Privilege and Power

I live with open eyes and ears. I’ve been immersed in Portland, Oregon activism and community social change since 2001 and I am well aware of the patterns and responsibilities I have as a white, cis-gender, middle class, temporarily able bodied, extroverted woman. I try to be humble and effective with my positionality. 

All groups have power dynamics

Effective groups understand and work with power. By learning to see, put voice to and understand common dynamics – quick thinkers vs reflective processors, newer vs older members, differences in race, gender, etc. – a group releases tensions and invites connection. Starting with simply acknowledging differences often goes a long way.

Working with privilege

Privilege is unearned and experienced in relation to each other. It’s the responsibility of people with privilege to become aware of their positionality, reflect without defenses, practice bringing voice to their places of power, and take actions small and big.

It’s said that “equity for someone with privilege might feel like oppression.” I gently but sternly forward understandings of how someone may be unintentionally reinforcing patterns of oppression. I might ask who is not in the room, who is speaking, who might be benefiting, who might be burdened, what we may not be noticing, and at a “teachable moment,” offer historical or contextual explanations for these imbalances and their effects. 

Working with marginalization 

Folks in marginalized positions need healing, time, understanding, care, resources and structural power. The struggle is real for someone who is attacked daily for walking in the body they walk in, who doesn’t have a safety net, who has generations of exhaustion and trauma in their bones and blood, who has been consistently and consciously hurt by systems that control core life needs like housing, school, food, jobs, healthcare, media, etc. 

I try to offer as much compassion, care and recognition as I can by listening well, understanding deeply, centering their needs, and following their lead on how to guide a group to show up well.

Designing for differences

Some differences of power can be balanced through group process and structure; others through building empathy and learning. Practice with compassionate, curious, reflective communication is always helpful. 

I design group process to include and amplify as many voices, perspectives and needs as possible. This includes folks from marginalized identities, people who work with neurodivergence, trauma, grief, different ways of processing information or who are simply introverts!

Reducing harm

I always have an eye toward interpersonal and institutional dynamics. I do my best to voice both obvious and subtle forces which may be at play. I am not afraid to compassionately “call in” someone who might be causing harm. As a white person, I especially step into this role when I see harm being done — usually unintentionally — by other white folks to or around People of Color.

I have always been a cross-pollinator and I’m told I have a warm and connective way of translating concepts between subcultures and sectors. In most groups, I find that “ouch” moments stem from misunderstandings or lack of context, rarely values.

My path of growth 

I am a node in a network of amazing people. I draw support, learning, and accountability from them. 

Since 2004 I’ve lived in a 20-person intentional community committed to embodying a just world. There’s nothing like living together to draw out differences in life experience or political perspective, and to practice collective culture change. For example, when your refrigerator breaks, do you buy a new one, buy a used one, scavenge one, hire someone to fix it, learn to fix it yourself, decide to go without a fridge? Depending on your class or race background, childhood imprints, abilities and current circumstance, people have very different approaches. My community has worked to establish the norms and trust to approach such decisions with connection, compassion and equity. 

In my community’s class caucuses, I “got” how my middle-class tendencies shape my strategies and that I’m also hurt by the class system that pressures me to be and act certain ways. It wasn’t until living with people making gender transitions or expressing their gender queerness that I “got” the importance of pronouns, gender inclusive bathrooms, gender-aware health care. It wasn’t until living with Indigenous people that I “got” the complexities faced by a people under genocide on their own land for 500 years. And the potency of land-based connection, spirit, prayer and support within the Native community. Through intimate relationships with people sharing their very personal struggles–which was not easy for them–I have learned so much, and I am grateful.

Speaking up, messing up

I take responsibility for using my positionality to share the stories and perspectives (the lessons, not specifics!) that I’ve been asked to share from those hurt by our systems. In a construction worksite with cis-men, I will bring up the topic of gender. With a group of middle class friends at a social outing, I will bring up class. With white folks, I will invoke race.

I recognize that I continue to make mistakes, hurt or disregard people, and make choices that benefit my comfort. I’m not always clear what to do or say. But I am clear in my heart and in my energy. When it feels hard or embarrassing, I can put things in perspective. 

I deeply appreciate the gift of feedback – it takes courage and emotional energy to share a “hard thing” with someone. I receive feedback with awe for the complex world, compassion for different experiences, and gratitude for the person sharing with me.

Photo of zoom meeting with Jenny and Sheriff Reese in attendance, and closeup of the chat where Jenny asks why Sherriff Reese did not remove the Blue Lives Matter flags from the county jail

A snippet of using my privilege

One example of trying to use my privilege is that during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, I joined the Multnomah County Sheriff Office Community Budget Advisory Committee. My idea was to work from the “inside” – using my patience for bureaucratic committees, knowledge of budgets, and white privilege – to ask hard questions about how they were acknowledging racism and allocating their resources. One small example: this snapshot of a zoom meeting chat shows me asking Sheriff Reese why, after saying they were responding to public outcry about racism, they still had Blue Lives Matters flags hanging in the county jails. Over the course of my 3-year commitment on the committee, I have drastically changed the nature of the conversation to center values, question their boxes and silos, and demand more direct accountability for racial equity in all aspects of the Sheriff office.