43 Our Involvement in Oppressive Systems
Author’s trigger warning: mention of child sexual abuse, abortion
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. –Margaret Mead
For this reflection I’d like to revisit a quote that I shared 3 years ago when asked about what participation in the CPLC meant to me. I have spent a lot of time reflecting about the past few years and my participation in academia. A lot has changed; I am different now and this quote lands a little differently.
Recently I have been in situations where I have been called upon to examine my own participation in oppressive systems. Most recently, I have examined this relationship within in my work with the Youth Success Project (YSP). The YSP is a group of youth and young adults with lived experience in homelessness at the forefront of solving homelessness among young people in New Hampshire. The mission of the YSP is to create an equitable platform for youth voice in decision making spaces through collective power and advocacy work led by those who have been most marginalized. In 2021, the YSP chose PSU as their new fiscal sponsor and I am their first (and often only) point of contact with PSU.
Through work with YSP and consistent reflection, I have become keenly aware of the privilege I hold and the oppression I condone through my participation in the oppressive systems I operate within. One of my colleagues in this work likened it to getting on a plane. She said that you had to “get on the plane to be able to fly it.” In other words, you had to work within the oppressive system to be able to change it. As a lifelong Social Worker, I have believed this and worked most of my career trying to create change in this way. However, I am beginning to see this choice differently. I feel the harm in this choice.
Now that I see things differently, I see applicable examples everywhere. The most recent is in the recent Supreme Court draft decision about Roe V. Wade.
Over 20 years ago, I was in a training to become a crisis intervention worker on a 24-hour hotline for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. I heard a statistic that has stuck with me since. Half of pregnant adolescents have a prior history of childhood sexual abuse (Knoll, Shank & Putnam, 2009). Many girls who survive sexual abuse are the same people who experience teen pregnancy. The International Center on Research on Women (nd) reports that only 1-3% of perpetrators of sexual violence, including rape and child sexual abuse are convicted of any crime. And, while difficult to get an accurate estimate, an estimated 90% of perpetrators are men.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are oppressed by the systems that are supposed to help them. Out of 115 justices who have served on the Supreme Court, only five have been women. With the forthcoming decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, many women will no longer have access to life-saving and altering healthcare, and particularly women with histories of trauma, women of color, and/or women from low income background. Lack of access to healthcare is oppression and will have been a decision made at the hands of men in power.
Those who are affected by social problems are also those who have been oppressed by the system meant to help them. To return to the work I do with the Youth Success Project, they are working hard to elevate youth voice in decision making spaces. They are working to change the homeless services system so that it is less oppressive to those who experience homelessness, and their work focuses on the harm inflicted by this system of “care” upon young people. Within this system, youth and young adults are often cast aside because of their age, membership with the LGBTQ community, or their “lack of experience.” They often face challenges like histories of trauma, a challenge that are linked in very complicated ways to substance use and survival sex among other outcomes of trauma, another example of how oppression becomes individuals’ problems. Many people have experienced trauma at the hands of those in power, and have fallen victim to other outcomes, rooted in unworthiness, anger, and/or hopelessness. These outcome are often then blamed on individual deficiencies, rather than its connection to the trauma and oppression many have endured.
When we participate in oppressive systems meant to assist people with problems we have lived, we become both the oppressor and the oppressed.
The harm we inflict matters, even if it is inflicted while trying to change the system.
We know this, because we have also endured it.