This is Part 6 of a series of posts designed to help us explore our work and leadership through the lenses of dominant power and liberatory power.
The cycle of systemic exclusion
Inequity is not just about what is happening in schools and classrooms, it also about how dominant power shapes the system as a whole. When we look at who holds positions of power, how that power is organised and how that power is being used, clear patterns begin to emerge that show how deeply the inequities are entrenched in our systems.
We see that many of us who have access to positions of power and influence within the system hold dominant identities and benefit in some way from it’s inequities, this means that we are more likely to want to maintain the status quo (consciously or unconsciously). Even if we have the desire to create change we are still likely to be holding onto unconscious biases that prevent us from acting in ways that lead to equity. At the same time, those of us who hold marginalised identities are often excluded from positions of power and denied opportunities to advocate for and lead the change that our communities need.
Here is an example of how dominant systems often operate..
People who hold dominant identities are over-represented in positions of power, influence and leadership. While people who hold marginalised identities are under-represented or completely excluded.
- This is because those of us who have marginalised identities have to navigate many layers of bias and descrimination in order to climb the ladder and gain access to positions of power.
- It is also because the spaces in which decisions are made reflect dominant culture, and are not inclusive of marginalised identities. This can make it very difficult for those of us who hold marginalised identities to feel like we belong and speak up without the fear of being punished or excluded.
As a result people from marginalised communities are not meaningfully represented in the decision making process, their perspectives are not taken into account, and the bias and prejudice of those with power is left unchecked. This means that the decisions made about resource distribution, curriculums, testing and teacher training are likely to reflect bias and prejudice. For example..
- The distribution of resources and opportunities is biased in favour of communities who hold dominant identities and discriminates against marginalised communities.
- Curriculums are culturally biased in favour of dominant identities, excluding or misrepresenting the identities, cultures and histories of marginalised communities.
- Standards and forms of examination reflect biased and restrictive definitions of ‘success’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘skill’.
- The teacher and school leadership pipelines are inequitable and biased in ways that make it harder for people with marginalised identities to become educators and leaders in the system.
- Teacher training encourages dominant classroom practices and reinforces existing bias and prejudice in educators.
This results in a self perpetuating cycle of exclusion, shaped by bias and prejudice..
This cycle of exclusion is also perpetuated by other external forces. This often includes..
- Bias and prejudice in political / government institutions which can express through ideology, laws, policies and decisions about funding and prioritisation. This influences the system directly but it also affects marginalised students beyond school as they experience the effects of other biased systems (housing, healthcare, employment, law enforcement etc.).
- Bias and prejudice in the non-profit sector (NGO’s) which can be expressed through the under-representation of marginalised identities due to inequitable recruitment and exclusionary organisational cultures. This often allows biased and prejudiced ideologies to affect decisions about how resources are used.
- Bias and prejudice in the philanthropic and business community which can affect what programs and initiatives receive funding and which don’t. This incentivises interventions in the system that reflect bias and prejudice and do not address the root causes of inequity.
- Bias and prejudice amongst privileged parents which can lead to decisions that protect and perpetuate inequities within the system. This can include individual choices about where to send their children to school (avoiding schools with marginalised students) as well as organising collective action to block reforms that threaten the privileged position of their children.
What role are we playing in this cycle of exclusion?
Most of us reading this now will have experienced this cycle of exclusion. Some of us may have been excluded by it and others privileged by it, and sometimes we may have experienced both exclusion and privilege at different times due to the complexities of our identities. However, we have all been affected by it in someway and it is very easy for us to become a part of that cycle if we are not aware of it.
The cycle of exclusion continues because we are taught to continue it by the system itself. We learn that we are rewarded when we accept and play the game, and we are punished when we question it. We learn to associate dominant identities with power, authority and leadership, and dominant cultural norms as ‘professional’ or as ‘leadership traits’ and so the power imbalance feels normal. We learn to consciously or unconsciously associate marginalised identities with forms of ‘inferiority’ and so accept the exclusion of marginalised communities as a natural result of this ‘inferiority’. For some of us it may have been so normalised that we don’t even recognise it as exclusion – it’s ‘just how things are’. This is how the system continues to perpetuate itself.
This means we have to look at ourselves and ask hard questions like.. What role am I playing in the system? Am I thinking and acting in ways that make me complicit in the perpetuation of exclusion and dynamics of dominant power? No matter how good our intentions, unless we are consciously acting to disrupt and transform the cycle of exclusion, and the dynamics of dominant power that it represents, we will ultimately remain complicit in it.
But how do we do this? How can we act in ways that disrupt and transform the system when dynamics of dominance are so deeply entrenched in our societies, systems, relationships and minds? These are some of the questions we will explore next as we learn to recognise and awaken our Liberatory Power.
- In what ways have I experienced exclusion in the system? In what ways have I been privileged by it?
- How am I acting in ways that are complicit in the perpetuation of exclusion and dynamics of dominant power?
- How am I acting in ways that are disrupting the cycle of exclusion and transforming dynamics of dominant power?