‘To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes’

Paulo Freire

This is Part 1 of a series of posts designed to help us explore our work and leadership through the lenses of dominant power and liberatory power. The ideas we explore are inspired by leaders who practice a liberation centered approach to their work – many of whom are drawing on their lived experience of marginalization, deep connection to their communities, and the wisdom and legacy of their ancestors.

In next few posts we will look at our societies, systems and selves through the lens of dominant power. The purpose of this is to help us develop a deeper understanding of the inequities that shape our realities, the root causes, and how we experience them. We will look at how dominant power has shaped our world, how it shapes our societies and our schools.

What are we fighting against? Getting to the roots.

Equity is when all children have the freedom to express their full humanity and realise their full potential without fear of bias, prejudice, violence and manipulation. Equity is the difference between justice and injustice, inclusion and exclusion, dominance and liberation

Inequity is our present reality .. a world shaped by bias, prejudice, violence and manipulation. A world where injustice, exclusion and dominance is our norm. A world that keeps reproducing the same outcomes. A world that teaches our children that some lives are more valuable than others, to accept their place in the false hierarchies we impose upon them, to repress their full humanity and dehumanise others, and to ignore their creative intuition that asks the question.. ‘Why is it this way? Can it be different?’  

Many of us still feel these questions burning inside of us, that’s often why we are in this work, perhaps why you are now reading these words. We want things to change but our  desire for change is not enough. If we are serious about creating a different world for our children we need to ask hard questions about who we are in relation to the world around us.. 

How do we know whether the change we seek is truly transformational, or just a reproduction of the same bias, prejudice and dehumanisation in a different form? What does it mean to transform our reality in pursuit of equity, justice and liberation? What does it mean for how we think and behave right now? 

The only way to answer these questions is to deeply understand what we are fighting for and against, and then to do the work of liberating ourselves from the grasp of our socialisation, reconnecting with our full and shared humanity and aligning our actions with the change our children demand.

Watch: The roots of inequity (Diagnosing the system through a critical lens)
*The videos featured in this post were produced for Teach For All.

To realise equity we need to first understand the root causes of inequity. Being able to distinguish between symptoms and root causes allows us to take actions that transform rather than perpetuate the underlying factors. This can be the difference between superficial change and transformational change.

There are layers of inequity. At the surface level we may see disparities in inputs and outcomes, and so the initial reaction is to do whatever it takes to correct them. The disparities matter but they are symptoms of something much deeper, and when we mistake these symptoms for the cause we are likely to treat them in ways that are at best superficial and at worst reinforcing the deeper problem. To achieve truly transformational change we need to look beneath the surface. 

The next layer down is usually mindsets, often disparities in expectations about what’s possible for different children based on their identities. This matters too. But instead of going deeper to find out why these expectations exist we often set about trying to prove that all children can achieve the same outcomes. However, depending on who you are and how conscious you are, your definition of ‘success’ and version of ‘achieve’ may itself be a reflection of deeper bias and prejudice, and you may unintentionally do a lot of damage in the process of proving your point. 

Also, at the mindset level it’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming people – blaming students for not having ‘high aspirations’ or a ‘strong work ethic’ or a ‘sense of personal responsibility’. This quickly evolves into blaming the parents in some way, which can then evolve further into blaming the students community and its culture. On the flip side it can also quickly move towards blaming teachers, headmasters etc.. Mindsets matter too, but do we really understand where they come from, and how our own mindsets shape how we interpret them? Until we go deeper there’s a lot of blame to throw around.  

Then we hit the systems level and we start to realise that beneath all these different symptoms are larger systems that function in ways that feed disparities in inputs, outcomes, and expectations. And that the different mindsets that we have identified in different stake-holders (and ourselves) are both a product and part of how these systems operate. 

We can go two ways when we have this realisation, we can either assume that the system is broken and get busy fixing it through reform and innovation or we ask the question of why is the system functioning in this way? Is it broken or is it doing what it was designed to do? Reforms and innovations may be necessary, but unless we are asking deep questions like.. Who designed the system this way? Whose interests does it serve? How does it protect itself? .. then we are still not getting to the roots and our reforms and innovations risk propping up a system that is toxic at its core. 

When we start asking those questions we start to see that there is often a purpose behind the dysfunction, somebody is benefiting from it in some way, and the disparities that it produces are too predictable to be accidental. This is where we are beginning to get closer to the roots and start to realise that there are deeper forces at work and consistent patterns that are playing out. These patterns are not only playing out in the system, they are playing out inside of us too.

When we start looking at it from the other direction, tracing the roots to the symptoms, a much clearer yet more complex picture starts to emerge. We begin to understand how inequities are a product of deeper dynamics of dominant power that have shaped our history and continue to shape our whole world and how we perceive it. 

Watch:

Jeff Duncan Andrade ‘The game is rigged’ Swastika ShresthaGet to the roots of inequity Jenni Oki: Diagnosing the system 

*The videos featured in this post were produced for Teach For All.

Reflect:

Jenni Oki’s questions.. 

  • What are the rules here and who wrote them? 
  • Who has access to that playbook and who gets separate instructions? 
  • Who benefits from the game being set up this way and who loses? Is it consistent? 
  • Is there a hidden code? Why is it hidden? 

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