Paulo Freire’s fear of freedom

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been in the box of largely unread books that I’ve dragged with me from house to house, from shelf to shelf, as I’ve moved every few months over the years. This weekend, compelled by recent events and stilled by a sickness I brought home from the equator, I finally sat down with the introduction, preface, and first chapter.

Freire (Brazil, 1921 – 1997) talks about the concept of conscientização, the process by which we learn to recognize political, social, and economic contradictions and to “take action against the oppressive elements of reality.” He asserts that we are often afraid of true freedom, and that we are disposed to “confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo.” If conscientização – a new, profound, self-produced awareness of systemic contradiction – threatens our status quo, “it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” In other words, awareness and action can feel threatening to our perception of freedom, when, in reality, freedom can only come as emancipation from the reality constructed for us.

Freire urges the oppressed – and indeed all humans – to construct and build our own futures, to act as Subjects (those who know and act) rather than Objects (those who are known and acted upon). To act Subjects, we must recognize and align ourselves with history but not succumb to the “rightist” belief that the future is determined by a “well-behaved”, “domesticated” present, or to the “leftist” myth that the future is predetermined by fate or destiny. Freire labels these sectarian views as “reactionary” because they rely on “forms of action that negate freedom.” These fixed, rigid perceptions of history and the future linked to it constrain thinkers in “circles of certainty from which they cannot escape.” The sectarian thinker constructs his own “truth” that is, by Freire’s definition, a myth.

Freire says that we gain our freedom by struggling to build the future and by “running the risks involved in this very construction.”

Sectarians on either end of the sociopolitical thought spectrum are held captive by their own mythical “truths”:

[The rightist sectarian or the leftist], as he revolves about “his” truth, feels threatened if that truth is questioned. Thus, each considers anything that is not “his” truth a lie. As the journalist Marcio Moreira Alves once told me, “They both suffer from an absence of doubt.”

An absence of doubt! Absolutely! Without curiosity, without the compulsion to learn, and with rigid adherence to baseless truths or prescribed ideologies, we are constrained by Freire’s “circles of certainty.” We are oppressed by our own lack of curiosity, by our own absence of doubt. Liberation (from dehumanization, from false truths, from the status quo), Freier argues, is the work of radicals.

…the more radical a person is, the more fully he or she enters into the reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. [The radical, in pursuit of liberation] is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them.

To be a curious, critical, radical in the face of canned, prescribed truth, is to be a human being in pursuit of liberation, of freedom.

The word radical can refer to the extreme, the opposite of moderate, the antithesis of status quo; and at the same time it refers to the root, the system where the foundation takes hold and is grounded – rooted – the subterranean place from where all growth / progress / revolution emerges.

The Common Ground of Rivers

PUBLISHED: National Geographic’s Water Currents blog 12.20.16


photo West Howland

words by Chandra Brown / photos by West Howland

 I work summers in the Grand Canyon. This is the ultimate goal for a lot of career river guides; it’s what some consider the best guiding job in the world. I know I’m lucky. In the Grand Canyon, we take people rafting for fifteen days at a time. We try to hide from the summer sun. We tell stories of ancient things, and our own journeys become new stories.

Clients sometimes ask why we row heavy oar boats instead of running trips on motorized rigs. The motor guides make more money, as they can do twice as many trips in a season. Their boats carry more clients and they cover the 225 miles of river in half the time that we do in our oar boats.

Isn’t it obvious? I ask. Those motors talk over the Canyon.


photo West Howland

People also ask about the dams.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado would be different without its dams. The water would be warmer with more suspended sediment. Familiar rapids would be at times flooded, disappeared, washed out by the high water, and at other times impassable for lack of flow. The river would be unpredictable and recreational river running and hiking in the Grand Canyon would perhaps never have become what is today – a thriving $26 billion dollar industry. Also, if damming the Colorado had been left off of the Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-twentieth century to-do list, the River might still reach its delta. The four critically endangered species of warm-water fish endemic to the Canyon might live to see the next decade.

North Americans are connected by the water of the Colorado. It flows through us when we eat the crops it irrigates or the stock that drinks it in; when we splash in its mountain headwaters; when we run through a sprinkler in an anomalous desert green-grass lawn; when we turn on the faucet to our great Western cities’ fountains, drinking water, showers, and gardens. And everyone who floats through the Grand Canyon is connected by a transformative experience, the experience of traveling an occluded capillary in the continent’s struggling vascular system. The Colorado River is held back, controlled, managed, and owned, and yet, for all that manipulation, the water is still powerful and wild. All it takes is a moment or a day in the heart of the Grand Canyon, in the maw of the rapids of the Inner Gorge, to suffer or savor an undeniable truth: the wild spirit of water will not be subdued by humankind. The Colorado’s ecosystems, flood cycles, and intricate sandstone canyons have drowned beneath the impounded river, but the water itself, at its essence, is still very much alive.


photo West Howland

Rivers lend themselves to superlatives.

The most scared I’ve ever been is on a river. Also: the coldest, the hottest, the most awed, most challenged, most exhausted, and the happiest.

I’ve welcomed more wild, far-from-home, sand-in-hair, frost-on-cheek mornings alongside rivers than on mountains, beaches, or trails combined.

My best friends and greatest loves have come from the river world. I’ve felt more connected to people on river trips than in any city, school, project, or party. For me, companionship and trust feel more essential and primitively charged on the river than anywhere else.

Food tastes better. Sleep slumbers deeper.

Dreams flow into and between wakeful moments, tributaries to a big river fed by the magic of our human reality and by magic itself.

I feel more on the river.

I am comforted by the reality that rivers flow in one direction: indecision and hesitation have no place on a river. When you go to the water you let go of control, you succumb to gravity, and you allow the river to carry you away. You merge with the current and with history, with decisions and consequences and the power of ancient forces.

There’s common ground in rivers.

Rivers connect ecosystems, societies, families, memories, stories, and our collective pasts to our global future.

The water teaches, connects, quenches, cools, and washes away the arbitrary order, the illusions of priority and importance. The river reduces us to what matters.

Red Fish / Black Snake

PUBLISHED: National Geographic’s Water Currents blog 12.8.16

words by Chandra Brown / photos by Robin Carleton 

Almost two months after protesters began to gather against the “black snake” – the Dakota Access oil Pipeline – a much smaller protest came to a reservoir on the Snake River, the largest tributary to the Columbia. At the Free the Snake flotilla, kayakers, fishermen, and tribal representatives called for the return of the salmon to the people and waters from which they are rapidly disappearing.

September 17, 2016  /  Snake River, eastern Washington

“Let the salmon lead us home now.” An organizer with a red ponytail and fisherman’s hat coos into his portable PA as the FREE THE SNAKE banner is pulled in, drawn off the surface of dark water. The protesters obediently point their bows upstream. I paddle back quickly, against a barely perceptible downstream current, ahead of the rest of the flotilla, my core chilled.

At the boat ramp at Swallows Park, I carry my little red kayak – one of only a handful of whitewater boats in the flotilla – up the concrete incline and drop it in the grass. Nearby: a folding table where two Indian women in gorgeous colors – rich blues and magenta and crimson – are preparing to serve fry bread and smoked salmon to paddlers soaked in Snake water. Rain still issues intermittently from a cement sky.

“What’s your name?” A surprisingly raspy little voice rises from the sidewalk. He’s on a tiny Radio Flyer tricycle and his name is Jaker. He’s just turned three, he’s barefoot, wearing a black tank top and shorts, and someone has Sharpied #NoDAPL on his forehead. His hair falls in rain-soaked clumps over the tattoo.

“My uncle has a dirt bike.” You don’t say. He puts on a giant full-face helmet to prove it.

I ask him if he’s cold, because I am, and he rattles a definitive “no.” I tell him my name and, curious, I take a seat on the bow of my boat.

He rolls his tricycle backwards toward to the edge of the grass adjacent to the hard-sloping boat ramp. No one says anything or lifts a finger to stop him. He’s not invisible, just free, and I’m transfixed. The women in their colors and long braids, with their salmon and fry bread, all free for the paddlers, all an expression of oneness, solidarity with those who have raised their voices today in opposition of the control, of these old dams, of the slow and quiet death of the Snake River; the women don’t raise an eye now toward Jaker as he slips toward the water. I bite my tongue. His bare feet are muddy with errant green grass clippings and the tiny pebbles that float atop pavement stuck between his toes. He rolls backward and when my eyes get big he lets out a throaty, mischievous giggle. Shaking his head and smiling, he pushes his tricycle back up the hill.

A cousin, possibly the same age as Jaker, wanders toward us and posits that familiar question that should inspire pause: “What are you doing?”

I tell her: right now, I’m being with you. I’m with you.

Two Army Corps park rangers approach, holding a pile of stickers. They are dressed like the park rangers I know, but this isn’t a National Park or State Park or BLM land. This is Lower Granite Lake – a controlled portion of a once wild river, managed and mowed over with parking lots, manicured grass, and corrugated boat ramp – and these bespectacled rangers have U.S. Army Corps of Engineers patches on the shoulders of their buff colored work shirts. The male ranger has sought out the kids and bends down to offer Jaker and his cousin a sticker: “Junior USACE Ranger.” Vaguely reminiscent of the kind you used to get from Smokey the Bear or from a National Park’s visitor center, but unquestionably different. The cousin declines, but Jaker takes a sticker and slaps it squarely upside down in the center of his chest.

Play it safe, Junior Ranger, the sticker says.

“My grandma’s house is green,” Jaker says.

His hand is on his chest, little fingers gingerly tapping that upside down gold foil sticker. The US Army Corps of Engineers: the builders, the managers, the controllers. And Jaker and his cousins, the protectors, the guardians. I watch his eyes: dark, like what lies in the inner folds of the earth; full, I imagine, with sorrowful history, collective memory, and hand-me-down wisdom.

Play it safe, Junior Ranger, get away from that water. It’s controlled, managed, held back and held still, to keep you safe. Flood control, spill control, crowd control. Control of slowly suffocating wild salmon: they’re barged – and safely! – around these dams and unloaded downstream like lumber, like wheat, like oil.

And that oil! It’s safe, Junior Ranger. It’s contained, funneled around your land and along, above, beside your water in one of only a few types of government-approved pipes, enthusiastically endorsed for this very purpose.

Don’t say anything, don’t do anything – don’t dance, pray, gather, or scream – for that will only stir the waters we work so hard to calm. Control the fire, control the flood, and come away from the edge, from that pipe, from that slow and dying river.

But you, Jaker, you’re not fighting. You’re telling me about your grandma’s green house, your uncle’s dirt bike. You’re telling me you’re not cold, when I can’t stop shivering.

Your older cousins from the Kalispel Reservation are freshly returned to eastern Washington from Standing Rock with their dugout canoe – The Boss, it’s called, in the Kalispel dialect of Salish – that sweet cedar, those coiling eddy lines burned into the hull. (“Our boat, it’s the one with the swirls.” The little girl had told me this morning, as she swung her head toward the water, toward her family in their canoe; her twin braids had followed to twirl through the damp and misty air.) The swirls like water, like current, like the deep-down whirling of whispers: don’t push it, play it safe, do your part, step aside. The Boss, with Missouri River water still seeping from the cracks in its floor, cigarette smoke and sage and the tears and songs of the Prairie still awash over its deck. Your Kalispel cousins paddle for cultural, spiritual, and ecological justice, paddling and singing and drumming, when all these slow and stagnant rivers, they seem to flow upstream. From one national artery to another, every pull of the paddle is a prayer.

Every pull a prayer.

Jaker’s trike drifts backward to the river again. He emits another throaty chuckle. His cousin rests her tiny hand on my shoulder, runs her dirty fingers along the contour of my lifejacket. Play it safe. We watch him, together, as he drags his bike back up the incline, only to tumble back down it again.




Faces of the Snake

PUBLISHED: Canoe & Kayak Magazine digital feature

Read the full story and see all of Robin’s photos HERE.


Colville drummer / photo Robin Carleton

The Snake River – the largest tributary to the Columbia – was impounded and drawn to stillness in the early 1960s with the construction of four dams on its lower reaches. Its stagnant, warming waters form the political boundary between the states of Washington and Idaho. The Snake’s water also trickles through tangled divides between the whims of inland water managers, regional tribes, the interests of industrial agriculture, and a federal judge in Oregon.

The Lower Snake’s dams have been deemed, collectively, a mortal threat to at least 13 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead runs and, by trophic association, the resident orca population of Puget Sound. In May 2016, U.S. District Court

Judge Michael Simon mandated that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries reevaluate its plan to revive dwindling fish populations. He advised that NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers consider breaching the Lower Snake dams.

This fall’s ‘Free the Snake’ flotilla was a grassroots action inspired by Seattle-born practice of kayaktivism. It simply organized the boats and the voices of advocates for a free-flowing river, a healthy ecosystem, and the return of the salmon to the people and waters from which they are rapidly disappearing.


Gary Dorr, Nez Perce tribe / photo Robin Carleton

“Water is the first medicine. I am water. We are water…When we started this morning, the tribal members that were there – Spokane, Kalispel, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce – we started with a prayer. You’re part of that prayer now, that spiritual movement. So I’m thankful for all of you who came here today and sacrificed a little of your own water through your sweat to be a part of this. From here on out, this is a movement. It’s all a ceremony.”

– Gary Dorr, key figure in major movements against threats to clean water in North America, including the Keystone XL Pipeline the Dakota Access Pipeline. 



I’m just visiting. I’m paying rent, passing through. There’s no need for roots to take hold, no need to stand here for too long. I don’t want the algae to grow or the mosquitos to swarm. Movements at random, frenetic wanderings, sudden goodbyes and shaky, blurry-eyed good mornings. Negligence in the form of distraction; distraction disguised as ambition; ambition masquerading as rhythmical, lyrical, seasonal fluidity.

I have a daydream of a home, probably up north, but not too far north. I daydream about sitting still long enough to see things grow and blossom and wilt and die around me, only to see them rise out from ground anew in the spring.

In the daydream I meet the reality of the place that hosts me with open, focused eyes. I get close enough to know what it needs, to see it through the winter, to consider the consequences of connection and choose to stay in spite of them. I replace the novelty of newness with the vulnerability of commitment.

In the daydream I don’t drive around so much.

In the daydream I’m trying to stay put, or maybe to ride along, to feel rhythms I’ve resisted, to let the cold permeate and trust that the eventual sun will thaw what’s frozen.

In the daydream I learn not to linger too much in analysis of the past. I learn to bring the old stories with me through the transitions, to succumb to rhythms, to gravity, to the irreversible nature of negligence and mistakes. In the daydream I move forward, out of the shadows of winter.