As someone who has been involved for a number of years in various avenues of progressive organising, from SRC to unions and political groups, I have observed the interaction with these organisations and identity politics. I have learnt that certain aspects of a person’s background matter when it comes to how they are treated within the organisation, just as it matters to how they are treated in broader society. In particular, political groups are dominated by people of privilege – mostly, white, middle-class, able-bodied men. This leads to those who are more socially privileged feeling more comfortable to stand for elections for positions with names like ‘President’ or ‘Environment Officer’. When many people in positions of ‘power’ look like you, sound like you and has a similar background/experience to you, then it’s a lot easier to put your hand up for similar things – it’s culturally supported. When we turn on the television or look at the names and faces of those heading boards in all sorts of organisations, this is overwhelmingly clear, and makes it easier for particularly white men to feel comfortable putting their hands up for positions, they might even feel entitled to it.
Yet when you look around at grassroots organising, the people engaging in activism are usually women and often, women of colour and/or working class women. The personal is political and the politics of identity and personal relations are everywhere. Whether we like it or not, we need to acknowledge that privilege exists and that subsequent power relations also exist.
It is up to us within progressive movements to be actively aware of our own privilege in our interactions and organisations. Questioning your own privilege is difficult, it is challenging and can be confronting especially when you feel like you’re just trying to help. However, progressive movements need to be empowering those they represent and not just speaking for or over people from oppressed backgrounds.
Inevitably, our friendship circles and people we get along with are, most of the time, made up of people who look, think and act like ourselves. Does this mean when we are working within organisations we also recruit people similar to ourselves? People from the same economic class? Same district? Often, we end up doing this. If everyone in your organisation looks the same, goes to the same events and comes from a similar background to you, then you’ve got a problem. Look around, how many people in your organisation are white? How many people live near each other? How many people identify as queer? How many women are in your organisation and how does anyone in have a (dis)ability? Do you think that members will feel comfortable ‘coming out’ and identifying themselves as any of these things? Why or why not?
If this is the case, perhaps it’s worth thinking about a few things to become more inclusive and ask yourself and your organisation a few questions such as:
- Do you always meet in the evenings?
- Do you meet at a bar?
- How many people of colour and women come to your meetings?
- Are your meeting spaces and activities accessible to people with various abilities?
Evening meetings and especially meetings in bars can be alienating to people of colour, women, people with (dis)abilities and even queer people. It’s important to ensure we’re maintaining safe spaces and evenings and bars aren’t always the safest for those who are uncomfortable with the connotations of violence or the effects that alcohol can have. Some people might have a difficult history with alcohol or may have cultural factors that mean that venues that serve alcohol are not considered appropriate. Evening meetings can create issues of safety, especially for women who have to travel long distances to get home or people who are limited by public transport. Issues as simple as this might limit activity in your organisation and you might find yourself deprived of some amazing and diverse activists.
Make the effort to open up your organisation, mix up your activities and do things differently each meeting or every second meeting. If you normally meet at the bar, have every other meeting out on the lawn and have a picnic in the sun. Maybe think about ensuring your meetings are at different times each week or that you have two meetings a week – one in the day and one in the evening so that a broader range of people can come.
Have a look through your mailing list, maybe there are some culturally diverse names on your list but they never come to meetings, or women who also never come to meetings, it might be worth giving them a call or meeting up and chatting to them about how your organisation works, and if they want to get involved.
Remember though, be careful about being condescending or compartmentalising others, particularly the token woman or token culturally diverse student and so on, we’re people not just bodies, gender, sexuality or colour!
Diversity is strength and not a hindrance, while it might be frustrating to think of ways to open up your organisation and expand your organising when you have a model that has worked so well for so long. It can be difficult to think about adapting but trust me it’s worth it.
Neha Madhok is a communications student at the University of Technology, the National Environment Officer for the National Union of Students and lives in Campbelltown. She would love to see more women of colour from western Sydney engaging in student activism and unions.