by Kelly Hansen
I love the lunch room scene of the movie Mean Girls where Janis Ian gives the new girl, Cady Heron, an insider tour of the cafeteria at lunch. Without embarrassment or apology, Janis just lays out the social hierarchy. This whole movie is calling out all the rules our parents never taught us about being a high school girl. In this one scene, Janis Ian is doing what I think we all should do in order to make a more equitable society: call out the codes of power as they exist, and give everyone the rules to navigate them.
Codes of power are the unwritten conventions in the culture of power. Explanation: there are many cultures. All are legitimate. Some have more power within dominant culture. To navigate the rules we must acknowledge this power exists and is afforded to some at the expense of others. The best way to navigate codes of power is to be explicitly told that they exist. Power is stratified by gender, regional location, race, class, ethnicity, language and sexual orientation. Power is often deployed via unwritten rules, and situated knowledge. Navigating the system of power by codeswitching variations of languages, social conventions and gaining access to the unwritten rules is a method of working the system to meet your needs.
This handshake is an example of a code of power. Other examples of codes of power is language, clothing, “manners,” even what subjects are okay to talk about. They are all real rules people follow to navigate the culture of power.
I didn’t make up the concept of codes of power. My favorite person who writes about them is the Educational Scholar, Lisa Delpit (Lisa’s The Silenced Dialogue is a must-read for educators - it blew my mind). Because she says it better than I could, here’s her codes of power points straight from her essay:
She explains this so well in her essay. Go read this right now. Seriously.
So, what do codes of power have to do with college access?
In Mean Girls, Janis ignored the lies adults would have given Cady (You’ll do great, just be nice, people will like your true self) and gave her the truth (There is a Queen Bee, people will backstab, joining the Mathletes is social suicide). The truth is uncomfortable. And the truth was necessary for her to navigate and climb to highest ranks of Girl World.
In terms of college access, the lie we like to hear and repeat is that getting a degree is a ticket out of poverty. If people work hard and focus on school, they’ll be successful. The uncomfortable truth is that college is an indicator of success because it means you can successfully navigate the culture of power. The system is rigged, it’s not a meritocracy. College is just as much about developing social capital, building a resume, and learning life skills as it is about that certificate. But by ignoring the multifaceted nature of college, we don’t set our student up for success.
In Mean Girls, Janis tells the truth by drawing Cady a map of the school cafeteria, telling her what’s really important. At Vox Siren, we were inspired by the Mean Girls map of the cafeteria, so we made a map, too. It’s an attempt to show youth all the parts of college they should be aware of, and subsystems they’ll need to learn more unspoken rules to.
Who has access to the rules of this complex college system? As Delpit said, the rules are a reflection of those in power. Therefore, if you're a first generation college student, you don't already have the situated knowledge to help you navigate each arm of the map. So educators: let's share the systems and knowledge with our students, even when it means admitting an unjust hierarchy. We can't change what we don't acknowledge. With these efforts, we can hope that our students work toward a future much like the end of Mean Girls: dismantling power structures at prom in a Mathlete's letter(wo)man jacket.
I'd like to dissect each one of the many arms of the Map, but we both are looking at it, and now that we all know the importance of leveling, I can tell the truth and say that would take about 40 blogposts. What I can do is offer an exciting and interactive workshop on dissecting codes of power specific to your workplace, institution, or organization.
Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can work to support you!
We are happy to announce that our co-founder and Director of Visioning and Partnership, Zoe Piliafas, will be spending the summer as the Equity Seminar Leader for the new Bay Area teachers with Teach For America. She will leave early June until the end of July to support new educators entering into the school system in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and Richmond to prioritize equity in ALL of the work they do.
In her words and the Bay Area’s TFA New Vision…
I will support new educators in building a raised consciousness about the existing inequitable paradigm of teaching. I will challenge myself and those around me to demand different, to realize that the status quo is broken and we must begin a new era of innovative education. Teachers are entering into a broken system, I will work with them to develop a critical lens to their work that dismantles the attributes of our schools that perpetuate inequity. This will position them to develop a vision that is a counterpoint to that and become a leadership force that will reimagine ENTIRE schools and systems and transform! I cannot wait to be part of the revolution and the decision that pervasive white supremacist, patriarchal school system is done. The next twenty years we are going to see our current reality turned on its head. Change is a beautiful thing and I am ready to ensure this new group feels inspired and have the tools to enact it!
The approach and vision will embody four key principles:
We must all commit to personal learning, reflection, transformation and seek and develop the resources, experiences and community to support that journey. It is exciting to think of the new ideas, raised consciousness and transformation I will experience. I am also there to listen and reflect.
Teaching for Justice
Teachers will be challenged to enact a rigorous social justice curriculum. In order to make the counter curriculum we must participate and realize that it will be an intense, complex intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical journey.
There will be many times during seminars, new teachers will feel a high level of discomfort and if we learn to embrace the discomfort we will begin to know ourselves and grow more powerful. Teaching for equity requires educators to become deeply familiar with the structures of oppression produced by society and reproduced in our schools. Many of these structures operate by way of harmful paradigms that persist in public schools. The new teachers will depart from Institute with an awareness of the key paradigms that were built off of unjust views on the world, a disposition towards resisting them, and skill at rewriting them/moving past them.
Teaching for equity can feel like a lonely pursuit. Standing in opposition to systems of oppression that have existed for generations can feel overwhelming and hopeless to an individual teacher. Standing in opposition also makes teachers vulnerable to exhaustion and trauma at the hands of a system that more effectively reifies than it does deconstruct oppression. Therefore, teachers need opportunities to come together with peers and mentors engaged in similar equity work to dialogue and connect, in order to build a strong emotional/spiritual support base and to take collective action against oppressive forces.
Teachers need to, first be learners. They must actively listen to those that they seek to stand in solidarity with. Vox Siren is founded on deep listening as the key to understanding. Understanding cannot be reached through needing to be right. I hope to model this with the new teachers and I plan to come back to Portland with new relationships, connections and deeper self-awareness.
If you are going to be in the Bay Area, hit me up!
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