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Reflecting on Privilege

City Year Detroit AmeriCorps member Niamh Stull working with students at Noble Elementary-Middle School.

One of the most important aspects of our service as Americorps members is being able to critically reflect on our own experiences and identities to be better mentors to our students. It is particularly important for us to be mindful of the privileges or hardships that come with certain aspects of our identity. Thinking about privilege is an ongoing part of our training and day-to-day work as corps members. To help facilitate this ongoing reflection we had Naomi Khalil speak at one of our Learning and Development days.

Naomi Khalil has an extensive history as an educator in the Detroit school system. She has worked as a teacher, union rep, curriculum coordinator, assistant principal and as a principal. She then transitioned from working directly in the classroom to working on the advocacy aspects of successful teaching in roles as Deputy Executive Director of Equity Advocacy and Senior Executive Director of Equity Advocacy. Naomi Khalil recognizes that a fulfilling education is not just composed of a strong curriculum focused on subjects such as reading and math but that it is also important to make students feel recognized and heard in the way that teachers interact with them and the books and aspects of history that they are taught. Naomi now runs Creating Fires for Justice, which provides consultation, facilitation, advocacy and change management solutions across industries.

Naomi started the session by having the corps split in half and stand in lines facing each other. She then read a series of statements that started off broad such as “move if you have siblings” or “if you are not from metro Detroit”. As we moved from line to line with each statement, we slowly started to learn more about our fellow corps members but nothing too personal. However, as the activity went on Naomi moved to asking more personal questions like whether we had a family history of mental health problems or addiction. Once the exercise was over, she led a group discussion where corps members shared their reflections from the activity. People discussed how they were more hesitant to move as the questions got deeper and sometimes even waited for someone else to move before they did. This exercise was interesting because it was deeply personal and reflective of your own experience and yet took place in a shared space. The activity was reflective of everyday life where we are all privately going through various situations but while also interacting with other people who are not involved with our personal life and who bring their own personal triumphs and hardships. After this exercise, Naomi shifted to talking about privilege – something that we all have to some extent and affects the people around us, but that we often don’t talk about.

To start our discussion Naomi asked corps members to give characteristics, examples and non-examples of privilege. From these categories we then each created our own definition of privilege and shared out with a partner. Alongside that activity, we also had individual reflection time where we looked at a series of descriptors such as age, race, religion, etc. We then put ourselves in the “target” or “non-target” group depending on whether we held the power in a certain group or not. “Non-target” was the privileged group and “target” was the non-privileged group. Naomi explained that the point of the activity was not to engage in a competition of who fell into the most “target” groups, but rather to have us all look critically at ourselves and realize all of us hold some amount of privilege. Evaluating where we have privilege and how our privilege is expressed is crucial for everyone to think about, but is particularly important for us in our role as AmeriCorps members. As we enter our schools each day we all have to be aware of our privilege in relation to the students that we serve.

Every day we are entering the Detroit Public Schools Community District community at our various schools that have a student population that is predominantly black and of a lower socioeconomic status. As AmeriCorps members, it is important for us, regardless of whether we too fall into these “non-target” groups, to be aware of these potential aspects of our students’ identities. If corps members also identify as Black and of lower socioeconomic status, then they can find common ground with their students and be an example of all the possibilities that our students have, while still acknowledging their privilege as the adult in the relationship. On the other hand, corps members can also find themselves in a position where they might fall into many more “target” categories than many of our students. Recognizing these privileges are crucial for a positive AmeriCorps member-student relationship because it builds trust and understanding. Being open with students about where you come from and the opportunities you have been given shows the student that you are not trying to act like them or assume things about their lives, but that you do want to bring knowledge from your life to your student-teacher relationship, just as you want them to bring their authentic selves to the relationship too.

Naomi Khalil’s talk was one of many that we as corps members will have throughout our year of service surrounding identity and privilege. We thank her for taking the time to speak with us and add to this crucial conversation. As we move throughout the year we will continue to be reflective of our own experiences and lean on each other and the CYD staff to keep building positive relationships with our students.

Written by Niamh Stull who serves as an AmeriCorps member at Noble Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.

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