Shanel Boyce is starting a conversation about the power and mechanics behind oppression in the United States.
For Boyce, the community organizer for the Souther Tier chapter of Citizen Action of New York and a second-year graduate student studying social work, a crowd of students, parents, residents, community organizers gathered at the YMCA on Saturday morning marked the first in a series of lectures hosted by her organization titled “The Politics of Oppression.” This lecture addressed racism and the systems in place to uphold it, but the series will focus on engaging the community in conversations about many different types of oppression, including topics like feminism and identity.
Boyce had previously reached out to Carole Coppens, the executive director for the YWCA, to discuss organizing events. Coppens said she saw the immediate need for a series with this specific focus.
“It’s important everywhere,” Coppens said. “Racism is not solved. It’s huge, it’s rampant, it’s everywhere. People need to wake up and realize that we have not eliminated racism, despite what a lot of people think.”
The morning began with introductions to break the ice between participants. Many attendants found common ground in their shared hobbies and reasons for attending, including a desire to be a better ally and support discussions about forms of discrimination. Boyce emphasized the importance of maintaining safe spaces.
“This has to be a gracious space,” Boyce said. “That means that everyone participates, but no one dominates. Everyone in this room has something to say, something that can add to this conversation. We are going to disagree, but we will disagree without being disagreeable.”
The group engaged in various activities, occasionally breaking into smaller bodies to further discuss the topics at hand, which focused on the definition of racism and tactics for confronting it.
One activity called for attendees to sort different societal aspects into categories of culture and social identity. A comprehensive list was developed with language, tradition and value systems attached to culture, and race, age and gender as a part of of social identity.
In another exercise, participants were put into pairs in which they discussed which two parts of their cultural and social identity mattered most to them. Some said they had a hard time picking just two identifiers for themselves. Aviva Friedman, ‘14, a state and regional board member of Citizen Action, noticed when she was thinking of her answer that she didn’t acknowledge her race as one of her most important identifiers.
“Since I’m white in the dominant system, that doesn’t impact me emotionally as much as other identities would,” Friedman said. “I think that the system is designed in a way that people who are not oppressed do not think about oppression, and I think that happens on a large scale in that if a system is designed to work for you, you’re not going to notice that it’s working.”