A Web of Privilege

Posted by Jason Novak on 7/29/17 8:18 AM

As a white male charged with the important position of school division director, I am always engaged with and looking for different avenues to use my own privilege and positional power to impact positive change, honor and uphold individuality, and bring about equity and justice in education and beyond. I can remember a conversation I had with two of my faculty members in the fall of this past school year in which I challenged them to do the same. They had both approached me about attending a specific professional development experience that they were truly passionate and excited about. After a wonderful conversation together, and acknowledging that this would be the third or fourth professional development these two would engage in related to diversity and inclusion work, I charged them to find an outlet where they could put their skills and newly-acquired understandings to the test in the form of action.

Power, Privilege, and Practice: The Symposium

This past school year also brought forward an important endeavor in my own work in independent schools. I was approached by Crissy Cáceres, assistant head of school for equity and social impact at Georgetown Day School. For several years, Crissy had envisioned an in-depth learning experience for white educators lead by white educators that had, at the core, connection, reflection, complexity, bravery, and individual and collaborative action. Crissy was interested in having me develop and co-facilitate a multi-day symposium that would be open to a regional audience and would evolve to attract a national audience. My co-facilitator would be Peg Schultz, chair of physical education and health for the lower and middle schools at GDS, who has been a life-long learner and action agent for social justice. Peg and I met and developed a strong partnership a few years ago while working as facilitators for the white affinity group at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference. Over the course of a year, we met on a regular basis, and together we developed a curriculum designed to explore, examine, and employ the complexities of what it means to be a white educator in our independent schools. We also developed a set of best practices to honor and uphold our mission as equity and social justice educators in our mutual school communities.

This work, for which I have a great deal of passion, connection, and care, would be sure to drive action and change in others, and thus, Peg and I plunged into the opportunity. We dove into reviewing and creating various resources, supports, systemic practices, and structures to build a model for a cohort of fellow educators. Within a few months, “Power, Privilege, and Practice, Unpacking our White Selves: A Summer Symposium” was born. We were joyful to learn that not only would our inaugural cohort include many local educators, it would also include members from various parts of the country.

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A first set of steps we undertook was to engage with and dissect our own understandings of privilege and white privilege. We went through numerous resources, reviewed multiple strands of previous professional development experiences, connected with colleagues nationally, and tapped into the work of Peggy McIntosh, Debby Irving, Ali Michael, and other leading practitioners. Diversity Work In Independent Schools, The Practice and the Practitioner, published by NAIS, was one of many tools supporting us in our work.

Now, a few weeks following the Symposium, I have many pieces that continue to come forward for me as a point of reflection. Crissy, Peg, and I have also taken the time to connect around the important assessment feedback we received from the cohort participants. A humbling experience for us was being able to sit with the feedback that not only affirmed the impact of the mission and goals, but also indicated how thirsty white educators are for both guidance and a skills-based understanding that they have meaningful and essential contributions to make in the vast landscape of equity and inclusion work. One activity that came forward several times in our feedback, known as the Web of Privilege, still sits with me as being an activity that drew upon important awareness and generated lasting impact for many of the participants in our inaugural group.

Web of Privilege Activity

The framework Peg and I constructed for the Web of Privilege activity involved acknowledging multiple statements related to the experience of white privilege, including phrases like:

  • I have a network of people I can access for career information or advancement
  • My immediate family is white
  • I grew up in a white, suburban community

Our participants decided which phrases spoke directly to their own personal experience. Using white yarn, we began by making connections, and the web of connected experiences grew from a few strands to hundreds of strands within a room of 24 participants.

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I noticed that some individuals were struck by the sheer amount of privilege that was found within a room of educators. Others noticed the “pull” of privilege and spoke to how even when they felt like they could finally let go of the web, privilege had the power to always pull them back into an experience. A group of us noticed the complexity found within white privilege and the actual weight of the web where pockets of yarn were spilling out onto the floor.

A Push to Deliberate Action

As I take this summer to reflect on the work of schools, and specifically our work at Lowell School, I also take the many reflections, self-awareness, and “aha” moments that were shared at this year’s Symposium. As we, as whites, continue to pursue equity and justice in our institutions and in the greater world, I ask us to deeply question our work, how we understand the work, how we hold ourselves accountable, and the ways in which we align ourselves with those who continue to be marginalized in society. It is clear from the state of our nation and world that we are at a critical juncture, and we must take steps to act. As such, I present the following questions to push us into places of deliberate action:

  • Who are we looking to and including in our work, and who have we not yet partnered with?
  • Are we using our privilege and power to eradicate systems, structures, and practices that cause pain and continue to marginalize students and people of color?
  • What more can we be doing in our practice with students, families, and our colleagues?

Should you be a faculty member or administrator who identifies as white, I welcome you to consider sending a team of colleagues to next year’s Symposium. Registration will be released in November of 2017.

If you are a parent reading this blog, I invite you to share this information with your school and find out what work your community is doing to take action in equity, inclusion, and social justice work.

The time is now for each of us to responsibly take a step toward action that matters, that is necessary, and that upholds the values of our shared humanity. May the many webs we experience in our lives continue to inform our realities, allow us to see the positivity of power and passion, drive us to question our practices, and push us to act with immense fortitude.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Jason Novak

Written by Jason Novak

Jason Novak is the director of Primary School at Lowell School. He received his BS in music education, K-12, from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and his MA in educational leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, NY. In addition to his work as a music teacher and school administrator, Jason has also worked closely with educational and child advocacy groups such as the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS), the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators, the Human Rights Campaign, the Friends Council on Education, and local and national chapters of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association.