Revolutionary Leadership: Freire and Our Current Moment

By Sylvie Lerner

In what has become one of the most important and widely regarded pieces of theory to come out of 20th century scholarship, Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed recognizes the term “oppression” as, in a general sense, society’s social, political and economic inequalities. Therefore the oppressed are those who are most neglected and mistreated by systems of power. In our current moment of increased automation, militarization, and privatization of public resources, the oppressed are under attack from every angle. When it comes to understanding the role of organizations who work in support and defense of the oppressed, Freire’s development of action and leadership is central to the conversation. Freire does not solely highlight the ways in which the oppressed can actively organize against the oppressor, but also, he calls for a construction and defense of a pedagogy of the oppressed.

As it relates to such a framework of understanding, Freire identifies the role of communities working with the oppressed, as well as the oppressed themselves to create and uplift this pedagogy. Communities working with the oppressed, in their most authentic and productive form, fit into the category of revolutionary leadership. Revolutionary leadership is dialogical. Dialogical action leads to liberation, for the antithesis is antidialogical, the very tool of oppression which, “reduces men to the status of things.” In order to actively reject imposition from the top, and rather encourage a liberating, dialogical approach, we must identify what the power dynamic is that exists.

There is hierarchy developed around knowledge and possession of information. So often in spaces of youth development, youth engagement, mentoring and youth services, there is an ignorance of and a blind eye turned to the ways in which organizations of service to youth are inherently patronizing and antidialogical in approach, theory, and practice. We see the power dynamic produce and reproduce itself easily in the form of white, college-educated adults who do not live under the poverty line, serving poor black and brown kids in and around city centers. These representatives of the youth organizations are positioned as gatekeepers of the knowledge to be given to young people with discretion. Very rarely is the discussion centered at all around the inherent value and first-hand knowledge possessed by the oppressed- the youth being served.

Dialogical action is the strategy Freire identifies as facilitating revolutionary leadership. In this way, the oppressed and those who actively commit to standing and working with, can come together to uplift the knowledge and views of those most oppressed in order to organize for their liberation, and therefore the liberation of the oppressor as well. The class which chooses to work with the oppressed but may not identify with them personally, demonstrates the way in which that class sees themselves as a real part of the movement in their current political and social context. This is not an easy, nor a passive process. It takes true solidarity.

Solidarity as a concept has often been misinterpreted as mere support from one group or a person to another. We must, as a group attempting to build authentic, liberating relationships understand solidarity in the way Freire identifies it. There must be a departure of the oppressor from making “pious, sentimental and individualistic gestures,” and rather, we must risk “an act of love.” This act of love is only achieved through a real commitment to freedom, and adherence of the people and leaders of liberation. We must, therefore see our freedom as unbreakable and in correspondence with the freedom and liberation of the most oppressed. The people and the revolutionary leadership, together in dialogical critical analysis must work together to transform our current moment.