As part of the course “Power and Privilege” (summer 2016), I wrote an Action Plan for Social Justice. Rereading it during the development of my learning ecology for the class “Human Learning and Development” reminded me that to ‘learn’ something deeply and transformatively requires (among other things) the continuous application or transfer of that learning. In many ways this learning ecology project was an extension of the Action Plan for Social Justice developed and written last summer.
Though I came to the realization months after finishing the paper, informed very much by my learning in ED7212, Power and Privilege and the leadership courses, Lilla Watson’s word have become the center piece of my social justice action plan:
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.–“Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator from Queensland, Australia” (International Women’s Network).
Even though Lilla and I are about as far apart as two people can get on the power and privilege spectrum, her words have reached across that divide to help me better see my role in bending arc of social justice towards equity.
July 2016: Introduction of the Action Plan (which could grow into something more…)
This summer I read John Gatto’s book (Dumbing us down: The hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling), took a deeper dive into Gorski’s research on deficit thinking, and joined a wide variety of social justice media feeds. And yet, I can tell I have just begun to scratch the surface. In this process of exploration and self-reflection, I am left to deal with what we were told to expect as one of the expressed norms of this class: a lack of closure. At first I was frustrated with the notion that we may not get closure, that we will leave some problems unsolved, and, more dauntingly, that social change could span generations. In the past, this prospect has prevented me from leaning into the trouble, from committing myself fully to a deeper morale cause.
Accepting the premise that my contributions are small—yet important and therefore worth pouring energy into–has been a key transformation for me during this course. I was particularly influenced by the Bonaro Overstreet poem, “Stubborn Weight”:
You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good; they will never prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in the balance.
I don’t think
I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight (from Johnson, 2006, p. 136).
The lack of closure during the course, combined with knowledge of my own power to influence things, represents a social justice truism that has rejuvenated my personal and professional journey: social justice is both a process and a product, and the work for true equity will likely take longer to accomplish than my life span will allow. Once I came to accept that, I have felt more empowered than ever to commit my energies, the stubborn ounces of my weight, to the cause of social justice because I alone can control how my energies will be spent.
Through this reflective process, I realized that I have expanded beyond being an aware ally to becoming an activist, an individual that can no longer be complicit through silence, a person that must poke at the position of privilege I extensively benefit from. But I also have come to recognize there are more strategic (and sustainable) ways to push on the social norms governing so much of our daily lives. Sharing information and research is not enough. Having the dialogue is not enough. There is a need to be active on a personal, professional and institutional level. The final section of this paper focuses on ways I intend become a more effective ally and activist.
Another critical learning that transpired through this course is about compassionate listening, a focused effort to understand and help heal one another’s pain, a community listening. As we enter into a hyper-polemic election cycle, our country appears to be splitting apart and despair becomes an understandable emotion. And at times those fighting the social justice fight get battle fatigue and can’t see the improvements they are contributing to. It is difficult, when immersed in the struggle, to remember that while the arc of history is long, it bends towards justice (as noted by Martin Luther King Junior and paraphrased by President Barak Obama). It is also important to remember that we are all in the midst of an exponentially accelerating pace of change—allies and reactionaries alike. That pace of change is bringing out much of the angst (and has greatly contributed to the rise of Donald Trump) and signals a tipping point for social justice. Within this context, and because of this course, I think about all the change my father has had to navigate in his lifetime and I try to listen to his pain. I think about how he feels and why he harbors the beliefs he does. He clearly sees his position of privilege collapsing as his world view narrows, his allies fade. I attempt to put myself in his shoes—what if I had no allies in the fight for social justice? What if the trends were heading the other direction? Would I behave and respond in a more mature manner when everything I believed in was being critiqued, mocked, and diminished on a regular basis? This causes me to pause and listen, even to those I rebel against.
This is by no means an apology for the collapse of white privilege in America—after all over 96% of the wealthiest 1% are still white and they (we) maintain a tight grip on the social norms and institutions of power (Moore, 2014). This instead represents an important personal learning I have experienced because of this class, a clarion call for me to engage in sympathetic listening as a means to help my father (and others like him) move past the pain and into a place of love and acceptance. I believe individuals like my father, my uncles, and “friends” from the old neighborhood are the key to a smoother and more expedient path to social justice. If they continue to fight and resist, and if social justice activists continue to push on them (without listening), the resulting power struggle only slows our progress.
Framework for Social Justice
On the first day of class, my initial attempts at constructing a compelling framework for social justice felt forced, insincere and devoid of action—a series of words and phrases that changed nothing. Then I read more about the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) and learned that it was constructed by a group of individuals significantly different than me (black feminists and lesbians). In their discussions, they referenced Robin Morgan’s “Sisterhood is Powerful” in a way that seemed to challenge people like me in positions of privilege: “I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.” The Combahee authors then make it clear they understand their role: “As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us” (Smith, 1983, p. 273). From this context, they articulated their political vision as a framework for social justice in which:
We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated systems of analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking (Combahee River Collective Statement, retrieved from CUNY Academic Commons).
I reference this statement because it inspired me to think about my role in chipping away at they systems of privilege while benefiting from them. Namely, what is my framework for social justice as a white heterosexual male and what power do I have to support such a framework? In spite of Morgan’s claim, I see my role as important–as a key ally and committed activist in the fight for social justice–because from a position of power I can help expose the nature of the privilege for those who cannot see it (because they are part of it). And through this process, I can help others come to terms with and positively address the “trouble with the trouble” (Johnson, 2006, p. 8). From this standpoint, my social justice statement follows:
I commit to increase educational equity and social justice by exposing historical causes and highlighting current struggles around equity; celebrating successes from the field and forming alliances in a way that guides me to be personally reflective and outwardly active; being a compassionate listener and ally who meaningfully and courageously engages others in dialogue; and working collaboratively as an activist to improve social justice outcomes on a personal, professional and institutional level.
Actions and Commitments
Based on my framework for educational equity and social justice, I recognize the responsibility to attend to matters on a personal, professional and institutional level. Ultimately, this work has already begun with a deeper awareness and understanding of my own interaction with the trouble. It expands beyond myself into the professional realm as I seek to help others see the trouble with power, privilege and marginalization for what it is and to address it head on; to help others see that if we don’t see ourselves in the trouble, we can’t be part of the solution (Johnson, 2006, p. 114). There is no neutrality in this fight for social justice—we all must choose where to but the “stubborn ounces” of our weight.
Choosing where to put one’s energy is one matter—being strategic about it takes more thought and effort. When it comes to being part of liberation ideology and actions, our approach (as both privileged and marginalized) matters, as noted by Suzanne Pharr: “Like power, liberation cannot be given; it must be created” (from Adams, Blumenfeld, Castañeda, Hackman, Peters, Zúñiga, 2013, p. 594). And there are various stages of creation; some individualistic, others co-created; some inward and some outward as we journey towards social justice and educational equity. Barbara Love emphasizes the need to develop a “liberatory” consciousness to include the following elements:
- Awareness: in which we live our lives from a waking position, noticing rather than pretending
- Analysis: in which we explain what, why, and what needs to be done about things we notice.
- Action: sometimes this is individualistic, other times it is encouraging or supporting others
- Accountable/Ally-ship: being open to and providing different perspectives, taking responsibility as members of the dominant group to educate and empower change (Adams, et. al., 2013, p. 602)
This course, in many ways, has walked me through a liberatory consciousness—including the process of writing this paper. Foundationally, as suggested by Adams, before I could grasp my role in this work, I need to remember that my journey originated in the acknowledgement that privilege and oppression actually exist (Adams, et. al., 2013, p.61). From this point, I now pay far more attention, listen actively, learn from others, take tempered risks, create disturbances against the normative current, speak out and partner with others (Adams, et. al, 2013, p. 61). In addition to the five elements championed by Love and also those articulated by Adams, I also see the importance of Patricia Hill Collin’s emphasis upon coalitions around common causes and of building empathy (Adams, et. al., 2013, pp. 608-609). Heeding the advice of those that have been involved in the fight far longer and more successfully than I have, I hope to engage social change in a sustainable and strategic manner, though also be compassionate and courageous in the endeavor. In other words, rock the boat while also making sure everyone has a flotation device.
To be certain, I expect to make mistakes along the way—but I won’t use this likelihood as a rationale for inaction. As an ally, I intend to look for chances to align with “target groups” while also recognizing that I am doing this for me and for society at large, not just to help the “marginalized.” Furthermore, I am motivated by the advice of Kim and Cole (2013) about leveraging privilege to create lasting social change:
We need to consciously channel our understanding and empathy for the ways we and others are marginalized into using what privilege and power we do have to support those who don’t. Because feminist men can more successfully make sexism “not cool” with other men than feminist women can. Because straight people can do more to normalize the existence of gay people with homophobic straight people than gay people can. Because able-bodied people can use their positions of power to create more disability-friendly buildings and infrastructure. People listen more to their peers than to other people. It’s a powerful way to influence people’s thinking and behavior (Kim & Cole, 2013).
In this capacity, whether describing personal, professional, or institutional commitments, my role is to be an ally, an advocate who influences others and shares the lead without taking the lead.
On a personal level, I am surrounded by opportunities to put my social justice framework into action. These actions start with a commitment to ben an ally and to disrupt inequity even when it is not popular for me to do so. In fact, pushing for social justice will inevitably mean my own position on the pyramid of privilege will diminish—a necessary trade off to ensure equity. I intend to continue my self-reflection and check those long held cultural biases buried deep in my psyche in need of purging. As Cornell West once stated: Cornell West: “It takes courage to interrogate yourself….to ask–how did I become so well adjusted to injustice?” (Adams, et. al., 2013, p. 589). Furthermore, I must remember to recognize that not everyone has had the privilege of taking this type of class and to introspect about the impact of marginalization. Beyond personal reflection, I also must be an ally in the fight for social justice. In the words of Paul Kivel, this means I will “be there all the time, for the long term, committed and active” (Kivel, 1996, p. 764).
Because of this class, I have already carried the dialogue to others around me, and mostly in a positive, compassionate manner. However, I haven’t really applied compassionate listening in my pursuit of challenging dominant thinking about topics those in a privileged position take for granted. Particularly in conversations with my extended family, I see the need to push and listen, to challenge and love, and ultimately to recognize that it is difficult to look in the cultural mirror and see the nature of privilege staring back at us. Through interactions with family and friends and the community at large, in which microagressions proliferate and normally go unchallenged as a dormant form of domination, I find solace in the words of Johnson: “It takes only one person to tear the fabric of collusion and apparent consensus” (Johnson, 2006, p. 133). While taking a more challenging path will make others uncomfortable, disrupting the status quo requires that I accept personal discomfort in the act of making members of dominant groups uncomfortable. This entails speaking up and calling things out, making a stand for social justice more often, to model a better way, so that others might also follow.
While it is tempting to avoid social media and the vile rhetoric it stirs, I also see a personal need to push back on the wave of hate spewing from dominant groups. I understand that deep down inside, they are scared of losing their status and the political climate is stirring that fear. But rather than ratcheting up the rhetoric or pointing to the idiocy of a particular candidate or viewpoint, I commit to a more nuanced approach to sharing stories and data, to asking questions, to a compassionate nudge, and to put more focus on how diversity and equity make this nation better for all of us.
Additional approaches on a personal level primarily focus on ways to be a strong ally to target groups, while always learning, reflecting, expanding and evolving, fully aware that any approaches will need to evolve will depend heavily upon contextualized, situations. Some examples, largely drawn from Frances Kendal’s “How to Be an Ally if You Are a Person with Privilege” integrate personal, professional and institutional actions:
- “Closely observing the experiences of people of color in the organization: how they are listened to, talked about, promoted, and expected to do additional jobs” (Kendal, 2013, p. 1).
- “Align…publicly and privately with members of target groups and respond to their needs. This may mean breaking assumed allegiances with those who have the same privileges as you (knowing there are consequence)” (Kendall, 2013, p. 2).
- “Talking clearly about having the privilege to be able to step in is an important educational tool for others with the same privileges” (Kendall, 2013, p. 3).
- “Facing in an on-going way the difficult reality of the intentionality of white people’s treatment of people of color, both historically and currently (without being guilt-ridden)” (Kendall, 2013, p. 5).
- “Promote a sense of inclusiveness and justice in the organization, helping to create an environment that is hospitable for all” (Kendall, 2013, p. 7).
On a professional level, because I work in education, I have great capacity (and responsibility) to enact a meaningful social justice framework. Recognizing the important position that education plays in establishing societal equity, I am committed to a persistent focus on social justice topics and educational equity. And, on a pragmatic note, for my efforts (and career) to be sustainable, I find solace in Meyerson’s description of the ‘tempered radical’ as a “cautious and committed catalyst” who operates on the fault line between a successful inside navigator of the existing system and an outsider pushing for change (Myerson, 2001, p. 5). In this frame of reference, I can maintain a bold agenda of social justice and education equity while being somewhat incremental and modest in the pursuit. Accordingly, I intend to influence the district’s goals and agenda by intentionally and regularly addressing gaps in our system and the roots of those gaps (beyond deficit thinking). Additionally, I have a responsibility to speak up regarding equity in the work place and to point out (in a productive, non-threatening manner) opportunities for increased awareness and training in regards to equity. I can leverage my voice as an inside-outsider, to “provoke learning and adaptation” through my perspectives as someone “not fully assimilated into the system” (Meyerson, 2001, p. 17).
In addition to these provocative (though cautious) approaches, I am slated to teach a course this fall on multicultural education with an emphasis on data analysis to teachers. In light of my recent learning, I am now diligently reshaping the focus of the class. I now grasp the need to push beyond Ruby Payne’s Poverty Framework (which our district has embraced) into a more nuanced vision for multi-cultural education that Gorski advocates, in which we commit to “the establishment and maintenance of an equitable and just world,” and create experiences that transcend traditional colonial intercultural education and engage educators in “deep shifts in consciousness” (Gorski, 2007, p. 3). This requires helping others work through vulnerabilities and confronting long held, culturally reinforced beliefs about poverty, meritocracy, individualism, and the role of education itself.
In addition to teaching specifically on a more inclusive multi-culturalism, my current position as RtI/PLC coordinator is allowing me to redesign our district-wide Response to Intervention (RtI) and Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports (PBIS) into a more comprehensive Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Because of being in a key position, I am empowered to build in social justice to this redesign. I therefore intend to bring together a diverse group of educators across the secondary setting to revamp our process and I am advocating for specific educational equity goals, more parental involvement in the process, and a strength-based model that places students at the center. This change will require a shift from deficit thinking in order to ensure we are approaching the topic in a more productive manner. Also, by ensuring a more inclusive leadership team for this redesign, I am seeking to embolden educators that have been typically marginalized so that we can engage others in the shaping of the design in a way to improve both the MTSS process and the leadership capacity of marginalized groups. With more diverse individuals focused on redesigning our approach to tiered interventions, particularly when motivated by social justice and not just test scores, we can disrupt the educational inequity plaguing our district. This is particularly important to me as I consider Bela Banathy’s recommendation that reformers work to empower marginalized individuals to “develop the competence to take part directly and authentically in the design of the system” (Banathy, 1996, p. vii).
Additionally, the tutoring center model we have developed in our high schools, which already disrupts educational equity, could provide another avenue to address social justice issues. The tutoring centers utilize between 60 and 200 highly trained peer tutors every day of the school year to support struggling students. The tutors are demographically and experientially diverse and vested in helping others—many of them have gone through struggles themselves in school. The tutoring center model provides a great chance for a wide variety of students to become tutors and mentors to others, often resulting in a personal interest in the teaching profession. While I have informally pushed peer tutors to consider teaching as a profession, I now see the importance of making a more strategic and purposeful push. Particularly, I intend to explore models like the one in Missouri, in which students who complete so many volunteer hours in high school are granted two free years of community college. With this model in mind, I plan to partner with local teacher colleges to construct a pipeline from our tutoring centers directly to teacher preparation programs. While the plan is not fully articulated yet, the goal is to secure funding for those typically underrepresented in the teaching profession (perhaps through grants, community partnerships, district funds, etc.). This will require strategic planning by a diverse team and a vision motivated by social justice. I am excited by this prospect of leveraging our existing tutoring center models to make an even greater impact on society.
As an educator, I recognize my most effective professional actions often have an institutional impact, though on a very small scale. Also, when I attend to social justice on a personal level, I am contributing to micro-level institutional changes. But the institutional norms we operate within are far more powerful than my modest personal and professional contributions. Rather than finding this challenge daunting and overwhelming (which I sometimes do), I prefer to commit to going through the second door Gorski describes regarding becoming a multi-cultural educator, a door that is “heavy and inconveniently placed, that leads to a space of personal and institutional vulnerability” (Gorski, 2007, p. 6). Through this vulnerability I can be an advocate and activist, free to participate and help lead a community dialogue on social justice and educational equity.
To begin this work, I have recently partnered with the “Educating Children of Color” conference team in Colorado Springs that seeks to disrupt the school to prison pipeline. I intend to become a more active member of this group so that I might support the work of judges, educators, social workers, employers, and community members in their common pursuit of a more equitable society. While it is tempting to take a more active leadership role with the organization, I also recognize the pressing need to share leadership and diversity the group’s composition, which is almost entirely white, straight, and abled. This intentional diversification will attend to the primary hope expressed by Banathy to engage marginalized groups in shaping a more powerful future for themselves—and for all of society.
Touching on key paradox between being an individual and a part of a social system, I know that both must change for significant evolution to occur. Even if the change to society (and schools) requires a generational shift, my individual transformation is underway and I am already influencing the system ever so slightly as a tempered radical. I am committed to listening, observing, acknowledging, reflecting, and continuously reexamining my beliefs and positions; to putting forth the energy; and to recruiting allies to help bend that arc of history towards justice. I choose, in other words, to invest the stubborn ounces of my weight towards a more equitable world today and for future generations.
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