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Critical Consciousness: The Path to Transformative Action

If we cannot see the world for what is, we cannot transform it.

Graphic of sitting in contemplation building awareness.
Art by Cristóbal Schmal

The Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire first coined the term conscientização, or "critical consciousness," to describe the ability to understand/recognize what is in order to change it. It is, in essence, the ability to transform situations by challenging our perceptions of the world around us.

But what does this look like in practice and how can it help us transform our communities, institutions, and societies? How do we go about cultivating critical consciousness?


Four Levels of Awareness

INDIVIDUAL | When we talk about building awareness, we begin with the self. This requires understanding both what influences our own perceptions, behaviors, and beliefs, and how our behaviors impact and influence others.

To cultivate this level of awareness:

  1. Reflect on your identity. What makes you who you are? This includes both social identities (groups to which you belong) and individualized identities (ways in which you are unique). They may be self-ascribed or ascribed by others.

  2. Examine your unconscious bias and the lenses that influence your perception .

  3. Ask for feedback and observations from others. Listen with curiosity and gratitude.

INTERPERSONAL | We must also observe how individuals interact with one another, whether in one-to-one situations, inside of a group, or between groups (us vs them behaviors). What dynamics between individuals in a given situation that may be influencing outcomes?

To cultivate this level of awareness:

  1. Understand how power dynamics play out in interpersonal interactions.

  2. Learn about team dynamics and recognize types of conflicts as they arise (are they between two people or is it involving multiple people? Are people in total disagreement or are there factions forming?)

Learn about power dynamics and how they affect social behaviors at work

ORGANIZATIONAL/INSTITUTIONAL | Next, we need to understand what policies and procedures may be in place within a given system may be contributing to a particular outcome. What decisions are being made and how is their impact being felt?

To cultivate this level of awareness:

  1. Review policies or procedures with an equity expert, looking for hidden consequences embedded in them.

  2. When noticing an outcome (ex: there are no women or people of color in the upper management levels of the organization), consider what policies may be contributing to it. Are there rules in place that may make it less likely for it to occur?

CULTURAL/SYSTEMIC | Lastly, we must be aware at the cultural or systemic level, to understand how values and beliefs can shape outcomes, how the processes embedded in our society (not from any one individual or institution) impact the world.

To cultivate this level of awareness:

  1. Understand what the dominant culture is and how it shapes our society.

  2. Learn about systemic cycles of oppression that may be disproportionately impacting certain individuals more than others.


Transformative Action

Critical consciousness is deeply bound to transformative action. To simply raise our awareness of the challenges in the world is not enough, and worse it can stimulate feelings of despair, anxiety, and paralysis if we don't simultaneously cultivate our agency.

Agency is the confidence in our own ability, skill, and power to take strategic action. While transformation cannot happen without critical consciousness, it is also necessary to offer clear paths to taking action. It requires that we believe we can change things and that we take strategic steps to do so.

We can create these steps together, built from a shared understanding of what is. If you want any help with creating these steps, we are happy to offer strategic planning and training. To learn about what services we offer, read our brochure here.

Further Reading:

Jemal, Alexis. Critical Consciousness: A Critique and Critical Analysis of the Literature


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