Last week, Jalisa, a member of WILL, shared a powerful blog post on how she was attempting to “navigate race through gender” in her WILL experience. She wrote,
“…my experiences of racism are being invalidated… The fact that you identify with being a woman takes precedence over my identity as a person of color, and that gender biased is somehow worse than any other form of oppression. The intersectionality of race and gender are messy, but this act of completely ignoring race as a factor of oppression reinforces the cycle of oppression. In a group that I look to for liberation in having that shared experience of fighting a system of oppression, it is very disheartening.”
This was both difficult and inspirational to hear.
Not surprisingly, reading Jalisa’s post was tough. First, I heard this criticism on a personal level, as someone who cares. I care about Jalisa, WILL, and the feminist movement. To know that despite our best intentions in the group (and in feminism!) we continue to perpetuate racism and oppression was, as Jalisa expressed, “disheartening”. I also heard this criticism as the staff person who coordinates this program and who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that our work aligns with our mission and purpose. It was challenging to hear this because it meant I/we failed. It meant I/we let one of us down. It meant I/we were oppressive and silencing and marginalizing, even as we were working actively not to be. Even still.
Jalisa’s sharing her personal experience and telling her truth holds us all accountable to confront that which is so difficult to acknowledge: my/our privilege.
bell hooks breaks it down: “The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.” (hooks, 2000; p.23)
In order to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression, we must tell our truths. The work of feminism, of social change, is to continuously tell our individual and collective truths. It is an everlasting story, a perpetual narrative.
And it ain’t easy.
According to the Social Change Model of Leadership (SCM), which grounds our work in WILL, there are seven principles that enable social change, that facilitate truth-telling. These principles are based in three different, interrelated, and dynamic systems: individual, group, and community. To tell our own individual truth requires consciousness of self, congruence, and commitment. Truth-telling in a group calls for collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility. On a community level, citizenship is necessary to practice truth-telling. WILL intentionally and strategically fosters these principles—this is the work of WILL.
Here’s where the “inspirational” comes in:
Jalisa’s brave act of truth-telling demonstrates that we have created a culture in WILL where we do hold ourselves accountable to this truth-telling and to the principles that foster this practice. It is inspiring because it means that we are doing something right, even as we’re not. Even still.
Racism is ugly. Revealing it is a beautiful and revolutionary thing. Only then might we overcome it.
WILL is not alone in confronting these truths. Just yesterday, in response to recent expressions of racism on campus and a subsequent newspaper Staff Editorial calling for truth-telling, the campus paper ran an article in which campus leaders challenge the campus community to “Engage More, Not Less” . Although WILL (nor any other feminist leadership program, for that matter) was not among those cited as examples of how to “engage”, WILL does stand as a model of “engaging more”. This is precisely what WILL does–intentionally, deliberately, and with care.
Our development as feminist leaders challenges us to call out oppression and to always be looking and listening for ways in which we operate out of privilege. We are compelled to confront this privilege so that we can dismantle it, and in doing so, challenge systems of oppression and create social change.
Always both difficult and inspirational work. This is the work of WILL. This is the work of feminism.
Amy Howton is the Associate Director of the Women’s Center and Program Coordinator of WILL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.