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Leadership and How We Talk About Stuff: Three Lessons from Paulo Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed

At a recent LLC board meeting, members were eagerly pitching ideas about how they could help.. Our newest member, Lisa Leverette, who in her own words is a Detroit based Change Orchestrator had a unique offer, “I want to help LLC figure out how to talk about stuff.”  This sounds simple on the surface... but it’s actually quite deep. For the past couple of months, everytime I turn around, I have been running smack into the idea of how we talk about our work. At a retreat hosted by the Whitman Institute in October, “A Future We Can Trust,” we were facilitated in several sessions by Culture Strike that focused on tapping arts and creativity to shape a positive narrative. Not long after a valued colleague, Milano Harden, sent me an article by Marshall Ganz, “Public Narrative, Collective Action and Power” from 2011, that is resurfacing right now for a reason. And, a few weeks ago I was fortunate to attend Facing Race which was launched with a plenary session on narrative and arts among the culture wars. I am hooked. I have been thinking about this a lot, well kind of non-stop, and talking about it with anyone who will listen, so here were are.

In LLC’s 2015 publication, Leadership and Large Scale Change, when we talked about the kind of leadership that we believe is needed to advance social justice, the first thing we lifted up, based on lessons from Manuel Pastor’s work with the Building Healthy Communities sites, and especially the input of young people, was the importance of creating a frame that provides a way for people to make sense of their experience and unify around a common vision. We also gave a shout out to Sonia Ospina (another former board member) from the Wagner School of Leadership for her work on the importance of cognitive shifts that create a shared sense of interest.


These are not new ideas. Paulo Freire, the most influential person in my life, put forward these ideas in his seminal publication, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, fifty some years ago. For folks who have not read him, what he describes as popular education offers a lot of wisdom about what it means to cultivate leadership. There is no way to do justice to Paulo Freire, so I will start with the disclaimer that I will do my humble best to describe what resonates and is timeless about his work that I am returning to again. Freire talks about cultivating critical consciousness through the process of collective meaning making to unveil the nature of the system that creates and maintains elites and inequitable societies. He proposes a rigorous process of dialogue, pedagogy, grounded in an examination of individual and collective daily life, experiences of power relationships and the beliefs and fears that motivate behaviors. This co-creation of knowledge about reality reveals assumptions at the base of social systems and creates new awareness needed to transform these conditions in pursuit of justice and our full humanity. All pedagogy, according to Freire, is a call to action and freedom.


So what does this have to do with leadership development?

  1. Collective meaning making or the banking system? Leadership programs can provide opportunities for participants to make meaning of their life experiences looking for patterns in order to unveil how our current system, creates and maintains elites and oppressed. This is the foundation for social justice action. Alternately, Freire criticizes the ‘banking method’ of education which treats students as empty accounts and passive repositories for the reality of the educator who ends up recreating the power dynamics of the current social systems. Understanding this continuum can be a useful lens for leadership development practitioners.

  2. Who will lead liberation? Who understands most clearly based on daily life experiences, the assumptions and subtle workings of structural racism reinforced by a culture of white supremacy? It’s hard to disagree with Paulo Freire that people most directly oppressed by the system have an arsenal of experience from which to co-create deep knowledge and undeniable motivation for action. It is safe to say that people who have been marginalized are not the primary beneficiaries of leadership programs that could provide opportunities for learning and acting together. It raises a question of not only who is served by leadership programs but one of who is leading leadership development work. In my own personal case as a white woman, this is a significant part of why I think it’s time for LLC to promote new leadership.

  3. Leadership for what? We have come a long way from the idea that leadership development should be for the purpose of making an individual a better leader, well, at least as the primary purpose of a leadership development program. In the evolution of thinking about this in the past decade, we talk more about leadership as a strategy that needs to be linked to on the ground results. I think it’s definitely a good thing that leadership programs want to address health inequities or increase access to healthy foods. The next stretch will be for us to address the root causes of these problems and talk more vividly about the future we are trying to create.


Developing the narrative about the world we are trying to create is both daunting and exciting, especially given the perils of the current narrative. It’s absolutely clear to me that this work is happening in all of the places I mentioned within a larger ecosystem. Facing Race is moving the conversation and calling out the conditions, culture, and policies that bolster White Supremacy. People in leadership development cannot play our role in a different future in isolation from these interrogations of our current reality happening in racial justice and social justice venues. I humbly recognized at both the Whitman Institute retreat and Facing Race the role of artists in helping with the cultural work of creating a narrative in which all of us who work for justice can see the world we are trying to create. I am so glad that we will have some help with this important work from our amazing new board member, Lisa Leverette, and I look forward to learning from and with all of you.


Wow, I didn’t even get to the Marshall Ganz piece but who wants to follow Paulo Freire, so I am saving that for next time.