Empowerment, The Culture of Power, and a Rigged Game

I’ve been sitting in a lot of meetings for English learners lately. In these meetings, there are usually a bunch of white, educated women sitting around the table. Teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, speech language pathologists, etc. Then the mother enters the room, often carrying a toddler, and sits at the end of the conference table while the people in power stare at her. We go around the table and each say our piece through a translator, but the parent of the child in question doesn’t usually speak until the end. We ask what the parent thinks, and most parents say, “Whatever you think is best.” Sometimes the parent shares his or her opinions.

But when it comes down to it, many EL parents obviously do not feel empowered. They ask questions timidly, and they hesitate before they speak. While I’m glad that the EL Office of my district is reaching out to immigrant groups in the community in an attempt to educate and empower them, I can’t help but wonder: What must it be like to enter a room feeling like you have no power?

“The winners of a rigged game should not get to write the rules.” 

A woman named Lisa Delpit coined the term “culture of power” back in the 80s. What it means is that there are codes and rules for getting and keeping power, and in most cultures there is a dominant group of people who know the rules and have the power. To complicate things, the rules for being in power usually align with the culture and worldviews of the people in power already. So people who want to be in power may find it difficult to get there, because they operate from a different perspective than the people in power do.

An example of this is a refugee resettlement organization who tried for several years to implement counseling for refugees. The intent was good; these people had endured endless trauma – surely it will help them to talk about it!! That is the perspective of the people in power in America. If you have problems, you should go to a therapist and talk through it. There is nothing inherently wrong about therapy, but it is not something that all peoples or cultures value. Eventually, the organization realized that counseling was not the answer for the people they work with, and they sought other solutions.

In the educational setting, oftentimes the parents are not in a position of power, particularly if they are not educated. Yet many of them face too many barriers to getting an education, like having to work two jobs to put food on the table, or not being proficient in English. These are people who are working hard to give their children a good life. These are parents who deeply care about their children’s education, well-being, and future. However, some of them feel like they don’t have a voice.

“I am lucky enough to be one of the winners of this game.” 

I am in a position of power simply because I was born into a white, educated, middle-class family.

It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but it’s what happens.

Teachers are doing everything they can and using their resources to teach both native speakers and culturally diverse students. There are teachers who tutor after school for free. There are teachers who send food home with kids they think won’t get much to eat over the weekend. There are teachers who work tirelessly to design lessons and activities that meet the diverse needs of their students. I am not blaming teachers for anything here.

Yet English learners and students of poverty are playing a rigged game. Test scores have to be high, even though research says that it can take 5-7 years to become proficient in a second language. Kids who came to school with 32,000,000 less words than their peers are expected to meet the same benchmarks. We have to be aware of what’s going on here, and the power plays that are involved. We have to empower both parents and students to speak up, take initiative, and be involved. We have to question the status quo.

“Learning to read in a new language before you can even read in your own is like learning to walk while a pit bull is chasing you.” 

I wonder what it would be like if the parent entered that room and she was the person of power. You see, if I am going to allow someone else to have power, that means I have to let go a little of mine. But what if the parent’s voice was stronger than mine? How would that look? What would schools be like?

I don’t know how to answer all those questions, but I know we have to start talking about this. I know we have to figure out how to turn the culture of power on its head so we can began to hear all the voices.

The quotes in bold are from slam poet Dylan Garity’s poem “Rigged Game,” which is about his sister’s ESL students. Please watch Dylan perform his poem here:





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