Critical Love

Critical Love

Like breathing and belonging, love is a fundamental human need. Many educators are drawn to their work by a sense of love, but sometimes other emotions masquerade as love. Pity can sometimes convince us that it’s love. At times we care, but it’s grounded in ego or saviorism.[1] Our caring may be distant, or even conditional. The work of being an antiracist educator calls for what Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz names critical love, or “a profound ethical commitment to caring” for the community you serve.[2]

To engage in critical love is to be honest about dynamics of power and oppression, and to work to dismantle the influences of racism, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, ableism, cisheteropatriarchy, and other forms of violence. Educators who enact critical love show their students that they are in the struggle with them.

The application of a “critical” lens is fundamental. It reminds us to investigate beneath the surface of things, to ask why and why again (look at root cause analysis). James Baldwin’s ideas, as well as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s thoughts on critical consciousness anchor a great deal of thinking in this area. Here are some examples:

Now if I were…dealing with…[Black] children who have an apprehension of their future, which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that he is stronger than this conspiracy and that he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.

I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worthy of a man’s respect. That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country. I would suggest to him that the popular culture—as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies—is based on fantasies created by very ill people, and he must be aware that these are fantasies that have nothing to do with reality. I would teach him that the press he reads is not as free as it says it is—and that he can do something about that, too.[3]

Other scholars on Paulo Freire (1970) and critical consciousness:

“Paulo Freire invited us to understand that the pedagogy of oppression is “an instrument for the critical discovery that both [the oppressed] and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization…. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one…. The solution is not to ‘integrate’ [oppressed communities] into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.’”[4]

“Paulo Freire…claimed…that critical consciousness involves a reflective awareness and analysis of the differences in power present in social relationships and institutions. Such an engagement in the critical examination of the social world should foster a “reorientation of perspective towards a commitment to social justice.”[5]

In the excerpts above, we see important principles that guide critical love:

  • Both those who are oppressed and those who oppress are being dehumanized;
  • The goal isn’t integration into the existing social order, it’s transformation of the whole structure of society, power, and relationships;
  • This requires awareness (with ongoing reflection) and analysis of how power operates, both in relationships and institutionally (“…those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies …are criminal.”)
  • The goal of this consciousness is to increase commitment to social justice and
  • To create the circumstances that allow people to “become beings for themselves” – to self-actualize through self-determination.

Scott Seider and Daren Graves (2020) have found that “marginalized youth with high levels of critical consciousness are more likely to demonstrate resilience, mental health, self-esteem, academic achievement, high professional aspirations, and civic and political engagement.”[6] Citing Shawn Ginwright, they go on to highlight that “critical consciousness might be associated with these positive youth outcomes [because it] can replace marginalized adolescents’ feelings of isolation and self-blame for challenges they are encountering with a sense of agency and engagement in a broader collective struggle for social justice.”[7] Critical consciousness includes three dimensions:

  • Social analysis – “The ability to name and analyze the social, political, and economic forces that contribute to inequity and inequality;”
  • Political agency – “The belief that one has the capacity to effect social or political change;” and
  • Social action – “Engaging in events or activities that confront oppressive forces and structures, and the unequal conditions they perpetuate.”[8]

The three dimensions are mutually reinforcing. Social action, for example, reinforces a sense of political agency, which deepens social analysis and leads to more social action.

Jeff Duncan-Andrade (2009) applies critical consciousness to a key aspect of living and learning: hope. He teases out different kinds of hope, helping us see when they do the work of oppression versus the work of supporting freedom. First, he describes “hokey hope,” “mythical hope,” and “hope deferred” like so:

  • Hokey Hope: “an individualistic up-by-your-bootstraps hyperbole that suggests if urban youth just work hard, pay attention, and play by the rules, then they will go to college and live out the ‘American dream.’ …[It] ignores the laundry list of inequities that impact the lives of urban youth long before they get to the underresourced schools that reinforce an uneven playing field. …This, in turn, …delegitimizes the pain that urban youth experience as a result of a persistently unequal society. It is a false hope informed by privilege and rooted in the optimism of the spectator who needs to not suffer—a ‘let them eat cake’ utterance that reveals a fundamental incomprehension of suffering.”[9]
  • Mythical Hope: “[an] ahistorical and depoliticized denial of suffering that is rooted in celebrating individual exceptions. These individuals are used to construct a myth of meritocracy that simultaneously fetishizes them as objects of that myth. Ultimately, mythical hope depends on luck and the law of averages to produce individual exceptions to the tyranny of injustice, and thus it denies the legitimacy of the suffering of the oppressed.”[10]
  • Hope Deferred: Describing educators who “have a critique of social inequality but cannot manifest this critique in any kind of transformative pedagogical project. They “hope” for change in its most deferred forms: either a collective utopia of a future reformed society or, more often, the individual student’s future ascent to the middle class.[11]

Duncan-Andrade then goes on to elaborate: critical hope, writing “critical hope demands a committed and active struggle ‘against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair.’ Critical hope counteracts that despair by connecting “moral outrage to action aimed at resolving undeserved suffering.”[12] There are three mutually constitutive elements of critical hope:[13]

  • Material Hope: comes from exploiting “cracks” in the “concrete” that young people grow up in (to use the author’s metaphor). He writes, “the quality of our teaching, along with the resources and networks we connect our students to, are those cracks. They do not create an ideal environment for growth, but they afford some leaking in of sunlight, water, and other resources that provide the material justification to hope. …Material hope…comes from the sense of control young people have when they are given the resources to “deal with the forces that affect their lives.”[14]
  • Socratic Hope is “the courage to pursue the painful path of bursting through those jagged cracks in the concrete. …Socratic hope requires both teachers and students to painfully examine our lives and actions within an unjust society and to share the sensibility that pain may pave the path to justice. …[Effective] educators teach Socratic hope by treating the righteous indignation in young people as a strength rather than something deserving of punishment; Freire called this a “pedagogy of indignation.” The moments of despair and rage that urban youth feel are not only understandable, they are, ‘an appropriate response to an absurd situation.’”[15]
  • Audacious Hope is “the solidarity to share in others’ suffering, to sacrifice self so that other roses may bloom, to collectively struggle to replace the concrete completely with a rose garden. …[Critical] hope is audacious in two ways. First, it boldly stands in solidarity with urban communities, sharing the burden of their undeserved suffering as a manifestation of a humanizing hope in our collective capacity for healing. Second, critical hope audaciously defies the dominant ideology of defense, entitlement, and preservation of privileged bodies at the expense of the policing, disposal, and dispossession of marginalized ‘others.’ …[Audacious] hope demands that we reconnect to the collective by struggling alongside one another, sharing in the victories and the pain. This solidarity is the essential ingredient for “radical healing,” and healing is an often-overlooked factor for improving achievement.”[16]

Critical consciousness enables critical love, which undergirds critical hope.

Additional guidance can be found in literature about another form of education: mentoring. Torie Weiston-Serdan (2017), mother of the theory of Critical Mentoring, describes the need for a “mentoring augmented by a critical consciousness, one that compels us to take collective action and to do it alongside our young people.”[17] Monique W. Morris (2019) similarly highlights the concept of “transformative” mentoring, in which the adult mindset includes a commitment to “know our children,” “believe in their promise,” and take an “approach [that] is grounded in healing.”[18]


[1] For a humorous representation, see Ruffin (2019) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_RTnuJvg6U

[2] Education Equity Starts, 2021; see also See Muhammad, Dunmeyer, Starks, & Sealey-Ruiz, 2020.

[3] Baldwin, 1963. Delivered on October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child-His Self-Image, published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, 1985.

[4] Morris, 2019, p. 35, citing Freire, 1970.

[5] Clonan-Roy, Jacobs, & Nakkula, 2016, p. 103-104.

[6] Seider & Graves, 2020, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Seider & Graves, 2020, p. 4-5.

[9] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 182-183. Weiston-Serdan (2017) describes youth who reject the invitations of programs that offer programming that’s not responsive to their needs, while Morris (2019) and Nunn (2018) discuss how young people who operationalize refusal in the face of hokey hope and the like are labeled, punished, and made disposable.

[10] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 184.

[11] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 184-185.

[12] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 181.

[13] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 185-186.

[14] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 186.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Duncan-Andrade, 2009, p. 186-190.

[17] Weiston-Serdan, 2017, Loc. 105.

[18] Morris, 2019, p. 161.

REFERENCES

Baldwin, J. (1963b, December 21). The Negro child – His self-image. The Saturday Review.

Clonan-Roy, K., Jacobs, C. E., & Nakkula, M. J. (2016). Towards a model of positive youth development specific to girls of color: Perspectives on development, resilience, and empowerment. Gender Issues 33, 96-121.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R. (2009). Note to educators: Hope required when growing roses in concrete. Harvard Educational Review 79(2), 181-194.

Education equity starts with critical love. (2021). Resilient Educator. https://resilienteducator.com/classroom-resources/education-equity-starts-with-critical-love/

Morris, M. W. (2019). Sing a rhythm, dance a blues: Education for the liberation of Black and Brown girls [Kindle iOS version]. Amazon.com

Muhammad, G., Dunmeyer , A., Starks, F. D., & Sealey-Ruiz, R. (2020). Historical voices for contemporary times: Learning from Black women educational theorists to redesign teaching and teacher education. Theory Into Practice. DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2020.1773185

Nunn, N. M. (2018). Super-Girl: Strength and sadness in Black girlhood. Gender and Education 30(2), 239-258.

Seider, S., & Graves, D. (2020). Schooling for critical consciousness: Engaging Black and Latinx youth in analyzing, navigating, and challenging racial injustice. Harvard Education Press.

Weiston-Serdan, T. (2017). Critical mentoring: A practical guide [Kindle iOS version].

Bridge to Thriving Framework

Bridge to Thriving Framework

What is the Bridge to Thriving Framework?

The Bridge to Thriving Framework© (BtTF) explores three big ideas: (1) Surviving Encounters with Oppression, (2) What Thriving Can Be, and (3) What’s on the Bridge to Thriving (i.e. healing, chosen family, etc.).

Ultimately, although thriving is not a permanent state of being, and people can thrive in some aspects of their lives more strongly than others, it is possible to increase one’s capacity for, duration of, and return to thriving over time. Some of this is individual, but ultimately, it is a community- and society-wide project. Here’s a description of the framework through the lens of schooling.

Surviving the Encounter

One of the key concerns that violent, oppressive systems present is that they are destructive – even deadly. Lives are cut short through mental and physical anguish that can lead to suicide and other forms of self-harm, through accumulated toxic stress that results in illness and predisposition to illness (cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.), through acute violence at the hands of police, and so on. All of this shows up in schools, including aspects of what’s known as white supremacy culture with features like perfectionism, urgency, quantity over quality, paternalism, and others. Reflecting this, schools are institutional spaces that rank and sort children, and their bodies, using tracking, grades, physical space, exclusionary cultural norming, and more. These, too, can be violent and oppressive.

Creating the conditions for thriving requires attending to threats to survival – emotional, spiritual, and physical. As educators, we are on the front lines of preparing our students to survive their encounters with racism and anti-Blackness, as well as other oppressions, inside and outside of schools. This can include teaching children how to communicate with adults and authority figures in a way that reduces risk to the young person. It certainly includes ideas about how to write, think, learn, and demonstrate “knowledge” in order to have one’s work “taken seriously” or counted. We also train children to sit still for prolonged periods of time, to ignore thirst or hunger or the need to use a restroom, and to accept that their needs and desires are not only secondary, but must be confined by what adults can imagine. A key threat of schooling is its culture of compliance and control.

Many students do not survive their encounter with schooling with their souls intact. Bettina L. Love explores this throughout her scholarship. For example, in describing “spirit murder,” Love writes:


Legal scholar Patricia Williams coined the term “spirit murdering” to argue that racism is more than just physical pain; racism robs people of color of their humanity and dignity and leaves personal, psychological, and spiritual injuries. Racism is traumatic because it is a loss of protection, safety, nurturance, and acceptance—all things children need to enter school and learn.

Love, B. (2019, May 23). How schools are spirit-murdering Black and Brown children. EdWeek.

Thriving

While there are a variety of rich theories about thriving, flourishing, and well-being, they typically center a normative (i.e. western, white, well-resourced, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, male, able-bodied) experience. Morality, wellness, and happiness in these frames fail to take into consideration the wealth of thriving practices that marginalized and minoritized communities have designed, nor the contexts within which they have developed.

Most literature about communities under duress focuses on the challenges they face. There’s a robust literature on resilience, as well as stigma, stress, and trauma, and, often “thriving” discourse for these communities is actually “resilience” discourse in disguise. This is understandable, to a degree, because we need to focus energy and resources toward eliminating inequity and hardship. Unfortunately, however, the way solutions are imagined — the solutions that are proposed — tend to stop at ease of participation in the existing social order (i.e. being able to afford stable housing), rather than reimagining the world, its institutions, and its possibilities toward universal vibrancy and profound well-being (i.e. all people are housed, no matter what).

A framework for thriving that centers marginalized communities goes beyond resilience or integration. People experience thriving when they have supportive, affirming communities (particularly affinity community); can come to know their true selves, love themselves, and self-assert in a self-determined and empowered way; have not just economic stability, but abundant resources for thriving, including time, space, funds, and – very importantly – hope, aspirations and dreams; experience relief from stressors like unsafety, economic hardship, social isolation, and other worries, and can heal; and can engage in pleasurable activities (with or without others), pursue their passions, and be joyful. In particular, people describe the optimal state of thriving—one when all of the five “petals” of the thriving model are activated—as “simply being,” or being able to exist without challenge. Fully and wholly.

Diagram in shades of red, orange, and purple that is shaped like a flower with five petals that read: community, selfhood, abundance, pleasure, and relief. The center of the flower reads: simply being.

The Bridge to Thriving Framework can be applied broadly, and will look differently in different communities and contexts. For example, from a Black transgender, queer, bi-/pansexual, lesbian, gay, and same gender loving (TQBLG/SGL) youth perspective, thriving includes such boons as:

  • easy access to other BIPOC TQBLG/SGL folks;
  • the resources and proximity to develop a chosen family kinship network;
  • social justice focused community and engagement (the ability to enact meaningful social change);
  • defiant and resistant identity development that allows for love, acceptance, and assertion of the true, whole self;
  • identity integration across all facets of the true self, including strong, positive identity-related beliefs (i.e. Black queer pride);
  • a feeling of entitlement to determine what happens to their bodies, lives, and futures;
  • abundance that manifests in such things, for example, as local, affordable yoga classes taught by TQBLG/SGL people of color or the ability to live in a TQBLG/SGL-friendly neighborhood;
  • freedom dreams and visionary imagining – a sense of hope in the possibility of a world where they can simply be;
  • the psychological space and resources to discover and pursue passions, rather than just survival activities – an example might be hiking outdoors without worrying that white and/or cishetero-invested hikers will threaten them;
  • ample opportunities for authentic joy and laughter;
  • the relief that comes from abundance, safety, freedom, and opportunities to heal in asset-, identity-, and community-affirming ways; and finally –
  • spaces and circumstances where they can simply be their whole, uncontested, fully expressed selves.

Although thriving states are not permanent, possibilities for thriving grow when people are invited to (1) see themselves as someone who is entitled to thrive, (2) imagine what their thriving can look like, and (3) receive affirmation around their vibrant future dreaming.

As people center thriving, particularly through the expansiveness of a Black TQBLG+/SGL youth lens, they begin to notice the parts of their lives that don’t quite measure up and make plans to change them. People also begin to name strategies and practices they can (and do) use to advance their thriving (from using a special planner, to meditating, to making time for friends, to prioritizing their musicianship, to activism, to changing jobs, to changing partners, and so on).

When people describe feeling like they can exist fully or “simply be,” all of the other dimensions (community, selfhood, abundance, pleasure, and relief) are usually activated in some way. Finally, people being asked to consider the question of their thriving has continuously been called a new and welcome experience. Time and again, people say that they’ve never been invited to really think about it or take the time to reflect deeply upon it. Moving through the BtTF© reshapes people’s ideas about themselves and their futures. Pursuing the Bridge to Thriving is a both/and proposition. Yes, we do have to pay attention to survival and healing. And. We have to balance that with dreaming in order to get to the business of visionary remaking. It begins with a demand. Thriving is what we deserve, but we have to imagine it into existence. The world we need doesn’t yet exist.


The Bridge to Thriving

The Bridge to Thriving is the space between survival/insufficiency and a state of vibrant, holistic well-being. The pathway is not linear and it’s not a one-time journey. Think of the Bridge as portable. If you want to build a thriving community, you can apply the Bridge. If you want to build a thriving school, you can apply the Bridge. It is, essentially, a way to remember what people need in order to flourish.

It is also important to remember that different individuals or communities may construct their “bridges” differently at different times. One person may need to have the time, resources, and space to play music regularly, while another person may need to be truly seen by a caring friend. One community may need clean drinking water, while another may need a police oversight commission. These needs may be shared in some contexts or unnecessary in others. Ultimately, the bridge invites an analysis of what is needed for access, wholeness, and a life well-lived.