University of Arizona
"The theoretical and practical struggle against unity-through-domination or unity-through-incorporation ironically not only undermines the justification for patriarchy, colonialism, humanism, positivism, essentialism, scientism, and other unlamented -isms, but all claims for an organic or natural standpoint. "1
"'Networking' is both a feminist practice and a multinational corporate strategy--weaving is for oppostitional cyborgs."2
It's really no surprise that people working for social justice might have problems developing the power base necessary to our goals. Not only has the task grown more difficult with changes in media ownership, backlash of all sorts against what gains have been made, and cynicism high, but progressive activists have not adequately addressed some important dynamics that sabotage our own efforts. A call for social justice demands that the very assumptions and practices by which we organize--differential power--be called into question. But we are not trained to equity. Our practices are based on myriad complex, overlapping, interconnected interpersonal and group processes by which we define ourselves and our places in the world, which often simply means making ourselves right and, therefore, others wrong. Through this process of othering we claim what bits of power we have. Hegemonic groups have the relative privilege and ease of organizing themseves in a way that seems more "natural" to our social training. While even in these cases power struggles ensue, they are expected and people are not constantly having to operate outside of their emotional or ideational comfort zones. They are not constantly questioning the process as well as the content of their interactions. When power is that which is being critiqued, there are bound to be difficulties in organizing if not complete stasis or meltdown.
Given the difficulties that progressive activists have with creating alliances, it is ironic that corporations now spend substantial sums of money teaching their employees to work cooperatively because they have found it to be more productive, often using techniques that social change collectives developed, while progressive activists tend to resist the very idea that their own ways of interacting might have something to do with why alliance building is so difficult. More ironic yet, the corporations have the power to make it happen because employees have the added financial incentive to address their interpersonal skills while social activists have only idealism or personal desire to grow to motivate self-reflection--both of which often fail when up against the inevitable resistance to change whether social or personal. Moreover, given the fact that such idealism is often, at least in the US, tied to notions of freedom, and for many this means the freedom to be who we are, the focus becomes to change the world around us rather than ourselves when it needs to be both. This is perhaps especially true of those who have claims to being institutionally oppressed. The world is wrong, after all, not us. However true this claim might be, this attitude works against developing the ongoing power base necessary to produce enduring social change. So while corporations are learning to harness cooperative practices that begin to acknowledge the differences that CEOs know to be the increasing reality of the workforce and society that supports them, social change activists too often cling to a no more than a common cause in hopes that it will see them through their differences. But common causes do not erase the differences between us.
For those of us who perceive ourselves to be oppressed, our relations to power are problematic at best. The belief that others have it and we don't tends to leave power as a marker of the "evil" other and progressives in denial about what power we have, making that which we do wield dangerous. It's this under-theorized level of group work and alliance building that I would like to address. In fact, our failure to address power at the interpersonal level as an important part of activism for social justice is related to our unwillingness to acknowledge our own power and our feelings about that power--especially as it changes. It's from power shame and denial that we abuse the power we have. Acknowledging our own power while operating in a world in which we too often feel powerless requires developing a consciousness akin to what
Donna Haraway refers to as cyborg: "a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self" that is "resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence." 3
Developing such a consciousness is not easy: it means suspending (or at least creatively playing with) our investment in identity, at least provisionally, over and over again.
This is a story, a microcosmic look at some of the lived dynamics that get in the way of building alliances that work for progressive social change. The challenges that face anyone interested in making social change happen are great, though I believe not insurmountable. I believe this because I have witnessed effective action. I have also been repeatedly amazed and sometimes disheartened at how readily folks of good will and good intentions (myself included) sabotage our own and other's efforts through resistance to self-reflection, functioning on a simplistic belief that if our intentions are good, good results will follow--or at least that everyone should put up with our quirks even though some of those "quirks" employ oppressive strategies of which the individual remains unaware. Such practices ignore not only the more theorized internalization of institutionalized identity-based oppressions such as sexism and racism (the ways in which those who are from oppressed categories turn the oppression in on themselves or on others of their own groups), but the personal ways in which such internalizations structure our own uses of power in everyday personal relations--our practices of othering to define ourselves. By failing to address these dynamics, progressives reproduce the patterns of oppression and power we claim to want to change. Theory needs accompanying practices.
I speak here from years of social change work in the community as well as in academe. While I have worked at the level of state policy development--one avenue for social change, I have also facillitated community action groups through difficulties that threatened to kill actions and alliances that many people had worked very hard to build--actions and alliances they all believed in, but for a variety of reasons members themselves were effectively sabotaging. It didn't take any outside agitator to come in and cause problems--the agitator and social power dynamics that we intend to change often work from within in most devastating ways. It's easier to organize action when there is a more immediate, obvious threat to focus activists' energies. But when the issues being addressed are diffuse, interconnected, ongoing, and pervasive--more like the polluted air we breathe--then activists must work all the harder and more creatively not only to undo the inevitable past training for power inequities, but to guard against the continual reproduction of inequites that the air we all breathe creates. Naming the problem is not enough--it does not suddenly render us immune to participation in inequitable practices. The best we can do is develop practices consciously from self-reflective analyses and open discussion about our inevitable internalizations, practices that give us creative ways to move beyond our own denials and redefine what power with others might look like, what power that enacts social justice might be. Internalized power dynamics will continue to undermine effective social action until we choose to address them where we live. There are tools we can learn to use to develop such living practices.
A Case Study
"So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work. . . .The political struggle is to see from [multiple] perspectives at once because each reveals dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters." 4
The classroom experience that this piece grows out of was an experimental course developed with the help of a curriculum and faculty development project called the -ISM(N.) Project out of the Institute for Public Media Arts. Developed as a creative response to the dangerous hate speech and actions that takes place on college campuses, the grant asked that we develop a year-long team-taught course that addressed "isms" (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) from any number of theoretical/disciplinary perspectives, engaging experiential learning and video production. Three of us--one Women's Studies and one Media Arts faculty member and one Media Arts graduate student, all white female activists from various class backgrounds--worked together with input from the first faculty institute and -ISM(N.) Project materials to develop a year-long course syllabus. Given my own interests in cultural representations, power, and group dynamics and my team teachers' interests in social change through media literacy and video production, we developed a class called Crossing Boundaries: Diversity & Representation. The theoretical basis for the course was grounded in a media/cultural studies perspective informed by ethnic, social justice, and women's studies research. The first semester we focussed on what it means to have a voice, who gets to represent whom how, whose stories are told and whose are not, how one develops a resistant voice for change, and producing video diaries that addressed oppressive social forces in the students' own lives. The second semester broadened the scope to address group dynamics, isms on campus, institutional oppression, and strategies for alliance building through the experience of group video production. This was the general plan and we were very excited. I was personally excited about the possibility of teaching some of the group skills that I knew worked to a class of activist students. We knew that the practice/experience of the class would bring challenges, but like all risks, one never knows how the challenges will take shape until they happen.
Students had to apply to be part of the course. While this process alone created a lot of self-selection, we were looking for people who were able to articulate their own struggles with being socially silenced and/or who were interested in addressing the silencing of others. The course was designed as an upper-division honors class that attracted 3 graduate students and 11 juniors and seniors with majors including media arts, women's studies, ethnic studies, anthropology, and fine arts. Over half of the class were minority students, about half queer identified, and about three-quarters female. We lost two of the women by the end of first semester due to life changes and finished the year with twelve.
I want to say that I greatly admire the courage, tenacity, and dedication of both my team teachers and the students who dared to take part in this very challenging experimental course. We all came in with very high hopes, if differing, about what the course might accomplish. In fact, the class accomplished a great deal and is still accomplishing things far beyond the class boundaries as the work the students produced is used for educating people. Moreover, in spite of the very painful places some students wound up going with each other, many remain in contact and some continue developing videos together. Even some for whom the class itself felt like a burnout experience have remained in various contact with both teachers and students. Clearly the experience was meaningful in all our lives in ways we could not have imagined. In evaluations at the end of the year, the majority of students reflected that this was "an experience unlike any other" and they knew that it would be "a rich mine for growth" for a long time to come.
We had a mostly glorious first semester during which students quickly developed an open rapport with teachers and classmates. We discussed readings with enthusiasm. We all shared experiences of being othered in a wide variety of contexts and we found agreement and discussed differences over the readings, over cherished beliefs, over strategies for dealing with oppression. Students and teachers listened to each others' perspectives, added their own, and challenged each other to grow--to expand our own experiences to include a wider perspective on the operations of oppressions, their intersections, and ways to resist. We worked on listening skills as well as developing voices. Moreover, several people in the group had experience with workshopping their artistic efforts and shared their considerable abilities generously--at one point effectively walking one student through the serious blocks she had to producing her video diary by offering astonishingly clear yet empathetic group critique of her ideas. While we were all tired at the end of such an intensely productive semester, students had produced amazing montages that critiqued cultural representations they found oppressive and powerful video diaries.
The second semester required us all to make a shift from the personal to the group on several levels--in the readings the topics shifted from finding personal voice to the ways institutions work to silence and how people resist; and in practice the students would develop group videos rather than individual ones. This shift posed serious challenges. First of all, the shift from developing individual pieces to group projects is a big one in any medium. Secondly, given the glories of the first semester, the second had a great deal to live up to. Finally, the trust that students had developed with each other and with faculty through all the sharing of the first semester had broken down boundaries--some of which we often depend on to protect us in difficult group situations. Quite simply, we tend to expect more of people we have learned to trust than those we have not. The teaching team knew that the switch from the personal to the group would take some adjustment as group work requires a greater amount of trust and or trusted practices for negotiating differences. Given that we had a preponderance of creative people pretty well accustomed to working on their own and generally disdainful of group work--several who claimed openly that they were usually the ones who wound up doing all the work, we knew that there would be some territory to cover before things might run smoothly. Nevertheless, we were very hopeful as the class had exhibited, developed, and practiced good workshop skills, high standards for participation, and respect for the teaching team and each other throughout the first semester.
We held a retreat at the beginning of the second semester to workshop some general ideas developed in the fall. The plan was to gain consensus on several key issues that the class felt needed adressing on campus and then organize several small groups that would each develop a video addressing one of the issues. By the end of the retreat we had two basic areas of interest which the teaching team expected would breakout eventually into subgroups. Unfortunately, the class eventually divided into only two groups. We had planned for at least 3 and possibly 4 precisely because we were aware of the greater unwieldiness of large group decision-making. While both groups struggled through difficulties, it was the larger group that consisted of the most openly supportive members that ran into the most extreme problems in developing their project--or even working as a group. In spite of several in-depth sessions on group work that explored common problems to avoid, and tools for heading problems off before they disrupt work, during which students readily articulated problem areas and brainstormed possible strategies for avoiding or negotiating such problems, both groups struggled with processes for how to make decisions, grew frustrated and sometimes angry with each other. Both groups had people who felt burned out at the end. Theorizing and practicing are definitely two different things. But the smaller group which, as a whole, practiced ongoing self-reflection, maintained more freedom in their functioning, managed their group work with less rancor, and produced a video that integrated their points of view.
The larger group wound up dividing into cliques that allowed comparatively less room for free self-expression and much less productive self-reflection while creating inevitable out-members. They solved their problems by designing a project that required minimal group interaction. While the end products are both wonderful in very different ways, my own desire for students to come away with positive experiences of group processing was in many ways thwarted and many of us suffered through tensions that are predictable products of the difficulties we face in negotiating our myriad differences.
Looking back, there were several actions the teaching team could have taken to offset the problems that arose:
- more consciously develop group work skills throughout the first semester rather than being seduced by what seemed like more organic group process development;
- more fully develop and insist on the responsibilities that come with liberatory practices, especially within the inherently power driven context of a university classroom;
- insist on smaller groups;
- work out our own desires for the class and differences in approaches in even greater detail from the outset.
The first two actions would have been quite useful, but not something that we could do at the point that problems arose. In fact, one could say that they were casualties of a domino effect of "oversights" that started with the national training, continued through our team efforts, and were replicated once again in our own students' actions. While I had expected our teaching team would be put through experiential learning paces at the faculty institute similar to those we expected of our students, it turned out that the national trainers had been rebuffed by an earlier group of faculty for expecting them to take part in experiential learning exercises. So the trainers chose to take a less experiential approach with us. Similarly, as I was the only teaching team member with extensive experience and particular interest in group dynamics and processes, I made the mistake of allowing group process skills development to be subordinated to, rather than consistently integrated into, the substantial theoretical content and video production imperatives that had much greater interest from my teaching partners and about which I was also excited. Though we were all interested in liberatory teaching practices5
and, in fact, had exercised them in various ways in our past teaching, we made the mistake of not reflecting enough on what it might mean in this specific context. While I think our imaginations--even with the help of readings might well have fallen short of what transpired, better reflection certainly would have helped.
Insisting on smaller groups would have been the easiest short term solution, but this seemed to go against the grain of the liberatory structure we had developed that encouraged self governance. If we are encouraging students to develop their voices against the backdrop of socially oppressive forces, it seems that the importance of allowing them to develop their voices in relationship to each other becomes of greater importance. As Linda Holtzman, a member of another -ISM(N.) Project teaching team notes:
"This is such a dilemma in teaching for social justice and working with people who are new activists--what's the appropriate balance between using what we know as instructive and allowing others to make the same mistakes we did"6
(I would add, "and still do sometimes make" because it's always easier to see patterns of practice in others than it is in oneself.) In fact, the team members encouraged the move to smaller groups at several times, but the majority in the group insisted on working together with a sense somehow that breaking into smaller groups would constitute some sort of failure. It did not help that the faculty too felt caught between time constraints and the desire for students to come to their own good decisions even as their impasse was eating up precious time. But such time constraints are in no way peculiar to a classroom--they are the realities of any human endeavor. We attempted to facilitate them through their difficulties rather than merely (hegemonically) insist that the group break down into more manageable numbers. Nevertheless, their insistence on remaining a group offered a laboratory experiment in group process and all its glorious difficulties showing how we tend to practice difference in ways that replicate the power paradigms we intend to change.
More concretely working out our own desires for the class ahead of time would probably have produced all of the above and made the experience for everyone much richer without so much pain as, in part, some of the students acted out faculty differences before the faculty identified that we had them. Or perhaps it was through student differences that we came to know our own. In any case, like children who know exactly how to play their parents against each other to establish their own identity and power, some students played on what they perceived to be our differences. The teaching team was not surprised by this tactic. While it was not easy, we worked through our own differences to the best of our abilities, and refused to play the game. I certainly learned a great deal in the process and have no doubt this team-teaching experience will enrich all of my teaching. Nevertheless, several students attached themselves to these differences--in particular the focus on production as constructed against the focus on process difference--and refused the self-reflection necessary to disengage from such destructive self-identification even as we actively mirrored the process of working out differences for them through classroom exercises using ourselves and our real differences as models, as well as by refusing to engage their divisive strategies.
Having empowered students to ask for what they wanted/needed, we failed in our insistence on reciprocation on that score. During their struggle to come to terms with their differences, rather than seriously considering suggestions from the teaching team, some of them began to interpret any faculty suggestions as institutionally tied such that it became a righteous fight against hegemony to resist class requirements or teacher requests. In fact, there was a level upon which for some students the faculty members became the scapegoats merely due to our roles. As we had left a great deal of room for them to be different with each other and stretched them to do more so as they faced greater difficulties in group project development, the scapegoat necessary to oppressive identity construction took form in the teachers. (It's that need of an Other to define oneself and thereby hang on to the type of power one knows in conjunction with the power difference between student and teacher.) The painful irony for the two faculty members on the team was that we should serve as the symbols of oppressive power despite all that we had done to encourage their empowerment. In fact, we had failed to adequately look out for our own. The graduate assistant team member's more liminal status in the students' perceptions allowed her more freedom of movement while keeping her from being perceived as authoritative. This made it possible for her to encourage students toward more productive practices.
While all of the group dynamics that developed could be tied to oppressive "identity" categories, I fear that this is a limited and ultimately replicative approach in that while such naming of institutionalized oppressions is absolutely necessary, too many of us use the naming as a way to distance ourselves as individuals from the hard self-scrutiny that effective social change work takes. Naming alone is as far as many of us go. Formulating power relations that enact and produce justice requires us rethinking not only our systemic identities, but how such identities--most often multiple and overlapping--become articulated as part of our personal practices--how we negotiate power on day-to-day interpersonal levels. Without such scrutiny (and the supportive environment that makes it possible) as well as theories and methods to address them, we will continue to either replicate the very power systems we critique and/or self-sabotage every time we come together to make social change happen. It was the articulation of this group's personal practices of power that severely limited their abilities to collaborate with minimal pain.
When they had struggled quite a bit as a group and gotten nowhere, I was asked to facilitate. Unfortunately, they had waited until substantial damage had been done. It is one of the most common problems people trained as individualists have with group work--asking for help means weakness or failure--it is shameful and places one in a less powerful position, so we are effectively disciplined to either ignore our need for help or not to ask for help until after damage to trust and relationships is already done. I think this might be a particular problem for those who have dared to stand against normativity as doing so requires an ability to resist the constant suggestion that one should be something else. Strategies that are sometimes effective in personally resisting oppression--such as: hyper-individualism; hyper-resistance to any perceived form of disciplining; a sense of self as different, non-normative, and therefore not group oriented; trust resistance--are often counterproductive in creating cooperation. If one defines oneself as that which is "the different," then sharing difference with others challenges that identity. This group's members shared individualized variations on all of these strategies that challenged their abilities to see each other as partners or even engage what that might mean to them individually or as a group.
After assessing the group's difficulties through both group and individual interviewing I felt mediation was necessary between two members whose philosophical and stylistic differences were noted by all members as central to the conflict, but my suggestion was rejected. At the time I found this refusal extremely frustrating--especially in my double role as teacher facilitator/mediator. This required me to reassess my own desires as an activist teacher for them to positively experience the process of negotiating differences and the ideally disinterested role of facilitator. In the past, I have found it relatively easy to decide the importance of my goals and values and either act on with them, temporarily suspend them for the sake of hearing a problem out, or let them go altogether. More often than not, once folks in a group feel heard, they will often come back around to what they could not hear in a moment of tension. So my patience for, in a sense, setting myself aside, is substantial. My practice is to disengage my identity from any outcome while placing trust in the process of making space for all voices to be heard. This practice comes from realizing that none of us has the complete picture, all of us are implicated in oppressive practices, no one is innocent, so change cannot happen through the process of faulting others to define ourselves as the good. While I worked to set my own goals aside to allow room for their understanding of the situation to develop, what could not be set aside in this situation was my role as teacher in their eyes. In a course designed to create voice, I found myself awkwardly silenced as both facilitator and teacher precisely because of an inability to extend liberatory concepts to these roles in the students' perceptions.
Failing a mediation to address the strong personal differences that had arisen, I attempted facilitating the group as a group. I had them all come to see me or email me individually to answer the following questions: What do you see as causing the impasse; what would you suggest for getting through it? What might your part be in creating the impasse and in moving on? In spite of some very creative facilitating on the part of the team teachers, the failure to mediate the deeper problems created impasses at every turn. Eventually, by scapegoating the faculty some students in the group found enough commonality to move forward with a plan that required the least possible amount of integration of materials they each individually produced. Nevertheless, the problems they articulated in response to the questions offer an interesting outline of common problems to which we often react with whatever our own power/resistance strategies tend to be--a sampling of common stumbling blocks which groups often need to negotiate.
The following were named by at least two members of the group as elements that contributed to a breakdown in agreements or decision-making, most by a majority, roughly in order of importance/emphasis given. One member of the group summed up the state of affairs: "[We] have sat down three times and gotten absolutely zip zero done other than knowing how to push each others' buttons. With 7 people there is going to have to be some give and take and very few people in our group seem to be willing." In the interest of developing tools for addressing these all too common blocks to successful group process, I'd like to offer an analysis of the problems named below.