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The Carletonian

Finding love and commitment in social justice activism

<ple seem to appreciate diversity these days. Colleges around the nation boast heterogeneous student bodies, and some campuses claim to be more successful in achieving this end. But what is diversity, really? In attempting to answer this question, the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL) hosted the second annual Diversity Institute last Saturday at the Weitz Center. Paul Gorski, the guest speaker, fueled pertinent discussion among students regarding subtle issues in social justice.
Gorski, the facilitator of the event, is an assistant professor at George Mason University and also the founder of EdChange, an association of educators that are committed to promoting an understanding of diversity and social justice.

In starting off the seminar, he let the students know that he was interested in moving away from merely “celebrating diversity.” Despite being fun, the standard “Taco Nights” (or Chili Nights at Carleton) don’t pull at the roots of the issue. He pushed for students to make more “transformative change.”

He then proudly presented a photo of his grandmother as teenager, who stood there in draping overalls, beaming widely at the camera. In contrast to the conventional notion of “white privilege,” she lived in a coal-mining town in Appalachia and came from a poor family. Opportunities and money were scarce.
He then turned to the audience and asked, “Does she have white privilege?”

He pointed out that she does, in fact, have white privilege, but that privilege is relative to perspective. Compared to an African American person who struggles with the same economic disposition, she has white privilege. Compared to a financially sound, white individual, however, she doesn’t have the same kind of privilege.

As an initial exercise, Gorski asked that the students line up by the wall. He then explained that he would read a statement, and if it was true, students should step forward. He read statements like, “I worry about being able to cover my tuition,” and “English is not my first language.” The “privileged” stayed by the wall, and those who related to the statement stepped over to the line.

Some participants felt it was interesting how the “disenfranchised” and “disadvantaged” had to physically cross over. It seemed like the disadvantaged, even in political reality, have had to be conscious of the problem and push for change. Most students found the activity effective and engaging.

“It was really powerful to physically step across and face people for some of the prompts,” said Lauren Chow ’14, a first-time participant. “Even though I have self-identified with many of those things verbally before.”

Gorski posed a pertinent question to the audience. “Do I love myself enough to realize the price I’m paying for complicity?” He asked them to consider more deeply the implications that come with the food they eat.

“Do we know where that food comes from? Do we know who slaughtered that food, picked that food? Do we know what the conditions were like for the animals and humans that were involved in that? Do we know how much the person was paid who picked the produce that we eat today, the oranges, the apples? Was it a living wage, even a minimum wage? Do they have health insurance to cover the dangers of doing that laborious work? These are the questions that social justice people ask themselves.”

Gorski maintained that we had to love those we work with and feel committed to fighting the system directly.He echoed a former mentor, “The measure of activism is vulnerability; where there is no vulnerability, there is no activism. This is why donating money or blankets or canned food, as important as it might be, is not activism.”

Madeline Arnold ’14, a student participant, agreed with this statement. “Mitigation work like volunteering at a homeless shelter or donating food is important, but these activities don’t get at the heart of the problem.”

Professor Gorski argues that we have to be willing to be “disliked” and even place our own “privilege on the line.” We must be willing to make certain sacrifices. We don’t necessarily have the initial “equity,” but we can aim to establish some kind of “equality.”

He left the students with this: “So here’s my charge to the change agents—to love each other, to refuse to compete against each other, to refuse to do what consumer culture trains us to do to each other, and to help sustain each other’s commitment.”

The seminar proved to be an effective impetus for more talk.

“What was so refreshing about this diversity institute was the willingness of both the facilitator and the students in attendance to engage in meaningful discussion,” said Travis Nordgaard ’13. “Moving past clichés and traditional boundaries, adopting instead a broader conversation surrounding the intersection of systems of oppressions and privilege and how it relates to producing meaningful change in social justice.”
It also redirected some preconceived notions about social justice and diversity in ways students have not considered before.

“Something I’d never thought about before was the idea that cultural programming could actually be harmful for positive change by shifting focus away from real issues and sometimes reinforcing stereotypes,” voiced Arnold.

Chow was also “very happy” to have signed up for it, as it helped her confront her identification with both the “privileged” and “traditionally disempowered groups.”

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