Challenging oppressive systems
Dr. Debi Jenkins speaks about systematic oppression, power and privilege
By Rhonda Morin
Dr. Debi Jenkins is a highly-credentialed woman who never intended to be an academic. Originally, she took courses at Clark College for a certificate to run a daycare, but after earning her associate degree, she went on to get several degrees, including a doctorate.
Jenkins is a life coach, teacher and presenter with expertise in lifespan development and issues that involve diversity, equity, inclusion and institutional change. She’s also the founder of Share the Flame—a life and career coaching business. She’s a nationally recognized speaker and author on equity practices.
Jenkins was the first African-American woman to receive tenure at Clark College, and the first African American woman to receive the college’s prestigious Outstanding Alumni Award in 2017. She’s the chair of the Behavioral Sciences division and a professor of Early Childhood Education and Psychology.
This interview is part of Clark College Foundation’s new podcast series, called Penguin Chats. Highlights from the podcast conversation are presented here, edited for clarity and length.
Partners: Clark College has a social equity plan that goes through 2020. It’s meant to eliminate systemic disparities among groups and improve outcomes in education. Explain the college’s method of focusing on diversity among social groups as opposed to individual people.
Debi Jenkins: Social equity refers to the systemic levels of oppression. Systemic levels of oppression, although it may have been created by people who are biased and prejudiced in some cases, it is not necessarily every individual’s experience. Because of that, the focus is on the system of oppression. Systems of oppression were established to benefit specific groups, and as such, they became the beneficiaries.
Not all beneficiaries see the same benefits, so focusing on the individual would give people a lot of ways to not regard people who are experiencing oppression because they can say things like, ‘I’ve never experienced that.’ ‘I remember when I was oppressed.’ Although they may be the benefactor of that group or of that system, they are aligning their experience with another person’s experience who is not the benefactor. And so it excuses or it gives people a way of erasing the importance of systemic conversations about oppression.
Partners: We hear on campus and in other places the terms power and privilege. Can you give us a basic understanding of what power and privilege represents?
Jenkins: Being that I just explained systems of oppression, I can start there. Power is about what is given to someone based on systemic oppression. The level of access and exposure has to do with the privilege that comes along with it. So basically, power is what’s been given as a benefit. Privilege is the ability to reap the benefits from being a part of such systems.
Partners: What would be an example of that?
Jenkins: I can use my own example of myself. I am considered within systematic oppression to be a classist. I’m not personally prejudiced against people who are poor. I don’t vote against people who are poor. I advocate for those who are poor and have been told by members of poverty that I am an ally to the poor. But it doesn’t excuse the fact that my income level or my exposure to income access doesn’t create a system of power and privilege for me. And so because of that, personally being called a classist doesn’t insult me.
Now if you say you’re prejudiced against the poor or you’re biased against the poor that would kind of impact me because that has to do with character. I think people get that mixed up when it comes to race as well. Being called a racist shouldn’t upset people, it really shouldn’t. Because racist just means that you are in the group that the system was established to benefit. That’s all. Being called racially prejudiced or racially biased should bother you, because that deals with character.
Partners: At Clark, the administration, faculty and staff have specifically taken steps to confront, I would say, power and privilege on campus. Can you give a couple of examples of how the campus community is confronting those points?
Jenkins: Yes. I think first of all, it’s setting up systems and setting up structures to stand against oppression. For example, in (Clark’s) strategic plan, we have put it in there that we are going to work to dismantle power privilege—not specifically word for word—but the message is we are going to do what we can within the filters—curriculum and services within our structures—that we’re going to work against power and privilege within those structures in order to provide equity and justice for all students.
Partners: Is some of that breaking down who’s in charge and those kinds of things?
Jenkins: Well, that’s a very good question. I think that reflective practitioners are essential. If you look at our campus demographic, you’ll see that students tend to reflect the majority. However, the challenge is when you’re trying to diversify your campus, you’re not just looking at diversity because that just means similarities and differences, and it’s mostly focused on the outward appearance. Inclusion means not only who’s at the table, but how are we including them at the table.
Power though, says what structures have prevented people from being at the table. When it comes to shifting that—shifting the power—by asking ourselves the question about how do we give access at the table? The privilege structure is who’s been allotted all of the access traditionally or historically. How can we shift that so those students who aren’t as visible, who aren’t the majority of the demographic within our student body or our leadership or our faculty and staff, how can we shift that so we’re more reflective of those who are systemically non-dominant?
Partners: Before we go to that thought, I want to get a better sense of the practical stuff that’s happening on campus in order to see that shift. Can you think of anything that would be an example of who might be experiencing this?
Jenkins: Sure. One of those things is curricular practices. One of the things we tend to do as faculty members is try to provide equity in our icebreakers and things we do within the classroom. But at the same time, we give power to voices who already have power, and we lessen the voices of those who do not. When students come in, they don’t see a teacher that looks like them, first of all.
The teacher doesn’t have their lived experience. The teacher doesn’t understand how they apply theory to practices. They don’t understand that, whereas someone with their lived experience can.
The challenge is when faculty and staff don’t understand that. They misunderstand or misread physical behaviors. ‘They didn’t look me in the eye.’ ‘They’re not showing respect to me.’ That person might use the most-assertive person has the floor strategy versus a one-person-at-a-time strategy. The student then is perceived as interrupting versus building off the ideas of another student.
Partners: You have brought up a couple of words that I want to touch on. Language matters.
Jenkins: Language does matter.
Partners: You’ve been instrumental in introducing the use of phrases and words like systemically non-dominant, rather than historically disadvantaged. Use of those words occurred in the case of Clark’s social equity planning process. The language seems to have trickled down to faculty and staff on campus. Explain the difference between these terms, and give some examples so we can understand what this means.
Jenkins: First, I want to apologize to the audience for the field of social science. Because one of the things we did in our zealousness of trying to deal with power and privilege and equity, we kind of just threw out the language that seemed relevant to us at the time. But what we didn’t think about is how it would progress over time. One of the things that tended to challenge me each time was the term historically disadvantaged. Because, what if that group starts having advantages over time? That doesn’t mean systemically that they have the same advantages as the systemically dominant, it just means that they’ve progressed a little bit.
Then there’s the word marginalized. It can be perceived by people as on-the-outskirts. When they are pulled in as an inclusion, they might feel they’re not marginalized any longer because we’ve brought them in. But that doesn’t deal with the systemic aspect. There’s also the one you said.
Partners: Historically disadvantaged. Systemically non-dominant.
Jenkins: And minority. When we talk about minority status, we could talk about being minoritized because that explains what’s happening to a person, but minority doesn’t necessarily explain what’s happening, because it’s not always about the number as it is about the access. I struggled with the terms when I was writing my dissertation. I did not want to use either of those terms in my dissertation. Instead, I came up with the language systemically non-dominant and systemically dominant because it keeps the language where the challenges are.
The real challenge is within the systems of oppression. If we focus on systemically non-dominant, it’s about the system that is created and how it impacts specific groups. Who are the benefactors? Who are the non-benefactors? Systemically non-dominant, of course, are those who the system was not put in place to benefit. Systemically dominant are those who are systemically benefactors of that system.
This helps us clarify what we’re talking about. It also helps people to understand why we’re not speaking about individual experiences or exposure to racial prejudice or class prejudice or any other type of prejudice or whether we’re talking specifically about bias. We are focusing on systems.
Partners: You’re telling the big picture?
Debi Jenkins: The big picture, yes, but that doesn’t take away from individuals needing to do their own work. And that, again, comes back to our systems. This keeps individuals accountable to restructuring the systems.
Partners: The language gets hard to say and keep on top of one’s mind. What suggestions do you have for this language to roll off the tip of our tongues?
Jenkins: Actually, they don’t have it roll off the tongue. As an early childhood educator, one of the things I teach children is to play with language. For example, they’ll say my ‘feets is hurt.’ You don’t need to correct them, you just say, ‘oh, you mean your feet hurt?’ When someone says, ‘you know the historically disadvantaged?’ Then we say, ‘yes, the systemically non-dominant are….’ You’re just modeling the language. You’re not ridiculing or punishing people for not being able to speak the language that is relevant to what’s occurring.
This language is also beyond Clark College. The state board is using the language.
Partners: In Washington?
Jenkins: Yes. The State Board of Technical and Community Colleges, they are utilizing the language. They’re asking me to do trainings to familiarize people, not only with the language, but the content and context of it and to be able to help people to understand it. They recognize that this is work that they really want to do. We have people in place in the state board who are very, very, very insistent on issues of power, privilege and inequity and are going to make sure that that trickles down to where we are.
Clark is ahead of the game as long as we remain with the game. If we don’t shift, we might end up being a role model for the state to be able to show people how this can happen. I really recommend that we try to work through the hard parts, the uncomfortable parts to get to the next place—though we’ll never have a destination.
Partners: But we’ll enjoy the ride.
Jenkins: We have many rest stops, but we will never have a destination and so we’ll always be learning, always progressing. Things may shift, but for now, this is where we’re at.
Partners: I appreciate too the way that you framed your response earlier, which was not to be accusing or to tell me that I’ve said it wrong; but rather you modeled the response.
Partners: I think when confrontation occurs, then the person you’re speaking with feels hurt or wounded or may think, ‘OK, she’s just trying to correct me and she thinks she knows more than I do.’ That can start the whole confrontation part.
Jenkins: I want to mention systemic fragility here, because I think what happens is when people are in a position of power and they are not aware of that as a systemic position of power, anything sounds like an attack because you’re asking them to shift. If you think about always having something done consistently a certain way and then, all of a sudden, it’s changing. Then you’re like, wait a minute, I don’t even understand why this is happening.
Of course there is pushback, but there’s also a level of pushback that’s just out of place. ‘I’m not going to do this no matter what, and I’m going to stick my feet in the sand and I’m going to cross my arms and I’m not going to do this.’ Then they do whatever they can to dismantle and start pulling away from it. There’s also people who don’t understand it who think they do. And there’s nothing wrong with not understanding it. What’s wrong is when you don’t acknowledge you don’t understand. I think humility is one of the things that needs to be said here.
Cultural humility, systemic humility—these are essential for people to do the work effectively. If you come in as a person systemically in power and you try to explain to a person what their lived experience is or is not, then you are basically owning or becoming an expert of that person’s experience. You’re basically saying, ‘that’s not true. Let me tell you about you. Let me tell you about your experience.’ And that goes both ways. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a racially dominant power. I don’t have that. I’m an African-American woman. I can’t tell you exactly what that’s like, but I do have research on other people who have said what that’s like. I also know the impact of it through research.
Partners: I sometimes get confused about what inequity is. Can you expand on that for those who might not understand it fully?
Jenkins: Sure. It’s systemic structures in place that prevent specific groups from having access to things that can help them be equitable with other people or having equity with others. It’s also the current state of our systems. I think justice needs to be brought into this discussion too. Equity and justice focus on fairness, yes, but fairness can be subjective. Justice can also be subjective. It has to do with what is equitable, because you need equity to have equality.
We hear people say, we’re all equal. We’re all born equal. It says this in our constitution, but we’re not equal. We can’t be equal until we’re equitable. Equity means that you’re looking at all things and seeing how all things are distributed, and how all things are accessible.
Partners: Professor Jenkins, thank you so much. We enjoyed getting an introduction to power, privilege and inequity. Certainly there is much more that can be talked about. There are opportunities on Clark’s campus to attend courses on power, privilege and inequity.
Visit Clark’s website and search for those words to find a host of opportunities on Clark’s events calendar.