"If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together." An Aborigine Woman.
"What is needed is for our most basic assumptions in psychological thought to be revised from the bottom up. But this revision cannot be made from our offices; it has to come from a praxis that is committed to the poor." Ignacio Martín Baro, One of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador
"We don't need very much advice, theory or documents: life has been our teacher. For my part, the horrors I suffered are enough for me. And I've also felt in the deepest part of me what discrimination is, what exploitation is. It is the story of my life." I, Rigoberta Menchu, An Indian Woman in Guatemala
Sources of Liberation Psychology
Liberation Psychology has its basis in the Liberation Theology movement, where preferential option for the poor is interpreted as the primary religious mission. The focus of Liberation Psychology may remain the same, without a religious underpinning. The situation of poverty and other oppressions provide an ethical and socially responsible motivation for choosing this mode of action.
Liberation Psychology takes its direction originally from a specifically Christian theology. The action of God in raising the Victim Jesus from the dead gives hope to victims today (See John Sobrino, Christ the Liberator). Hence, the role of Liberation Psychology is to instill (recognize?) hope in the oppressed and to activate (enable the mission of liberation among those find themselves in situations with the potential of liberating activity). Mental illness is an oppression which, if not a medical condition, may be imposed by social situations s such as unmitigated stress or the imbalance of power, which creates powerlessness or, at worst, opens the door to cruelty to the less fortunate.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In the field of education, Paulo Freire wrote a groundbreaking work entitled "Pedagogy of the Oppressed". 1
Stanley Aranowitz describes Freire's pedagogy as a "secular liberation theology." 2 In the words of Friere:
(This pedagogy) must be forged with and not for the oppressed... in the incessant struggle to regain their humanity. This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed and, from that reflection, will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade. 3
Like Liberation Theology, Liberation Psychology makes a preferential option for the poor. Like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Liberation Psychology involves the oppressed in the struggle for humanization over alienation. Liberation Theology, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Liberation Psychology consider the poor and oppressed to be collaborating partners.
Current Trends in Mental Health
Liberation psychology interacts with many movements in current mental-health treatment.
Liberation psychology is a “system way” of analysis and intervention. At the heart of liberation psychology is the belief that a significant element contributing to emotional distress is a function of the oppressive system that holds all captive.
Strength-Based Assessment and Intervention
Liberation psychology utilizes the strength-based approach to assessment and treatment that is gaining popularity as a more effective way of attending to mental-health needs. The California Department of Mental Health opens the door to liberation psychology when it outlines the scope of proposed services:
Services should be client-centered, family-focused, and achieve positive mental health outcomes for culturally diverse populations across all age groups.
Strength-based assessment and intervention generate a more positive outcome than deficit based assessment
To do a Strength-Based Assessment is not to ignore symptoms, problems or dysfunctions, either in families or individuals. Nor is it to “reframe” a deficit into a strength. Rather, a Strength-Based Assessment is to explore what strengths are inherent in the family or the individual to apply to the symptom, problem, dysfunction, or deficit.
The practice of liberation psychology involves a partnership with the oppressed in advocating for a mentally healthy person in a mentally healthy society. The professional does not have the solution; the solution emanates from the person or family who is a "partner" rather than a "client" or "patient". A shared journey replaces prescribed activities.
The Use and Abuse of Power
The great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed (is to) liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. 4
Liberation psychology helps those overwhelmed with powerlessness discover their own power, power discovered in the midst of weakness. (Since mental illness knows neither class nor distinction, there is a sense in which all share a common vulnerability.)
Identification with the victimizer
In psychology, when working with victims, there is a phenomenon called identification with the victimizer. Victims may themselves become victimizers. When this focus is narrowed to examine the tendency of the oppressed to identify with the oppressor, particularly in the first stages of their own liberation, the oppressed may take on the habits of the oppressor. A role of liberation psychology is to intervene and help discover a power of love that supersedes the dichotomy of oppressed/oppressor.
In the theory of "parallel process" in psychology, that which takes place on one level of experience often is replicated on another level. Thus, psychological practice in behalf of an oppressive social structure mirrors and indoctrinates systems of oppression. People subjected to such practices are not "served" from the point of view of discovering their own humanization. Rather, they are further confused by being led to conformity to values that are more conducive to dehumanization.
For me, the theory of parallel process teaches that, as I attempt to partner with others in my specialized fields involvement – family systems, couples therapy and cognitive behavioral work with youth and children -- how I act and interact has effects not only on the couple, family or individual with whom I am working, but, on broader systems of influence.
The style and practice of the therapist's art reflects and teaches the basic tenets of liberation psychology. The authentic family-systems liberation therapist does not analyze family dynamics to prescribe an alternate way of relating. Rather, he or she skillfully joins with the family system as a catalyst to free that family from entrenched relationship styles. The authentic cognitive behavioral liberation therapist does not suggest ways to solve problematic situations. Rather, he or she skillfully poses questions related to the outcome of behavior in the context of the individual's own goals and aspirations.
The Practice of Liberation Psychology
A "praxis that is committed to the poor" values people over institutions. Institutions often find themselves too entrenched to respond with a preferential option for the poor. Angela Diaz stated this in another way at the National Forum of the Children's Institute International (4/11/03): "People do not have a problem accessing services; services have a problem accessing people." Or, in the words of Terence Roberts, Ph.D., at the same conference: "We're in business to maintain the bureaucracy, not to provide service." Ivan Illich, in the book "Disabling Professionals", identifies the social shift that has surrendered self healing to the elitist professionals who have lost touch with the ideal of human service. Professionalism of this style is itself a force of oppression and not of liberation.
Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relation in which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence. It would be a contradiction in terms if dialogue – loving, humble, and full of faith – did not produce this climate of mutual trust, which leads the dialoguers in ever closer partnership in the naming of the world. 5
I am the referral person for undocumented Spanish-speaking sexual-perpetrator parents or the nonoffending spouse for Child Protective Service and Adult Probation of a certain county in the state of California. Oftentimes, for the abuse-reactive perpetrator, the divergent sexual act emanates from the experience of powerlessness of themselves having been vicitimized. Without being naïve or gullible, at the same time I make an effort to trust in and build on the basic positive human aspirations of the Spanish-speaking participants, despite the heinousness of their actions. For many, this is their first experience of a perceived representative of the dominant culture listening to them and taking them seriously. Perhaps this is an important step of claiming power, while other systems reinforce their powerlessness and sense of worthlessness. Perhaps this will go further than any confrontation of denial in their ultimate recovery.
Liberation psychology provides the opportunity of "serious reflection" for the oppressed. But the practitioner of Liberation Psychology involves him/herself in social activism as well.
I must intervene in teaching the peasants that their hunger is socially constructed and work with them to help identify those responsible for this social construction, which is, in my view, a crime against humanity.6
Inevitably, where the structure of society is oppressive to the collaborating partners, healing takes on a societal dimension. Dr. Otis Johnson says, "Most of the problems children and families face are not the result of family dysfunction but community dysfunction. Direct practice is a necessary function to improve children and families but not a sufficient function." The practitioner of liberation psychology must be open to the oppressive reality their partners experience and active in the area of social change.
Liberation psychology is most directly applied to those parts of the world where economics and politics obviously conspire to create a social system where an "entitled" minority is buoyed up by the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and poverty of the majority. Yet in the society in the United States we encounter a population of the disenfranchised and marginalized, often along racial lines. There are neighborhoods "characterized by long-term divestment and ever deepening isolation." Otis Johnson looks to liberation of families as the key to social change. Liberation Psychology "must look beyond programs and projects towards a long-term process of empowerment and the renewed role and dignity of families."
...as psychologists we should break our bonds with the status quo and seek instead wide-ranging social change. Although advocates of such change differ among themselves over goals, methods, and political self-definition, they generally agree that only fundamental structural transformation can effectively counter trends toward hierarchy, isolation, inequality, etc: reduce racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression; and bring about a humane, egalitarian just society consistent with psychological and societal well being. 7
With the holders of entitlement, power and money, there is a perceived loss of possession, control, status and privilege, in which identity is heavily invested. But as practitioners of liberation psychology, we must be aware of our own participation in oppressive systems and realize that the first object of liberation is ourselves.
What we strive for is "a new being: no longer oppressor or oppressed, but human in the process of attaining freedom," the "ontological and historical vocation" of every person. 8
1 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition, The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc, 2003.
2Stanley Aranowitz, "Paulo Freire's Radical Democratic Humanism" in Peter McLaren and Peter Leonard,Paulo Freire, A Critical Ecnounter"(London: Rutledge: 1993) p.8
3Freire Op. Cit., p. 48
5 Ibid. p.91
6Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, "A Dialogue: Culture, Language, and Race"in Harvard Educational Review, vol. 65, no.3, fall 1995, P 379.
7 Dennis R.Fox, Psychological Jurisprudence and Radical Social Change, American Psychologist, 48, 234-241