From Anti-Oppression to Liberation Social Justice Education

As more acts of injustice become apparent to us and more folks are doing social justice (I hope that is true), it is more important than ever that we talk deeply about not just the problem of oppression or even the goal of justice, but also focus on the process of what can be more effective in bringing about more justice and equity on individual, institutional, and societal levels.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been drawn to the good work of others as they have cautioned against social justice elitism and social justice madvocates, made solid suggestions about sustainability and infightingcounter-productive efforts for social justice educators and well-intentioned people, cautioned against tone policing, and even questioned just how big of a problem this is within social justice communities.

For those of us who think about, act on, and educate others about social justice, here are a few thoughts to consider about how we can be more effective in cultivating more equity, justice, transformation, and liberation.

1. Learning About Oppression Is a Means to Liberation

Anti-oppression approaches have great value as they help us move beyond political correctness, multiculturalism, and even diversity to understanding the systemic nature of oppression, identify this oppression, and work against it. Skipping an understanding of oppression will result in ineffective, superficial, and even harmful efforts at “liberation.” However, if all we ever do is learn about oppression – that it is real, how it works, how it hurts, etc. – that learning may actually do harm as it can undercut our individual and collective agency. Effective social change work means that our educational efforts don’t stop at just explaining oppression but also explore strategies toward liberation when folks are developmentally ready. Liberation work certainly needs to be done at the systemic level and we also need to helping individuals function and thrive in an oppressive society as we progress toward justice and equity. Although it is tempting to demand oppression free environments now, this is limited in that 1) it isn’t realistic in the near future, 2) if our efforts end at demanding that oppression end, then folks never get a chance to learn the critical skills of how to live, function, and thrive in a world where oppression exists, and 3) demanding something change alone is an ineffective strategy for creating change. We can all continue to work for a world where oppression doesn’t exist, in the meantime people of color benefit from learning how to live in a culture of racial violence, women benefit from learning how to function in patriarchal society, and Muslims benefit from learning how to navigate a world where they are regularly assumed and interacted with as though they are terrorists (despite regular of evidence of white men’s terrorism). With a knowledge of how oppression works, a liberation approach pushes us beyond a focus on the problem, beyond a focus on solutions to the problem (which keeps our focus on the problem) and pushes us to consider brand new possibilities for ourselves, other individuals, social institutions, and society.

2. From Casting Blame to Cultivating Transformation

In the video clip above (for those in a hurry, skip to the 25:20 mark for a 3 minute view) bell hooks explains how her approach to working toward justice has evolved. “Even among liberal and progressive people, we want to divide the world up into this binary of good and bad guys, so that when we do that we actually keep dominator culture in place.” She continues, “Casting blame is a crucial component of dominator thinking.  It helps promote a culture of victimization. When we are more energized by the practice of blaming than we are by efforts to create transformation, we not only cannot find relief from suffering, we are creating the conditions that help keep us stuck in the status quo.  Our attachment to blaming, to identifying the oppressor, stems from the fear that if we cannot unequivocally and absolutely state who the enemy is, than how can we know how to organize resistance struggle?” Notably, hooks also names how tempting blame is, how many folks like the blaming version of her better (she uses more colorful language), and why we need to push past this self-righteousness – because it isn’t effective. Blame is different than accountability. Blame can actually undermine real accountability. Blame is one of the ways we discharge our own responsibility and undermine our own agency in creating change – and our own culpability in perpetuating oppression.

3. Justice Is What Love Looks Like Lived Out in Public


This quote by Cornell West has become a bright line for me in deciphering when I am doing good social justice work and when I am being self-righteous and making it more about me and less about justice and equity. I’m constantly trying to get my social justice work to look more like love lived out in public. I’m also seeing greater negative impact (ineffective, harmful, and perpetuating oppression) of social justice that doesn’t look like love lived out in public. Love doesn’t always appear nice, quiet, and polite. Love sometimes appears like disappointed anger, especially when those we care so much about and expect so much of let us down. Anger grounded in love looks a lot different than anger grounded in trying to prove that I’m right or better than others. This isn’t about isn’t about tone policing, which focuses on making those who experience privilege more comfortable. This is about trying to find what will be most effective in bringing about more justice.

I often think the gap in our speaking about and for justice, or working for justice, is that we forget to advocate for what we love, for what we find beautiful and necessary. We are good at fighting, but imagining, and holding in one’s imagination what is wonderful and to be adored and preserved and exalted is harder for us, it seems.

4. More Righteousness, Less Self-Righteousness

image via

As Paul Kivel says, “Anger is not the problem.” Anger can be a guide to what is right. Anger can be a genuine and authentic response by individuals, toward institutions and systems. Anger (separate from violence) can be a powerful tool for self-care, healing, and fostering learning in others. Some of my most powerful learning has been when others have been invested in me enough to be disappointed with me and share their anger with me authentically. Self-righteousness, on the other hand, is not authentic and is purposeful in its intent to prop ourselves up by making others less. Self-righteousness is what allows me to justify and rationalize that I am right in treating others in ways that are less than how I know they deserve to be treated. Self-righteousness is making myself right by making others wrong. It is inventory taking. It is condescending. My self-righteousness isn’t interested in learning, growth, and transformation, and yet, it sure does get me social justice points. It is, in other words, ineffective to the overall cause. My self-righteousness might be at a deep level invested in change not happening, because change not happening would validate my position and justify how I treat others. The question has to be considered – would you rather be right, or would you rather be effective?

5. The Spiritual & Historical Case Against Self-Righteousness and Destructive Anger in Social Justice

Image via

Moving away from self-righteousness and destructive anger toward social justice and liberation is not a new idea. I’ve recently been exploring this through Krista Tippet’s wonderful podcast On Being. I first made this connection listening to Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman talking about loving your enemies and the idea that “love” is not always gentle and kind but it can be powerful. Thurman described trying to transform his destructive and self-righteous anger into something grounded in love, which he calls “fierce compassion.” He then described how tempting it can be to just describe that self-righteous and destructively anger as “fierce compassion,” when that’s not really what it is. Then I listened to His Holiness the Dalai Lama describe his own anger at deep injustice and how poorly it serves him and his cause. In another On Being podcast, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talked about importance of teaching mindfulness to police and the misguided ways of the war on terror. He explains how little self-righteous anger served him as he was struggling to survive, protest, and end the War in Vietnam and how little it serves us now. Desmond Tutu explained how letting go of his destructive anger at the violent oppression of apartheid in South Africa was key to his ability to lead the effective over-throw of apartheid. He also explained the role of both truth and reconciliation in creating real accountability and not just escapability in the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. People weren’t just forgiven, they had to tell the truth of what they had done. Finally, I listened to John Lewis explain that although he was willing to let his skull be cracked in his quest for civil rights, he would not let his soul be taken by giving it over to self-righteous and destructive anger. Although all of these folks had different definitions for anger they were all clear that a self-righteous, destructive, retaliatory, and resentful anger was destructive to the cause, buttressed the status quo, and further eroded the humanity of all involved, including themselves.

6. From Activists to Strategists

A few years ago, Larry Roper shared that we need fewer activists and more strategists. That’s not a criticism of activists, but a call for their activism to be more thoughtful, strategic, and ultimately more effective. So often, individuals with a new understanding of oppression demand that someone, something, or some world be different than it is. Demanding anything be different alone has rarely led to any meaningful change (but it may make us feel good and we can score social justicepoints). We may disagree over what the right strategy may be. Creating discomfort and dissonance may be strategic. We can also be mindful that those determining strategy may be growing and learning too. These strategists may also be exhausted for lack of sleep; grief and loss; and pain from mental, emotional, or physical wounds. Ultimately, the only real way to know what the effective strategy is by seeing what worked (or didn’t) after the fact.  This could be the case whether we are talking about a grassroots protest, class discussion, or conversation about #BlackLivesMatter at Thanksgiving dinner.

7. Be Good Company for the Journey


Social change work is transformation work and all transformation work is at its heart learning work. As social justice educator Marcia Baxter Magolda reminds us, we must be good company for the journey. Have you ever learned and grown simply because someone demanded that you know something different, behave differently, or be different? That’s not how learning works. What we often see in social justice circles is once we have had our learning opportunities and crossed the bridge, we often demand that others on the other side of the bridge be where we are. This is often because we are so ashamed that we once didn’t know what we now know. This is also classist and rooted in formal and informal education privilege. The greater point is that we might not always be in a place where we can be good partners on that journey. That is legitimate and real. Awareness and work on our own healing, especially if we want to be responsible in our role as educators, is critical.

8. Hurting People Hurt Others and the Role of Healing

When we experience oppression, the hurt and pain is real. Too often, people who are systemically marginalized be placed in a position to be responsible for the learning of the dominant group. This isn’t a good idea for many reasons, including replicating oppressive dynamics. Additionally, experiencing oppression certainly gives one expertise on the system and its impacts, and it may also take a toll that makes it hard to be focused on the learning of others. For those from privileged or dominant groups, awareness of systems and that privilege can often leave feelings of guilt and shame. One of the ways to manage that shame can be to distance ourselves from other members of the dominant group. At the core level this is really saying, those people are awful, but not me – see “I am exceptional” or a “good one.” Our inability to emotionally manage our membership in the dominant group can result in us doing deep harm.

As educators we may be hurting, but it is educational malpractice to use our role as an educator to work out our own hurt, anger, and shame on the learners. We need to do the self-care work, to engage in our own healing processes. Fostering learning means being able to bracket our hurt and making choices to work in partnership with others when our hurts are exposed. Those choices may be across a broad spectrum and may not always be effective – but the choices should be made to benefit the learners and not to meet our own unmet emotional needs.

Liberatory social justice work is healing work. It means seeing hurt and working to heal so that we don’t hurt others. Deeper work still involves recognizing how someone else may be hurting when they hurt us. Can you empathize with someone who has hurt you and care for their hurt? Try it with a trusted person, your family, or a partner first because.

9. Grace Fosters Accountability

Grace, shattered glass
Grace Fosters Accountability – shattered glass

It is understandable that we are cautious of giving grace to others who have hurt us. In contrast, offering grace to those who have hurt us or others, is a key aspect in letting them be given the space to grow, learn, reflect, and work to do better. Sure, some may not do better and others will take advantage, but if actual change at the individual level is one of our goals, then grace is a key factor in fostering that transformation in other human beings. How can we hold others accountable in ways that allow them to change?

10. Foster Guilt, Avoid Shame

Brené Brown helped me learn the difference between these two terms. As she describes, guilt is about action and shame is about who you are. An example of guilt is, “I made a mistake” Shame is “I am a mistake.”

In social justice, when I experience guilt over something I have done or said, the greater the sense of guilt, (not shame by another name) the greater the reminder it will be to not do that thing again. J Smooth illustrates this same idea in this short video and this longer TED Talk about confronting racism by making sure you are having the “that thing you did or said” conversation vs “that thing you are” conversation.

11. Rather than You ARE Oppressed and Privileged, We EXPERIENCE Oppression and Privilege

It is a good to reminder that being oppressed is not who we are but an experience that we have – regularly or constantly. Thinking about being oppressed as who we are means that it is unchangeable and within us which lets the system off the hook and robs us of hope and agency. Similar dynamics happen when we believe that being privileged is who we are rather than an experience we have regularly or constantly. When others define us as being oppressed or privileged it also creates a single story that undermines the complexity of our multiple and intersecting identities and the reality that most of us experience both oppression and privilege across our identities.

12. More Calling-In, Less Calling-Out

Telephone Booth, call

I came to the term, “calling in” from  Ngọc Loan Trần‘s blog. Calling others out in a manner that makes you look good, shames them, and is self-righteous is commonplace. So tempting. In addition, calling out is naming the transgression in a way that elevates a position, but doesn’t foster dialogue, openness, or critical self-reflection. Calling out often makes people defensive and dig into their denial or dig in to their isms and is a bad strategy in moving toward transformation. Calling-in” isn’t about being nice or only holding people accountable in private- it is an ethic of holding others accountable in a manner and tone that invites self-reflection, openness, increased awareness, and change. I’ve been “called in” in some pretty direct, uncomfortable, and even public ways, but they all created space for me to grow, learn, and transform.

13. More Brave Space, Less Safe Space


Kristi Clemens and Brian Arao introduced me to the idea of brave space, rather than safe space. Safe space is never really possible and often is established to 1) place all the responsibility for people’s feelings in difficult conversations on the facilitator and 2) to make it safe for individuals from the dominant group to say oppressive things and either not be held accountable or be held accountable in a way that makes them comfortable (tone policing). Brave space places the responsibility on everyone for being brave themselves and doing what they can to foster a community that encourages, empowers, and supports others to be brave. This means being brave and saying what you really think. It also means being brave and listening to the impact on others. Finally, it means being brave enough to stay in the conversation and being open to being changed. As I’ve shifted to seeking brave rather than safe space, the conversations have changed dramatically for the better.

14. Ignorance, Naiveté, and Being Uninformed Are Not the Problem

We often hear that the person who made the most recent awful statement on the news is “ignorant” or if we are kinder “uninformed” or if we are even more kind “naïve.” I wish. Those of us who behave in oppressive ways and who replicate, support, and perpetuate systems of oppression are the furthest thing from uninformed. Instead, we are very well mis-educated by the dominant culture. My ableist assumptions are not because of my ignorance, they are because of decades of learning ableist language, assumptions, and thinking. I’m very well mis-educated. When we can recognize the mis-education, we are opened to a different way of engaging others and of engaging ourselves. We all know how hard learning is. You know what is harder than learning? Unlearning. Unlearning is the central task of reaching toward more justice and equity.

15. Vilifying the Individual Is Tempting but Ultimately Can Undermine Justice

I’ve saved the hardest transformation, for last. When oppression plays out in the national media it is often quickly portrayed as an awful individual doing awful things. We certainly need accountability for individuals, but we can’t stop there – as tempting as it may be. We see media personalities and social media mavens rush in to vilify the person. We certainly need accountability for individuals, but we can’t stop there- as tempting as it may be. It is tempting to stop with villany for several reasons. If we can believe in the awfulness of an individual:

  1. We don’t have to be afraid that this has and will happen again and again.
  2. We don’t have to think about our individual actions, because we justify “I am a good person.” and “I am not a villain”.
  3. We don’t have to individually or collectively look at the systems and structures we participate in and even enjoy, the systems and structures that purposefully mis-educated us.
  4. Social institutions (like mainstream media) escape critical scrutiny when we believe the individual is deviant and not behaving normally in a deviant system.
UC-Davis, protest, college, police, Social Justice Work

When a police officer pepper sprayed college students protesting at UC-Davis, I spent days and days villainizing him and his actions in my head to people in my life and through social media. Then I read this piece in the Atlantic, Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike, by Alexis Madrigal. It pointed out that John Pike is a product of the system working well not someone breaking the system. How had John Pike been taught (literally) to dehumanize others and feel justified in using violence as a tool to control? How does that play out not just in this instance but throughout his life in his profession, with relationships, and his own internal sense of self and humanity? What role have I played directly and indirectly in supporting the system that helped to bring about his actions? What are the costs of simply vilainizing George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson? Who does defining them as exceptions to the system ultimately serve? These are much harder questions. I’d rather just call him evil, feed my self-righteousness, collect my social justice points, and move on with my day. But that allows the system and “good people” off the hook.

What Else?

I’ve learned lots of these lessons the hard way. This list is obviously imperfect. It reflects my thinking at this moment. I would love your help in making this list, my thinking, and social justice education better. Please leave a comment with your favorite from this list, an item here that troubles you, or your own idea that could be added. Here’s to more justice and more equity for all of us.

Subscribe to my FREE newsletter: Sharing Fire

About every two weeks, I share the best of what I am thinking, learning, contributing, & finding inspiring through my free newsletter. Subscribe and get Making the Complex Uncomplicated: 30 Tips for Leadership, Learning, & Equity as a thank you gift.

Your Sharing Fire is incredible. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these in my inbox. It is my starting point for new learning. Life is so frantic with everything; having a cultivated learning list by someone I trust and respect sent to me is priceless.”

Subscribe to Sharing Fire

* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp

Want to work more closely with Keith?

Leaders and organizations turn to Keith as an authentic educator, trusted leader, and unconventional scholar helping them advance leadership, learning, and equity.