December 7, 2023

Heart and Home: New Monthly Column from Josh Ishimatsu, Deputy Director


Hi all and welcome to my new column, Heart and Home!  Years ago, I used to blog for Shelterforce.  And with mynew job here at SV@Home, regular writing about affordable housing and community development issues is something that I am excited about reviving.  I intend to publish a monthly column of longer format think-pieces.  Big stuff about values and vision and why housing is a key leverage point for a better, more equitable, more just world.  But, depending on inspiration, workload, family demands, etc., things could also get shorter, sillier, and/or more topical.  So, without further ado, this month’s column…

Towards a Social Model of Privilege/Disadvantage

On Day 2 at my new job at SV@Home, as part of our organization’s ongoing, staff-led DEIL (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Liberation) work, we did a privilege walk.  Participating in this exercise gave me all kinds of thoughts – so much so that it is going to take me 2 columns to write about them.  This first column is a proposal about applying the Social Model of Disability’s underlying logic to a privilege/disadvantage framework.  The second column will be about applying the concepts I developed here to neighborhoods, affordable housing, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

Privilege Walks

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with a privilege walk, the exercise is relatively simple.  You take a group of people (in our case, it was a group of co-workers, but it could also be a group of students in a class together, a group of attendees to a retreat, etc.) and line everybody up side-by-side.  A facilitator will read a series of statements and ask people to step forward or step backward depending on if the statement applies to them or not.

For example, in our exercise, one of the statements was, “If you have never been judged or treated unfairly based on your accent, take one step forward.”  Another related statement was, “If English is not your first language and you have been made to feel inferior because of it, take one step back.”  By the end of the exercise, participants will have taken a mix of steps forward and backward, and everybody will be positioned across the area differently.

The purpose of this exercise is to raise people’s awareness of systemic advantages/disadvantages and how the people around them have been affected, positively and negatively.  It is intended to spark discussion across multiple, intersected dimensions – race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, class background, disability, immigration history, and more.  In its best applications, the exercise brings groups of people closer together and raises awareness of how social/political/economic systems of discrimination and oppression affect everybody.  It leads to new awareness of peers and to conversations about how we can better support each other, both in small spaces that we inhabit and in the world at large.

In general, I think these sorts of exercises are good.  They are, of course, always imperfect.  There is a nuance that is glossed over, there are oppressions that are missed, and there can be unproductive conflict that arises. This is, of course, what can happen whenever we try to talk about hard stuff – whenever we try to capture enormous, complex inter-relationships of systems/histories to people’s individual lives and identities – and try to get someplace meaningful in an hour or two.  It is hard.  And yet, we have to start somewhere.  We see how things work out (or not).  We adjust and keep trying and keep working.  This is life.

English as a First Language and the Individuality of Privilege

The examples, from above, that I chose to illustrate our privilege walk – “if you have never been judged unfairly for your accent…” and “if English is not your first language…” were purposeful because they inspired a train of thought that has become this column.

As a monolingual person who has had difficulties achieving any kind of fluency in a second language, I recognize the privilege I have in how people process and listen to me simply by being a native English speaker in this country AND, at the same time, I see my state of being monolingual as a sign of historical oppression and generational trauma. 

Japanese Americans, at least those of us whose family histories in this country pre-date World War II (as opposed to post-1965 Immigration Act immigrants), are largely monolingual English speakers.  This is not an accident.  Immediately post-war, after our families had been rounded up and put in concentration camps because of racism (remember, German Americans and Italian Americans were not systematically interned), the collective, unconscious choice to deal with what had happened was to try to become more American (read more like White Americans).  This meant that Japanese was no longer spoken at home and that customs and practices that felt too foreign were discarded.  On top of all this, it was a time when schools and similar institutions were even more openly hostile to multilingualism than now.  Many of us later generations of Japanese Americans feel this history with a sense of tragedy and loss.  It is hard for me to view my monolingual state as an indicator of privilege.

So, one of my reflections here is that whether or not a particular factor is an indicator of privilege (or only as an indicator of privilege) is highly individualized.

The Onus of Privilege/Disadvantage is at the Society Level, NOT an Individual Level

Reflecting upon my reflection, my first level reflection about highly individualized indicators of privilege is not particularly deep or useful.  Of course, our individual lived experience of privilege/disadvantage shapes us and shapes how we perceive the conceptual framework of privilege/disadvantage.  This is an obvious statement.  Of course, our privilege/disadvantage impacts deeply each of us at an individual level.  These impacts are deeply important – they are part of our individual lives, and each of our individual lives is deeply important. And, concurrent to our reflections about how privilege/disadvantage manifests at an individual level, we should focus our efforts on addressing privilege/disadvantage at a society-wide or systemic level to best use the conceptual framework as a tool for social change.  So, while it is important to realize and reflect upon our individual experiences of privilege/disadvantage, we also need to process and understand privilege at a systemic or society-wide level.

I have heard people talk about how the exercise of the privilege walk makes them feel individually uncomfortable.  For some who have lived lives with multiple factors that the exercise may categorize as disadvantageous, it brings up echoes of trauma or it brings up memories of stigma.  For some who have lived lives of privilege, it brings up feelings of guilt or feelings of shame that their peers judge them negatively for having been born into privilege.

But, returning to the examples from our staff’s privilege walk I cited earlier: “If you have never been judged or treated unfairly based on your accent, take one step forward.”  And “If English is not your first language and you have been made to feel inferior because of it, take one step back.”  As expressed in the nuance of our privilege walk’s questions, the problem doesn’t sit with whether one is an English as a second language speaker or not.  Or whether or not one speaks with an accent.    Whether or not one speaks with an accent or whether or not one speaks English as a native speaker – these shouldn’t matter to one’s life outcomes.  And they are not, in and of themselves, anything that anybody should feel badly for (if anything, these are indicators that a person is bilingual/multilingual and, absent of other people’s prejudice, bilingualism/multilingualism is an asset).  As reflected in our exercise, it is the social context – how people in general and how our institutions treat people – that matters.  The disadvantage does not exist in the person but, instead, is created by the larger social/cultural/economic context.  This is a line of thinking advocated by disability activists, through the Social Model of Disability.  That an individual’s characteristics do not create a “disability” but, rather, it is society’s lack of infrastructure, lack of investment, lack of empathy, and lack of vision, that creates a specific individual characteristic as a disability. 

This social model of disability/disadvantage framework is true for almost any privilege walk example, even the items that are more about material distribution and less about feelings of social judgment.  If someone doesn’t have health insurance or worries about where their next meal is coming from, the problem is not about the fact that one is “disadvantaged.”  The onus of the problem doesn’t sit with the individual.  The problem is that we live in a society where not everybody has these necessities.  And where the short end of the stick (deprivation, exploitation, violence) always ends up pointing in the same direction.

At the privileged end of the stick, having stable housing, having health insurance, having money in the bank for emergencies, etc. – these are not characteristics that should inspire shame or guilt at an individual level.  The problem, again, is that we live in a society where not everybody has these necessities.  People who have them should be grateful that they have them, not ashamed.  We all should be sad and angry that so many people do not have these necessities.  We all should be sad and angry that these necessities are distributed inequitably.  We all should want to do something about this.

There should be no shame or stigma for a person simply because an individual is privileged or disadvantaged.  Instead, we should reserve our moral judgment for people who, when becoming aware of their neighbors’ pain and of our society’s injustices and when becoming aware of their privilege and advantages, do nothing to help their neighbor (or, even worse, actively work to exploit their neighbor).

Circling back to the Privilege Walk

At the end of the privilege walk, when we look across the room and see our peers, we should take time to process our feelings, take time to listen and think about how other people throughout the room are feeling, and practice putting ourselves in the shoes of others.  And then we should encourage people not to take things only personally and bridge from the people in the room to the larger world outside and think about what insights there are on a larger, more system-wide scale.  We use all of what we learn from the exercise to inform how we work towards both small-scale, person-to-person changes (how we treat people daily, how we listen, how we speak up, how we show up, how we take or make space, how we show grace) and larger-scale changes (the work we do, the policies we support, and what we do with our money, time, and other resources outside of work).

Preview for Next Column

Next column, I want to talk about what I’m calling the Social Model of Privilege/Disadvantage how we think of “Disadvantage” and “Opportunity” at the neighborhood scale, and how we can use this framework to better inform affordable housing policies such as the TCAC/HCD opportunity maps.