From Compliance to Commitment Takes Personal Accountability
The Aspirational Nature of Equity Work
When we create bully prevention policies, bullying still happens. When we say “zero tolerance”, it does not mean zero incidents. It means we don’t tolerate it. We don’t condone it. But can we stop it? Aggressive, oppressive and inequitable actions — be they as small (but not insignificant) as bullying between two children or as large as colonialism between nations, naming them, saying we don’t support them, does not make them stop. We aspire to be greater but are we? We say no, but we still do, allow, and look away. Laws, codes, declarations and policies do not stop negative actions. We name these injustices, which may or may not have consequences, but in the end, if we don’t commit to fighting against them, making ourselves accountable, challenging ourselves and our organizations, then nothing will change.
Equity work, in all its forms, is aspirational work. We hear it time and again when discussing human rights, codes, declarations, even the mission, vision and values of organizations. We create these documents as something we aspire to be but not what we already are. This is problematic because we also believe that because these are human rights that these rights are something we are entitled to but I have found, more often than not, they are rights we have to fight for rather than benefit from. It seems to be that the burden of proof lies with the oppressed. The impact of these actions runs deep into personal lives, well-being, health and family but this evidence is not permissible in court. This evidence is not seen, nor counted.
If a law (or any other policy document) is aspirational, it is not enforceable but is enforceable the only other choice? If enforceable, then there exists a higher level of accountability so if the law is broken, there is a consequence for the perpetrator of that law. But if equity work in education is also aspirational and not enforceable, what does it actually mean?
“There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”
― Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
So we must examine our laws, declarations, mission, vision, values, policies and procedures to ask if they are are producing or sustaining equity or inequity. There is no neutral. But what if it is equitable and aspirational? What is the recourse when not adhered to if they are purely what we hope to be but not what we are?
Aspirational rights do not reflect societal changes already achieved, but project a vision of an ideal and future democratic, inclusive, and egalitarian society. (Aspirational Laws as Weak Institutions: Legislation to Combat Violence against Women in Mexico).
In his article, Aspirational Law, Philip Harvey asks: What are “human rights” and what does it mean to say that someone has them in situations where they are not enforced?
This is the question for me. If not enforceable, do these rights actually exist? We know that the work we do under the umbrella of anti-oppression is aspirational. It is necessarily hopeful work as we labour to create a better education system and by extension, society.
But if aspirational and not enforceable, then what power does it actually hold? If enforceable, there are consequences for not adhering to the law, code, declaration, policy or any document but the downside is that it becomes an exercise in compliance and as a result, it lacks meaning, commitment, passion. It lacks the reason we do this work. If our only choice is to make sure people act from a place of anti-oppression, is to make it punishable if they don’t then what does that mean?
In her article, Aspirational Principles or Enforceable Rights? The Future for Socio-Economic Rights in National Law, (2006) Ellen Wiles concludes:
However, I would conclude by reinforcing that unless rights are made legally enforceable, rather than remaining merely aspirational, they cannot truly be considered to constitute law at all, and will remain a pipe dream for those who need them most.
So how is our work in schools and school boards any different? We create policies and statements and commitments and training but does anything really change?
Our half day training on any “ism” or “phobia” is an act in compliance but not a shift beliefs and values. Nor does it seem to shift practice.
Once completed we check a box and say we have “done it” and many believe that the work is done.
What is the alternative?
We must create a sense of urgency, a collective will to do this work, and commit to our continued growth, learning, reflection, and action.
A quote that has guided my career is this one from bell hooks:
The bright yellow cover of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, caught my eye in this independent bookshop in Chelsea in 1995 when I had been teaching for a couple of years.
Her writing influenced me as much as anything has. If we believe that “there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred” then we must “teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students” and we can only do this when we “provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin”. We can only do this when we commit to the work of equity on the deepest levels. We can’t do it because we had a half day of training. We can’t do it because the policy says we should. We do it because IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO and we have made the COMMITMENT to do so.
Last year, two of my good friends who are gay men, went to a training about sexual harassment in the workplace in a school board. They were the only men who attended the session. The women were told by the presenter that they must report the harassment. The women attending the training grew frustrated explaining that they have reported and the only thing that comes of it is they feel more unsafe in their work locations, many leaving the schools where they were on staff to avoid the aggressor as well as judgement. Policies exist but if they remain aspirational then they continue to oppress and marginalize the very individuals and groups they claim to protect.
When the United Nations passed The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, Canada was one of the last countries to adopt it, a declaration that sought to enshrine rights that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) The minimum standards for Indigenous Peoples. “The Harper government supported the declaration in principle but took issue with its provisions around land claims and the degree of free and informed consent needed in resource development, among others.” (Why a UN declaration on Indigenous rights has struggled to become Canadian law).
What is the point of supporting a document but not the provisions? Translation: “I believe that it would look better if I support this but I don’t want anything to change or more importantly, impact my way of life as it is now because it benefits me and all of my descendants. Even if these policies underserve, oppress and discriminate against others with less power, I know if I am to uphold the myth of “Canada the Good” then I must say I support it, but not really.”
Trudeau agreed to the Declaration but then proceeded to support the pipeline which is in complete violation of the Declaration. There is no response to the calls for justice, clean water, proper homes and schooling. There is no response to the need to support with mental health professionals. Trust is broken over and over again.
The Canadian government’s statement from 2010 regarding this Declaration indicates:
The Declaration is an aspirational document which speaks to the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, taking into account for their specific cultural, social and economic circumstances.
Although the Declaration is a non-legally binding document that does not reflect customary international law nor change Canadian laws, our endorsement gives us the opportunity to reiterate our commitment to continue working in partnership with Aboriginal peoples in creating a better Canada. (https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1309374239861/1309374546142)
Subtext…“But not change a single thing.”
Paolo Freire writes of the concept of praxis and defines praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” Our equity work must fall into this space — a space of praxis. It must be reflective and action-oriented towards dismantling structures that perpetuate inequities. Sitting passively in learning and training sessions and making no commitment or action to change is an exercise in futility.
What examples might we see with the concept of praxis at the heart of the work?
I have been listening to Chanel Miller’s book, Know My Name, a personal memoir about her experience as a victim of sexual assault. She had written her victim impact statement under the court given pseudonym, Emily Doe, and it was published and went viral in the midst of the #MeToo movement. She has now, three years later, published a book recounting her story in exquisite detail— her family, the assault, the struggle, the trial, the aftermath.
We are not used to hearing — to knowing — the details of sexual violence. We are not used to experiencing the daily facts of trauma through the extreme subjectivity of a memoir. The American legal system, particularly when it comes to these matters, is instead largely calibrated toward silence. It anonymizes survivors. It asks them to speak, for the most part, only when spoken to. It tells stories about them, ostensibly for them. It exists within a culture that remains profoundly ashamed about sexual violence, preferring to discuss such matters in hushed tones and polite euphemisms. The effect is often to dehumanize the survivor. It is also to mistake the survivor as the person whose actions are on trial. “The assault is never personal,” Miller writes. “The blaming is.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/chanel-miller-know-my-name-and-unbelievable-review/599191/)
Through her trauma, Miller insists that we hear her voice, know her name, feel her pain. We also hear her strength, courage as well as her demands for a justice system that protects victims of sexual assault rather than re-traumatizing, objectifying and silencing them. She tells us that she was rushed through her statement in court with Judge Aaron Persky, who was not interested in hearing her (he also lost his job after a review of this case). After her victim impact statement went viral, in the Larry Nasser trial, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, listened to 160 victim impact statements. She made room. As an individual, Chanel shifted the practice in a courtroom. By her insistence, she amplified the importance of survivors’ voices. Silence was no longer an option.
“What could I tell them?” Miller asks, after Turner’s meager sentencing, thinking of other survivors. “A system does not exist for you. The pain of this process couldn’t be worth it. These crimes are not crimes but inconveniences. You can fight and fight and for what?”
When the rapist was charged, it wasn’t even called rape. He could have been sentenced for up to 16 years in prison but ended with 6 months in county jail reduced to 3 months.
When Turner was sentenced, the crime was not described as rape — but the law in California has since changed, as a result of Chanel’s case.
There is now a mandatory three year minimum prison sentence for penetrating an unconscious person or an intoxicated person, Chanel’s attorney Alaleh Kianerci explains. Another piece of legislation was written to expand the definition of rape to include any kind of penetration (“The trauma experienced by survivors cannot be measured by what exactly was put inside them without their consent,” she argued, in her support of the bill). (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49755850)
Her voice changed both legislation and practice. This is praxis. Her aspirations have shifted what is enforceable.
As challenging as these times are, I watch as voices of those traditionally oppressed get louder, call attention to themselves and their communities, mobilize and demand justice. I can’t help but feel hopeful as voices come together, on the streets, in courtrooms, in front of hotels, online, in front of government buildings and in boardrooms. When those marginalized speak truth to power, I feel assured that the world will ultimately become better — provided we listen and then change the legislation, policies and practices that uphold the injustices and not just as aspirations but as actions. Not just because we can be punished if don’t but because it is THE RIGHT THING TO DO! We need to feel hopeful when these voices come together and speak truth to power. We need to create the conditions where these voices are heard and honoured. It reminds me of what Carla Shalaby writes about in her book, Troublemakers:
“These troublemakers — rejected and criminalized — are the children from whom we can learn the most about freedom. They make noise when others are silent. They stand up against every school effort to force conformity. They insist on their own way instead of the school’s way. These young demand their freedom even as they are simultaneously the most stringently controlled, surveilled, confined, and policed in our schools. They exercise their power despite being treated as if they have none.”
I understand that combatting oppression in any form must be at a systemic level. We have to consider laws, policies, procedures and that it isn’t about the individual. But individuals change laws, policies, and practices. Individuals make the commitment to learn, grow, challenge, speak truth to power. Organizations will now create policies to combat anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, sexism, sexual harassment and assault, anti-semitism, classism but the lived reality in these organizations of those who continue to experience oppression, marginalization, threat and pain still exist.
We, each individually, must make the commitment to check our privilege, bias and actions if we are to continue to nurture what we claim to hold most dear. For me, that is tenacious commitment to creating and sustaining spaces of equity, social justice, and shared voice.
We have to recognize our discomfort and hold ourselves accountable. That feeling that we name “discomfort” or “unsafe” that shuts down learning and changing systems can be so subtle until it isn’t. It is that moment when it doesn’t feel “right”. We may feel it in the pit of our stomach, or maybe our heart races, our face turns red…sometimes it starts in our chest and moves up. There is no way to hide that we are in anxiety because you can see it on our skin as we noticeably flush, maybe even start sweating a bit. In this moment we must ask ourselves…
- Why do I feel anxious?
- Why did I look away?
- Why did my heart rate just increase?
- Why am I afraid to speak up in this space right now?
- What is going on in my mind right now?
- Is my fear of saying/doing it wrong more important that this person’s freedom?
These questions lead us to raise our consciousness. We begin to recognize our responses and can then move into a more cognitive, inquiring and reflective mode. We bring that which is unconscious to the fore. We often work to stifle these responses and then seek spaces where we won’t be challenged. Where the armour can come off and we can just be. But when we do that, we end learning. We stay with whomever we deem to be kin. We reinforce oppression.
People don’t act on their thoughts. They act on their feelings towards their thoughts and most people are conditioned to seek safety. ~Todd Herman
When we carry privilege, we have to make the personal commitment to first listen to ourselves. When we begin to know our signs of discomfort, we can then commit to question them. No workshop, training or conversation will have as a great an impact as you making the personal commitment to notice, question and learn your body and mind responses to your bias and privilege when challenged.
Below is a racial literacy self assessment drawn from a Robin DiAngelo text, What Does It Mean to be White? Developing White Racial Literacy which was created and posted by a friend, Tisha Nelson. She is calling for folks to develop a racial literacy for leadership if we are to resist anti-Black racism. So often white folks see themselves as not having a racial identity. We have been socialized to view our own identities as the norm by which all others are compared. We are led to believe we are neutral and from that, so are our views. The key here is that it is a self-assessment. A self-assessment asks individuals to honestly reflect on what skills they have and where they have to develop through further learning.
“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”
― Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
We need to own our own journeys. We can seek out community for learning, to challenge our thinking, to gain access to new ideas. All of these avenues are important. But, if we don’t make the personal commitment to know, to learn, to embrace discomfort, to step away from spaces of “safety”, be willing to say it is wrong, take a risk, speak up and act up, then the training, the policies, the procedures, and the aspirational legal documents — the laws, declarations, or codes are more than aspirational documents. They are statements of a better reality — a better world.
Special thanks to my brilliant brother, Michael Donsky, for helping think through the legal stuff…love you.