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Five strategies for confronting oppression [voices from the field]

For the past 27 years, I have had the privilege of learning from some of the greatest leaders in our country. Who are these leaders? They are the thousands of City Year AmeriCorps members who are willing to fight for students and educational equality, racial equity and access to opportunity. They want to see, as we all do, all kids reaching their full potential.

I’ve traveled across the country to conduct countless trainings for our AmeriCorps members, helping prepare these young leaders for their service in schools. The work is difficult and draining–so many of the students that our AmeriCorps members serve are facing unbelievable challenges and adversity. I focus much of my training on leadership, diversity, communication and equity. These topics allow AmeriCorps members to reflect on who they are, the role they will play on their City Year team, and how to partner with the kids we serve.

The lessons I’ve learned from these young adults shaped me as a man, a husband and, most significantly, as a father of three boys. As we struggle as a country to grasp why some people are given opportunities while others struggle just to get to the table, my personal experiences have made me even more committed to understanding the privileges I have as a male, and at the same time, the disadvantages I have as a man of color.

Once you have become ‘woke,’ what do you do? When you are faced with realities you have either embraced or run from, what is the next move?

Here are some strategies I have used to dissect these tough questions with the more than 20,000 young adults I have been privileged to work with in my lifetime.

You may not face systemic barriers, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

By denying that there are systemic barriers on many different levels of our society that keep certain groups from reaching their full potential, we are actually strengthening the system’s ability to thrive while simultaneously denying help for those most vulnerable.

Don’t run from the data.

When City Year AmeriCorps members are exposed to the systems that allow some to have advantages and others to fall victim, I have seen them respond with an overwhelming sense of guilt or anger. We must understand that the journey toward healthy communities has no room for guilt or anger. As individuals, we need to transcend the emotion or the pain we may feel and work to find solutions to deconstruct these systems, both as a community and as individuals.

The solution is in the pain.

We cannot afford to let guilt or fear keep ourselves from truly experiencing and displaying empathy for groups that you may willingly or unwillingly victimize. Becoming tactical and only pushing for solutions can invalidate the victim’s experiences with systems that have kept them down. In order to truly find solutions, we must be willing to experience the pain.

Embrace our history as a map for collaborative action, not a reason to harbor anger or guilt.

These emotions lead to behaviors that will keep us from progress. It’s easy to get angry, but hard to have an open discussion on what makes us angry. It is only through honest dialogue we can as individuals educate ourselves on lessons from the past.

The “beloved community” is not a destination.

The civil rights movement can feel uncomplicated for some. For others, it represents an incomplete strategy. To truly believe in the concept of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community,” that one day regardless of color, gender and socio-economic class, everyone can succeed, means that we must be committed to walking the path of the beloved community every day. The beloved community must be both a way of life and a destination we aspire to one day reach.

If we are to truly nurture the next generation of leaders who will continue the difficult and urgent work of wrestling with the issues, structures and systems that oppress some members of our greater community, we must create a culture of awareness through honest dialogue. We need the next generation to not be us, but instead become better versions of us. These five strategies may serve to only start the conversation, but that alone will be valuable in our path towards a just and fair world for all.

This first post in our Voices from the Field series comes from Stephen Spaloss, a veteran of City Year who started his service with the organization in 1990 at the “request” of the New Hampshire court system. Despite this dubious start, Stephen rose through the ranks, helping to found several City Year sites and serving as co-founding Executive Director of City Year Philadelphia. He currently is a Regional Vice President, overseeing operations and providing direct leadership to five City Year sites. Stephen is a sought-after motivational speaker and trainer who has presented at national conferences, before congressional leaders, and in countless school and board rooms across the country. Most importantly, Stephen is a father to sons Jahi, Malik and Myles. 

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