Diversity and Democracy

Perspective-Taking as a Tool for Building Democratic Societies

When I came to the United States from Mexico with my parents as a seven-year-old child, I did not fit into my "English only" school system. In my new homeland, others rarely took the time to see the world through my eyes or to learn about me, my culture, and my family. They often perceived me as mute or as having physical or psychological problems. Only when a teacher, Mrs. Elder, reached out to get to know me did someone realize that I just didn't know English. Mrs. Elder took steps to learn about my world, visiting me and my grandparents in our home. Seeing that we lived in a one-room house--a converted gas station with no indoor bathroom, no appliances, and a wood stove--Mrs. Elder responded with empathy, sacrificing her afternoons to teach me English. What's more, in seeking to create a similarity between us, she began our lessons by asking me to teach her Spanish. Thus we became teacher-student and student-teacher. I am sure that if Mrs. Elder had not fostered this equitable environment, if she had not sought to see the world through my eyes, I would not be a professor at Pitzer College today.

As my experience shows, the ability to communicate one's perspective affects one's ability to participate in society, and with it, one's access to power. Certain individuals or groups have the power to define dominant culture, and therefore the power to oppress or liberate others. Power exists in language, too, where words create a foundation for understanding. In fact, many governments have used language to oppress others. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed to end the US-Mexican war, it included legal protections that Mexican­-origin people living in the United States held by custom and culture, including language rights and property rights. But after 1848, the treaty was broken when Mexican-origin people faced language discrimination, resulting in losses of land and of democratic access. Thus the value of perspective-taking lies in part in its relationship not only to power, but also to democracy.

Perspective-Taking and Democratic Engagement

In The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, the Association of American Colleges and Universities brought these two terms--power and democracy--together. The publication defined democracy as "the ideal that all human beings have equal value, deserve equal respect, and should be given equal opportunity to fully participate in the life and direction of the society" (1995, 9). It also proposed that "when diversity is characterized by patterned inequity and the marginalization of specific groups," it "can signify unequal access to political, economic, social, and cultural power" (9).

Barack Obama began to question this very relationship between democracy and power when pondering what to do after college. As he read about the sacrifices ordinary people made during the civil rights movement, he imagined himself in their place, as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker "convincing a family of sharecroppers to register to vote," or as an organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott (Obama 2004, 134). In doing so, he formed a commitment beyond himself: a commitment to listening to the perspectives of others (134-35). When he became an organizer and placed himself in others' worlds, he deepened this commitment, empowering himself to empower others.

When his fellow community organizers became tired, Obama had them look out of their office windows while asking, "What do you suppose is going to happen to those boys out there?....You say you're tired, the same way most folks out here are tired....Who's going to make sure [those boys] get a fair shot?" (Obama 2004, 171-72). He challenged the organizers to place themselves in others' worlds. It was no coincidence that storytelling and listening to the stories of others later became cornerstones of Obama's presidential campaign. Through storytelling, campaign organizers recruited thousands of new leaders whom they trained to use their life histories and those of their communities to reach out to the voting public.

By learning to understand others' perspectives, language, and culture, Barack Obama not only improved democratic participation, but also became better able to understand himself, his family's history, and the languages, cultures, and perspectives of community members with whom he worked. His experience became a lesson for campaign organizers in the value of understanding the language and culture of those they sought to recruit. It is also a lesson for those of us who are connecting our classrooms with social change efforts in diverse communities. Through perspective-taking, we can better comprehend and appreciate each other's differences in order to find our commonalities.

Perspective-Taking and Leadership

Perceiving the similarities between their own experiences and those of others led Rosa Park to sit at the front of a bus, Martin Luther King to advocate for sanitation workers in Memphis, and Cesar Chavez to live with farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley. It led writer Gloria Anzaldúa to perceive sexism and homophobia in American culture and in her own border culture, and it led psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark to understand why black children saw black dolls as ugly and white dolls as beautiful.

Perceiving similarities transformed Mahatma Gandhi from a simple lawyer to a great leader. As his granddaughter, Arun Gandhi, noted:

Ironically if it had not been for the experience of racism and prejudice, he may have been just another successful lawyer who had made a lot of money. But because of prejudice in Southern Africa, he was subjected to humiliation within a week of his arrival. He was thrown off a train because of the color of his skin [...] His first response was anger [...] The second response was to want to go back to India and live among his own people in dignity [...] And that's when the third response dawned on him--the response of nonviolent action. From that point onwards, he developed the philosophy of nonviolence and practiced it in his life as well as in his search for justice in South Africa. He ended up staying in that country for twenty-two years--and then he went and led the movement of India. (Covey 2004, 187-88)

Perceiving similarities led Myles Horton, like John Dewey, to critique the mechanistic practices that traditionally dominated American education. While building an alternative school called the Highlander Center to empower working-class people in rural Tennessee, Horton came to see that his students "were usually quiet around strangers or people they considered 'well-spoken,' meaning educated." But once the school's staff surpassed that barrier and came to understand their students, they saw that traditional top-down approaches to teaching would be ineffective. By working instead toward "mutual learning," the staff and students "could and did learn from each other, each respecting the individual character of the other." Horton underscored the importance of perspective-taking when he said: "Insofar as I have learned to listen to people and to honor and respect them as individuals, I have been a good teacher. When I have failed to do this my teaching has failed" (Adams 1975, 46-47).

Perspective-Taking and Education

All these examples suggest how perspective-taking can function as part of an empowering education. Ira Shor describes an empowering education as a "critical-democratic pedagogy for self and social change...a student-centered program for multicultural democracy in school and society...that approaches individual growth as an active, cooperative, and social process, because the self and society create each other" (Shor 1992, 15). If we faculty engage both ourselves and our students in perspective-taking as a component of empowering education, we can use our classrooms to practice creating an equitable democratic society.

Our classrooms are microcosms of society. They can be structured in a top-down fashion with the professor in command and students quiet and passive, as Myles Horton described his students when he met them. Or they can be, as Ira Shor proposes, places where students and teachers have relatively equal status as colearners and coeducators. Shor claims that inequalities in society at large result from the distribution of power in these microcosmic settings. He suggests that classroom cultures that support debate and critical study are necessary to advance a more democratic society.

Thus the way we faculty run our classrooms and the way we connect those classrooms to our communities can truly affect whether our teaching and learning practices advance a more diverse, socially just, and democratic culture. Providing time for students to learn about the professor's life and for the professor to conversely learn about the lives of students is essential to building students' capacity for perspective-taking. To succeed in fostering this capacity, faculty need to create environments where students are comfortable questioning the perspectives of others--of the authors whose works they read, of the professor, of others in the class.

Perspective-Taking and Community

In my classes, I connect assigned readings directly to challenges facing our local and global economies. These challenges affect both students' lives and the lives of the community members with whom they come in contact. I use the course readings as media for enhancing critical dialogue on the possibilities for new models of democratic engagement and collaboration. To make the readings concrete, I give my students the opportunity to work alongside new immigrants in a Pomona day labor center, day laborers on the street corners of Rancho Cucamonga, farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley, and labor and community organizers in diverse coalitions throughout the region. The readings and our class discussions become "real" when students meet with these day laborers and community organizers to work on common projects that emerge from their dialogue. Just as in the classroom, students advance to new levels of collaboration and civic engagement by practicing democratic exchange.

Having identified problems that are relevant to the workers, students use participatory community-based research and action to locate solutions. Drawing on their discussions with workers, students organize various projects that push for social change. Students and workers have collaborated to implement English classes, health workshops, and immigration rights research projects. Students have also organized petition drives, researched the constitutionality of checkpoints, marched to protest immigration raids, and campaigned to ensure continued funding for the local day labor center. To combat negative portrayals of new immigrants, students and day laborers have organized community-wide art and pictorial life history presentations. Thus the workers and students join in raising their voices and ensuring that they are heard. In all these projects, students come to accept the day laborers as teachers. With the help of the Center for Community Engagement and funding from alumna Susan Hanson, the college hosts weekly Encuentros (Encounters) lunches where day laborers share their life stories and converse in Spanish with students and faculty. Students also perform teatro (activist theater) in various communities during their spring break.

Through the projects and class readings, students become more equipped to understand contemporary debates over immigration, free trade, globalization, and the many myths that circulate about farm laborers, union organizers, and immigrant workers. By learning to respect each other's perspectives and by pursuing specific outcomes that benefit both campus constituents and workers, students and workers have developed a genuine trust over the years. In this way, the practice of perspective-taking becomes a useful tool in understanding the diverse experiences that intersect in the "border culture" between academia and the world beyond. Students learn to value the perspective of the "other": the poor, the worker, the oppressed, the immigrant, or the person of another color, class, gender, or sexuality. Similarly, workers and community organizers grow to respect classrooms as places where ideas can become deeds that advance their efforts to be heard.

Ultimately, perspective-taking cannot occur without addressing questions of power. But academia can follow emerging trends and break down structures that separate it from the larger community. This is what C. Otto Sharmer promotes as prescencing, the opening of "our minds, our hearts, and our intentions or wills" to "view things from the source...to develop a sense of the future that wants to emerge" (2009, 62). A wide range of perspectives about the plight of immigrants, people of color, women, LGBT communities, and the working class can exist in and outside of the classroom. Faculty can draw on these perspectives to make their classrooms places where students and community members work together to create a better world: one with higher levels of perspective-taking, social engagement, and leadership toward personal and social responsibility.


Adams, Frank. 1975. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. With Myles Horton. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publishing.

Association of American Colleges and Universities.1995. The Drama of Diversity and Democracy. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. New York: Free Press.

Obama, Barack. 2004. Dreams from My Father. New York: Three Rivers Press. First published 1995 by Times Books.

Sharmer, C. Otto. 2009. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. San Francisco: 2009.

Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

José Calderón is a professor of sociology and Chicano studies, Pitzer College


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