As folks committed to creating a more sustainable planet, it is our responsibility to examine how all forms of oppression are interconnected and how they correspond to the degradation of the physical environment. Historically, the leadership of the mainstream environmental movement - including SYC - has tended to be mostly white, and mostly people of affluence. This leaves out some of the groups of people most affected by environmental degradation, like communities of color, whose leadership in the struggle to create a more sustainable planet continues to be marginalized, as it has been for 500 years.
Furthermore, racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism and heterosexism (among other things) are just as harmful to our human environment as is its physical degradation. Oppression separates us and prevents certain people's voices from being heard, ultimately limiting the scope of our victories in creating a more sustainable and just world. This section about Anti-Oppression is adapted from the Student Environmental Action Coalition.
A history of Anti-Oppression at SYC
The Sierra Youth Coalition (SYC) is working on many fronts to ensure that “anti-oppression” does not just become a fashionable topic of intellectual discussion where entrenched power dynamics remain unchallenged. We are critically examining how power dynamics and systems of oppression are operating within our own organization and membership, as well as researching structural possibilities for change that will institutionalize our commitment to moving forward as an anti-oppressive organization.
SYC’s Anti-Oppression Working Group was launched at the Fall 2007 National Sustainable Campuses Conference in London, Ontario. It is composed of students and youth from across Canada, SYC staff and executive committee members. The Working Group shares knowledge, experience, tools and resources in order to actively take on the responsibility of educating ourselves about how systems of oppression play out in our daily lives and behaviour, as well as in campus, volunteer and activist groups. With a more solid understanding of what anti-oppression has to do with us and our vision and practice of sustainability, we hope to take concrete responsible steps to address these issues in ourselves and in the groups we work with. If you are interested in participating in this working group, please email the Ontario Regional Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In moving forward recognizing how systemic oppressions concentrate the effects of environmental destruction, pollution and climate change in marginalized communities, it is important to create spaces where we can share stories of environmental injustices in Canada. Making connections and intersections between different struggles will make us stronger and more effective as young people working towards social and environmental change. Click for Internet Resources and articles about environmental justice.
When facing up to the contemporary and past realities of systemic oppression, it is common for certain people to experience feelings of guilt for being in a privileged social location (be that by race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc...). Guilt can be a useful phase of coming to consciousness when it leads to further explorations of how inherited privilege plays out in daily life, accompanied by active deconstruction of the basis and roots of those privileges. Stopping at guilt, however, freezes people in a state of defensiveness that reinforces current systemic oppressions by upholding the privilege of not acting to challenge oppression (which is not a choice available to all). The practice of anti-oppression directly addresses the limitations of the guilt model by providing tools and mechanisms that can help actively dismantle entrenched power dynamics in ourselves and the groups we belong to.
Ally: A member of a dominant group who works to dismantle any form of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit. Allied behaviour means taking personal responsibility for the changes we know are needed in society, but often ignore or leave to others to deal with.(Mariama Richards & Elizabeth DeNevi, The difference between an ally and a friend)
What follows are some sample questions for allies from different dominant groups adapted from the United Students Against Sweatshops caucuses.
- What does my own male privilege look like?
- What is heteronormativity?
- Does your group ever overlook a persons needs when organizing campaigns or events, such as how much time someone is able to spend on a certain task?
- Have you ever found yourself to count the amount of friends you have that are members of the people of colour community for legitimacy?
- I actively seek out education about the histories and experiences of womyn, genderqueer, transgender, and intersexed people.(Yes/No)
- I actively seek out education about the histories and experiences of people of colour. (Yes/No)
- Is work often designated along gender lines in my local group?
Here is a short selection of important definitions central to anti-oppression work:
Ableism: an action or institutional practice which normalizes certain bodies and abilities, leading to barriers to full participation for people who fall outside of this "normal" standard.
Classism: persistent inequality on the basis of social and economic class.
Gender: Gender denotes a social, cultural, or psychological condition, as opposed to that of biological sex. Some people do not have a gender identity that corresponds to their biological sex, namely transgender, transsexual, intersexed and genderqueer individuals.
Ethnocentrism: exists when communities are controlled by one particular ethnic group. The dominant group is hostile and closed to challenge and/or difference. Members of the group intentionally impose their understanding of reality and ideas onto everyone in the community. People who are not members of the dominant culture feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and oppressed.
Environmental Justice: the movement led by communities of color against environmental racism, and for sustainable, self-determined and just communities (Movement Strategy Center).
Environmental Racism: The set of structures, institutions, practices and ideas that produces unhealthy, poisoned environments, concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color worldwide (Movement Strategy Center).
Heterosexism: an overt or implied bias against homosexuality, stemming from the belief that heterosexuality is superior or the only acceptable sexual expression.
Homophobia: is the fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals. It can also mean hatred, hostility, or disapproval of homosexual people, sexual behavior, or cultures.
Patriarchy: A system that privileges men over women, and also men over other men as a hegemonic gender order imposed through individual and collective behaviors and institutions. Within it, gender interacts with other attributes such as ethnicity, race, power and social class.
Privilege: A right, advantage, favor or immunity specially granted to one, especially a right held by a certain individual, group or class and withheld from certain others or all others. While many aspects of our lives we consider common basic rights, when others are denied them they become privileges. For example. As people of color are 3 times more likely to be pulled over by police, and yet white people are 4 times more likely to actually possess drugs in their car- it becomes a privilege- granted only to white people to safely pass by police.
Oppression: The power and the effects of domination. It refers to the injustices some groups experience as a consequence of institutionalized power and privilege assigned to others. It can also show up as unconscious assumptions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions which are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by institutions such as schools, governments, companies, organizations etc. Some define it simply as prejudice plus power.
Racism: The belief that people of different ethnicities have inherent and different qualities and abilities, based on the erroneous conception of ethnicity as the existence of genetically different biological human races. Also the ability to act on such faulty premises, and to establish social structures and institutions to promote a system of advantage based on racial superiority.
Reverse Racism: A non-term used by white people to deny their privilege. People of color do not have the same institutional power to back up individual or group prejudices that white people have. (Challenging White Supremacy)
Sexism: an action or institutional structure which subordinates or limits persons on the basis of sex. As with racism, the possession of power is key. Most real power in the United States lies in the hands of men (although certainly not all men). Men use that power to oppress and exploit women. But women as a group have no power base, no institutional control, from which to oppress and exploit men, either as a group or separately (although individual women may exploit men).
Whiteness: A set of locations that are historically, socially, politically, and culturally produced and, moreover, are intrinsically linked to unfolding relations of dominance (R. Frakenburg). This location, or set of locations is an identity, a culture, a place people go to in order to hide from a marginalized identity and gain privilege, as well as a place some try to run from out of guilt. A far-reaching danger of whiteness coded as “no culture” is that it leaves in place whiteness as defining a set of normative cultural practices against which all are measured and into which all are expected to fit. This normativity has underwritten oppression from the beginning of colonial expansion and has had impact in multiple ways.
For more definitions, check out Rainforest Action Network Principles of Coalition Building by Mariama Richards and Elizabeth DeNevi- with a caveat that these are American in context, for example the term multiculturalism has a much different cultural meaning in Canada, where it is often used to deny the reality of racism and discrimination in Canada.
In pursuing anti-oppression work, it is important to ensure that you work with experienced anti-oppression facilitators to avoid making a tokenistic commitment that leads to no change. SYC has developed a Anti-Oppression Resources Guide for you that includes speakers and trainers from across Canada who can address the intersections between sustainability and anti-oppression work while providing tools to dismantle power dynamics operating within your groups. Here are other ressources grouped under specific topics: