May 24, 2024

understanding critical liberation theory

a red Japanese gate in the water
photo caption: a torii, or japanese gate, at the brooklyn botanical garden. torii are part of the Shinto religion, considered the gateway from the mundane to the sacred. there’s a funky little dinosaur hanging out between the worlds.

Last month I led a training where I invited attendees to imagine their future. I adapted a visioning exercise described by Tanuja Jaegernauth on a recent podcast. The exercise itself comes from Kristiana Rae Colón. She is an abolitionist, playwright, and co-founder of the Let Us Breathe Collective. My adaptation invited participants to imagine a world without hunger:

Breathe, get into your body, imagine a world without hunger, where everyone in the world has enough to eat. Visualize it. You can think of that as small or as large of a scale as you want. Picture a world where food is plentiful and available to all. This is a land where clean and well-stocked grocery stores operate a few miles apart from each other. Money is no object at these grocery stores. Anyone can go into any store, whenever they want, and get the food they would like to eat. It may seem far-fetched, but this is the experience for a majority of people above a certain income level.


Consider that there are entire communities and neighborhoods like this. These are places where nobody, young or old, has to worry about finding their next meal. Imagine if all communities got to experience the absence of hunger. Keep breathing and imagine what this would be like. Try to see yourself move through a world like that. What would this world smell like? What would it sound like? What conversations would you overhear in a world like that, in a community like that, or on a block like that?

Without realizing it, my goal for this training was to shine some light on the concept of liberation. Liberation is the often-overlooked pair to the concept of antiracism. Antiracism focuses on removing or rejecting unjust systems from our society. Liberation offers us a framework for replacing those systems with true equality. My friend Leilani reminded me of this when were catching up last week.

I realized that liberation was a part of my own racial equity practice even though I didn’t call it that. It’s this illumination that led me to learning more about critical liberation theory. Liberation theory is not new, but it hasn’t gotten the focus that antiracism has. In my research I found an article [pdf] by Barbara J. Love, Keri DeJong, and Christopher Hughbanks from 2009. I’ve pored over this paper and others to create a working understanding of critical liberation theory.

In short, liberation is true equality. It means systems, practices, and relationships that center equity and fairness. Goods, services, benefits and rewards are equally available to all. Every human can take part in these systems. Those systems support every human’s full humanity. Now compare that world to the world of today. Every difference and injustice that we notice is our liberatory consciousness. When we know the world is unfair, we are better equipped to change it, and we commit ourselves to doing so.

assumptions about liberation

Love, DeJong, and Hughbanks describe 10 assumptions and propositions about liberation. While I hope you read their (short) article, I’ll summarize them here.

  1. We can envision liberation for our lifetime, and achieve it. A world of true equals is not only possible, we can make it happen. We have all the tools, knowledge, and power to do it.
  2. Liberation benefits all of us. People harmed under oppression will no longer feel the pain of that oppression. People who receive the benefits of that oppression will have their burdens relieved.
  3. Humans are inherently good. The society we all built (or contribute to) functions through oppression. Phones and clothing are cheap through sweatshop or enslaved labor. People would feel better not being a part of that oppression.
  4. Liberation interrupts disconnect. Oppression works by erecting walls between “us” and “them.” Oppression creates isolation and disconnectedness between people. Liberation helps us tear down those walls.
  5. Liberation builds connections. Liberation helps heal that which divides us. We can connect more fully with other humans, and with our own humanness.
  6. Liberation heals our consciousness. Guilt, shame, and blame are central to the functioning of the world we live in. We so often hear that life isn’t fair, that we are so different from people in another city or country. Living in liberation helps us heal our consciousness. We can begin to rely on our inherent sense of connection, fairness and justice.
  7. Liberation releases the fear enforced by oppression. There’s so much unease and precarity in our society. How many people in the united states feel motivated by fear? How many people are afraid to lose what they have? This fear divides us. It tells us that liberation is unlikely if not impossible.
  8. Information is not enough. Learning about these systems of oppression is only half the effort. We must also take action to end it.
  9. Liberation is a journey and a destination. We can’t end oppression by oppressing others. If we are to arrive at liberation, we have to practice it on the way as well.
  10. Liberation is contagious. As people begin to heal from oppression, they will create and add to the systemic changes we need. Individual actions will lead to collective actions.

liberation praxis

These propositions help form the basis of liberation, why we must do what we must do. But as they write in #8, it’s not enough to know or even believe these points. If we desire liberation, we must practice it in our daily lives. Academics describe this as praxis. Love, DeJong, and Hughbanks have a few recommendations for this as well.

Daily Enactments. Learning without action is pointless. When we hold a vision of liberation, we must also make choices that will lead towards that vision. What can we do today that will lead to liberation? What can we do today that will set the stage for the actions of tomorrow? The vision itself—personalized, important to us—is what matters. We’ll hold that vision close as we make decisions throughout the day. Does this decision move us closer to further away from our vision of liberation? Are we reinforcing oppression, or working to transform it into something else?

Sustainability. This article is more than a decade old. Its lessons are even more important now with everything we face. Living in a society that oppresses us can wear us down. Many of us feel the conditioning that tells us to downplay our own well-being. Many people feel burnout or exhaustion from doing the best they can every day. Working towards liberation means having compassion for yourself, too. They close this section with a quote:

“We spend so much of our day posing resistance. We are so often working against—working to stop, to end, to dismantle, to disrupt, to interrupt, to shut up, to close down. We are constantly saying “no” as we put up walls to protect ourselves and each other from the toxic energy that an oppressive society feeds us.” […] AND, in order to experience what it means to be fully human, in order to sustain ourselves in this work, we need to be able to say “yes”. […] We need to, and we get to, make choices to envision what we do want, enact what we do want, while we are pushing against what we don’t want. Sustainability requires that balance.”

Community. Community is essential for liberation. We cannot create liberation for only ourselves. We necessarily create it for everyone around us, for people we don’t know and have yet to meet. Community is so vital because it is the only institution built to serve everyone. We use the connections within community to nurture and sustain liberation for all.

Love. It takes great love to imagine a world where everyone can belong. Oppressive societies receive fuel from hate and disconnect. We replace oppression with liberation by replacing hate with love.

where do we go from here?

Barbara Love went on to write about how to develop a liberatory consciousness. This is a necessary piece of the liberation framework above. A liberatory consciousness is the lens that one could use to begin to understand the world in a new way.

In my own experience, liberation is the Pandora’s box that we need for real change. Once we open the box, we cannot close it. Once we see what’s inside, we can’t unsee it. When we begin to see the injustices around us, it’s natural to want to work to tear it all down. We need to. But liberation is a cause for optimism and hope. We must continue to tear down the oppressive world around us. It’s also vital that we spend just as much time envisioning and then trying to build a new world in its place.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]