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Tackling Grand Challenges: Using Privilege for Social Change

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By: June Churchill, USG Senator, MAJOR: Physics & Astronomy

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I was born into a rich family. My parents are multimillionaires. I grew up surrounded by mansions and golf courses next to the five diamond Broadmoor hotel and resort in Colorado Springs. I went to a top ranked private college preparatory school for 12 years. The only time I stepped into a public school was to take private clarinet lessons from the first chair clarinetist of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic orchestra. I was also born a heterosexual and able-bodied white man. For the first 18 years of my life, I did not face any societal hardships. 

That all changed once I figured out I was trans. After a few months, I finally ran away from home because of my parent’s extreme emotional and mental abuse. Suddenly, there I was, crying on a sidewalk early in the morning faced with my reality: I was homeless and poor and queer in a conservative city without even shoes on my feet. Within a matter of hours my entire future disappeared and so much of the freedom that I enjoyed from my upbringing faded away, being replaced with hardship and uncertainty. I knew from that day forward that no one should ever experience pain like that. 

Systems of oppression lie all around us both obvious and hidden. They are complex and interlinked webs of policy, societal norms, individual actions and group prerogatives. There is no easy way to fight these systems, because, for most oppressive systems, if you are not actively working against them you are reinforcing them. Silence is complicity. So, what can you do if you benefit from one of these systems like race, class, ability status, etc.? 

The first step is to educate yourself. Holding privilege lets you ignore the obstacles faced by oppressed people. Read a book, go to a talk, listen to a community leader, and do not assume the universality of your experience. Most importantly listen to and trust marginalized groups and people when they name their oppressions. 

Once you get educated, observe the environment around you. For example, if you just educated yourself about ability status, when you look around do you notice how there are no wheelchair ramps in your building, no braille on the signs, and no interpreters in your meetings? Always ask yourself, who built this environment and for whom. 

Finally: take action. Once you increase your knowledge and perception of oppression you can then lean on the other side of privilege: power. 

To showcase this process here is an example from my own life. First, I started by attaining a leadership position in the Queer Student Alliance. I figured that since I was an independent student without parents or family to answer to, I could openly advocate for queer students without fear of retribution, and I was politically competent from my time in Model UN in high school, so I began working on moving DU to being more LGBTQ+ friendly and inclusive. However, I began to see how DU continually ignored student activists pushing for change. So I ran to be a senator in Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and was elected. That first year I quickly began using my platform to pass resolutions calling for tuition decreases, divesting DU from fossil fuels, and amplifying the voices of activists on campus. 

I continued to build power and coalitions with multiple student organizations and movements including Divest DU, wecanDUbetter, and most recently the RAHR collective. USG now acts as a bullhorn for student demands, lending strength to marginalized voices. I use my power and skills to assist these movements and buoy activists and so I pose to you all in the audience, what are your skills and how will you use them for justice? 

The lesson I want you to take away is privilege is a powerful tool when used correctly, but a word of caution. To quote Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools with never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” By choosing to use your privilege in this manner you must commit to abolishing privilege altogether, and with it the power that accompanies it. I believe that is more than a worthy sacrifice for a just world and I ask that you all join me.