The course that changed my life was called Making Connections.
When I was in college at Hobart and William Smith, there was a program called Peer Education and Human Relations. It was my minor, it served as some of the backbone of what has made me the therapist that I am today. Today, from what I know about the field of Social Work, and having done my MSW at the top institution in the country, I believe the PEHR program at HWS served as a defacto BSW program. This course work extremely through in studying the history and dynmacis of oppression. It provided a broad scope of terminology and application of terminology. It had in it, some of the most intense training in facilitation and practice applications that I have ever engaged. Further after my training was completed, in my senior year, I taught three semesters of work as a facilitator-led and taught 15 up-and-coming trainees. I taught this capstone course, "Making Connections" twice and I firmly believe that what I gained in my time as an undergrad shaped who I am today and gave me the skills that I use every day as a clinical therapist.
The course Making Connections had an ambitious task: how do you take a group of 60-80 people ad walk them through each 'ism a week, and hope to bring them through the grueling exploration of how to identify and work with oppression?
The writing that I have been sharing came from that course work from Hobart and William Smith and from various other graduate work from Washington University in Saint Louis. At the time of writing this post though, the core of the lessons I received are over 20 years old. Yet, they are all relevant. They represent a model of how to work with diversity issues on a large scale. The course has had many names, but the name I learned to appreciate was: “Making Connections,” or MC for short. MC is an experiential learning course based around systems of oppression in society. It was a course created by men and women who worked and studied at Cornell University, and it taught me how to live.
The key tenet of the course is that there is no hierarchy of oppression. Each form of oppression is equal to any other, as opposed to there being one that is the most important to solve. Further, it taught me that as long as you have one form of oppression you will have all the others; there is no “solving” racism, for example, unless we solve all forms of oppression. The course taught me how to dissect different types of societal oppression and recognize the historical implications and similarities one type has with the others. Students learned their roles in breaking the cycle of oppression, as well as the stereotypes and misinformation associated with different groups of people.
For an entire semester, myself and a group of 60 other students, faculty and staff members gathered for three hours to talk about understanding what the individual experiences. We would tackle an “ism” a week: Racism, Ageism, Ableism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Anti-Semitism and Classism, making interconnections between them all. Each ism has a relation to power and access to privileges. With sexism, for example, the group in power is men and called the “included group.” Therefore, the excluded group is women.
Each class began with a historical understanding of the roots of the oppression, typically a 45 minute lecture supported by readings and class discussion. We then separated into affinity groups. For example, women talked to one another about their experiences and vice versa with men. We were allowed to work through our experiences with oppression with others privately, without judgement and without being forced to defend our experiences. No matter the ism we were discussing, I always felt like I learned something valuable about my experience in the world.
Then something more remarkable would occur: We would come back together as a group and the excluded group would speak to the included group about their experiences. This was something radically powerful about this class, and it allowed us to share personal stories that transformed opinions. How often have I, as a man, been able to listen to all of the ways that women are impacted by sexism? How often have I been able to share the ways in which I have been personally impacted by racism in my life? How often have I had the opportunity to speak to a group of thoughtful, patient potential allies? Reflecting back on the class now, it seems remarkable that we did this every week.
By the end of the 10 week course lives were radically changed. Individuals that thought they had no culture and questioned their validity as an ally began to transform themselves into being anti-oppression activists. Individuals that experienced oppression in excluded groups grasped language and understanding of a shared experience that transcended not only their own identity group but saw the intersectionality of other groups.
The model of MC is one that can be replicated and worked with in large groups across the country. Whether is set in a corporate environment or used as a model to work with higher education institutions the system works as it leaves no story untouched and has material which makes use of our own stories and experience with oppression. Individuals can learn the basic tenants of social justice and begin breaking out of the systems of oppression which have plagued them. Using the lessons I learned 20 years ago and using the skills I have honed for for the past two decades brings me to the field of social justice and helping others.
Lex Enrico Santí is a mental health therapist based in Ithaca, NY. He offers therapy sessions in a home practice and can work with clients using a secure telehealth (online) practice. Contact him today for more information.