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Winter 2011

Volume 39
Number 3

40 Years of PSEW



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Donna Maeda

Donna Maeda
Building a Praxis for Transformational Change
By Donna Maeda, professor of critical theory and social justice, Occidental College

The fortieth anniversary of the Program on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) provides an important opportunity to celebrate women’s progress in higher education. But it also offers a critical chance to reflect on what deep and lasting success would mean for women from different communities. Considering the present state of higher education—including persistent limits to access and success for students, faculty, and staff from all communities—the continued need to address issues of difference using a combination of theory and practice is clear. Many women, particularly women of color whose lives are shaped by multiple, multifaceted dynamics of difference, endure continued erasure from the higher education landscape. But decades of theoretical and practical work on the complexities of identity and the dynamics of difference and power provide resources for institutional work toward supporting women’s full presence in the academy. Multicultural alliances are essential to building this praxis for transformational change.

PSEW has signaled the importance of such alliances through its relationship with Campus Women Lead (CWL), a national collaborative of women with deep diversity across race, class, sexuality, age, and different positions and types of institutions. Drawing from this diversity, CWL offers space for its members to practice theoretical models of working across difference that cannot yet be applied in many institutional settings, where significant diversity is rarely a reality. As an organization, CWL works to develop practices of inclusive excellence that benefit from its members’ diversity. Rather than relying solely on academic learning about difference, it draws on members’ lived experiences based in multiple, intersecting identities and communities as resources for the practical work of transformational institutional change.

Leadership from Everywhere

CWL fosters inclusive excellence in institutions of higher education by advancing leadership by women who embody multiple forms of diversity. The alliance shares in PSEW’s work to enhance women’s leadership by offering workshops on individual campuses and with regional and national networks. In these workshops, participants engage in rethinking women’s leadership as “leadership from everywhere”—from all points throughout each institution.

Rather than focusing on professional development for women seeking traditional leadership positions, CWL works with women to understand how they can exercise leadership from whatever positions they hold. This concept of leadership builds on the idea that transformation comes from strategizing, building relationships, and gathering support for different levels of change. It represents an essential tool within institutions whose official leaders do not yet prioritize inclusive excellence, and for those whose official leaders are working toward inclusion as a way of building support for more deep-seated changes. By valuing leadership from everywhere, stakeholders acknowledge that important work can be (and often is) accomplished even when the diversity that frequently drives such work is lacking in official leadership positions.

The skills associated with leading from everywhere are an important basis for developing broader strategies for change. By nourishing women’s leadership from everywhere, CWL challenges the limits women of color face vis-à-vis their low numbers in traditional positions of leadership and supports different forms of power and empowerment throughout institutions. Acknowledging diverse perspectives and experiences as sources of strength, CWL promotes the recognition of leadership from everywhere as a way to build new institutional awareness while supporting the agency of all leaders within each institution. Through this approach, CWL works to build new strategies for institutional transformation toward inclusive excellence.

Alliances across Difference

When diverse women come together with shared commitments to improving education for all by focusing on the circumstances of women, they have an opportunity to bridge their individual experiences and form complex understandings about the meaning of collective identity. This collaborative work acknowledges different levels of privilege attached to identity categories, challenging both essentialist understandings of “women” as a category without internal differences and ideas of privileged women as assisting “other” women. In this framework, women of color (and white women, too) are understood as embodying complex, multiple, intersecting differences rather than as representing collections of stable differences. Each woman is present not as an expected representative of a complex community, but as an agent who can bring to the table what may be hidden, forgotten, or unknown. Within CWL, this understanding challenges members to unpack stereotypical representations and question our own certainties about diversity. As a result, members become agents of transformational work in which each participant is also transformed by the collaboration.

This process raises vital questions about the tension between ensuring various kinds of representation and the potential for reproducing stereotypical expectations about different diversities. For example, each CWL workshop is led by a team consisting of at least two cofacilitators of different backgrounds. When identifying cofacilitators whose diversities include categories like race, the collective faces the challenge of complicating those very categories—resulting in a delicate balancing act. For example, the group may want to counter the paradoxical hypervisibility and invisibility of Asian American women by including an Asian American facilitator in a workshop, but without suggesting that its Asian American members are interchangeable. The dilemma challenges us to ask: what shared experiences connect a Chinese American daughter of immigrants who grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Oakland, California; an immigrant woman from Hong Kong; and a third-generation Japanese American  from a Midwestern suburb? Similar questions arise among African American women and Latinas who likewise embody different class backgrounds, sexualities, ages, physical abilities, and geographies.

In exploring these tensions, CWL members have learned to acknowledge differences without claiming to speak for others’ experiences. This is especially important when members are called to confront different levels of privilege around varying axes of difference. The group shares an understanding that if someone (whether a workshop participant or one of our own members) expresses negative attitudes that come from a place of privilege, it is the responsibility of those who share that privilege to respond. By addressing problematic statements across shared privilege, members can shield their allies from constantly bearing the burden of challenging the stereotypes that affect them most negatively.

By bringing such complexities to the forefront, CWL creates rich sources for workshop materials that can likewise surface participants’ expectations or presumptions about facilitators’ identities. The group thus draws from its own learning experiences to lead participants in conversation about what ties together members of identity groups and how intersecting differences complicate common presumptions about identity categories. Our shared struggles to unpack our own assumptions about and ways we are shaped by racialized expectations prepare us to lead others in deepening their understandings about the complexity of difference. This learning (and unlearning) makes alliance-building possible.

The Promise of Alliance-Building

CWL’s work in multicultural alliance building explicitly confronts the ways that institutions of higher education are sites for the production of privilege. It thus critiques deficit models that describe the complex issues surrounding students from underrepresented communities solely as problems for higher education to solve. In contrast to deficit models, CWL’s work acknowledges that some people benefit from the collective assumption that their presence and success is natural. By calling these norms into question among ourselves and in our workshops, CWL provides support for and helps develop the agency of those who are not assumed to be at the center of higher education’s work. Drawing attention to how privilege is produced does not simply overturn power dynamics. Instead, it helps all whose lives are shaped by power differentials to question the normative nature of inclusion and exclusion.

As CWL plans its organizational future, we have engaged in deep conversations that build theoretical scaffolding for our practical work. We are thus developing and refining a praxis that enables our members (and workshop participants) to deepen their theoretical understanding of difference and to develop practical strategies for unmasking and undoing privilege. This praxis is a way of expanding what Gloria Anzaldúa names as the conciencia de la mestiza: a new way of seeing and being in the spaces “in between,” where aspects of identity are understood as shaped by multiple levels of difference (2007, 100–101). Through praxis, we hope to open up new ways of being, new ways of working across differences, new understandings of the need for transformations in education, and new forms of leadership for those transformations. With this commitment, CWL honors PSEW’s last four decades and looks toward the decades to come.

Reference

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2007. “La Conciencia de la Mestiza / Towards a New Consciousness.” Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. 99-113.

Editor’s note: Donna Maeda is a member of the Campus Women Lead Project on Inclusive Excellence. Campus Women Lead believes that women can advance inclusive leadership in higher education institutions by building multicultural alliances. If you want to raise questions on your campus about how to increase engaged education using diversity as a key vehicle for expanding intellectual and practical choices, consider bringing a Campus Women Lead workshop to your campus. For more information, visit our website at www.aacu.org/campuswomenlead.



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