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Tools for Activists: Turning Privilege Disparities into Just and Sustainable Action
Many of us have done a "Privilege Walk" at some point in our lives, or in our work as activists. The purpose of the walk is to expose the lifelong impact of privileges and 'normality' that we were either born into or born without. The exercise can very powerfully help identify all of the factors that were in place before we began making our own choices in life, factors that reenforce and widen gaps in resources and access to opportunities. The walk can be an especially useful exercise for illustrating the abstract concept of social justice for newcomers to political work, who may not always see how social and economic inequalities stifle personal success.
For those who haven't done the exercise, its rules are simple. Everyone gathers behind a long horizontal line. When the facilitator reads a statement that applies to you, such as, "If your family owned the house where you grew up, or land of any description," you step forward; if it doesn't, you step back. Afterward, participants get to hear and process together the personal stories about how race, class, gender, and ability affected the opportunities of individuals in the room.
The traditional "Privilege Walk" exercise helps unveil the distance between those who have privilege and those who don't. That visible gap shows the work that must be done within the privileged group, but often still keeps the focus on privelege, relegating those who have less to the back. It can work well within a group whose goal is to center attention on privilege and begin to unpack the guilt of having been born with those advantages. The downside is that those without privilege, as in life, can end up coming second.
Reversing the Privilege Walk
I wanted to reconfigure this exercise to help groups center their work and energy on community building, and illustrate that everyone has a role in social change work. In this new exercise -- "Circle of Privilege" -- everyone starts in a large circle, instead of behind a horizontal line, and those with the least access to power will take steps forward and end up at the center of the circle.
Those who are in the center at the end of this exercise are those who have been most impacted by inequality, and should be on the frontlines of the work we do to create a better society and a safe and healthy planet. When it comes to human rights, or environmental and economic justice, these are the experts. Those further back may have more societal decision-making power and material resources, but need the earned wisdom of those in the center to guide the work itself, and to determine where those resources should flow to promote deep, sustainable change. Both experiences are necessary, but currently the more privileged folks have a bigger influence over nonprofit work.
Next time your organization, campaign, or group of volunteers are looking for ways to not only understand the concept of privilege, but also find ways to turn that understanding into just and sustainable action, consider using this exercise.
Exercise: Circle of Privilege
Running the Exercise -- A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators
Have everyone form a wide circle facing the center of the room.
Read the following statement:
I will read a series of sentences. If the sentence applies to you, step in the direction indicated.
Read the following sentences:
1. Birth Privilege:
- If your ancestors were forced to come to the U.S.A., not by choice, take one step forward.
- If your primary ethnic identity is American, take one step back.
- If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step forward.
2. Childhood Home:
- If you've ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step forward.
- If you've ever had to skip a meal, or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food while you were growing up, take one step forward.
- If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step forward.
- If your parents were white-collar professionals -- doctors, lawyers, etc. -- take one step back.
- If there were people of a different race or class working in your household as servants, gardeners, etc., while you were growing up, take one step back.
- If your family owned the house where you grew up, or land of any description, take one step back.
- If you were raised in a two-parent household, take one step back.
3. Childhood Community:
- If you lived in an area where you were able to play safely and unsupervised outside, take one step back.
- If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step forward.
- If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, or regular violence, take one step forward.
4. Learning Experience:
- If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step back.
- If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step back.
- If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step back.
- If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step back.
- If you had access to an inspiring natural area, take one step back.
- If you saw members of your race, class, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step forward.
5. Beginning Work:
- If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step back.
- If you were given the confidence or teaching to know how to work with your hands, take one step back.
- If you were paid less, treated unfairly or denied employment because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step forward.
6. Beyond Work:
- If you were ever afraid of, or the victim of, violence because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step forward.
- If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step forward.
- If a chronic health issue has limited your opportunities, take one step forward.
Follow-Up for the Exercise
Instruct the room:
Take a moment to look around the room, notice where you are, notice who is around you, notice how you feel right now standing in this place. None of these questions concerned things within your personal control. As we stand now, we are a map of the social, political, economic and environmental circumstances into which we were born and raised.
Have people partner up with someone who is standing near them. Ask them to reflect on the following:
- General reaction: How did it feel to go through the process? Any surprises? Anything exactly as you expected?
- Do you often feel like you are in spaces where your access to resources and opportunity is honestly assessed and appropriately acknowledged?
- What would be different in your personal life, and in the work you are engaged in, if impacted communities were seen as the center of, or as experts on, their communities' needs and situations?
- How does this concept relate to being a trainer/facilitator/leader?
Though we did not create the circumstances of our birth, once we are aware of them, we gain wisdom and responsibility about how we use our privilege and our experience in this work for justice.
Adrienne Maree Brown, 29, is the executive director of The Ruckus Society. She sits on the boards of the Allied Media Project and Wiretap Magazine, and facilitates the development of many organizations (most recently ColorofChange.org and Detroit Summer). A cofounder of the League of Young Voters and graduate of the Art of Leadership and Art of Change trainings, Adrienne is obsessed with learning and developing models for action, community strength and movement building.
Also in Building a Movement
- Top Youth Activism Victories of 2008 by Jamilah King, Kristina Rizga, Tomas Palermo
- Best WireTap Stories of 2008 by The Editors
- (Podcast) When We're Not Working by Gavin Leonard, Matt Ryan
- When We're Not Working: On Awkward Family Conversations by Matt Ryan, Gavin Leonard
- He Absolutely Had To Be A "Community Organizer" by Hakim Bellamy