CMASS Staff Training: Challenging Oppression

by Nicole Dotzenrod

On Saturday,  September 26, the CMASS student staff members participated in the annual training session in Wilder. This year, the focus of the training was on challenging oppression and understanding privilege. The training was facilitated by Wilma Crespo Nieves, interim co-director of CMASS, Michelle Youngblood, assistant director of academic support, and Willie Pope, assistant director of student development.

“Challenging oppression and understanding privilege is at the core of CMASS’ mission. We exist to provide resources and advocacy to underrepresented constituencies to ensure their academic success and personal growth, and to engage students and colleagues in courageous, inclusive and supportive learning experiences.  To be an advocate for inclusion one has to understand the systems that foster inequality,” said Crespo.

The students began with a “diversity bingo” icebreaker, where they were asked to complete a bingo chart by finding people who matched certain requirements and  having the staff member sign boxes on their bingo chart. The bingo boxes were intended to cultivate a better understanding of one another, to connect on a deeper level, explore similarities, and learn not to make assumptions.Youngblood then led students through a definitions exercise, where they were asked to share examples of words such as: ally, privilege, liberation, sexism, discrimination, internalized oppression, heterosexism, racism, target/subordinate identity, empowerment, and oppression.

“I think it’s important that the CMASS staff understand how to challenge oppression and understand privilege because it helps us better understand the issues that the students who come to us face,” said Shanelle Bonilla. “If someone experiences something such as internalized oppression, for example, we should know how to help them deal with those issues so they can learn to feel comfortable with themselves rather than feel as though they have to live up to society’s image of how their race is expected to behave.”Students discussed the five faces of oppression (exploitation, powerlessness, marginalization, violence, cultural imperialism), and how to recognize these oppressive forces in their daily lives. CMASS staff was also trained in the cycles of socialization and liberation.

“It’s important for the CMASS staff to understand how to challenge oppression because it may be happening right in front of our eyes and we may not realize it or not know how to act towards it. For example, I did not know what cultural imperialism was and when we talked about it and I learned what it was, it opened my eyes and made me see the United States with a whole new perspective,” said Astrid Esquilin Nieves.

“It was eye-opening and comforting to learn the different types of oppression, and that many people around you, that you may not realize, can relate to some of the forms of oppression that I, myself, face,” said Kimsot Ren.

Students were guided through a “privilege walk” outside of Wilder to create a visual representation of the ways in which privilege sets certain people ahead of others. Students held hands and stood in a straight line. Pope then read off statements such as, “if your ancestors came to the U.S. by force, take one step back,” “if you have ever felt uncomfortable about a joke directed at your gender, take one step back,” “if you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, please take one step forward,” “if you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward,” and so on.

“I think that one of the most impactful and a self-reflexive activity was the privilege walk,” said Zulay Holland. When advocating for social justice issues and combating oppression it is so crucial to our own development to be able to take a step back and see that privilege manifests itself in many ways. Becoming aware of where I stand socially helps me gain perspective on the ways in which privilege and oppression affect how I approach my work.”Ilana Morris said, “Knowledge is not the same as understanding. When I applied for a job through CMASS I knew that I wanted to be part of a team of students developing the social justice needs of our diverse student body. The staff training helped me understand the different underlying factors of social justice and how we can apply those to our work and everyday life.”

“In a world where oppression runs rampant, it is imperative for the people of all races to unite and support each other to reach a goal that isn’t possible otherwise,” said Allen Tan. “Oppression is an entity that dwells in those who weren’t fortunate enough to thrive in an ideal environment, so in other words, all of us. As staff at CMASS, a cultural program, our weapon of choice against oppression is knowledge. Through rigorous training and intense debates, we are able to develop the skills necessary to help not only ourselves, but those around us who are victims of oppression. We only live once; there’s no reason for us to have to go through it feeling like there’s nobody out there who can help us and understand what we’re going through. All CMASS staff are here for the UMass community; we know what oppression is like, and we are ready to take action.  One day there will be a world where oppression is a thing of the past, and people will be able to live in harmony with each other. We, at CMASS, are here to make that ideal become a reality.”