Valuing Diversity and Fighting Oppression

op·pres·sion

o-PRESH-un

noun

prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control

We sometimes think about social change movements as people coming together and speaking with one voice to demand action.  Consistent expressions of common values, and a shared vision, however, can and should come in many flavors. We should not let a desire for a strong, homogeneous voice to come at the cost of the knowledge and wisdom found in diverse perspectives and stories of our allies.

Having said that, it is important to recognize that historically, people with the same adversary have often seen their alliances disintegrate due to infighting over what the late writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde referred to as “hierarchies of oppression.” Spending time arguing over whose situation is more oppressive only serves to strengthen the position of the oppressor. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

Lorde’s, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions,” like Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a Woman?” decades earlier, reminds us that compartmentalizing people does not necessarily shed light on their situation. We can identify with many groups simultaneously.  Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

It does not minimize my pain to recognize the pain of another. Both of our stories are important, and it is through sharing those stories that we will realize our common values, and goals. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

 “I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.” – Audre Lorde, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions

Classism is an Obstacle in Social Change Activism

Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.
classaction.org

Not long ago, I attended for the second time, a meeting that was part of an ongoing comprehensive community initiative dedicated to improving a variety of quality of life indicators in the city where I live. You may be familiar with the process. An open, public visioning event is held. Priorities are set. Planning committees develop indicators to measure success. Projects and programs are implemented. It is a well-intentioned effort.

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the approximately 150 people in the convention center space for this meeting, were people I like to refer as professional meeting goers. Most of those who were not in this category, were college or high school students. The professionals in the room were people whose jobs led them there. They were employed in philanthropy, social services, education, or healthcare. They were haves, whose job it was to help the have nots of the community.

Though the group was not completely homogeneous, or lacking in other types of diversity, it was clearly not an effort that sought to amplify the voices of the poor or marginalized folks in the community. Nobody was talking about real grassroots community organizing as a strategy to meet the goals expressed in their vision for a healthier, more vibrant community.

The unemployed were not in conversations about workforce development. Low income residents were not identified as assets in gaining a richer understanding of issues challenging the community. Service providers and “experts” were defining and deciding strategies. That’s a problem.

Here are a few things you can do to avoid perpetuating classism in your efforts to create change:

  • Personally invite low income people to participate from the beginning of your efforts. It isn’t enough to simply say that the public is invited.
  • Take a look at the processes that you use for things such as communication, scheduling, and direct action. Is there a privileged class bias built in? Are you including guidance from those on the margins? Are you providing opportunities for collaborative leadership?
  • As you plan, are you creating ‘safe spaces’ where everyone feels as though they can speak in confidence, and in complete honesty?

We have to be deliberate in reaching out to, and including people on the margins of the community.  They provide perspectives that people in more privileged classes cannot know. The forgotten, and seemingly invisible people among us have insights and understanding that will inform more effective change strategies. But, we will never tap into that unique knowledge and wisdom unless we extend an invitation to join us.

Learning from Small Numbers

I am not a big fan of inferential statistics. In the USA, where I live, I believe that the widespread reporting of survey results is the second greatest contributor to the deterioration of democracy (the infusion of obscene amounts of money into the political process being #1). People hear or read that candidate A, or ballot question Y, has a double-digit lead in opinion polls, and little by little they begin to disengage from the process. The inferential statistic is treated like a big data pronouncement of a political inevitability.

There are times, however, when small bits of data representing a full data set, can serve as reminders that you need to check your own assumptions on a periodic basis. Take this website for example. My experience in writing about the concepts and ideas explored here is limited to my perspective as an American. This site’s analytics regarding the country of origin of its visitors, provide a good case for small, but complete sets of numbers.

In 2015, non-U.S. readers compromised 30% of the visitors to this site. So far in 2016, 59% of my readers have been from outside the United States of America. The U.K, Romania, and Brazil, are obviously very different places. They are also three countries with a high representation in my readership. Unless all of these readers are simply interested in analyzing leadership, and change agentry in the U.S., my paying attention to the universality of the strategies that I recommend is probably a good idea.

I am well aware that leading social change is tied intimately to the realities of local culture, and to place-based historical context. If you are a non-U.S. reader of these pages, please feel welcome to share your realities, along with your wisdom, and your questions, in the comments of this blog.