Reflection: Privilege Walk

The results are in. The activity? It worked. It wasn’t the amazing, inspirational, groundbreakingly powerful moment I had imagined, but it went well. A few students had done similar activities before, but nothing that asked them to physically move in space. One student said she did a variation where she had to add and subtract based on statements to come up with her “number.”

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But this visual/spacial rendering of privilege worked well and was a new experience for all of us. The immediate post-activity conversation was sparse, and only a few students participated in this. Considering that I just asked them to be vulnerable in doing the activity, I wasn’t going to push my luck by forcing a deeper group reflection. However, the discussion that followed examining some of the issues surrounding service and service learning was engaged, fluid, and had a majority of students contributing their thoughts and reactions. So while the personal reflection on privilege wasn’t as robust as I would have liked, the activity totally succeeded in opening up a conversation around the sticky terminology I mentioned last post. So in terms of the larger goals, I’m feeling fairly satisfied in how it went.

There were a few surprises along the way. First, I was genuinely surprised that most of my students ended up clustered in the same general “privilege space” (for lack of a better way to describe it). It’s hard to tell exact positions because of conditions in the room, but if I had to guess, most students ended up like 4-6 steps forward of the starting line. I had students fill out getting to know you surveys for homework the first night of class. According to that survey, 15 languages other than English are collectively spoken at home. Students have come from other countries or are first generation Americans. Given this, I expected a little more spread, especially considering some of the US centric items on the list of statements (for example, “If you’re a US citizen, take a step forward”). I think this was a good realization for my students, as well as myself, since we can use this activity to springboard a conversation about how we can use our privileged positions to empower others. Second, I was preparing myself (mentally, emotionally, pedagogically) for students to end up behind the starting line at the end of the activity. When I calculated my space prior to leading the activity, I ended up back on the starting line (which, to be honest, was a little surprising for me. I figured I would be maybe 2 or 3 steps forward). It feels good to say no one ended up behind the starting line. More so, when I took my spot among the group at the end of the activity, only one student was in my vicinity (either on the starting line or a step ahead – again, hard to tell in the space), and we shared a similar reaction afterward: feeling more privileged in our lives than the activity mapped out.

Ultimately, I’m happy I decided to do the activity. The reaction may not have been ka-pow, but I think it set a tone that this class is going to grapple with difficult subject matter.

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Privilege Walk

So, I tend to get pretty excited when I teach new things. This year, I’ll be teaching a service learning variation of our First Year Composition (FYC) course. Since this is my first experience teaching service learning, I had been racking my brain for the best way to introduce concepts like intersectionality and the need to understand/frame one’s position within a specific social context. Then, like magic, at a luncheon for Mellon Fellows (note: I was awarded the Mellon Fellowship for Reaching New Publics for this academic year) and our faculty mentors, one of the mentors at my table brought up an activity called the Privilege Walk (there are many variations of this activity you can find through a quick Google search). Here’s a quick rundown:

Students start this activity by standing in a straight line. The teacher reads off a list of statements, such as “If you are a white male take one step forward” or “If you have visible or invisible disabilities take one step backward,” which, by the end of the activity, provides students with a visual for how privilege affects their lives and the lives of their friends and peers.

I immediately knew I wanted to try this in my classroom. Particularly because:

  1. It promises to be a powerful visual/kinesthetic experience of privilege, particularly because identifiers of privilege can sometimes be invisible (as with the disability example above). More importantly, when we (as a culture at large) talk about privilege, we sometimes forget about the nuanced layers (for lack of a better term right now) of privilege created by complex, intersecting social systems. We need to talk about the particularities of privilege so that multiple experiences are given weight and consideration in the public sphere. However, the goal of these particular examinations should not be to pit one experience against another; this type of competitive invalidation only deepens divides. Instead, we must examine particular systems of privilege, and more importantly how these systems overlap and influence each other, in order to more deeply understand the nuance, the movement, the dynamism of privilege. I give that brief, incomplete rambling only to say that students, and especially students entering into a service learning experience, need to be aware of the complexities inherent in systems of privilege. An activity such as this one seems like it could be an impactful way to open a space for this conversation by helping students begin to examine their position(s) within systems of privilege in order to push against these systems as effectively as possible when necessary.
  2. It provides an opening to examine concepts like service, service learning, the problems inherent in such terms, “savior complex,” and other sticky concepts students will grapple with while working with their community organization and those they help.
  3. It’s a way for students to really reflect on their own social position(s) relative to the communities they will be working with during this service learning experience, which opens a space to consider the value of service as something other than simply helping someone else. Instead, by understanding who they are and what experiences and perspectives they bring to the table, my hope is students will see service as a partnership, a way for people to teach each other, to help each other grow and better themselves and the communities of which they are a part.

This won’t be easy, and I don’t anticipate it going perfectly on this first attempt. There are two challenges in particular that I’m concerned about. First, it requires a tremendous amount of trust and vulnerability early on in the quarter (only our second class!). Second, the activity could have the opposite effect of my intention, alienating or isolating students instead of bringing them together and giving them a sense of ownership over their social (inter)actions. But I’m willing to take the risk; I have confidence in my ability to establish an environment of respect and openness and to redirect the conversation if it starts to become uncomfortable (and not in the good “I can feel myself being challenged and learning” way), alienating, or competitive.

I understand that I’m asking a lot of my students to participate in this activity, but I truly feel like this could set the tone for a semester of thoughtful, critical service learning that challenges my students to think about the everyday impact systems of reading, writing, and privilege have on their own lives and the communities with which they share those lives. Hopefully, my instincts prove right on this one. Guess I’ll find out tomorrow.