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Workshop teaches UWRF students, staff about minority oppression

March 26, 2009

A stone’s throw away from the diverse, thriving Twin Cities, UW-River Falls’ minority population remains at 7 percent. The City of River Falls’ minority population is 1 percent according to the 2000 census take by the U.S. Census Bureau.

An effort is being made by the Social Justice Committee to address the issue of white privilege for individual students and staff through a workshop about power, privilege and oppression-P2O. About 75 students signed up for the workshop, agreed to read Tim Wise’s book “White Like Me” and committed to attend two small book groups and Wise’s keynote speech March 21.

Leadership Training Coordinator Amy Lloyd experienced the workshop at a conference and was instrumental in bringing P2O to campus and combining the Wise book and speech elements. Because UWRF is a predominantly white campus, she said she felt it would be good to highlight white privilege.

An average student is not walking around going: “gosh, I’ve got a lot of privilege,” because when you have the privilege you don’t have to think about it,” Lloyd said.

P2O was created in 2004 at the University of Arizona. Two of the founders, Corey Seemiller and Judy Marquez Kiyama, were on hand to facilitate the workshops. The P2O presentation pointed out the institutions, like government, existing in the United States and the systems, like sexual orientation, that operate inside an institution. A person’s amount of privilege was boiled down to chips. Depending on the question, a chip was awarded or taken away. To move up in a social class, marked by signs and tape on the floor, relied on the number of chips a person held.

To make the experience as real as possible, the P2O workshop is tailored to the specific group. Seemiller worked ahead of time to research individual salaries and the cost of living.  Through the use of Excel spreadsheets, bankers kept track of all the money one can earn and spend during the activity.

Sociology senior Joshua Lambert, a participant, said P2O was a visual representation of an abstract concept.

“Living in a homogenous community like River Falls affords certain levels of privilege in that you don’t have to pay attention to the stratification, to the inequality,” he said. “I had 11 chips in my hand. In reality, that’s a call back from an interview. It means I do not get followed in a store.”

Before P2O, biology freshman Erica Wittrock said in an e-mail interview that she had not thought about race before. 

“It really made me realize that even though there are perceptions of equality, when we look at it from a different perspective, the big picture, you notice how truly diverse and segregated our society is,” she said.

A troubling aspect for one freshman participant was the fact that where a person starts out in a social class is where the person ends up, no matter how hard they work.

“It was disheartening to see that people who started in a lower position could never make it up the ladder,” Stephanie Marchiafava said in an e-mail interview.

After the activity with the chips, the groups discussed possible ways of taking action to create a change, an awareness, on campus. Kiyama, in an e-mail interview, said part of the P2O experience is about understanding “how we can move forward with creating change in the various institutions and systems.”

Without awareness, no action can be taken. Seemiller said in an e-mail interview she admired the UWRF participants’ dedication to grasp the affects of privilege and oppression. 

“It takes this kind of dedication to want to make a positive change,” she said.

Therese Selin, broad field social studies education major at UWRF, said she aspires to become a teacher who understands the different challenges her students may face.

“What good am I going to bring my students if I don’t understand the barriers that minorities or low-income students face,” she said. “It’s not about working hard; it’s about the hand you were dealt.”

Wise talked about white folk denying the fact they have advantages in the free copy of “White Like Me,” students received to read and discuss before Wise’s speech. Refusing to engage the issues of race and privilege leads to the false idea that everyone has an equal opportunity, Wise wrote.

Two students, Jennica Linn and Rebecca Peine, are doing a research project of how the experiences with P2O and the book groups might influence students’ attitudes with the help of Cyndi Kernahan, an associate psychology professor.

Wise’s speech, at 8 p.m. March 31, in the North Hall Auditorium, is open to the public. Lloyd said she thinks Wise’s wit and intelligence will connect with UWRF’s student body that does not have the background of P2O or the book.

“Attending the keynote speech on the 31st will challenge your views. You may or may not agree, you have that choice, but at least allowing yourself to hear another perspective cannot hurt you in anyway,” Lloyd said. “I think people will be talking about it afterwards and you might as well be a part of it. I would encourage people to get some friends together and check it out.”