This case study highlights the challenges of providing youth with opportunities to develop an anti-oppressive lens. In particular it discusses the following challenges: the fact that identity politics can be divisive; the fact that addressing power, privilege, and oppression takes time, which is a limited resource; the fact that anti-oppression work pushes people out of their comfort zones and often provokes reactions (e.g. guilt) and resistance; and the fact that participants and facilitators alike are often afraid of provoking conflict.
Developing an anti-oppressive lens is an ongoing process, both for youth and for public engagement practitioners. Providing an entry point for these tough conversations in public engagement programming for youth is essential, but it is not without significant challenges. When we began planning our first annual Generating Momentum: Youth Activist Leadership Training Camp (a three-day camp for 18-30 year-olds interested in gaining skills to make change in their communities), we knew that including a session on anti-oppression at the beginning of the camp was vital, and that it would take effective facilitation to be successful. Since many of the ‘big names’ in the anti-o world were booked or unavailable, one of the coordinators of the camp decided to take on the session.
The participants at the camp were, overall, quite diverse. With around 50 people, there were more women than men, more students than not, participants and facilitators were between 18-35 years old, and everyone was there to learn how to make the world a better place. Included in this mix were three self-identified straight, middle class, white men who had never done this type of training. Although they had good intentions, they had never been challenged to look at themselves and the unearned privileges they personally enjoyed.
Talking about power and privilege, and seeing how we can be complicit in perpetuating oppression, is never easy, and feelings of denial or guilt are normal at the beginning. What made this particular anti-oppression session a failure (in the eyes of the organizers) was that, as a result of these feelings, these three white men hijacked the conversation. What started as a conversation about systemically disadvantaged groups quickly turned into the spouting of individual experiences and (ill-informed) beefs with affirmative action. Since there wasn’t a well-versed and experienced facilitator, and because these three individuals held power in the group, the conversation was derailed and never got back on track.
There is no easy formula for effective anti-oppression training, but these sessions ideally should be led by someone with experience facilitating difficult conversations. Otherwise, the goal of equipping participants with a lens to navigate the systemic oppressive practices in their schools, workplaces, and organizations may be lost.
Some challenges to doing anti-oppression work with youth include:
- Lack of time. Exploring privilege can be difficult and painful. Youth need time to unpack and debrief in order to fully absorb the learning.
- There may not be space built into the type of programming being done. Youth public engagement programming often has other objectives, wants to appear light-hearted and fun, or is done in one-time sessions not allowing for deep analysis.
- Public engagement work is frequently done with homogenous groups (all middle-class, all straight, etc). The same is true for youth public engagement. It is difficult to talk about diversity and oppression when there is not a diversity of experience present.
Identity politics can be divisive. Including anti-oppressive training can build cohesion and solidarity, or it can lead to conflict and recrimination.
- Tokenism: the language of anti-oppression is a barrier in itself: few opportunities outside of activist circles to learn about/engage with the ideas;
- Fostering and discussing diversity in homogeneous spaces is complicated;
- Discussing diversity in heterogeneous spaces is also complicated;
- Anti-oppression frames things in the negative (anti);
- It’s easy to assume people already ‘get it’ in activist and marginalized communities;
- Sometimes attempts to create anti-oppressive spaces discourage curiosity;
- Exclusion in a room does not always fall along systemic lines.