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Critical Consciousness: The Path to Transformative Action

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

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

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?

Read more articles on our publication Transformative Readership


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: