Core Capacities Overview: Power, Privilege, Justice and Equity

Recognize and Consciously Work with Questions of Power, Privilege, Justice and Equity

For many, words like diversity, inclusion, as well as equity and justice, are increasingly familiar. And yet, each of these words is imbued with myriad assumptions and beliefs, and each benefits from ongoing inquiry, reflection and conscious activation. In D-L Stewart’s (2017) hypothetical dialogue between justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, they provide a way of reflecting on the distinctions between these concepts and, in doing so, invite engagement and dialogue practitioners to deepen their own practice and ask themselves similar questions when gathering and convening. A portion of the dialogue is as follows:

Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”

Inclusion asks, “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”

Diversity asks, “How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?” Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?”

Inclusion asks, “Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?” Justice challenges, “Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?” (Stewart, 2017).

When we think about what it means to engage consciously with questions of power, privilege, justice and equity, these kinds of inquiries can provide an important pathway of reflection into action. These questions relate to the systems, conditions and structures in which all of us operate and through which some of us benefit more than others, as a result of unearned privileges and power. The Interaction Institute for Social Change (2011) describes unearned privilege as “systematic advantage that is granted based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or other dimensions of diversity, regardless of individuals’ personal characteristics or efforts” (Interaction Institute for Social Change, 2011). Positional power within an institution or community, while not named specifically in the above definition, is also important to consider when engaging within and across organizations, and is often reinforced by racial, gender-based and socio-economic privileges.

As noted above, in order to shift these conditions, critical self-reflection about our own location within these systems, how we benefit or not from them, and the role we are committed to playing in moving them closer to justice and equity, is essential. An ongoing commitment to learning and unlearning patterns and behaviours that reinforce these systems is needed, as well.

One of the very specific ways that this competency links to climate adaptation work is in the recognition that those who are often most vulnerable to climate change impacts, or whose ways of life are most at risk, are also those who have historically and in present time been excluded from and/or marginalized by the kinds of processes and structures being used to develop and implement these plans. This includes Indigenous peoples (Baird, 2008), as well as racialized and low-income communities.

As Rosa González (2019) writes in The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership, we need to:

“Acknowledge marginalization as the status quo practice of current systems that have been historically designed to exclude certain populations, namely low-income communities, communities of color, women, youth, previously incarcerated people, and queer or gender non-conforming community members. This understanding is important because if concerted efforts are not made to break-down existing barriers to participation, then by default marginalization occurs” (p. 4).

As convenors, designers and facilitators of these processes, whether we hold formal or informal roles, we have power to shape them, to influence who is included or not, whose voices are lifted up and given space to influence outcomes. As Gwendolyn Blue (2018) argues, “An absence of attention to issues of power means that public deliberation in practice can serve to reinforce rather than challenge existing social patterns of inequality.” More attention to ways of convening conversation and dialogue that challenge dominant forms of thinking and collaborating are explored in Module Four.

Readings are included, throughout the course, to build our ability to engage in this lifelong work of shifting historically harmful patterns in the direction of better, more just and equitable outcomes.


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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