries and cultural orientations. Of course, this is because oppression and suffering are common and pervasive features of human experience, and such social realties that are not limited by national boundaries. Illiteracy, hunger, disease, political repression and violence are ubiquitous among poor people throughout the world, even in wealthy nations. For this reason, Freire’s call for the empowerment of the poor has transcended boundaries based on language and culture and been embraced throughout the world by people seeking insights and ways to alleviate and respond to oppression.

This chapter discusses the relevance and potential of several core ideas in Paulo Freire’s work to the plight of inner-city youth in North America. Throughout the United States, inner-city youth, especially African American and Latino males, are often regarded as a “problem”
(West 1993); a threat to civil society and the social order and a source of unrest and disorder (Glazer and Moynihan 1963; Dilulio 2000; Patterson 2006). Though such individuals constitute a relatively small percentage of the population, they occupy a larger space in the public imagination and psyche. In popular media, inner-city youth are often portrayed in menacing and fear-provoking ways, and are generally depicted as a social grouping that is responsible for a variety of social problems, including - violence and gang warfare, drug use and drug trafficking, sexually transmitted disease and unwanted teen pregnancy, and a host of other social maladies (Garbarino 1999; Taylor-Gibbs 1988). Not surprisingly, such individuals are also regarded with fear and trepidation, and often perceived as a menace to the social order.

The most telling indication of how great the antipathy is toward inner-city youth is that more often than not, the primary response of policy makers to the problems frequently associated with inner-city youth is punitive. This is true even in cases when young people are clearly not responsible for the problems policy makers seek to solve. For example, in all fifty states, “high stakes” standardized assessments are being used to hold students “accountable” for their educational performance. However, very little has been done to insure that students have access to competent teachers, adequate learning materials or to insure that their opportunity to learn is guaranteed
(Darling-Hammond 2005). Similarly, in response to fears about crime and violence, coercive policies such as curfews, police sweeps and targeted harassment are used to target inner-city youth ostensibly for the purpose of promoting safety (Davis 1994; Currie and Skolnick 1995). Even though the vast majority of the victims of crime and violence are young Black and Latino males (as are the majority of the perpetrators) (Noguera 1995; Madhabuti 1990), it is rare to find anything other than a punitive response initiated by local authorities. Several states have adopted increased criminal penalties for perpetrators of various crimes and increasingly harsh and highly restrictive incarceration practices (e.g. social isolation, denial of opportunities for education and physical recreation, etc.). Such policies have been pursued even though they have been shown to contribute to increases in recidivism and the perpetuation of criminality (Schiraldi and Zeidenberg 2001). Punitive policies continue to be directed at inner-city youth even though there is no evidence that such approaches are effective in reducing youth violence or drug dealing, raising test scores or lowering drop out rates. Undoubtedly, such practices continue to be relied upon largely because there is relatively little compassion for inner-city youth and their plight in American society.

Though it might seem obvious that inner-city youth would benefit from the kind of pedagogical approach advanced by Freire, relatively few of the North American authors who have written about Freire and his ideas have made this connection. This is not to say that youth counselors and educators who work with inner-city youth have not drawn inspiration from Freire and used his ideas to guide and influence their work with youth. There are several individuals and organizations who have done just that but the relative lack of writing on the relevance of Freire’s ideas to the plight of inner-city youth is significant omission, one which I hope to address in the pages that follow.

Bringing Freire to the Incarcerated

My own thinking on how to apply Freire’s ideas to the conditions affecting inner-city youth is based upon years of trying to understand and find solutions to some of the most pressing problems afflicting this constituency. My own view is that many of the problematic behaviors -- interpersonal violence, drug dealing, and other forms of crime -- are by-products of social and economic conditions which have rendered most inner-city communities in the United States “ghettos of hopelessness and despair”
(Wacquant 2001) Eschewing the “culture of poverty” argument espoused by anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1968) and others, scholars such as Tabb (1970), Wilson (1989), and more recently Greenberg and Schnieder (1994) have effectively shown how changes related to de-industrialization, globalization and suburbanization, have contributed to the emergence of a population of permanently unemployed inner-city youth who have been drawn to crime as a result of changes in the larger political economy.

This is the constituency that I have dedicated much of my adult life to serving and understanding in a variety of contexts and settings. Most recently, during a series of visits to schools serving incarcerated youth at Rikers Island - the largest penal institution in the world - I attempted to use Freire’s problem posing methods to get the young men I addressed to recognize their own capacity to free themselves from a life of institutionalization and to reject the criminality that so many of them had allowed to define and shape their identities. Based on past experience I knew that such a change in self perception would involve, at least in part, getting these young men to move beyond seeing themselves as victims of circumstance with limited options for survival, so that they might recognize their own condition as what Freire describes as a “limit situation” that can be transformed through “action upon the concrete, historical reality”
(p. 90). I knew from experience that it is possible for those who have been marginalized and who have been submerged within a condition of oppression to become agents who could respond differently to their environment, to make different choices about their lives, and thereby begin to transform their circumstances. But I also knew that such changes involve a gradual process of critical awakening that typically cannot be achieved in one educational encounter. As an invited guest and educator, I knew this was my own “limit situation”, and despite my realization of how little might be accomplished on my visit, I embraced the challenge anyway.

I was asked to lecture several hundred students, but in keeping with the pedagogical orientation of Freire’s work, I decided to use my visit to engage in a large-scale dialogue. I began my conversation with the following provocation, “There is a plan, some might call it a conspiracy, to keep this facility filled with people like you -- young Black and Latino men. A lot of jobs including those of the guards who supervise you are dependent on keeping these cells filled. There are towns in upstate New York that only able to survive because of the jobs prisons provide. My question to you is this: Are you part of the conspiracy?”

I posed the question this way even though I understood that for many of the young men I spoke to the odds that their lives might have turned out differently had been extremely low from the very beginning. The vast majority of these young men had been born into poverty in neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, where poverty is concentrated and reproduced across generations, violence is rampant and normalized, good paying jobs and good schools largely non-existent, and fathers and positive adult male role models are few. In such communities, many young men make the transition from school to prison as a rite of passage into adulthood
(Anderson 1990); as commonplace as a bah mitzvah or circumcision in another society or culture. Despite doomed nature of their plight, I knew that one of the keys to keeping them from following the predictable pattern of returning to prison within a couple of years (1) was getting them to recognize that they had the power to exercise some degree of control over their lives. For this to happen they would have to decide to take responsibility for their actions and change the choices they made about how to live and survive in their communities. Many would have to reject the idea that using violence to get what you want was legitimate or that taking advantage of the weak and vulnerable was justifiable. Others would have to eschew the logic of predatory capitalism, a mode of thinking in which making a dollar by any means necessary- selling drugs, stealing, extortion, etc. - is seen as an acceptable means of survival.

I knew from experience that such a transformation in consciousness is not easily made and certainly unlikely after listening to a lecture. Nonetheless, I saw my visit to Rikers as an opportunity, and I used my time to engage in a large group discussion on the “generative themes” that I knew resonate among urban youth. Speaking openly about “grinding” (a street term for drug dealing), gang banging, and hustling, I spoke directly about the world they knew to try to get them to consider that they could make different choices regarding how to act and respond to the numerous challenges and obstacles they faced. After two hours of a raucous, back and forth discussion, I knew that despite my effort, very few of the young men I met that day would embark on a different course. Reflecting on the anger, frustration and resignation I saw on their faces, I left Rikers that day deeply depressed, knowing that at most I provided some encouragement to those who were already on the path of rejecting criminality. A few of the young men approached me after our session, sharing with me their plans for improving their lives after they’re pending release. I knew these were the exceptions, that for most of the young men I’d spoken to, prison would remain both their residence and their destiny. This is true both because the society in which we lived appears content with keeping large numbers of people incarcerated, despite the costs, and because many of the young men I spoke to had embraced life in prison as their fate.

One of the teachers who had sponsored my visit pulled a young man aside and asked me to speak with him. Placing her arm around his shoulder she explained: “This young man is extremely intelligent. He’s good with math and a great writer. Don’t you think that he could go to college one day?” Before I could respond the young man turned to me and declared, “I am a Crip for life”, and with that he turned away and headed off to the holding area with the others. I knew this was both a statement about his identity and affiliation, and even more importantly, a declaration of his fate. By embracing the Crips he was in effect accepting a way of life that would insure he would spend many years behind bars. I knew too that he, like so many others I encountered that day, had already come to believe that their future held little more than a life of crime “hustling” to get by, or a life in and out of prison.

Young men in inner-city communities across the United States understand at fairly early ages that prison may one day be where they end up, and many are not afraid
(Singer 1996). In cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Oakland, Newark, St. Louis and New Orleans where 1 out of every 3 young Black men between the ages of 18 -- 34 are incarcerated (only one in ten young Black men in these cities attend college), moving from school to prison is regarded as little more than a rite of passage (Gilligan 1996). For many of these young men prison no longer conjures feelings of fear and trepidation. Rather, it is regarded as a place where one goes to become respected as a man, an institution where one learns how to fight, where acquaintances with older family and friends are renewed, where health care and meals are guaranteed. Though I know from experience that for the vast majority of inmates the romanticized visions of prison they held onto during their youth fade quickly after arrival, and most would prefer to be on the outside, it is troubling to see how a “culture of incarceration” that is present in so many inner-city neighborhoods has so profoundly shaped the mindset and outlook of so many youth. French sociologist Loic Wacquant has described the prison as the most efficient and penetrating institution ever created for the purpose of “exploiting and excluding poor Black people” (2001). In many cities, prisons and the criminal justice system have also become primary institutions in the socialization of young Black and Latino men. For these reasons, any effort to utilize education as a force for transformation in urban areas must confront the role that prisons and incarceration play in perpetuating the oppression of inner-city youth.

Despite the apparent futility of my visit to Rikers, I left there with the understanding that the problem was not my application of Freire’s message. I knew from experience that more was needed for such a message to have meaning and influence. Education that leads to empowerment and transformation cannot be provided in two-hour lectures or occasional visits. I know too that it also takes more than listening to and asking a few questions of a college professor.

Critical Pedagogy and Inner-City Youth

Despite the frustration of my experience at Rikers, I know from other experiences that Freire’s call for an educational practice that leads to critical consciousness and social transformation is indeed a powerful method for engaging inner-city youth. I have had other experiences working with young people who are confronted by dire circumstances and brutal hardships and seen the potential of such pedagogical approaches. Such experiences have convinced me that this approach can be highly effective when utilized as part of an ongoing project of work with inner-city youth. As a teacher in inner-city public schools I have seen young people who were written off as hopeless, and a menace to their communities and society, develop the capacity to exert control over their lives and become productive and positive members of their communities. Over years of teaching and working with inner-city youth in a variety of settings -- schools, non-profit organizations, correctional institutions - I have come to see that Freire’s problem posing approach to education can gradually transform the outlook of marginalized youth from one of desperate resignation, to one of critical awareness and pragmatic optimism. In most cases, such a transformation is based both on a rejection of fatalism and victim-hood and the acquisition of a critical consciousness about the nature of the circumstances that constrain their lives. Critical awareness must also be combined with a sense of personal resourcefulness and faith, on the part of the teacher and student, in the ability of urban youth to overcome obstacles through the cultivation of a resilient character. Resilience is essential because young people faced with a broad array of obstacles must also learn to persevere when setbacks and hardships inevitably emerge and thwart their efforts to overcome.

In fairness to those who have engaged in similar work and met nothing more than frustration and failure, I must point out that my recognition of the value of Freire’s ideas to inner-city youth is not based upon a romanticized view of human redemption. I know only too well the real dangers that are ever-present in many inner-city communities and I know that many young people adopt behaviors that make them complicit in their own demise and oppression. I know too that in the process of trying to help young people change their outlook on their circumstances one often encounters setbacks and disappointments. Those who commit their lives to working with inner-city youth are compelled to recognize that the dangers in the inner-city are real, that sometimes those you are trying to help turn on you, and that trust must be earned and should never be assumed.

I learned this lesson early after volunteering to teach at a continuation high school (2) in California and being asked to work with a group of “at-risk” young men. Each of these young men had criminal records and was regarded by their teachers as a disruptive influence in the classroom. As I got to know the students I also learned that they were all involved to varying degrees in crime and drug dealing. Despite their backgrounds and present situations the young men reacted positively to the opportunity to take a class with me. Part of the attraction seemed to be that I was a young Black man who the students felt they could identify with and relate to. Of course, the students were also being released from their regular classes to attend what I described as a “seminar”, and undoubtedly this added to the appeal of the group since they assumed this would allow them to escape from their regular class work.

At one of our early meetings one of the young men suggested that our group should have a name. I thought this was a good idea, thinking that if we adopted a name it might help in generating a sense of belonging to the group. After hearing and rejecting several proposed names, one student suggested that we call ourselves ABT - All Brothers Together. I liked the sound of the name and so did the students, it seemed to invoke a strong sense of group solidarity, so we agreed to take it as our own. The following day I was asked by one of the guidance counselors at the school how the group was going and I told her about our new name. She responded with immediate concern. “You better check that name out first. I think I recall hearing from a Probation Officer of one of your students that All Brothers Together, ABT, is the name of a prison gang.” As it turned out the counselor was right and when I shared this information with my students they all had a big laugh. Obviously, they knew that ABT was more than just a way to affirm group solidarity. I was the one who was naïve and in the dark.

As minor as this incident was, it served as an important lesson for me. It made me realize that I would need to be guided by more than good intentions to work effectively with these young men and that I could not uncritically embrace their sensibilities and worldview. I knew that if I were to have any chance of being effective as their teacher I would have to understand how they perceived their social reality and how they interacted with the world, but I would also need to devise strategies to challenge their ways of reasoning. Many of my students possessed what Freire has described as a “submerged consciousness”, one that sees emulation and identification with the “oppressor” as the best route away from their own oppression. My students identified with ruthless gangsters from movies like “Scarface” and “The God Father”, and they used language such as “nigger”, “bitch” and “ho”, to describe their peers and even themselves.

I learned that challenging this mode of thinking requires more than banning the use of distasteful words. Students must be encouraged to think critical about why such words are used in the first place, and why the contribute to the dehumanization and debasement of others. Likewise, I knew that condemning the movies they watched or the music they listened to would have little influence on their thinking unless together we explored why individuals who prey upon the weak are glorified, and why so often pimps, drug dealers and criminals are set up as role models in Black and Brown communities. My experience has taught me that to engage in this type of pedagogical practice effectively, educators must first have an ability to understand the social-psychological milieu in which such discourse emerges and is normalized. Without such an understanding their efforts to impose their mindset and moral reasoning on their students almost always fails. This is a basic and fundamental source of knowledge and understanding that all teachers need but most lack, particularly when the students come from race and class backgrounds that are different than their own. It is perhaps even more disturbing that many teachers do not even realize that they need to understand the social and cultural backgrounds of the students they teach because they assume that the technical training they received has provided them with the skills they need (Howard, 2002). The fact that so many teachers struggle with “managing” their classrooms and experience many of their students as defiant, disruptive and disrespectful (Gotfredson 2001; Noguera 1996) is the clearest indication that many cannot answer the most basic question of teaching: what does it take to educate the students we serve? Without an understanding of the social and cultural backgrounds of their students, and unable to comprehend how their students perceive the obstacles and challenges around them, many teachers find themselves unable to teach much less provide the guidance and direction their students so desperately need.

In my own case, I learned quickly I could not assume that even though I shared a great deal in common with my students (I too had been raised in a poor/working class community and been exposed to the harsh realities of the inner-city at a young age), that I necessarily understood what was happening in their lives. However, drawing on guidance from Freire’s work I realized that if I were to learn how to teach them I would have to find ways to learn more about their lives. Like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture I knew that I needed to acquire an “insiders” understanding of their culture if I was to figure out how to make education -- in this case the knowledge and skills needed not just to complete high school but to improve one’s life -- relevant to my students. Moreover, if I wanted education to serve as a tool of empowerment and social transformation I would have to comprehend what Freire refers to as the “generative themes” that shaped their social consciousness and inform their sense of the possible.

My background did make it possible for me to reject the notion that what these young men needed was to embrace “middle class values” and the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps views” that remain common and popular in American society. Such perspectives, which most recently have been expressed by commentators such as the comedian Bill Cosby, liberal journalists Bob Hebert (NY Times), Juan Williams (National Public Radio), or the conservative scholar John McWhorter (Manhattan Institute) (3), may appeal to some but show little evidence of being an effective way to address the problems that beset inner-city youth. According to these pundits the problems that confront inner-city youth, particularly males, are due to the pathological culture they embrace -- anti-intellectualism for McWhorter, a street mentality for Cosby, too much desire for “bling” (fancy jewelry) and guns for Williams. For these social critics the problems confronting inner-city youth could be solved if they were to simply adopt a different attitude, a stronger work ethic and a “middle class” cultural orientation. Such perspectives continue to be espoused and given considerable media attention even though they have no visible impact on the problems they claim to address. Those who espouse such views typically ignore or minimize the structural obstacles that limit the options and opportunities (i.e. unemployment, discrimination, failing schools, etc.) of the young men they castigate and malign. That they continue to be promoted and even acclaimed in certain circles (4) is yet another reflection of the pervasive antipathy toward inner-city youth in American society. Even if one recognizes as I and others do, that the culture embraced by inner-city youth may be nihilistic (West 1993) or self destructive (Dyson 2003; Majors and Bilson 1992), those who espouse what Charles Payne (1984) has described as “blame the victim” arguments fail to see that while cultures can be transformed, and may in fact need to be, cultural change will require more than condemnation in a book, or the editorial pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

My experience teaching and doing research in urban public schools and my work with community-based organizations in inner-city communities have provided me with insights into the mindset of inner-city youth and an understanding of how they perceive the formidable obstacles that limit and constrain their lives. Though my own privilege (I am now a well-paid university professor) and age (47) separate me from the young people I have worked with in practical and existential ways, I have taken time to try to understand the mindset of young people in the inner-city. By taking a phenomenological approach (5) to my work with inner-city youth, I was following one of the key principles modeled by Freire in his work with adult illiterates.

Toward a Phenomenology of Inner-City Youth

By taking time to listen without judgment to inner-city youth one can begin to understand that there are legitimate reasons for the anger they so often exhibit, an anger that frequently contributes to bad choices and behavior that is self destructive and injurious to the communities where they live. For me, understanding the source of their anger is not the same as justifying or condoning how that anger may be manifest or expressed. However, without an understanding of its source it may be impossible to figure out how to help young people to channel feelings of anger and alienation in more positive and constructive ways, or how to intervene so that some of the more destructive tendencies among inner-city youth can be prevented. I have also come to understand that there is logic behind the choices they make, one that grows out of a sensibility and sometimes even a critical awareness of the forces stacked against them in American society and in their local environment. Like Freire’s search for the “generative themes” in the lives of adult learners (the words, ideas and phrases that capture the passions and sensibilities of a particular community or group Freire 1972: 36) I have come to see that understanding the logic that guides the behavior of inner-city youth is the first step to engaging young people in an educational process aimed at changing the way they respond to the forms of hardship and the forces of oppression that shape and constrain their lives.

I gained this understanding working in inner-city communities in the Bay Area. From 1986 -- 1988 I was employed as the Executive Assistant to the Mayor of Berkeley, California. In this role, I had primary responsibility for helping the Mayor figure out how best to respond to problems such as homelessness, drug trafficking and urban blight. Initially, I embraced my work with enthusiasm and zeal because I believed that I was in a position where I could play a role in developing social policy and truly make a difference. However, after a few months on the job I began to realize that rather than being in a position where I could solve problems, I was merely in a position where I would have to explain to the community why their City government was so ineffective. Much of our failure could be explained by the fact that we lacked the resources to address the roots of problems like homelessness and drug trafficking. I soon realized that when I was asked to address an irate group of residents who wanted to know why the police were unable to prevent drive-by shootings or drug dealing that was occurring openly on street corners, explaining the inadequacy of City government was unlikely to appease them.

Frustrated with my job I began seeking out opportunities to work with young people in schools, hoping that education could serve as a means of preventing some of the problems I was grappling with in city government. I sought out other adults who shared my concern about what was happening to young people in our community and helped to establish new organizations that could attempt to respond.
(6) On one occasion I was asked by a middle school principal to speak to a group of boys who were considered “at risk” due to their poor grades and disruptive behavior. She asked if I would meet with the boys on a regular basis and serve as a mentor. I agreed hoping that in this new role I would be far more effective at addressing some of the social problems I was being asked to respond to in the Mayor’s office. However, I soon realized that working with this group of boys would be more challenging than I had expected. At my first meeting with the group I discovered that all twelve were involved, either directly or indirectly, with selling drugs. The boys were the ones who brought the topic up when I asked what they were interested in. They laughed and shouted “balling”, “hustlin’” and “slanging rock”; all street terms used for drug dealing.

Initially, I tried unsuccessfully to engage them in a debate about the ethics of drug dealing, hoping that I might convince them that selling drugs was wrong. I spoke about the great harm that was being inflicted on abusers and their families. I brought up the violence drug dealing generated due to the competition among dealers for control of territory. However, all of the arguments I made failed completely. As I listened to these young men laugh and joke about their experiences selling drugs I realized that they too had an addiction, an addiction to drug dealing and the money it generated for them. I knew too that their unwillingness to “just say no”, was rooted in their embrace of the logic of rugged individualism and amoral, predatory capitalism. Drug dealing was a business they argued, and given that all of them were poor and needed money to support themselves and in some cases their families, from their point of view, selling drugs made sense. As one young man put it bluntly “What’s a nigga to do?”

To counter their logic or at least find a way to undermine it, I decided to change the topic. I began asking them questions about their lives outside of school in the hope that by learning more about them I might find a way to engage them in a critical discussion about what they were doing. I soon began to learn about their families, and as I asked the boys to talk about their role within their families I learned that none of them lived with their fathers (a few admitted not knowing who their fathers were), and that several were responsible for the care of younger siblings. This insight about the roles they played in their families gave me an opening that I thought I used to return to our conversation about drugs. After one student described how to he had to drop off his younger sister at school each morning and pick her up in the afternoon, I asked the young man “Would you sell drugs to your sister?” He looked at me with shock and disbelief. “No way. Drugs are poison”. I then turned to one of the other boys in the group and asked him “What about you? Would you sell drugs to his sister?” The boy paused to think for a moment and then responded, “Yes. I’d do it because it’s a business, and if I didn’t sell to her someone else would.” I then asked the first boy how he felt about the fact that someone he called a friend said he would sell drugs to your little sister. The boy responded, “That’s wrong. He’s supposed to be my boy.” The other boy then said “I’m not saying I will sell drugs to your sister. I’m saying that if she asked me I would. At least I could make sure she got some good drugs.”

With that admission the ethical discussion that I had hoped to initiate about drug dealing and social responsibility ensued. For the first time issues related to social responsibility and the impact of drug dealing and drug use in Black communities could be raised and debated. Several of the boys admitted how disturbed they were at seeing adults they knew -- relatives, neighbors and friends -- become addicted to drugs. Although there was laughter and ridicule expressed about “tweakers” and “base heads” (slang terms used to describe crack abusers), chicken heads and crack hoes (terms used to describe women who exchange sex for drugs), for the first time the young men acknowledged that crack cocaine was having a devastating impact on their community. Interestingly, once we got beyond the bravado of drug dealing and they acknowledged the impact that crack use was having upon their community and their lives, they were less willing to brag about their involvement in the drug trade and more willing to admit that what they were doing was wrong.

Over the years I have found that engaging inner-city youth in a critical analysis of their lives and the forces that shape and constrain them and their communities, must begin from an awareness of what their lives are like and how they have come to perceive and interpret their social reality. In order to gain this understanding educators must be willing to open themselves to learning about the lives of the students they teach. It is important to recognize that such pedagogical practice must include: 1) an openness to hearing young people share their perceptions of the social reality they inhabit, and 2) a willingness to engage in acts of solidarity in the fight against the oppression they face.

For me, this is more than an academic exercise. The conditions facing many inner-city youth are extreme -- homicide rates remain high (in cities like Oakland, Detroit, Baltimore and Washington D.C. they are rising) and incarceration rates for juveniles show no signs of being reduced in the near future
(Krisberg). Given the dire circumstances confronting inner-city youth the need to draw upon Freire for a “theory of change” cannot be overstated. There is a crisis facing inner-city youth in the United States, and it is essential that those who would like to do something to address this crisis recognize that no solutions are possible unless young people are active participants in designing and implementing them.

Renewing and Reinventing Freire

While I continue to draw insight and inspiration from the ideas of Paulo Freire in my work with inner-city youth, work focused on intervening to reduce some of the risks they face --under achievement in school, dropping out of school, becoming unemployed, being arrested and incarcerated, being murdered or a victim of violence -- I readily recognize and acknowledge that his ideas cannot be applied mechanically. In fact, mechanical application would never be possible because Freire called for a pedagogy co-constructed with those we work with, one in which students were subjects rather than objects of education. Though still extremely valuable for its philosophical and methodological approach to engaging those who are marginalized and silenced, bringing Freire’s pedagogy to the inner-city compels the organizer/educator to revise, critique and even re-invented Freire’s core ideas in order to insure that they will be useful in this setting.

For the last several years I have been working with others to find ways to counter gang violence in L.A. and the south Bronx, to lower the homicide rate in New Bedford, Washington D.C. and Oakland, or to increase student participation and engagement at schools in Baltimore, Atlanta and Detroit. In each case, I have found Freire’s to be a powerful source of inspiration and a practical guide to the development of pedagogical strategies. Yet, I have also recognized that Freire’s ideas must be modified and adjusted so that they can be truly relevant both to the sensibilities of inner-city youth and to the context in which they live. Freire wrote most of his major works at a particular moment in history -- the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a period in which anti-colonial liberation movements were being waged in Africa and revolutionary movements were challenging oligarchies in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was a time when radical change seemed imminent, when there was great hope in many circles that revolution would lead to sweeping reforms that would establish a more just and humane social order. For those committed to involving the “masses” and the “wretched of the earth” in the process of change, not merely as beneficiaries but as participants, Freire’s ideas were a source of guidance and a framework for how this could be done. Yet, while his ideas have resonated across the globe it is clear that they are not without their flaws or limitations.

For example, in much of Freire’s work he used the dichotomous language of “oppressed” and “oppressor” to describe classes of people that existed in dialectical opposition to each other, one suffering under structural conditions that negate the worth of human beings and render lives hopeless, the other benefiting from the same structural arrangements deriving benefit and privilege from exploitation and suffering. He argued passionately that only the oppressed could bring about an end to oppression, and most importantly that this could be done not by trading places in the master-slave relationship, but by ending oppression altogether.

Because it is a distortion of being fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

This then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.
(Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 28)

For some readers, such categories and terms are still powerful because of the images and sentiments they invoke. We still live in a world where suffering, malnutrition, disease, desperation and poverty afflict millions across the globe. It is also a world characterized by extreme inequity, a world where pets in Western Europe and the United States eat better than people in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is a world in which the rich consume the vast majority of the world’s resources as they continue to grow richer, and the poor become ever more impoverished and dispossessed even as their numbers continue to swell.

Yet, despite the reality of this grotesque imbalance, the terms Freire used -- oppressed and oppressor, liberation and emancipation - are increasingly outdated and anachronistic in contemporary usage. Is a low-level drug dealer or pimp a member of the oppressed or oppressor class? Both exploit and prey upon the weak and powerless to sustain themselves, yet neither can be regarded as a member of the “ruling class” or power elite. What about Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, two of the wealthiest men in the world, who’s combined net worth exceeds the gross national product of several developing nations? Yet, both men are also among the largest philanthropists in the world, donating millions of dollars each year to support health care and education for the poor. I raise these questions not for the purpose of indicting or exonerating either drug dealers or billionaires, but merely to point out that neither falls easily into the types of categories that Freire relied upon as a he made the case for a pedagogy of the oppressed.

The same can be said of what is now referred to as “critical pedagogy”; a body of work developed by scholars and educators who have drawn heavily upon the ideas of Freire to articulate an educational practice they laud as “liberating” and emancipatory”. Scholars such as Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, Marilyn Ellsworth, and numerous others have developed a substantial body of work that they hope will further the efforts of educators, organizers and activists who seek to promote social change through popular education. Yet, unless one regards the hardships of the poor and powerless as purely psychological in nature and ignores the material aspects of their suffering, it is hard to indulge such grandiose claims. Unlike Freire who was personally committed to applying his radical theories in the “real world”, too many of those who think of themselves as critical educators and radical theorists of critical pedagogy, keep themselves comfortably confined to the ivory towers of the university and never attempt to put the ideas they espouse into action. For these individuals who claim to be intellectual descendants of Freire, praxis no longer requires them to engage in genuine acts of solidarity in the communities they express concern about and solidarity with. Rather, it is the production of their scholarly publications and lectures that constitute their commitment to struggle and symbolize their revolutionary praxis,

Those who do the hard work of educating inner-city youth and who see themselves as allies and collaborators in the struggle against their marginalization and maligning, are unlikely to be fooled into thinking that there is some magic in the ideas of Freire or any other scholar that could shed light on how to “liberate” urban youth. Even when the ideas prove insightful and prove to be useful as a means of conceptualizing some aspect of the ongoing struggle, the ultimate test of their value is in their utility to guide practice and their applicability in efforts to transform lives and circumstances of young people. Unlike many of those who claim to be his intellectual descendants, Freire, understood the difference between writing and acting, talking and doing. He knew that truly revolutionary practice must be more than a scholarly enterprise; it must be rooted in the real world of the poor and powerless and it must be firmly engaged in efforts aimed at struggling against oppression and dehumanization. On this point Freire writes:

Education as the practice of freedom -- as opposed to education as the practice of domination -- denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world: it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from men…Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of men as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation.
(p. 69 -- 71)

This is why Paulo Freire continues to be a source of inspiration for me as a grapple with the enormous challenges confronting inner-city youth in the United States and why I believe that others who are engaged in similar work can find in Freire a source of inspiration and insight that can make their efforts more effective and productive.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 16, 2007.

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