Friendly oppression… in person centred planning

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in 1970 – 50 years ago now!  It has had incredible impact in education, community development and social supports and yet few people have actually read it.  In the 80s, studying education I remember my SFU (at that time a hotbed of Marxist theory) profs talking about it in this hushed, kind of sacred, inspiring way and yet it was so difficult to read… but so exciting.  What’s important to me about this text is that Freire gives us a way think about oppression beyond our usual images of pimps and sex trade workers, and owners and slaves – oppression can look friendly and be systemic and can enter into even what looks like the most benign of actions.  It can subvert the best ideas.

In terms of person centred planning I am reminded of a friend who talks about working for an agency where she was responsible for all the “PCPs” for all the folks supported – and in each of them there was something that looked like a friendly invitation, looked like a meeting at which everyone got to give input, looked like graphic recording and inspiration, but in the end the work was to decide which of the agency’s five programs the person would be going to.  If we go back to Carl Roger’s ideas of person centered therapeutic approaches that person centered planning come from – that we look for support because we are in a state of incongruence and that what’s helpful is support to come into alignment because, “As no one else can know how we perceive, we are the best experts on ourselves,” then we have to figure out ways to engage in thinking with the person, without programmatic limits.


Many folks we meet when we support their planning have never actually had a meeting where they get to talk about who they are and what their dreams are.  In PATH we map out a diagram on which half the large sheet of paper is dreams.  Sometimes people will say, oh they don’t have that many dreams (or “I don’t have…”) but what’s fascinating to me these days is how those people as they do iterative plans get more and more involved and focused as they see this become a viable way for them to change their lives and grow their strengths.  If they don’t seem to be that involved in their first PATH, by their fourth or fifth one they are taking charge of who they want there, what they’ll be snacking on, and they come in with so much clarity about their dreams, where they want to go next, and where they are.

While I’ve learned not to be daunted by initial presentations I always remember one of the only times that I met someone and thought that the PATH process wasn’t going to work.  He wouldn’t speak to anyone, he couldn’t stay in his chair, he was constantly intrusive.  Luckily I was working with the brilliant Allison Barber from Community Visions in Portland Oregon (great agency, check it out).  Allie pulled out a silk rainbow parachute and whenever things got too hard she’d start up a game in which we all stood in a circle and turned it round and round and when the young man wanted to say something, he stopped on a color he liked and spoke.  Then we worked for a while, recording his dreams and intentions, until it was time for the parachute again.  It was brilliant.  You can read some of those stories in my chapter “Sensemaking through Arts-Infused, Person-Centered Planning Processes,” from the anthology Drawn Together Through Visual Practice.   The excellent editors made some chapters available as free downloads and mine is available at the bottom of this blog posting.

In my classes I sometimes think a good assignment would be to do the worst possible PATH or person centred plan.  I really enjoy these discussions with students in my classes and with participants in our training.

I feel like I’ve seen one.  A family I supported called me up to say that the behaviourists they worked with wanted to do a PATH with their child, and they weren’t sure what it was and did I think it was a good idea?  They really trusted me.  I told them all about PATH as I knew it and had been trained to engage with it and then I got invited to it, as well as all their friends who had been part of the kid’s community for years.

The facilitators put up the big sheet of paper and introduced themselves by explaining all the initials at the ends of their names, and then in the dream section they wrote “X will stop hitting people.”  The facilitator said “I think this really sums it up, don’t you?” and her partner nodded.  I think one of the friends said, “Well I think he wants to be more independent” and she said, “If he stops hitting people that’ll help with that.”  I’ll never forget the mom’s look of betrayal as she turned around from the front row to look at me.  In the “possible / positive” section they drew a kind of pie and each piece of the pie had another behavioural goal.  The young fellow got up and walked out.  “I think we can continue on, don’t you?” said the facilitator.  I asked for a break.  During it I asked them where they’d had their training (they’d read a book about PATH and one of their colleagues had helped explain it); I asked if they’d actually experienced having a PATH, which is pretty much one of the requirements of the training as I have always understood it (no, of course not, their Pro D time was focused on evidence based practices); I asked them who gave them the authority to use it in this way?  They had a contract with one of the Ministries.  Just by the way, in terms of how oppression can look friendly, the agency they work for has about a hundred times more contracts for what they call their “products” than they did at the time, all posited as supportive to families.

What was most interesing about this horror story was that the community that came together to witness it, brought themselves back together later on their own and made their own plan to support that young fellow – ambitious beyond anything I’d ever have dreamed of, and all of the things and more went on to happen really successfully.

He went on to become an incredibly successful writer who wrote works that undermine all kinds of system-thinking and bureacracy and various societal assumptions.  I have been told by so many people after reading his stories that it led to them rethinking something they realized they had made assumptions about and was transformational for them.  This brings us back to Paulo Freire’s concept of critical pedagogy:

Critical pedagogy is a philosophy of education and social movement that developed and applied concepts from critical theory and related traditions to the field of education and the study of culture.

Advocates of critical pedagogy reject the idea that knowledge is ever politically neutral and argue that teaching is an inherently political act, whether the teacher acknowledges that or not. They therefore insist that issues of social justice and democracy are not distinct from acts of teaching and learning. The goal of critical pedagogy is emancipation from oppression through an awakening of the critical consciousness, based on the Portuguese term conscientização. When achieved, critical consciousness encourages individuals to affect change in their world through social critique and political action in order to self-actualize.  Wikipedia.

So in this example planning as a tool allowed for the person to change their world and the larger world through a process of self-actualisation – the PATH was trigger (in this case an icky one) for what happened next in his community.

Freire actually experienced many of the things that folks with disabilities have experienced.  He was raised in poverty and ended up four grades behind in his school, and most of his time was spent playing football with other poor children, who he would later refer to as some of his best teachers.  He later realized how much poverty and hunger had shaped his experience of education and that it hadn’t been a personal failing but a social one.  After studying law, philosophy and theory he was made director of the Pernambuco Department of Education and Culture.  To vote in Brazil required that citizens be literate, and Freire began working in what he called “praxis” – the application of theory to practices.   He took on a position as director of the Department of Cultural Extension at the University of Recife and in 1962 experimented by trying to teach 300 illiterate farm workers how to read and write in 45 days.  The success of this led to the transformation of education in Brazil by creating a kind of community learning circle model in which people started with what they knew (were not assumed to know nothing), supported each other to learn, used graphics to grow literacy and understood that what they were learning would lead to political empowerment.  I think this is a good way to think of person centred planning.

In Meyer Shevin’s essay, “Communication Ally: the “missing-link” in PCP. Reflections on how people with communication impairments can take part in their own planning”, from John O’Brien & Connie Lyle O’Brien’s anthology, Implementing Person-Centered Planning: Voices of Experience,  Shevin wrote:

“Imagine this: You arrive, unaccompanied, at a party you’ve been told in being held in your honor. When you get there, you find that all the others are wearing formal gowns and tuxedos—everyone but you. There us an elaborate array of food and drink, but you are allergic to everything on the buffet. Periodically, the other guests start to engage in an elaborate, intricate dance, which you have never seen before, to music you cannot hear. Hardly anyone speaks to you; eventually, someone does, but turns away before you reply. You feel increasingly helpless and ghostlike.”

(This great anthology available here on the Inclusion Press website – check out all the other great resources too.)

I love the last two lines of this quote and how it demonstrates the construction that we often find people stuck in: hardly anyone speaks to you – when someone finally does, they turn away before you can answer – and you “feel” helpless and ghostlike.  Because you’ve been made to feel this way.  Sometimes being ignored is the way to be turned into a ghost, but sometimes it is a more assertive and systematic construction that consists of methods.  My test of things is always whether or not the people who are the subject of the methods had anything to do with creating them (it’s one of the reasons I love teaching PATH to self advocates and hearing what they think and then seeing what they do with it).

You can read the 30th Anniversary edition of Freire’s seminal work at this link, for free.  You don’t need to read the whole thing at once, but once you dip into it you might find yourself reading more than you expected and it might even become the basis of a career 🙂

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