Educating AND organizing

Lately I have had the chance to do a bit more reading and research than I usually do and in the process I have been reminded of the importance of the balance between education and organizing. I say “organizing” instead of “action” because dominant group members have a penchant to learn about oppression and then want to run out and “do something”. Often they are doing it by themselves, often it is wrong-headed, and often it is coming from a place of condescension and the idea that subordinate group members “need saving.” Of course, the intention of these folks is usually good, but the execution and the thought put into it are almost always lacking in awareness and skill. Organizing, however, is a different thing altogether – organizing implies that one is not going solo. Organizing is about drawing people together, building relationships, taking the time to understand interconnections, intersections, and points of departure. Organizing is often coming from a place of love, of vision, of commitment to the whole, and from a belief that together we are stronger. At its best, organizing is lead by those the oppression is targeting while dominant group members are there side-by-side, but not running the show.

My work, however, is very education heavy, and thus this piece is directed toward educators. The 24 years that I have been working around social justice issues has overwhelmingly been in an educational way. I have also done some level of organizing, but it has paled in comparison to the amount of work I have done in various educational areas. And yet, of late I have been reminded in various ways that education without action / organizing can lead to intense cynicism, intellectualization of issues that are literally killing people daily, and a means to remove oneself from the struggle, pain and “mess” of trying to end systems of oppression. It doesn’t help that much of my work has been in higher education where the additional layer of that structure serves to exacerbate systems of oppression even as it so often claims to be dismantling them.

To address this it seems wise as educators to not only ask how students or workshop participants can use the information in their daily work to make change, but to ask how can we use it collectively to make even greater change? I was speaking to a group of high school teachers just yesterday about this very dynamic and suggested that in my view education is not meant to “better a person” or to “help a student actualize their fullest potential and achieve the greatest success.” Rather, it is about helping each and every person learn what they need to learn to best serve society as a whole.

Yep, it’s a bit utopian, but what is wrong with that? I will not be told that because the idea is too big it cannot be dreamed, particularly if the alternative is a neo-liberal, racist educational system. That structure has had its day, and as a result of its misguided approach to education we are living in a society that for the last 35 years, has seen the gaps between the have’s and have-not’s grow and grow.

And so I want education, in all its sundry forms, to forever be in the service of the greater good, helping people connect, organize, and learn to live together in ways that are not exploitative, hyper-individualistic, and caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of neo-liberal, prison / military industrial complexes that serve to only propagate systems of oppression, colonization and ultimately inhumanity.

This is not to say that organizing is the end all be all, because without education and the critical, complex frame of analysis it can provide, organizing can at times reproduce the very systems of oppression we are trying to eradicate, just in a less obvious form. This often happens across social justice issues like the fatal mistake made by the white, largely middle-class gay men who were “leaders” of the LBGT movement when they stated that “Gay is the new Black”. Horrible. Harmful. And, simply ignorant. As those men were trying to rally folks to their cause, their utter lack of critical race analysis, of historical knowledge, and of intersectional understanding had their statements work to opposite purposes and serve to push People of Color/Native organizers away.

Neither education nor organizing is more important than the other, nor are they discreet entities where you do one and then go to the other, and they are certainly not developmental where you have to start in one place and only once completed can you then go to the other. In a more animated and realistic way they are subtly, beautifully and sometimes imperceptibly symbiotic, and they can manifest in incredibly simple moments like a young person I know, when hearing of the Ferguson decision saying, “That’s totally messed up (analytical lens). We should do something (organizing lens).” That is one of the best pair of sentences an educator can ever hear. There it is, both sides of what Paulo Freire charged education to be – the practice of freedom.

And so if you are an educator or trainer, lean more in the “what should WE do about these issues?” direction as you teach and train. In a training setting this means giving more space for concrete organizing not at the end of the session, but throughout the session – let folks use each element of the training as a template for attempted organizing. Remember that the litmus test of whether they are organizing or not does not have to be some concrete action. Let steps like effective dialogue, deeper understandings of other positions, careful consideration of the range of steps to be taken and implications of each and an interrogation of social and political power be measures of organizing. Ultimately, let the rising of the notion of “we” in the training or classroom space be a sign of organizing. Certainly, if more comes of it that would be great. But be careful about the “fix it” tendency and instead use that classroom or training space to cultivate an understanding of shared responsibility and collective action. This will annoy White folks, cis-gender men, professional middle-class folks, and the like to no end, but simply see that annoyance and impatience as a sign that you are doing a good job and that the process of collective work and shared responsibility is in that very moment working to dismantle structures of oppression one dominant consciousness at a time.

Some resources for teaching and training for both education and organizing can be found at web sites such as Teaching Tolerance (www.teachingtolerance.org), Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org), New York Collective of Radical Educators (www.nycore.org), and the Zinn Education project (www.zinnedproject.org).

Knapsack Institute, sponsored by The Matrix Center at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

Dr. Hackman will be presenting a few different workshops over the three days of the Knapsack Institute, with a whole-day faculty workshop on Climate Change, Climate Justice, Social Justice (Race, Class, Gender lens) and Resilience.

Thursday 12, June and Friday, 13 June

“Education for a Sustainable Future: Addressing Climate Change, Social Justice and Sustainability Across the Entire University Curricula”

This workshop highlights the need to address climate change, social justice and sustainability in every content area on campus and offers some basic frameworks for how to do that no matter the curricular focus. Specifically, this workshop is broken into four major parts:

1. Basic information about the current climate moment (applicable to any content area);

2. The relationship of issues of race, class and gender to sustainability and climate justice work;

3. Climate change solutions based in sustainability, inclusivity, and social justice;

4. Concrete pedagogical “what’s” and “how’s” for addressing this content across a university curricula.

Saturday, 14 June

“Climate Change Mindset”

This is an advanced continuation of the opening climate workshop.

 

“More than Safe Spaces: Addressing and Dismantling Heterosexism, Homophobia and Gender Oppression In Our Teaching and Training”

This workshop builds off of the introductory workshop and explores more deeply the roots of heterosexism and homophobia, considers how they manifest (often subtly and unconsciously) in our teaching, and explores means for teaching instead from an LBGTQI positive framework. The session specifically examines the gendered foundation of heterosexism and homophobia, queer culture and identity, and some of the most pressing current issues for the LBGTQI community, and then considers various ways to get at these issues in our work regardless of our discipline and content focus. The workshop is a combination of content delivery and engagement so please come ready to chat and share.

 

For more information about this awesome institute and the exceptional faculty that have been presenting at it for many years, please see the Knapsack Institute’s website. Registration is now open.

Understanding Resistance to Social Justice Trainings

One of the most consistent and challenging elements of training on social justice issues is the resistance that members of dominant groups put forth, particularly when talking about how systems of oppression work and the relationship of their privilege to those systems. And while there are ample sources of information that talk about how to respond to resistance (i.e. racial identity development models, Allan Johnson’s “Getting Off the Hook” from his book Privilege, Power and Difference or Elder and Irons research on “Distancing Behaviors”), in my introductory-level trainings I try to keep it simple and explain this resistance as being driven by three primary sources: Ignorance, Fear, and Privilege. I present them in this order because this tends to be the progression of their visibility in a training (a person’s lack of information often being more obviously visible than their blatant privilege), and it is a logical sequence when trying to support resistant people in their learning and growth.

 

Ignorance

The first layer of resistance, “Ignorance”, refers to a participant’s lack of accurate education and critical awareness with respect to the focus of the training. More specifically this ignorance is either about a participant’s lack of knowledge altogether, their misinformation and mis-education about the topic, or their lack of critical thinking skills when engaging with the topic. In the training itself, the first aspect merely requires time for accurate education and information to be shared, and as such the level of resistance here is comparatively low. An example of this comes from trainings I do on sexism and gender oppression. At some point we get to discussing issues of violence against women and sexual assault, and I pause to ask how many men in the audience will be thinking about the possibility of being sexually assaulted on their way back to the car (very few hands go up) versus how many women will be mindful of this (almost all hands go up). Invariably the men are surprised by this and come to realize that they don’t know as much as they thought they did about the lives of women in this society which lead to a palpable and positive shift in the learning energy of the room.

 

The next layer of resistance due to ignorance is more complicated in that it first involves the “un-doing” of the participant’s previous knowledge and then a educating of that participant from a social justice perspective. These folks tend to resist more because they are attached emotionally, politically, or intellectually to the misinformation they have been given. I encounter this pattern when I do racial equity trainings and have to undo many layers of mis-education white people have received with respect to race (see James Loewen’s Lies my Teacher Told Me) and then accurately educate them about the history and presence of racial issues throughout U.S. society. Easier said than done, of course, because participants have held their ideas their entire life and are often hard pressed to let them go. Nevertheless, after enough exposure to racial justice content these participants do begin to let go of their resistance.

 

The final level of resistance out of ignorance stems from a lack of experience with critical thinking which engenders a fair bit of push back because it is touching into the core processes by which people make sense of the world. Critical thinking involves accepting complexities and grappling with multiple perspectives, and for participants who have lived by seeing issues as “either-or” this is a significant challenge for them and they often strongly resist. Examples of this can be seen in trainings I do on the oppression of LBGTQI folks where many heterosexuals have been raised to simply believe that “gay is bad and that’s it”. In these situations, I use a three-part definition of critical thinking and slowly take participants through it using commonplace examples, building eventually to more complicated social issues, and finally to LBGTQI issues. This of course takes considerable time, patience, and repetition but it is essential in aiding these resistant participants in grasping the concept of critical thinking and thereby being ready for the remainder of the training.

 

The antidote for resistance out of ignorance in trainings is, of course, to have ample amounts of information at your fingertips in order to provide both resources and specific examples for folks who might be struggling with so much new information. As such, I never go into any educational moment regarding social justice content without ample information and resources to help move these folks along.

 

Fear

However, sometimes I encounter participants who actually do have a solid information base and yet still resist social justice content. In these cases the source of the resistance is almost always “Fear”. This second level of resistance has a few key organizing principles: fear of conflict, fear of making a mistake, and an overall fear of the issue being discussed because of its intensity in our society. I live in the Upper Midwest and there is a substantial level of conflict avoidance in this part of the country. As such, many white folks, for example, are reluctant to address issues of race, racism and whiteness because they do not want to create any conflict in their work or homes (not realizing that the mere existence of racial oppression is already a moment of conflict). Likewise, many men will not address issues of sexism or gender oppression when talking to women or trans folks because they are afraid to make a mistake. Unfortunately, this approach is read as tacit approval of sexism / gender oppression and ends up sending the opposite message that these men want to convey. Sometimes, however, the overall intensity of issues tends to keep members of the privileged group quiet. When discussing issues of class and economic access, for example, there is a sense that because these issues cut so deeply in our society they are just too difficult to bring up and are thus avoided. The antidote to these fears is to do the opposite of their inclination and take a risk by speaking up. No growth happens from a place of silence, and no change happens from the inaction brought about by the freezing effect of fear. As such, role play scenarios, moments of paired “practice”, case studies, mock debates, and “what would you do” inventories are important ways to help dominant group members see the absolute necessity of leaning into their fear, speaking up and taking action.

 

An additional dimension of fear to be considered with respect to dominant group resistant is the fear dominant group members have of backlash from their peers. As a university professor I often heard this from men as we discussed issues of sexism: they knew the joke being said or the comment being made was wrong and oppressive to women, but they were too scared of the “crap” they would get from their male peers if they spoke up so they stayed silent. In this case it was clearly not a matter of not knowing right from wrong, it was purely a moment of men policing other men around their collusion with sexism. To try and find an ally in the middle of these situations is a difficult task and this is where the practice options in the previous paragraph become critically important: if men who want to end sexism speak up before these situations arise and engage their male peers in less contentious instances, they will be more skilled and able speak up in these more difficult moments despite the threat of backlash. Once again the need for ongoing action and practice is a critical feature in reducing dominant group resistance because of fear.

 

Privilege

The core reason why members of dominant groups resist equity conversations, however, is connected to their “Privilege” and the benefits they receive via systems of oppression. Whether these responses range from “I’ve worked for everything I’ve got and have no privilege” to “I feel guilty and don’t know what to do” to “I did not even know I had privilege”, the benefits that men, whites, and professional middle class / owning class people (just to name a few) get are so substantial that it is the core reason these participants resist talking about issues of oppression.

 

I find that one of the many viable approaches in these moments is to a) get participants to understand and agree that systems of oppression exist, b) get them to understand and agree that within each system of oppression there is a group targeted and a group that benefits, and then c) remind these dominant group participants of their core values and how the mere existence of a system that oppresses some for the benefit of others is against who we say we are as a nation, who we want to be as a community, and who they want to be as people in this world. This last point is often connected to the context I am training in, so if I am working with teachers I remind them of their commitment to educate all children, if the audience is doctors and nurses I remind them that they took an oath to serve all people, if it is faculty at a law school I remind them of their commitment to truly fair adjudication in this country, if they are a religious organization I remind them that benefitting from systems of oppression and doing nothing about it fundamentally compromises their core spiritual beliefs (see last week’s blog). In these ways, we can lead resistant participants to a place of not only cognitive dissonance regarding their work in the world, but also a place of moral dissonance where they are urged to tap into their deeply held values and beliefs in the service of dropping their resistance and opening up to social justice content and action. In this way we help resistant participants see that the existence of privilege for some at the expense of others is a toxin to our entire society and will inevitably harm all of us – an injury to one is an injury to all. Sharing from my personal experience I stress to these resistant participants that acknowledging my white privilege, for example, is not about guilt or shame or being blamed for the ills of the world, but is instead a moment where I can recognize all that has transpired before me regarding race, racism and whiteness, and using that knowledge make a different choice – a choice for justice, a choice for my core values of compassion and equity and peace, a choice that cannot undo the past but that absolutely can help us all heal from its wounds and move forward as a more whole, more safe, more generous and loving society.

 

Resistance out of privilege is intense, sometimes angry, but underneath it is uncertainty on the part of these dominant group members – What kind of world will it be if I’m not on top? What will happen to me? How will I know how to be in this new world? The normativity of their lives as members of dominant groups makes the dismantling of privilege feel like the end of the world altogether. And this, again, is where the appeal to deep and profound aspects of the human condition can sometimes help these participants make the leap and learn how much better it feels to be on the right side of history, to be a sower of equity not enmity, and to be doing the hard and heavy work of healing that which has divided us for so long. Although it may sound like it, this is not Polyanna. This is about the deep truths of who we are as humans. We are a collective species, and we do need each other…not just “our” kind, all of humankind. And in the face of this deep connection we have to each other and to the needs of the human heart, privilege is anathema and a socially just world is the salve.

 

So, while there are innumerable ways to address the deeper psychological, sociological, and physical complexities of why dominant group members resist training on social justice and equity issues, my experience has shown that framing resistance using these three levels gives introductory level participants a fairly accessible way to understand it and a visible course of action for confronting it. In my 20 years of teaching and training on this content, I have had countless (truly, countless) experiences with white people who resist racial equity work, men who resist gender equity work, and well resourced people who resist class equity work and have found that addressing this resistance on one or more of these three levels resonated with participants and created some space for them to (albeit slowly) release the grip on their resistance and more readily embrace the training.

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