Systems, Not Individuals

Last week was rough. I hope that you haven't despaired, that you haven't been triggered, that you don't feel silenced, but if you are anything like me and my women friends and colleagues in progressive, Indigenous, environmental, educational, and reproductive movements, you probably have not managed to escape unscathed.

I say "women friends and colleagues," but I also want to include my former students. My workload has kept me away from teaching for several semesters, but over the last few months, and particularly the last few weeks, past students have been reaching out. Without saying so directly, they seem to be looking for insight or optimism, and I'll admit that there have been times I've had to mark their emails "unread" until a day I could get it together to come back with something positive. There haven't been a ton of hopeful moments in the last couple of weeks.

A week ago yesterday, I got an email from one of my brightest former students, Grace, asking me if she could email me for a class project. Grace, a cinema major focusing on animation, was in a course I taught on social inequities and public health in the spring semester of 2017. The course included a critical thinking and media literacy component, and had a mandatory requirement of subscribing to, reading, and writing about articles in The New York Times. One day we were talking about giving and getting authentic feedback, and I'd joked about being bummed I hadn't appeared on the (now defunct) website Draw Your Professor yet. Grace left me a surprise on her daily class feedback card.

Drawing by Grace

Drawing by Grace

So, yes, that's a rendering of me making my student cry, but in my defense, there was a lot going on, both in the country and in the Bay Area, that had everyone feeling a bit raw.

Previously when I'd taught the course, my students had read Tony Judt and I'd spent a lot of time explaining who Reagan and Thatcher were and unpacking the concepts of neoliberalism and democratic socialism. My friends, who, like me, are products of the 1980s, were horrified to learn that my students knew virtually nothing about Ronald Reagan, much less Rock Against Reagan or ACT UP, but my students had been flabbergasted to hear about the War on Poverty, and the kind of social safety net the country once had, and they were taken with the potential of concepts like universal basic income and government-subsidized quality childcare. Like a lot of optimists, I'd assumed Clinton would be elected, and so I'd planned to just make a few tweaks to the syllabus for the new semester and then take some time off over the winter break. Of course, when the final votes were tallied, I had to reconsider my syllabus.

The new president was inaugurated on Friday, January 20, 2017. That Saturday, something like 4.2 million people across more than 600 U.S. cities took to the streets in protest, and my course kicked off bright and early on the following Monday morning. By the end of the week, the Trump administration had ordered a clampdown on the public communications of federal agencies and had issued executive orders expediting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors had been risking their lives to stand against, directing the federal government to fund a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and to freeze funding to sanctuary cities, and banning all entries of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Still, at the core, even though the seat and orientation (and demeanor) of power had drastically changed, my social science lens for the course was the same: systems thinking. To make this focus even more clear to my students, I repeated the mantra, "Systems, not individuals" at pretty much every class meeting and provided them with a simple tool for following through: the oppression-logic matrix.

Not actually much of a matrix, the oppression-logic matrix consists of four quadrants that, to get as simple and clear-cut as possible, are the main levers of oppression in American society: white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. These levers work individually or in various combinations to organize society – including our options, choices, and even our unexamined attitudes and biases.

Graphic by Me

Graphic by Me

Underneath each of these levers, we can imagine practices big and small that map and intersect: institutionalized racism, misogyny, heterosexism, colonialism, wage disparity, rape, ableism, over-policing, nationalism, ageism, etc. Our job in the course was to trace back every bit of inequity we encountered in our studies to the oppression matrix, to determine which of the levers the system was using to organize us.

While the majority of my students strongly identified with at least one category of oppression on the matrix, I asked them, for the purposes of this course at least, to pull back on their vision and strive to hold all four quadrants in focus as we moved through readings and discussions, and to keep asking themselves how many of the levers would need to be defunct for all of us to be free. They suspected I was looking for the answer "four," but they were quick to point out that I was being unrealistic. Over and over, students told me that the oppressions on the matrix were "just the way things are," that the desire to dominate was just human nature, and that inequity was, pretty much, "natural."

It was a tough time in the history of the country to be teaching social and economic inequities to a class of largely first and second generation immigrants, kids from low-income communities, and students of color – because it's a tough time to be any of those. And one of the things I realized was that, though I'd assumed my students would have references to recent protest movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter (and their right-wing counterparts), they knew very little, if anything, about these efforts to push back on oppression. They had a lot going on in their lives, and none of what they had going on supported reading the news.

I had worried that students would be bored reading the newspaper and I'd kind of have to hype it up, but the truth is that, given the timing, they were riveted. Horrified, sure, but still riveted. They weren't bored. But they sure were overwhelmed. The oppression logic tool helped with this, too. Find a reference to the inequality issue in the paper, and then trace it back to one or more of the four levers of oppression. Finally, one student observed out loud that there aren't a million things going on – there are a few things going on. Those few things take a million different forms, sure, but they keep coming back to these four big buckets: white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism.

And our interventions (this was a health education class, after all) – whether they are policy interventions or protest interventions or behavioral modification interventions – must attempt to grasp as close to the root as possible. And to do that, of course you have to be able to identify the root cause.

In any case, that brings us up to last week, when I heard from Grace again.

Photo by Beth Nakamura

Photo by Beth Nakamura

When Grace emailed me last week, coming up on two years after she began my class, and right in the middle of the Kavanaugh hearings, I was curious to see how she was holding up. She said she wanted to interview me about my consulting work, but I wondered if maybe she just wanted to talk. And so, when she arrived, after we'd recorded some responses to questions she asked about how I came to my passion for advocacy and equity, and how I work with my clients to support their efforts in advocacy and equity, I talked about the world right now and how to make sense of it. As so often is the case in these conversations with my friends and colleagues, we first centered on the players – on Trump and Kavanaugh and, implicitly, on Jason Van Dyke, a police officer who was then about to be sentenced for his standing over a crumpled up 17-year-old kid, Laquan McDonald, and shooting him a total of 16 times due to Van Dyke's suspicion that McDonald was wielding a knife.

The problem, I reiterated, is still the system, and we can't get distracted by those who are, sometimes intentionally, taking up all the air in the room (the room being the media in this case). We have to ask ourselves the hard questions – the critical questions that help us get at solutions to wicked problems: What is the appearance of Trump and his MAGA crew (and right-wing zealots and incels) right now telling us about white supremacy? About patriarchy and capitalism and imperialism? What is Kavanaugh's confirmation telling us about the state of the oppression matrix right now? Are the levers stronger than ever, or is the system showing signs of wear, maybe even close to buckling under pressure? What do we need to do to keep our heads in the game and defeat not just this individual bigot or that, but the oppressive system overall? How can we all get free? Can we actually all get free?

It's so easy to mistake individual behavior for "the thing." Behavior gets our attention. Trump's rallies with their chants of "Lock her up! Lock her up!" make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Kavanaugh's belligerent treatment of Senator Amy Klobuchar when she asked him about his history of drinking to the point of blacking out horrified me. Images of Officer Van Dyke standing over Laquan McDonald and shooting him repeatedly will haunt me forever. I'll admit I was pretty much knocked out in rage and despair for the better part of a couple of work days last week. So it was a good thing Grace called – it was good motivation to get it together.

I reminded her that Trump could easily be the first of many of his type who inhabit the White House, and we have every reason to believe that without intervention, some substantial percentage of white Americans will continue building racist, nationalistic, and misogynistic furor and lashing out violently against people of color, women, and immigrants. And the police are going to keep racially profiling and killing Black people unless something a lot more impactful than half-day anti-racist trainings happens.

The effective intervention for all of these social problems requires returning to the oppression matrix. If we know the tap root (or fibrous ball, as in grasses) is white supremacy, what are the secondary roots that feed it? A system-level problem requires a system-focused intervention, and so we have to look closely at some promising practices – no-cost and low-cost higher education, desegregation of jobs and neighborhoods, more access to quality jobs and livable wages, universal healthcare, etc.

I'm reminded of an activity I once did in another section of the same class Grace took with me – an activity about women drinking alcohol during pregnancy. I showed students the following image and asked them for their immediate response.

Stock photo. Completely staged. Don’t worry.

Stock photo. Completely staged. Don’t worry.

My students had some pretty negative visceral reactions to the thought of a pregnant woman drinking a bottle of vodka. Because it was a health education class, and I was asking them to think of the most effective intervention, there was some talk about "acceptable limits," focused largely on wine intake, but overall, the gut reaction was that women who drink hard alcohol, in particular during pregnancy, ranged from irresponsible to monsters.

I happen to have a personal connection to alcohol and drug use during pregnancy. Both of my sons were exposed, to different degrees, to substances that their biological mother ingested during pregnancy, and both suffer the effects. But one of my sons struggles with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), and is impacted to the degree that he carries distinctive facial features and limb features, vision and hearing problems, coordination issues, and a variety of social and behavioral issues. He's also quite charming and has gorgeously long eyelashes and a great sense of humor.

When I tell my students about my son, they typically ask me what I think of his birth mother, and I tell them the truth: I like her quite a bit. She's sweet and kind, and even though she's had more than her fair share of challenges in life, she's a good person.

Nevertheless, when it came time to get into groups and determine a best intervention for drinking while pregnant, my students’ solutions showed their focus on the individual and, therefore, on behavior modification. When they were done, I asked them to then go back to the drawing board and allow themselves to think ideally – what would an ideal, systems-level intervention look like?

This stumps them every time. They really can't do this at first.

So, I continue to tell them about my kids' birth mother and items outside of her control that greatly impacted her life chances and to which she was constantly reacting. After hearing her story and being directed back to the oppression matrix, they began to think about interventions that were much closer to the root issues of patriarchy and capitalism.

One of the best things about this exercise is that, in the end, they realize that in addition to halting the negative outcome of FAS for my son, their interventions would have kept the family intact – both of my kids could have stayed with their birth mother, in a healthy and economically sound home without substance abuse issues. Her life chances would have increased and so would theirs – as would their own children's. A pretty cool trick, and one that would have paid off beautifully.

Over these last almost-two-but-feels-like-twenty years, I've watched friends and colleagues go through so many reactions to the changes in our political and social landscape. Many of us have had fallouts with family members that may never be mended. Many of us have learned just how different our values are from folks we work with, parents of our kids' friends, and let's not even get started on Facebook friends.

What has remained constant is the way the media shapes our understanding of the situation. The media amplifies, and we react to the loud thing. The outrageous thing. We allow them to cherry-pick data in careless ways that end up pitting us against each other instead of helping us really dig down into the soil to get to the root of things, the fibrous root ball of this thing all of us are in together, whether we like it or not.

But we have to get in the habit of tracing the behavior back, back to the root, to see what the organizing system is. Otherwise, history suggests that the oppressed become the oppressors (which is the driving motivation of the current oppressors to stand their ground, to not risk losing the status that they believe they've earned).

In that way, the system organizes us. In fact, it organizes us against each other to keep the system intact. To beat the system, it must be transformed.

And that's what I reminded Grace of last week. That the whole point of learning about the system of oppression was so that we could see how it organizes us. When you see how you and others are being organized by the logic of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism, then you are in a better position to develop an intervention – to fight back strategically rather than to merely react to what is loudest or most appalling. When you recognize the oppression others are carrying, you are in a better position to destroy the system instead of destroying your neighbor. You are in a better position to enlist your neighbor on behalf of the best possible intervention.

My neighborhood.

My neighborhood.

I live with my husband in a flat on the top floor of an old Edwardian in the middle of San Francisco, up a steep flight of stairs with a sharp turn. A few years ago, I came up with the idea to give our climber-guests a break by giving them an excuse to stop at that sharp turn and catch their breath – stacks of give-away books and a sign that says TAKE ONE OR SOME! In order to make new room in our bookshelves, we're always feeding those stacks with books we've loved but would love someone else to read.

Last week, as Grace made her way down the stairs, I leaned over the top and urged caution (it's actually more dangerous going down than coming up), and suggested she stop and look at the books. She dropped to her knees on the step and started rifling through a stack, passing up two that I'd actually planted there for her the day before --  The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg and a book on cinema critique. She surprised me, instead, by picking up a copy of a textbook I'd used last year – Thinking Critically about Media and Politics by Donald Lazere.

"Is this, like, beginner level?" she asked me. "Will I understand it?"

I laughed. Grace was the highest-ranking student in my class at the end of her semester, but consistently the least self-assured. What she lacks in confidence, however, she makes up for in instinct.

"That's exactly the book pretty much everyone in the country should be reading right now," I told her.

She tucked the book under her arm and made her way down the rest of the stairs and out the front door.


Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.