I was thinking today of the time I met Paolo Freire. It was 1986, and I was a student at UMass-Amherst, majoring in Social Thought and Political Economy. He was in the Pioneer Valley for some conference or another, and someone had asked him to come meet with a group of us STPEC students. He was late and seemed tired when he arrived. There were maybe fifteen of us who waited in a small room with chairs arranged in a circle. There was no presentation or anything. We asked questions and he answered. We were undergraduates, and were for the most part shy and in awe. I only remember one thing. He and his wife, he said, had been watching Wheel of Fortune in their hotel room. In a nation where shows like this were popular entertainment, our struggle would be difficult indeed.
Freire is, of course, the radical Brazilian educator who wrote, most famously, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the classic work on popular education to build what he calls critical consciousness. The notion assumes that we live within a system of domination, and that this extends into the way we think about things and experience the world. To create authentic social change we must first learn to "read the world" in new ways that lead us to a truer appreciation of our social and historical situation.
When our oppression is very stable, he says, we can grow accustomed to its limitations, and, worse, very prone to accepting its various compromises. We can learn to fear freedom, "Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift," he says. "It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion."
Learning to see more clearly, I think, always begins with looking at the various ways in which our own thinking has been colonized by those who dominate our culture and our politics. When we act to "end homelessness," for example, our efforts are steered into charity and away from justice. Our sense of the politically possible has been so narrowly circumscribed as to seem hardly worth bothering about. We accept the paradigms we are given, and their disconnection to broader issues of poverty and inequality.
We accept that homelessness is more about screwed up people than a screwed up system, and even if we do think the system is unjust, we accept that there is little that can be done, so we'd better just focus on fixing the people.
We learn to swallow our anger. To cast our eyes downward and stop seeing. To lose ourselves in diversion.
I had the experience Friday of describing how I saw homelessness to someone who runs a foundation in Seattle. We spoke for an hour.
I told her that the Ten Year Plan framework was about ending visible homelessness while poverty, inequality, and other forms of homelessness continue to grow. I said that the federal government had no intention of altering any of the structures that cause homelessness, but had a keen interest in looking like they cared deeply. I said it was like a fat man running: lots of apparent effort, but little progress.
I said that the focus on "chronic homelessness" was mostly about the changing nature of our cities as islands of wealth and consumption, and that the federal strategy was more about hiding the evidence than anything else. I said that the numbers were being lowered through heightened criminalization of the very poor and increased police harassment of homeless people to drive them out of count areas.
I said that federal funding was a precise calibration of the maximum amount of cooptation for the least amount of money, and that homelessness goes for about $14.8 billion. I pointed out that McKinney-Vento funding for homeless services rose by $70 million from 2002-2006, while from just 2004-2006 HUD funding fell by $3.6 Billion
And she was dubious. After all, a monograph has been created for circulation throughout the foundation community on how to evaluate proposals in terms of their alignment with the ten year plan strategy. Money tends to align with power. Even liberal money.
Hell. It's all liberals who stand behind the local Ten Year Plan anyway, so why wouldn't they?
She kept saying, "Bill Block is a friend of mine. He's a good guy who could be making a lot more than he does. Why would he be a part of this?" And I said, "I like Bill too. And he's doing good things. It isn't all bad. More people will get into housing. King County's plan is better than most. But we're still getting creamed. We're still losing ground."
We need a different paradigm for doing this work. One, perhaps, that hasn't been packaged and sold by the Bush administration to distract faith-based anti-poverty activists from the obvious fact that we're losing ground on housing affordability and income inequality. We need to recognize that apolitical service provision will never get us to a more just economy, and that without this, we're still just managing the problem through higher and higher levels of institution building.
And you don't see any of the institutions complaining.
Part of creating a critical consciousness is understanding how the "common sense" of any given issue gets created. Money and power set the terms. We need to learn how to stand outside of that and insist on other ways of seeing. First for ourselves, and then for others.