Unlearning Oppressive Systems: How to Develop a Liberatory Consciousness | Leadership for Educational Equity Skip to main content

Unlearning Oppressive Systems: How to Develop a Liberatory Consciousness

  • Photo credit:
    Mathias P.R. Reding from Pexels

To do the difficult work of dismantling oppression, equity leaders must develop a liberatory consciousness. What is it, and why does it matter for equity leaders?

We cannot achieve equity of any kind without working to mitigate and dismantle oppression. Cultivating public leadership that’s rooted in knowledge, skills, and mindsets supports educational equity at all levels. 

Transformational coach, author, and activist, Barbara J. Love, provides us a framework through which equity leaders like you can ground yourselves when confronting injustice.

Liberatory consciousness is reclaiming choice in our values, attitudes, and response patterns that would allow for “greater flexibility and propensity for change” from systems & institutions. 

She states that to be an effective liberation worker — in other words, someone who is committed to changing systems and institutions to be more equitable and just — we must develop a liberatory consciousness. 

1. We must have the awareness that we live in oppressive systems.

Living with awareness means to live “in an awake position” — to notice our language, behaviors, and thoughts, and observe what's happening in the world around us. When something happens that shouldn’t have, or something is said that shouldn’t have been, must be aware of it and how it may be contributing to systems of oppression.

Ask yourself:

  • What oppressive systems or behaviors have I internalized/normalized that I need to be more aware of?
  • How have I interacted with oppressive systems in my community?

2. We must analyze why something is happening.

After becoming aware of a problem, the next step is to not just notice it, but thinking and theorizing about it. Developing our own explanations about what is happening, why it's happening, and what needs to be done better positions us to consider whether or not a situation seems consistent with our values and goals of a fair and equitable society. 

Ask yourself:

  • Why have I operated or interacted with oppressive systems this way?
  • What in my identity, past experiences, or current community is inconsistent with my values?

3. We must see that action is taken.

Beyond simply recognizing a problem, we must decide what needs to be done to ensure action is taken. That can look like taking initiative as an individual, encouraging others to take action, organizing and supporting others who feel empowered to do something. It may also mean seeking out resources to encourage others to act.

Ask yourself:

  • What organizations connected to my values exist in my community?
  • How can I learn more about causes supporting liberation of all people?

4. We must have accountability/ally-ship that allows us to make progress together.

We need to “understand and manage [the] opportunity and possibility for perspective sharing & ally-ship in liberation work.” Working in connection & collaboration with others permits us to make progress in ways that wouldn’t be if we were to operate in isolation or separation.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I support communities as an ally in a way they find helpful?
  • What communities am I an ally to and how do I show up?

 

Developing a liberatory consciousness is not a linear process, nor does it have a finite end point. We all begin at different stages, and at times appear to be starting at the beginning again. There is no goal to “complete” a process, but rather to engage intentionally in the journey.

Reflection:

  • What opportunities for learning and growth do I have? 
  • Where am I in my liberatory consciousness journey and where would I like to be? (Consider Love’s 4 A’s — awareness, analysis, action, accountability/ally-ship.)
  • What would moving forward on my liberatory consciousness journey look/feel like?
  • What would it mean for my leadership and the impact I want to achieve in my community?

Fighting for equity requires us to be liberation workers.

“Institutions and systems respond to the initiatives of individuals and groups of individuals. Systems do not perpetuate themselves: they are perpetuated by the actions of people who act automatically on the basis of their socializations.” — Barbara J. Love

If we each made the commitment to develop a liberatory consciousness, we’d be far more equipped to take on the beast that is inequity, make high-impact change, and move us closer to a better world.

Are you ready to develop the mindsets that will enable you to step into power as an equity leader? Not sure how to start? We’re here to help.