Monthly Archives: January 2009

Six ways to be an ally

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I’m a white, middle class, highly educated, and cissexual woman. That’s a lot of unearned privilege. I just happened to have been born into a privileged family. I don’t feel guilty about my privilege, because I can’t do anything about it. But I have learned that others continue to pay the price for my privilege.

I hate injustice. And as a woman with a lot of privilege, it’s my responsibility to try to dismantle the systems maintaining this privilege.

Racism is not something that is the problem of people of colour. It’s my problem, too. And I’m part of the problem as long as I close my eyes to the ways I benefit from the racist structures of society.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about being an ally to women of colour:

Accept your white skin privilege

Just accept the facts of your privilege. Don’t wallow in guilt. Don’t ask women of colour to help you feel better about being white. Don’t try to make up for it by being extra nice to women of colour.

Accept the facts. Then deal with them. Decide what you are going to do about them.

It’s not about you

As white women, we’re used to everything being about us.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like before the second wave of feminism. Women were dismissed, ignored, and invisible. For example, my sister was one of four women in her university engineering program. Some professors who believed women had no business in engineering would refuse to respond to the women in the class. They pretended they didn’t exist.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way. Do we make them feel invisible? Dismissed?

Shut up and listen

Shut up and listen. Bite your tongue if you have to.

I remember running a workshop for graduate theology students on the women’s spirituality movement. I had the bright idea of encouraging male seminarians to attend and learn about this movement.  I explained that this would be an experiential workshop. The first thing the men needed to understand was that they were in women’s space.

But they couldn’t do it. During the small group discussions, the men kept dominating the group. We kept pointing it out to them. One man tried to sit on his hands and his face grew red with the effort of taking a back seat in this setting.

I wonder if women of colour experience white women in this way.

Embrace the discomfort

Deep down, a lot of white folks have learned to feel guilty about being white. We can be really uncomfortable with reality of our privilege and we wish to erase it. But wishing isn’t enough. And wishing can become a reality. In our discomfort, we make women of colour invisible again.

There are no shortcuts to sisterhood with women of colour. There’s a lot of history to undo.

So one of the hard things we have to do is embrace the discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to listen to the anger of women about racism. And even if we can stand to listen to it being expressed, we get really uncomfortable if we have to keep hearing it.

It’s uncomfortable to take a back seat to women of colour. It can be uncomfortable to enter the worlds of impoverished women, many of whom are also women of colour. It’s easy to judge their lives. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to try to understand.

I’m happy when I feel that discomfort. It means I’m uncovering more of my own racism and the ways that privilege manifests in my life. It means I’m getting out of my comfort zone.

Be reflexive instead of reactive

The more you recognize your privilege and the more you listen and embrace the discomfort, the more you will acquire the capacity to be reflexive. Reflexivity means that you make it a habit to reflect on your own social location and the social location of the other person. You reflect about how social power relations shape your reality and the reality of the other person. And, together with the other person, you work to co-construct a new reality.

Do something to create change

Remember — it’s not about you. This process is not about making you a better person. If you stop at the previous point, then you know it’s only about you.

To create change, you have to decide what action you can take in order to be an ally to women of colour.

One of my actions this week is to write this post.

Maybe your action will be to confront a racist joke. Or to join women of colour in an event or protest (if it’s OK with them). Or to read and promot the blogs of women of colour. Maybe it’s to notice that the teachers in your school are all white but the kids are very diverse – and work to change that. Or to make sure women of colour have a voice in your organization and that their voice is truly respected.

I am not an expert in being an ally. I continue to find ugly roots of racism and privilege in myself. But I’m working to heal myself and my world in the best way I know how. I might write a quite different post on this topic next year. This is where I am right now.

I invite your comments and feedback. This post will not be complete without them.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009

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Can Obama create social change?

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Can President Obama create social change?

I believe the answer is no.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Obama and I’m caught up in Obama-mania just the same as anyone.

I want to believe. I want to hope. I want to dream a new vision. I want to see things change.

It’s not about Obama. If anyone could be the catalyst for real change, it would be him. But no single person, no matter how gifted and powerful, can create social change.

Yes, I was glued to the TV on coronation – oops – inauguration day. Along with the rest of the world, I was weepy and inspired. But I also heard President Obama putting the responsibility for change back on the people. I wonder if they really heard him?

History has shown that social change requires people uniting for a common cause, against a common enemy. Inspired by Ghandi, Indians gained their freedom from British colonization. Under the moral leadership of Martin Luther King, African-Americans fought for equal rights under the law. Encouraged by the political reforms of Jean Lesage, Francophone Quebecers overcame economic and cultural oppression by Anglos.

Can Americans get past their hero  worship of President Obama and really pull together as one people?

He’s the latest celebrity, on the covers of all the magazines. America is having a love affair with the Obama family. My question is, “Do Americans get it that they will not be saved by Obama unless they decide to save themselves?”

Certain groups in U.S. society – the poor and the oppressed — are no doubt ready to work for change. But what about the middle class? And the elite?

The United States is a stratified society. Some groups have more privilege than others. Although many Americans would like to think they live in a meritocracy, the privileges attached to being white, or male, or able-bodied, or cis-sexual, for example, are unearned.

There is no merit in being white. It’s an accident of birth. White skin privilege is undeserved privilege. Unless white people actively take part in dismantling their own privilege, they continue, by their inaction, to perpetuate the racist structures of society. But it’s very difficult for white people to accept this fact. They think their tolerance and their good intentions are enough. It’s not enough. Social change requires sacrifice from all. Are white middle class people willing to sacrifice for the sake of those people who are marginalized in society?

So if the U.S. is looking to unite against a common cause, they first have to look within. The inequalities that are structurally embedded in American society make it very difficult for them to unite against a common cause. Are people willing to work to give up their unearned privilege so they can have a more just society?

If not, then the United States will remain split from within. The goals of the elite and the marginalized will remain at odds with each other. As Pogo said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us”. Until there is social justice, it will be difficult for Americans to unite and work for a common cause.

Yes, the middle class and the elite are hurting because of the recession. They are losing jobs and losing wealth. But the more privileged groups of Americans have always prided themselves on being rugged individualists in a capitalist society. The American Dream is an individualistic dream.

Given the nature of the American psyche, I’m not sure they are able to really fulfill the vision held out by President Obama. The “haves” in society are already feeling the pinch. They are going to hold onto what they have. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, that they will see the solution as opening their hands and joining them together.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Teaching with Youtube

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Note: This article is also included in the Teaching Carnival (February 2009 edition).

Last year I discovered that Youtube can be a great teaching tool, especially with smaller classes.

I was teaching a field practicum seminar to social work students. By November, I realized that I had grossly over-estimated their core knowledge about social work. I dramatically cut back on the amount of information I was covering, prioritizing depth (integration of course content ) over breadth ( getting a wider range of information).

Four weeks of the course were devoted to models of community practice. The readings went into excruciating depth on each model – I knew this information would all run together for the students. So I reworked the learning goals, deciding that I wanted them to understand the characteristics of the three models, when to use them, and the basic strategies associated with each. That’s all.

In the overview class, I gave them a summary sheet of the three models. Then I showed one video for each model, with class discussion after each one.

The first video was showed a community development project:

The second video showed a social action initiative:

The third video documented a social planning project:

After each video, we discussed:

  • what model was it?
  • what characteristics of that model did they observe?
  • what strategies were used?

The first class was so successful in terms of student engagement, participation, and learning that I taught the remaining three classes the same way.  It allowed them to see what community practice actually looks like, rather than reading about it in a book. We also drew applications between the classroom material and the work of their field agencies. Students expressed how much they enjoyed this method of learning about community practice.

My selection of videos was based on a few parameters:

  • I tried to use Canadian examples as much as possible,
  • Most videos were 3 to 5 minutes (short)
  • I tried to find projects related to my students’ field settings (e.g., youth projects, food security, housing)
  • A diversity of projects were selected for each model, to avoid duplication of content.

It’s not always easy to get good videos to show in class from traditional sources such as the university library. YouTube provides a new kind of teaching resource that greatly expands our options!

What are some of the ways you have used new media and technologies in your teaching?

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Blogging with authenticity

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This is not my first blog. But it’s my first blog under my real name.

What on earth was I thinking when I started this blog?

I had just submitted my doctoral dissertation. It turns out that doing a PhD is a spontaneity-killer. You’re not allowed to write anything that isn’t fully supported by evidence. And you don’t ever use contractions, like I’ve been doing in this post. One of my supervisor’s ongoing criticisms was that my writing was “too casual”, “too conversational”, or “too chatty” in tone. So I can now write like a PhD, but can I still write like a person?

And is it OK to write like a person on a professional, academic blog?

Hey! It’s time for a reality check.

This may be an academic blog, but at the same time, it’s a social work blog within an anti-oppressive framework. Anti-oppressive practice involves reflexivity, which involves looking at my own social location and subjectivity in a given situation. In this paradigm, we don’t believe that “objectivity” exists.

As an anti-oppressive worker, I’m also not comfortable with binary oppositions — Professional-personal. Objective-subjective. Scientific-experiential. Everything is connected to everything and the lines are very blurry between such categories.

So let me start this blog all over again.

In this blog I want to talk about things I’m passionate about that relate to social justice, activism, research, teaching, and related issues. Some of my posts will be about specific research I’m involved with. Other posts will be more process-oriented. I’m also going to blog about the experiences and events that shape me as a social work researcher, teacher, and professional.

I started out wanting to write with all the authority of a tenured professor! But the reality is that I’m in a transition between my PhD and academic employment. I have no idea how long it will take for me to find the right position, especially since I want to stay in the Toronto area. On top of that, I’m looking for short-term work while I’m looking for my dream job. I didn’t work last semester so I could fully focus on my PhD. Now I’m preoccupied with getting a job, any job, so I can keep paying the rent and buying food. That makes it hard to write brilliant posts about social justice when my real focus is on getting a job today or tomorrow.

I live in one of the poorest areas of Toronto, just outside Regent Park. Over the past 15 years, I’ve chosen to live in solidarity with the poor, which has taught me more about poverty than anything I ever learned in school. At present, I live in some fairly decent housing (for a change), but most people are very scared to visit me where I live. Living in low-income areas gives me constant material for reflection and continues to challenge my understandings of the experiences of life in the shadows of society. So my living environment gives me constant food for reflection, which nourishes my academic work. Being out of work doesn’t change that. I do have things to say about social justice, even at this moment in my life.

Whew! I’m glad I got all that off my chest. I was getting incredibly bored by my own blog.

I’m hoping that blogging will get easier now.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

Faculty members — don’t get left behind!

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Social media are taking off and revolutionalizing the ways that people connect and communicate with each other. They have been around for a long time — MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, to name only a few. Social media and academics should be a nature fit, since communication and collaboration are so essential to our work. But university faculty are scarcely seen in these places. And that concerns me.

Maybe you’ve been intimidated at the idea of learning this new technology. Or maybe you think it’s unprofessional or inconsequential for academics. But if you don’t get on board soon, you’re going to be left behind.

Remember what happened to the generation that didn’t learn about PCs when they first came in? Back in 2000, Fiona Clark and I taught frail seniors how to use PCs, send emails, and search the Internet. This is how they described their feelings about their lack of knowledge about these new technologies:

Both at the pre-test and the post-test interviews, participants again and again expressed their frustration at their ignorance about computers, which are all around them in a world which seems to have passed them by. Over and over they used words like “ignorant” and “stupid” to describe how they feel when computers are mentioned in the media or when they cannot understand what their young grandchildren are doing or talking about. Several mentioned at the beginning that they would like to understand what is meant by the “www-dot” that everyone is talking about. They also felt that there were large parts of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives that they could not share in (Straka & Clark, 2000).

It’s time to plunge in. Universities are conservative institutions and those of us who use social media are still the exception. But social media are not going away. Start with something easy like Facebook to get in touch with old friends and colleagues. Make sure you set the privacy options so that only your “friends” can see your profile. And be smart about what kind of content you post (no embarrasing pictures, no personal secrets).

It’s lonely being an academic in the social media. I’m finding lots of people working in nonprofits and lots of consultants who help nonprofits to get into social media. But there are very few university faculty members.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

New job-hunting advice search engine

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This is still off-topic, but I just created a custom Job-Hunting Advice search engine from my favourite blogs and web sites. You can either click through or get it from the Job Seekers tab on this blog.

Use it just the same way you use Google. For example, if you want to learn more about how to spruce up your LinkedIn profile, then search on the keyword linkedin and you will get advice from some of the top bloggers on the topic of using social media in your job search.

Good luck!

New section: For Job Seekers

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I just added a new section to my blog entitled “For Job Seekers”. To access it, click on the tab above.

This section is not directly related to my blog content, but since I am in the midst of my own academic job search, I thought others might benefit from my experiences and research in this area. I’ve listed my favourite blogs and some other online resources I use.

Most of these resources are not specific to academic job searches. If anyone has any useful sites to add, please let me know in the comments section.