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podcast: the fundamentals of anti-oppression with Rania El Mugammar

Go beyond the buzzwords to build a foundational understanding of an anti-oppression framework and how it applies to your organization and its mission. In this episode with Rania El Mugammar, an anti-oppression educator, learn how to understand power dynamics, oppression, and liberation.

Get familiar with the language of social justice and look at models for creating more equitable communities and organizations. In our conversation, we examine concepts of intersectionality, positionality, privilege, and oppression.

understanding equality and equity (and why neither are the best path to take)

Anti-oppression is something you do and something we need to consistently work towards.

It’s natural to think about equality as the pathway to anti-oppression, but this isn’t the case. Equality stems from the assumption that everyone should get the same thing because they need the same things and are all at the same starting place. That's simply not true. Equality fails to recognize that we are not all starting at the same place and doesn't account for existing power dynamics.

For example, we want families to have apples. Apples are good. So we equally give each family 10 apples. However, one family already has 50 apples, so now they have 60, while another family started with none, so all they have are 10. This doesn't provide balance or address the existing structures through which one family has 50 to being with and the other has none.

Equity focuses on giving people what they need… but this only works as harm reduction. In this senario, you give the 20 apples to the family that has none, therefore now one family has 50 and the other has 20. This helps breakdown some of the barriers, but it doesn't look at the systems that created the disparity in the first place.

Rania suggests designing for liberation which will break down barriers AND put another solution in its place.

designing for liberation

Design is a big part of the conversation. There’s a sense that we don’t know how we got here (where our systems are oppressive) and we forget that things are built with a certain intention. The systems were designed to oppress. This intention benefits certain people to survive and thrive in different conditions. Anti-oppression tells us that it’s possible to redesign the system (or create new ones) so that everyone can survive and thrive. Anti-oppression isn’t a theory, it’s something you do consistently and continuously.

Designing for liberation starts with a critical self-reflection. Look at your institutional history and evaluate what you’ve done in the past. Inclusion by design tells us to then take the most marginalized person and design backwards for them. Then you ask yourself, “does my programming fit this person? Is it accessible to them? Does it make sense for their needs and priorities? Have they been consulted in the design of this program? Is the person designing this program the best fit?” Rania suggests doing community consultations to help answer these questions.

the truth about diversity

Anti-oppression is not the same as diversity. It’s easy to say that your staff includes women and people of colour, but it’s not that simple. Take the names of your staff members and place them on a pyramid based on who they report to in an institutional hierarchy. Chances are, the pyramid will get “whiter” and more male as you reach the top. The result? You end up with a shallow form of diversity. What organizations should have are a diversity of experiences, opinions and capacities. The voices at the top of the organization should have people who push for change and use their power to let other voices be heard.

Diversity can be used to silence and tokenize people if we don’t self-reflect as an individual and an institution. It’s not the job of someone experiencing oppression to always be the one to point it out. Shift the conversation around reflection and meaningful inclusion.

meaningful inclusion is more than a seat at the table

Consider this: inclusion is when we invite people over for dinner. We pick the table settings, the location, the time and the food. The problem is that after we’ve invited everyone, the consideration for them stops there. In order to have meaningful inclusion, we need to make others part of the design of things. Some people may like spicy food, or are fasting or diabetic. Others may be vegan, vegetarian or require a gluten-free option. Someone may use a mobility device and will need a lower table. When you simply just include people, they get treated like an afterthought. They get invited to ill-fitting tables and then we wonder why they can’t advance or join in, or why they just leave. We need to work beyond just having good intentions in order to become an ally.

the anatomy of an apology

In order to meaningfully move forward in anti-oppression work, we have to understand how our own practices affect others. When we learn that we've contributed to the oppression of others (which we all do, at one point or another), there are two types of reactions we have. One is to focus on our intentions - with a response like "I'm sorry you feel that way". This emphasizes that we didn't intend for a certain impact of our actions or words, therefore, we minimize the feelings and impact it has on others. This has the impact of silencing others and reinforcing oppression.

Instead, Rania asks us to acknowledge and bear witness. We need to acknowledge that we are part of the systemic oppressions and barriers that people face. Intentional or not, how do we see the impact of our words and actions and work for change. To do this, we need to practice "emotional update" which is when you look at a person or community and acknowledge their feelings as valid without policing them on their appropriateness, intensity or duration.

Finally, we need to "centre the hurt". Feeling guilty is not the same as experiencing harm, so we need to put aside our feelings and best intentions, and focus on the person who is actually harmed in this situation.

how to have a meaningful conversation in your organization

The first thing that needs to happen is for an organization to normalize these kinds of conversations so that people don’t feel “attacked” or “called out.” Instead, they can see it as a transformative justice practice and an invitation to do better. This can come from simply telling them, “I know you can do better,” “I know you’re smarter than this” or “I know you have the capacity to be more empathetic and understanding.” This creates an environment of self-accountability with community support.

We all need to do work and the best way to do it is to reflect, apologize, take action. Rania also shared some great resources below to help your organization reach its equity, inclusion and anti-oppression goals through policy, process and practice.

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Resources from this Episode


Rania's website:

Showing up for Racial Justice:

The Small Nonprofit podcast is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano