My role as an educator is closely tied to Paulo Freire’s views on teaching as a way to raise critical consciousness, education as a tool that engages learners in questioning the nature of their historical and social-political condition. I learned implicitly about Freire’s philosophy and practices as my mother was pregnant with me while she was studying education during the early 60’s. She was the first woman in her family to go to university and had the good fortune of attending the University of Chile when Freire was a visiting scholar, writing his seminal piece on the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, during his years in exile. After I was born, my mom would sometimes take me his lectures when she did not have childcare.
Along with radically transforming education (along with many other fields), Freire’s work left an impression on my mother for a lifetime. She took his teachings and applied them in her various teaching and facilitation roles in both Chile and Canada. As a teacher, she exemplified the virtues of humility and promoted dialogue, literacy and critical thinking as key instruments of learning and empowerment. I learned about her own philosophy, techniques and skills as a young child and adolescent, as I would often be a casual observer or active participant in her own classes and community workshops. We did not ever speak explicitly about any of this. In fact, I never studied education or Freire’s work formally. I was never aware of the impact of his teachings until I started teaching.
My academic background in Psychology and Health Promotion expanded my view of our socio-political context, specifically as it relates to the concept of health and well-being. The first time I read the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (WHO, 1986), I felt like I was ‘whole and complete’. This foundational document solidified the core values and strategies of an emergent field that quickly grew locally and globally in the 90’s, expanding and challenging the existing health education and behavioural approaches that dominated till then. The Charter’s definition of health promotion as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health”, is at its core about empowerment.
Two of my mentors wrote an important book, People-Centered Health Promotion, in which they argue that empowerment is “where people are unambiguously in control and self-determining” (Raeburn & Rootman, 1998). Both health promotion and critical pedagogy are based on critical social theory and many concepts such as empowerment are interwoven. I understand empowerment as being a process and an outcome. Hence, my view is that one of the primary functions of an educator is to empower people to transform the conditions that perpetuate human injustice and inequity. My role as a practitioner scholar is to enable my students to learn about themselves (as a step towards self-empowerment), and to learn how to work with community partners to address the determinants of health that impact communities (community empowerment).
Because of my diverse experience in the field of Health Promotion before I began teaching, I acquired practical skills and applied knowledge around health equity, health literacy, women’s mental health, organizational development, systems approaches and, most importantly, community engagement. Hence, from day one, my teaching has focused on real-life learning, leadership and practical skills to support the future generation in working on complex health promotion issues impacting local communities. I have experimented with a range of tools, partners and approaches, however the Ottawa Charter remains the pillar of my work. The charter forever encourages and invites me to uphold its principles and to implement its key action areas. The Ottawa Charter for Heath Promotion advocates building healthy public policy, creating supportive environments, and strengthening community action to create the foundation of creating healthy communities. This charter has guided me toward systemic and humanistic approaches that call for community engagement and social change, inside and outside the classroom.