Contributor: Joanne Coysh
Last week, I spent a couple of days in Berlin with an old friend of mine, Claudia Müller-Hoff and sat in on her workshop at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights about Human Rights Lawyering in Practice.
Claudia and I studied a Law in Development Masters together over 15-years ago, a course which challenges and turns upside down all your preconceptions on the relationship between law and justice. It deconstructs, critiques, questions and generally pulls apart the way that the law has been used as an instrument of oppression and begins to look at how it should, and could, become a tool for the people. Many of us from that one-year period were set adrift, back into our professional lives with more questions than answers. Questions about power, justice and change which we began to explore in on our individual paths.
Many years later, participating in this workshop were 8 young lawyers on internships or working with local NGOs, many had just completed or were in the midst of their legal training. One of the first activities we did was an interpretation of Theatre of the Oppressed, which I have called ‘freeze-frame’. Theatre of the Oppressed emerged from Brazil and the work of Augusto Boal, which seeks to transform the audience into active participants and seen as socially liberating. It is influenced by Paulo Freire’s work with illiterate communities and his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), a revolt against the top-down and elitist models of education which employed a ‘banking approach’ – where the students are viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with the knowledge and wisdom of the educator.
Instead, Freire engaged people as active agents in the process and in the world, generating dialogue amongst through pictures rather than words. Through this process they would identify critical issues and barriers which were translated by Freire and given back to the groups as problems to solve. The groups began to reflect upon their own position in the world, reframing their situation as part of a broader system of unequal power relations which needed to be changed and, reconsidering their own identities as active citizens, they began to take individual and collective action to change it. Seen as agitators, both Freire and Boal spent many years in exile – such is the power of certain educational engagements.
This model of conscientization (consciousness-raising) is based upon a process of critical inquiry, insight and generating awareness, where you reflect on your own position in the world and begin to recognise how your own experiences shape your understanding, how your perceptions, bias and assumptions influence what you do and how you do it. Claudia’s 'freeze-frame' activity was a snap shot of how this can work in a workshop. Participants were asked to volunteer to construct a scene on the theme of victims and perpetrators. Each came forward. The first woman sat on the floor, head down and hand out, the second came along and sat facing away from her with hands crossed against a radiator on the wall, the third on his hands and knees, again head down and the final person coming to stand in the middle with his hands over his eyes. We stood as observers. This was their image, their perceptions, their interpretations of how the world of victims and perpetrators looked. What did we see? What do you see?
We all come to a situation bringing with it our own experiences, understanding and interpretations of the world which shape and influence not only what we see and hear but also how we act upon that. This type of pedagogical process is based upon the assumption that change in a system is only possible when those within that system begin to recognise the way it is shaped and structured by the collective action of individuals. By engaging people physically and emotionally in the exercise, the idea is that they gradually become more aware of how their own ideas have shaped that scene, what remains unrepresented and unsaid, to begin to ask, why?
Those of us who set out to fight injustice or bring about change in the world, need to be acutely aware of how our own experiences, assumptions and perceptions influence our actions. How we see ourselves and others, our relationship to them and the system. Change starts when you have the ability to and do begin to question your ways of seeing, doing and being in the world, acknowledge your own assumptions and challenge yourself to see beyond the limits of your mind and thoughts. If we always see change as something which takes place on the outside, we risk continuing to do the same things, continuing to act without reflection and continuing to produce the same results no one wants.