Class on the NY subway

In one of my courses at CUNY, we just finished reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which outlines a philosophy of education in the sociopolitical context of 1970s Brazil, a place of powerful class divisions and widespread oppression. Freire’s seminal yet controversial work is characterized as belonging to the participatory action research camp, and after decades of questionable status in more traditional schools of education, its popularity has grown alongside the building modern conversation around terms like the “wealth gap” and “income disparity.”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not my first time reading Freire, yet I and my classmates at CUNY found the work consciousness-breaking as always, enlivening to the conversations we have about power structures, dominant discourse, and class-based prejudice (one of many kinds in full effect in most societies). Class divisiveness and dynamics of oppression locking elites and the laboring masses together forms the initial sociopolitical context to ground Freire’s theory, and he argues with insight and passion that society cannot change until “true dialogue” takes places between its members in a mutual act of critical reflection on the inequalities that exist and how to transform the world into something better. (92)

If you want dialogue – and even if you don’t – you come to New York and take public transportation. Today, as I always do on Fridays, I took a bus and then the subway from my apartment on the Lower East Side and just sort of took it all in. What’s beautiful about New York (one of a million things) is that you get a constant mixture of people flowing around you, interacting, smiling, screaming, scraping by, every stripe, every blend, every voice and face imaginable. And in every New Yorker you see the markings of group membership and division through class:

– an older white woman cuddles her large cart of garbage bags and other items and leans across her subway seat towards the man sitting next to her, a young white man with stringy, unkempt hair, telling him about how to use newspapers – “like a book, you know?” – to make a pillow
– a middle-aged man, possible South Asian or Middle Eastern, stands quietly staring down into his iPhone, his jaw somewhat hidden behind the turned-up collar of an expensive raincoat, a more-expensive leather bag hanging from his right fist
– a 30-something Latino man leans forward on his knees displaying his heavily tattooed arms under a plain black T-shirt
– a middle-aged white woman holds her leather(ish) bag on her lap, style maybe a season or two past, hair highlighted with roots peeking through

Of course there are intersections of age and race here (I did this on purpose), and I think this reinforces the notion of membership, as well as the complexity of the dimensions of oppression that my class discussed the other day in our own version of “true dialogue.” But I always come back to this question (which I typed into my iPhone, while wearing a T-shirt I’d bought on vacation in San Francisco this summer – class indications there): Am I oppressing the woman giving advice about newspapers? In a way, no, and in another way, yes. The system does, and I am also a member of the system that does this. My favorite quote by Freire argues that I am, indeed, responsible for her oppressed fate as a social participant:

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

But what does that mean? What actions are legitimate, authentically committed to transforming our oppressive social structures, and what actions oppress? Like people, can they belong to both camps at once? How does my studying in a PhD program, or teaching in a service organization that delivers workforce skills training to low-status adults, exemplify this? How does my role as an educator, a citizen, an individual, act in concert with a system that encompasses all of us, and how can I and everyone else find dialogue – and democracy – with fresh eyes and ears for each other?

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