Power and Privilege: Walking the Walk

June 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Spurred on by my colleague, Jen Willsea, I recently submitted a piece for the “Walk the Talk” zine/book project. The organizers describe the project as being about “exploring power and exploitation in nonprofit organizations, alignment of our work with our vision, and what role nonprofits have in radical social transformation…[because] even in the most grassroots and progressive organizations, working on the most radical issues, we may find a deep dissonance between the world we want to create, and what it is like to be working in the organization day-by-day.

We live in a hierarchically oppressive world – and though the organizations we work in may have mission statements that aim to change this, ‘talking the talk’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘walking the walk’ and social justice nonprofits can feel like a mirror of the world we’re trying to change. An organization’s power structure or ways of doing work can create deeply unhealthy and exploitative dynamics within the organization itself and between the nonprofit and the ‘clients,’ ‘members’ or ‘community’ that it works with.”

I applaud this effort to provoke thought and dialogue around these issues. One of the options for submissions was to “share your burning questions,” and that’s what I did. Here are the questions I will pose over the next few blog posts:

  • How do I handle my privileges responsibly and avoid the “oppression Olympics?”
  • How do I figure out which privileges to leverage, which to minimize and which to divest?
  • When is it more responsible to “hold the bag” and when is it more important to “let the ball bounce?”
  • What has my contribution been and how do my colleagues of color see me?
  • How do we “undo racism” without also “undoing race?” And, how do we “undo race” without leaving racism in place?
  • How do we define our humanity?
  • What do I want badly enough to pursue?
  • Where’s my tribe?

For now, I will close with a quote from Marie Rainer Rilke. “Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

I wonder, what questions are you exploring around these issues?

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  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thanks, Cynthia! I look forward to following your exploration of the questions…

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Jen for letting us know about the e-zine project. I’m looking forward to the dialogue!

  • Greta Gladney says:

    Yesterday an email response led me to a Tweet, which led to connecting my Twitter account with LinkedIn, which led me to Cynthia Parker’s Tweet, which led to this blog. It was Cynthis’s email message I had followed up on in the beginning. All roads lead me back to IISC.

    My questions these days include:

    Why am I doing what I do?

    What does it mean to stand for something?

    Is it worth fighting with the translator of my online French course who takes issue with my identifying as ‘americaine’ in a grammar exercise as opposed to “‘etats-unienne” in his defense of the ‘other’ people who live on the continent? Yes! Canadians, Native Americans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans can all identify as ‘American’ as far as I’m concerned, or as whatever they choose.

    And is my identity argument shrouded in privilege or contempt at being a descendent of slaves and generically ‘African-American’ with no concrete sense of where, what place among 11.7 million square miles of continent ‘African’ refers to?

    What’s worth fight for, living and dying for? What is worth and how do we honor the intrinsic value of all humans, all life?

    Those are my questions.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Great to hear from you Greta! And great to hear your questions. They are really important questions. What, indeed, does it mean to stand for something–including your own sense of who you are? Complicated and worth the effort to explore!Thanks for sharing them.

  • My view is that this occurs when people aren’t clear about their values. But how do you cultivate a culture of philosophical reflection?

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Great question Christian! One thing our colleague, Nancy Brodsky, often asks is “what do you really care about?” That question points in the directions of values–and often to the gap between our espoused values (the things we say are important to us) and our values in action (the things that actually capture our attention and drive our behavior).

  • I like that, Cynthia. I agree that beginning with the personal is the best way for those unfamiliar with philosophical reflection. I’ve seen this in my own experience. I also like your point about that gap. I refer to it as the incoherence between our ultimate purpose and our intermediate purposes.

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