Culture Changing

Think Everything’s “Normal?” Then It’s Time To Reconsider And Promote A New Narrative Of Disability

Photo: Dicemanic via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Dicemanic via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Michael Warner notes that here in the U.S. “[being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations” in the Disability Studies Reader. I know I often want to fit in with my communities and participate.

But does this desire to participate also force conformity and exclusion? Through seeking “normalcy” does U.S. culture also diminish and stigmatize those who do not fit the traditional ideas of “being normal?”

It probably doesn’t take you too long to think of how true this sentiment is, that our “culture of normalcy” demands people to meet many unrealistic expectations. In addition, those who have this view also believe everyone wants to meet the norm and if they don’t meet it, must be “suffering” or have a “difficult life.”

This directly connects to ableism, which is the idea that what a person can achieve or their ability to live a fulfilling life is determined by their disability. Thus anyone who is disabled lives “less of a life” than those who are nondisabled.

In particular this “culture of normalcy” perpetuates the oppression of disabled communities by “othering” people and viewing them as individuals outside the norm.

Changing our language (e.g. saying “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled”) means little if we resist changing our actions, institutions, and broader culture.

I’m going to look at what some incredible activists point out as the core attributes of this “culture of normalcy” and what we can do to promote a new narrative of disability that seeks justice and inclusion of difference instead of trying to force assimilation/conformity.


Ok, so I still don’t quite get what “Normalcy” is…


Well below I’ve got a list of the core attributes of our “culture of normalcy” and how it contributes to negative actions and injustice. So let’s go ahead and get started!

The “Culture of Normalcy…”

Creates the illusion that a “normal” way of living/acting/being actually exists

What’s considered “normal” today is completely different from the norm 100 years ago and even just 10-20 years ago. It will also continue to change.

Lennard Davis notes that “[normal] is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment. It is part of a notion of progress, of industrialization, and of ideological consolidation [of power].” This means, our definitions of normal support those in power and the dominant worldview, rather than being based in any intrinsic attributes.

Human difference is so vast that it’s impossible to say there’s only one way to live/act/be in this complicated world. This is one reason we have so many attitudes of ableism (i.e. oppression towards those with disabilities), heteronormativism, and sizeism (i.e. oppression towards those of certain body sizes).

For example, many in the Deaf community view themselves as part of a linguistic minority rather than having a “disability.” These communities note that they don’t feel “cut off” from the rest of the world, but rather just speak a different language.

We must NOT deem any life “abnormal” just because they have a different way of learning, communicating, or moving.

Forces compulsion to be “like everyone else”

If an individual or group is different in some way, then I see so many examples of people wanting to “help” them “fit in.” Why can’t they just fit in by being who they are?

One common sign of this is for school photos that involve students in wheelchairs. Parents or staff will often setup photos so that they hide the wheelchair and, thus, makes the kid seem “normal.”

It seems to me that this is clearly about making everyone else more comfortable, not to make the student feel more included.

If our society didn’t have such a fear of difference, then it wouldn’t matter whether someone used a wheelchair, communicated differently, etc. or not.

To continue the example in the last section about Deaf communities, U.S. society has often forced the Deaf to not learn sign language and communicate “normally” (e.g. which has some similarities to how the U.S. forced Native Americans to speak English and not speak their tribe’s language).

So whether it’s with the “helpful” mindset or through force, the “culture of normalcy” makes some think they have a duty/responsibility to make every “fit in” even if they just included them as they are, then they wouldn’t need to do anything else.

Puts emphasis on people to “overcome a disability” rather than seeking societal changes

How many stories do you hear about people with disabilities who “overcome their disability” and are considered heroes? What does that mean?

Does it mean they are a “hero” because they are now “like everyone else?”

The phrase “overcoming a disability,” Simi Linton notes in Reassigning Meaning, puts a huge emphasis on the disabled to work harder rather than focusing on what our society needs to do to change.

This also steers those with disabilities to internalize oppression by thinking they must “do more” to “overcome their disability,” even if that shouldn’t be the message we send.

I’ll look more in-depth at some of the societal changes we need to push for, but for now just remember how the phrase “overcoming a disability” makes people feel OK about accepting the status quo. Instead, we still have a long way to go before reaching a truly inclusive society.

Makes people believe that everyone wants to be “Normal,” because their life must be full of suffering

Marsha Saxton in The Disability Studies Reader writes “the stereotyped notions of the ‘tragedy’ and ‘suffering’ of ‘the disabled’ result from the isolation of disabled people in society.”

Marsha Saxton goes on to write that impairments (e.g. mental or physical) are an inconvenience, however “It is discriminatory attitudes and thoughtless behaviors, and the ensuing ostracism and lack of accommodation, that makes life difficult.”

These statements highlight that most people with disabilities suffer most because of oppression, discrimination, and lack of opportunities. Even those with painful disabilities would be better served if people focused less on their pain, and how to treat them as human.

Still a little unsure how our “culture of normalcy” shows up in society? Well continue on to the next section to clearly see how it shows up on all facets of life.


Institutions perpetuating disability/normalcy


The Medical Industrial Complex


The Medical Industrial Complex (MIC) is the complex multibillion-dollar interconnected relationships among the health industry, including:

  • Doctors
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Insurance companies
  • Drug manufacturers
  • Hospital supply and equipment companies
  • Real estate and construction businesses
  • Health systems consulting and accounting firms
  • Banks

You’ve probably heard about how the corporatization of medicine has led to skyrocketing profits for the MIC, drug companies suppress negative results of drug testing, and corporate lobbyist continually pressure doctors to use their drugs.

But have you heard as much about how the MIC enforces our “culture of normalcy” and stigmatizes those with disabilities?

Doctors, psychologists, and others are just as caught up in the idea of what is “normal” as the rest of us, and thus, enforce those standards by saying anyone who doesn’t fit in the box must be “abnormal” and need “fixing.”

For example, Mia Mingus writes about her experience being forced as a child to wear a brace against her will so she would walk “normally.” She writes that “For me, my brace represented the medical establishment’s grubby little hands on my body, forcing me to adhere to a standardized, able bodied norm of how bodies are supposed to be, look, act and move.”

Also, there is an increasing diagnoses of “mental illness” even though there is no basis for what a “mental illness” really is or that the MIC “identifies” it at higher rates among poor communities of color.

So if someone appears to act, communicate, or move other than our “normalized” ideas, then the MIC immediately steps in to “correct” the disability, at the expense of recognizing the diversity of humanity.


Charity/Government Social Institutions


In her great article, Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability, Susan Wendell talks about how “governments and charity organizations will spend far more money to keep disabled people in institutions where they have no chance to be productive than they will spend to enable the same people to live independently and productively.”

I’ll point out more examples in the solutions section, but the Independent Living Movement showcased how there are many opportunities for people to live full and productive lives, but just with a few accommodations.

Also, Susan Wendell highlights how these “‘special’ resources the disabled need merely compensate for bad social planning that is based on the illusion that everyone is young, strong, healthy (and, often, male).”


Dominant media


Whether we are talking about film, literature, plays, or television, the media is rife with depictions of disability…though, most of it is negative and paternalistic.

Two of the most common stereotypes of disability in the media are those of the “tragic villain” (i.e. the disability/deformity “represents their evil”) and the “superhero” (i.e. those who “overcome” their disability).

The hero is the one who “overcomes,” which is problematic as I looked at earlier. By sensationalizing headlines/stories and drawing a connection between intellectual impairment and criminality the news media continues this focus on the “villain.”

James Charlton writes that the worst forms of disability representations “are the telethons ‘for. crippled people, especially, poor, pathetic, crippled children…In the U.S. surveys have shown that more people form attitudes about disabilities from telethons than from any other source.”

So stereotypic characters and telethons are where most people get their ideas of disability. No wonder we still have so much work to change the “culture of normalcy.”


The Education System


“Students with disabilities, as soon as their disability is recognized by school officials, are placed on a separate track” notes James Charlton. This separate track often has lower standards for children and immediately expects students to achieve less.

James Charlton also provides this troubling list of the common ways the education system controls students with disabilities through:

  • Labeling – e.g. special education and ADHD
  • Symbols – e.g. “Handicapped Room” signs
  • Structure – e.g. pull-out programs, segregated classrooms, “special” schools, inaccessible areas, etc.
  • Curriculum – “especially designed for students with disabilities (behavior modification for emotionally disturbed kids, training skills without knowledge instruction for significantly mentally retarded students and students w/ autistic behavior) or having significant implications for these students”
  • Testing and evaluation – “biased toward the functional needs of the dominant culture”
  • Body language/Disposition of school culture – “teachers almost never look into the eyes of students with disabilities and practice even greater patterns of superiority and paternalism than they do with other students”
  • Discipline – e.g. physical restraints, out-of-school suspensions, isolation/time-out rooms with locked doors, use of Haldol and other sedatives, etc.

One of the most currently talked about impediments to justice, is the School-to-Prison Pipeline. The School-to-Prison Pipeline describes the increasing reliance on punitive-based measures and law enforcement for handling student behavior that, according to The Advancement Project “push children off of an academic track and on to a track to prison.”

The Advancement Project goes on to say “Youth of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities are punished more often and more harshly than their peers for the same misbehavior.”

In the fall I went to a conference put on by Education Voices here in Delaware and it put the stats around race and perceived disability into clear context for me. The keynote speaker Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson said how black boys are 4 times as likely to be misclassified as intellectually disabled, and 4 times as unlikely to be classified as mentally gifted.

He want on to speak about how really, it’s very difficult to actually tell if a student is disabled when they are between Kindergarten and 3rd grade. Most times students of color will be labeled “ADHD” or other special needs if people perceive them to be “disruptive.” There are countless reasons why a student is having trouble at school, but often the first thing people think of is a emotional/learning disability.

One of the biggest things I took away from Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson’s talk was how, once a student is “labeled,” they often carry that label with them for the rest of their lives (i.e. they think they cannot achieve as much because society tells them that they are “disabled”).







Action 1 – Recognize that Disability is an identity. An identity can be something people claim (e.g. through the statement “disabled and proud”), but it can also be an identity that faces discrimination and bias (e.g. through thinking of those with disability as “not normal”).

In a world where the medical definitions dominate discussions of disability (and what they can/cannot do), we need to remember that disability should not be centered on comparisons, but rather about adaptation to circumstance (i.e. less focus on “limitations,” but more focus on what people can do with the body/mind they do have). Just because it may be different, doesn’t necessarily mean they are “suffering.”

Thus you may hear some talk about the Disabled community and their shared connections. Not everyone feels this way about their disability, but just remember that for many people the disability they have has shaped their view of the world and thus is an integral part of their identity.

Playwright and Disability rights activist Neil Marcus said “Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”

Action 2 – End the use of ableist language and promote the (numerous) alternatives. How we communicate is one of the most influential in shaping human values and ideas. We need to recognize that some of our language continues to “other” those with disabilities, both mental and physical.

Here’s a great list of alternative words to use instead of “crazy,” “nuts,” “psycho,”,”insane,” “retarded,” and “lame.” The author also covers phrases such as “they were ‘blinded’ by the fact” and “the campaign was ‘crippled’ by the latest development.” Really check this list out!

Also, if you’re looking for how ableist language contributes to racism Black Girl Dangerous has a detailed analysis of the word “psychopath” that you’ll want to see.

Action 3 – Stop promoting the “normal” able-bodied life as the only “full” way to live. Talking about the Disabled as “suffering from” or “afflicted with” a particular condition is one of the most common ways of talking about disability; however, it implies that anyone with a disability must be suffering and that is the defining feature of their lives.

This way of talking (e.g. “suffering from” or “afflicted with”) heightens the view of those with disabilities as “passive” and “victims.” This should not be our automatic view.

An individual may have a disability, but we should believe they have the same chance for having a fulfilling life as the rest of us in this complicated world. Though, society actually makes things difficult by focusing on the disability, rather than the person.

There are plenty of ways to live, so it’s time to stop focusing on a “normal” life as the only way.


Medical industrial complex


Action 4 – Focus on “treating” society, not just the individual. When society thinks of disability only in medical terms, we miss an opportunity to address oppression and injustice.

While the medical system has produced tremendous benefits for some with disabilities and saved lives, it has also contributed to the idea that those with disabilities are “suffering” and must be “fixed” to live a “normal” life.

Simi Linton writes in Reassigning Meaning ”the medicalization of disability casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and significantly as an individual burden and personal tragedy.”

So while we still need the medical system, society as a whole should put the emphasis on what it can do to change, rather than just thinking the only thing it can do is support the medical system. Just check out this list of actions for other ideas on what society can do!

Action 5 – Create a medical system based on serving the needs of people and halt the corporatization of medicine. I mentioned the medical industrial complex above, which each year seems to continue making higher profits and corresponding higher rates to consumers.

This Medical Industrial Complex gets people to spend billions of dollars to be “normal,” and convinces some they are “a burden.” With the expansion of the pharmaceutical industry into drugs affecting the brain, we see more and more people striving to be “like everyone else.”

Every new “defect” becomes an opportunity for corporate profit.

If instead we had a medical system based on what people need, as opposed to corporations, then we might actually have people living fulfilling lives instead of continually taking drugs or looking for the most advanced technology.

Action 6 – Stop the rapid rise in diagnoses of “mental illness.” As I noted earlier in this post, the Medical Industrial Complex identifies “severe mental illness” at higher rates among poor communities of color.

Colorlines highlights a few studies showing that this rise in over-identifying “mental illness” comes from the civil rights movements where psychiatry field “updated” their definitions to include “hostile and aggressive behavior.” Meaning many involved in protests may be seen as “mentally ill.”

It is not hard to believe that the first studies showing “people of color were often over-diagnosed with much more severe mental illnesses than their white counterparts” came in the 1970s shortly after the updated definitions in the ‘60s.

Media and representation


Action 7 – Show disability as just another part of human identities (e.g. gender or class), and stop sensationalizing it (e.g. “heroes” and “villains”).  “[W]hile stories rely upon the potency of disability as a symbolic figure, they rarely take up disability as an experience of social or political dimensions” note David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder.

This statement reminded me that nearly everytime I see disability represented in any form of media (e.g. books and TV), disability is almost always a “symbol” for part of the plot. Disability should be represented, but as a social identity.

We should see people with disabilities represented living, working, raising families, having joys/sorrows, etc. just as we do for every other identity.

Action 8 – Fundamentally change telethons so they show those with disabilities participating in community life and living independently. Evan Kemp Jr., a former director of the Disability Rights Center, noted how telethons contribute to the perception that “many people in our society consider the disabled to be childlike, helpless, hopeless, nonfunctioning and noncontributing members of society.”

He goes on to note that by only showing children (i.e. “ideal for use in a pity appeal”), and ignoring adults, telethons maintain the sentiment that “the adolescent or mature adult is a cripple to be avoided.”

“Playing to pity may raise money, but it also raises walls of fear between the public and us” Evan Kemp Jr. writes. Instead of strengthening the narrative of equating disability with “helplessness,” telethons must show the myriad of people living as part of a community and independently.

Education system


Action 9 – Install restorative policies and end the School-to-Prison-Pipeline. I already mentioned how the School-to-Prison-Pipeline negatively impacts students of color and those with disabilities (i.e. harsher and more severe discipline).

Ending the school-to-prison-pipeline will take a combination of funding schools at appropriate levels (e.g. for school counselors and programs aimed at early intervention), applying restorative justice policies (i.e. policies based more on how a student can contribute, rather than punishing them), and ending high stakes testing.

Action 10 – Give schools more resources so they can provide more accommodations instead of “special education”/labeling students. Special education today focuses on providing a different curriculum to students who do not fit the “norm” (e.g. having trouble focusing). This curriculum often has lower expectations. This also involves “labeling” (e.g. ADHD), which lasts a lifetime.

If schools had appropriate levels of funding, as opposed to being constantly underfunded, then they would be able to meet students’ needs in other ways than immediately sending every kid who has trouble focusing to special education.

Some of the alternatives to an IEP (individualized education plan) for accommodations use a 504 education plan to provide more 1-to-1 aides, more breaks, meetings with counselors, and longer time on tests.


Government/Nonprofit industry


Action 11 – Develop policies/programs based on accommodation, instead of dividing and elimination. Instead of setting limits on what we think people can do, we should be creating initiatives that emphasize supporting a person in adapting to life based on their disabilities.

This contrasts with the dominant model now that tries to setup separate facilities or spur research to “end disability.” These clearly communicate a truly negative message, as opposed to including options that accommodate what a person needs to live their life as fuller as possible.

Action 12 – Stop relying on fears of disability in fundraising or in promoting policies/programs. Whether in the telethons or in modern conservative politics talking about the dangers of the “disability king.”

Either way, these types of rhetoric indicate that we should think of those with disabilities as “burdens.”

On the political side, James Wilson writes in (Re)Writing the Genetic Body “In this bogeyman representation, disability becomes not only a personal tragedy but a public burden that costs taxpayers excessively.”

The message from the nonprofit/medical side is not much better, since it focuses on “If we raise enough money we can ‘erase’ disability.’”

Continuing to raise fears of disability perpetuates the “culture of normalcy” and keeps us away from social accommodation and the “othering” of those with disabilities.

Action 13 – Promote independent living policies, rather than solely supporting dependent living. One of the central aims of disability rights is to end segregated living (i.e. housing those with disabilities in facilities, where the residents have little control over their lives), and instead create independent living programs.

Independent living programs bring about self-determination (both mental and physical), by having the following attributes. These attributes of independent living situations include those that:

  • People with disabilities run and maintain
  • Provide peer support/role modeling where people learn how to live life from others with similar disabilities
  • Build a sense of collective community.

So instead of someone learning only from a nondisabled “professional” about how to live with a mental/physical disability, they would instead have a chance to be included in, and actively contribute to, a community of support.



Action 14 – Remember disability is a civil and human rights issue, not an individual issue. The history of the disability rights movement highlights the significant emphasis on disability as a civil rights issue, countering the idea that a disability was purely an individual issue.

This means we as a society are responsible for ending discrimination/hate crimes, supporting independent living programs, ending the culture of “normalcy,” etc.

Action 15 – Engage in confidence building and ending the mindset of self-oppression. From a young age in our “culture of normalcy” we teach people to set a “low bar” for those with disabilities.

The same model of internalizing oppression (i.e. believing the myths and stereotypes of how one must act or what one can do in life) that impacts other identities, also influence those with disabilities. Some may overcome this mindset, but we shouldn’t even allow this self-oppression to develop at all.

Instead, if we taught each other, disabled and nondisabled, to focus less on the limits of impairments and focus more on how we can adapt to whatever our situation is to achieve the most we can, don’t you think more people would be living fulfilling and independent lives?

Action 16 – Support the Disabled community’s push for self-determination. Tobin Siebers strongly states that those with disabilities just want “to live life as a human being…They do not want to feel dominated by the people on whom they depend for help.”

Often those who need services from others just to function become represented as “weak or inferior;” however, they just want to live life on equal terms with those providing the services.

Tobin Siebers reminds us that we should be “opposing the belief that people with disabilities are needy, selfish, and resentful – and will consequently take more than their fair share of resources from society as a whole.” The Disabled community aims for self-sufficiency and self-determination, NOT more programs that keep them away from their own sovereignty.

This means that for many with disabilities, people just want “to live with their disability, to come to know their body, to accept what it can do, and to keep doing what they can for as long as they can” continues Tobin Siebers.


Beyond “Normal”


These actions listed are just the start of what many Disability justice activists have called for, and continue to call for.

The “Culture of Normalcy” already has countless people trying to break it down, and replace it with values based on recognizing all people. We just have to keep pushing.

Culture Changing

Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It)

“Patriarchy has no gender.”

bell hooks in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom

bell hooks’ quote is a clear reminder that patriarchy does not just describe male actions of domination, but also how some organizations and cultural narratives function.

Patriarchy, like most forms of oppression, has a way of trying to convince us that, in the words of the Crunk Feminist Collective “things are the way they are because they have to be, that they have always been that way, that there are no alternatives and that they will never change.”

From Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, people have been resisting this mentality and pointing out another path away from unjust power systems.

Through the rest of this post I’m going to summarize intersectional changemakers’ ideas on:

  • The current state of patriarchy
  • The frames that perpetuate the acceptance of patriarchy
  • Examples of patriarchy in our current institutions
  • The main long-term efforts we can take to combat patriarchy

We’re lucky that that numerous changemakers have already clearly demonstrated what we need to do to dismantle patriarchy. Now we just all have to integrate these actions into all of our organizing efforts.


The core attributes of patriarchy


Patriarchy is a system that has many elements associated with it. Below are some of the key expressions of patriarchy:

Holds up the traditional male qualities as central, while other qualities are considered subordinate. The attributes of power, control, rationality, and extreme competitiveness are examples of these traditional male qualities. Emotional expressiveness, compassion, and ability to nurture are examples of subordinate qualities in patriarchal systems.

Dualistic and gendered thinking of roles. Within this structure, men and women both have their own specific roles (e.g. men leading, and women supporting). Even though this view may appear to be fading in some areas, it’s clear that certain careers historically associated with women (e.g. childcare and teaching) have disproportionately lower salaries.

Male domination. Men often occupy the most important and visible roles (e.g. executives, politicians, public leaders, etc.). Women who do hold these positions are expected to subscribe to male norms.

Protection of traditional patriarchal social structures. If a person or group challenges patriarchy in any form, then the patriarchal response is to increase control. In particular, this means increasing control over oppressed or marginalized groups.

Reinforcement of other types of oppression. Patriarch contributes to racism, sizeism, and homophobia. Third Wave feminists, such as Rebecca Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga, are the major voices to articulate this truth. All of the manifestations of patriarchy mentioned above, magnify for those with other oppressed identities.

However, one other important point to remember is, as described on the Daily Kos, “patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.

This means, that people of all gender identities can perpetuate patriarchy, even if it is mainly male-identified individuals that reap most of the societal benefits.

For a powerful succinct description of patriarchy, check out bell hooks’ article Understanding Patriarchy.


Frames that perpetuate patriarchal ideas


“Boys will be boys.” This idea that men are biologically “programmed” to behave certain ways, against all scientific evidence, is one of the biggest cultural narratives that continues our current patriarchal systems.

Celebrating “macho” or “alpha” men.

Jackson Katz, in his book The Macho Paradox, discusses how society often promotes violent and controlling aspects of male culture. From lifting up the “strong” hero to denigrating “sissies,” our language and media foster this image of what “real men” look like.

Men believing they should be silent, instead of challenging other men on patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. One of the most insidious characteristics of patriarchy, as mention above, is that it seeks to protect traditional male traits and actions. Even of some men would never subscribe to certain actions/ideas/language, they ignore when their peers commit those very same things.

“It’s a women’s issue.” Patriarchy and sexual violence impact both men and women. Patriarchy impacts everyone, at all levels of society.

While there are countless other frames that prop up patriarchy, these are a few of the most prominent.


How patriarchy manifests itself in current society




There are numerous ways the mass media accentuates patriarchal ideas and thoughts.

The media amplifies patriarchal viewpoints through:

In addition, the journalism industry itself reserves most senior analyst and producer positions for men. Further, both men and women that do have these jobs must make sure to spin their stories that subscribe to dominant patriarchal narratives, instead of challenging them.




Men disproportionately occupy top leadership positions, often because they exhibit those very same traditional male traits (e.g. outspoken, “rational,” and individual-based leadership).

In addition women often have “lower salaries, appointments at lower ranks, slower rates of promotion and lower rates of retention, and less recognition through awards.” This trend continues despite widespread recognition, which to me indicates that we still need to address the root causes (i.e. patriarchal culture).


Sexual violence


Sexual violence impacts both men and women, and relationships along the spectrum of sexual orientations. However, “99% of people who rape are men.”

Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey write “Patriarchy tells men that their need for love and respect can only be met by being masculine, powerful, and ultimately violent.” This viewpoint also contributes to the high amount of male bystanders who do little or nothing to prevent sexual violence.




The traditional nuclear family, with men as the “leaders” and women as the “nurturers,” is still incredibly prevalent. This translates into male figure as the “authority” on all important decisions.

George Lakoff writes of the “strict father model” as the dominant conservative worldview, which he uses to explain why many conservatives pursue the “war on women.”

For other expressions of patriarchy, check out Shannon Ridgway’s great post on Everyday Feminism.

How to start ending patriarchy


Now challenging patriarchy is something that has been ongoing for countless generations, and it will take many more before it can finally be eliminated. This is essential for those of all gender identities.

However, there are numerous options all of us can take to push back against the system of patriarchy, no matter what field or time of life we may be in.


Changing the patriarchal narrative


Action 1: Push for a culture of excellence to hold men/boys accountable for their language and actions where all people can make positive influences on the world. This means countering the “boys will be boys” idea.

We shouldn’t discount men and their ability to be upstanding individuals, we just have to keep high expectations.

Action 2: Support a spectrum of ideas of what a “real man” looks like, such as those that are compassionate and responsible. We need to stop holding up “macho” or the “tough, silent type” as the gold standard for maleness.

Action 3: Reframe patriarchy as an issue for everyone (not just “a women’s issue”). Jackson Katz writes on how this is also a men’s issue, since men should take responsibility for altering both themselves and challenging men around them.

As bell hooks’ quote from the beginning of this post reminds us, “Patriarchy has no gender,” thus it’s going to take all people to combat it.

Action 4: End the viewpoint that the traditional nuclear family as the ideal. Instead, we should accept and encourage loving, compassionate families of any style and form.


Altering how we approach sexual violence prevention


Photo: Rachel Kramer Bussel via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Rachel Kramer Bussel via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Action 5: Advocate for a definition of consent based on “Yes” rather than “No.” One common phrase in sexual violence prevention is “No means no.” However, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti’s anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape reframes this to be “Yes means Yes!”

The anthology describes how consent should be “given freely and enthusiastically,” rather than making assumptions based on silence or passivity. Also, they write “men need to feel empowered to say no also.”

One necessity for this is that men need to be able to effectively ask and listen, which leads directly to the next action.

Action 6: Teach boys and men how to authentically communicate their emotions and listen empathetically to others. From an early age, few people encourage boys to express their emotions, and many try to encourage boys to “hide their emotions.”

So whether you work with kids, have a child, or want to contribute to reducing sexual violence, we need to train males how to express themselves.

Action 7: Implement comprehensive sex education. Cara Kulwicki in her essay in Yes Means Yes writes “teaches that sex is more than heterosexual intercourse and should be consensual and pleasurable for all participants.”

This type of education also includes how to talk about sex. If more men have knowledge of how to talk about consent, contraception, and sex in general, and understand what rape actually is then there is much more potential for healthy relationships.

Action 8: Create collective accountability systems for handling sexual violence. The current criminal “justice” system exacerbates injustices based on race, sexual orientation, and ability. Thus, we need an alternate system that gives survivors the choice of whether to pursue the current legal system or a framework based on community accountability.

Cristina Meztli Tzintzun, in her essay in Yes Means Yes writes that we need “collective accountability based on love, support, forgiveness, transformation, and consequence.”

Action 9: Train men and foster the attitude that men should be proactive in addressing patriarchy. Men need to challenge other men on their patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. So it seems to me that it is a much better mentality to stand up to your friends and community in order to help make them more conscientious people.

As long as men standby when these patriarchal events take place, they prop up the oppressive frame they “must be silent.” I know it may be difficult to challenge every single instance, since it’s all around us, but taking action should be the norm rather than “that one time I stood up.”


Challenge existing institutions that contribute to patriarchy


Action 10: Ending conservatives’ war on women. Many conservative politicians try to say their policies are “not a war on women,” but the record levels of legislation limiting women’s rights and the impact says otherwise.

Elizabeth Martinez notes, this war on women has been a frequent effort by the conservative leadership over the past decades. Now it has ramped up, in particular at the state-level. We have to keep up the pressure on these regressive policies and highlight the implications of this conservative war.

Action 11: Hold the media accountable. Whether this is for for male-dominated journalism/movies, or for victim-blaming in cases involving sexual violence, we have to stop the media’s focus on dominant culture and instead reflect its viewers with all types of relationships and backgrounds.

Also, if you’re not already, start reading the works of those combating patriarchy and it’s connections to other forms of oppression. Here’s a great list to start with.

For more ways to challenge patriarchy, check out Harsha Walia’s great summary at Beautiful Trouble.

This fight is for everyone


Ending patriarchy is about removing barriers for people of all gender identities. It ties directly to our work addressing white privilege, homophobia, sizisim, etc.

I started this post with a bell hooks quote, and I believe her following words capture the world we should all seek to create.

“The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” ― bell hooks

Culture Changing

42 Errors Changemakers and Humanitarians Make


Photo: GDAMS - Global Day of Action on Military Spending via Flickr (Used with permission from Heath Mitchell)
Photo: GDAMS – Global Day of Action on Military Spending via Flickr (Used with permission from Heath Mitchell)

This article is cross-posted on the incredible Heath Mitchell’s Advance Humanities Fellow blog.

For many people the world over, today is the holiest day of the year. According to the Jewish calendar, today is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.

This holiday is observed through a day-long fast and a great deal of praying and repenting. Including most notably, a confessional prayer called Al Chet. Jews pray today, the culminating day of the ten days of awe, that their names will be sealed in the book of life for the coming year.

On this Yom Kippur in the Hebrew year of 5774, my dear friend Drew Serres of Organizing Change and I decided to refocus the community of congregants. Instead of Jews focusing on sins outlined in the Bible. What kind of list might we generate for our audience of people who are united not by religion but rather a drive to create change beauty and justice in the world?

The Jewish confession is less about what you personally did wrong over the past year and more focused on what the Jewish people as a collective have done. It’s communal.

If you choose to adopt a more Universalist outlook, as I do, this repentance demands that believers be not only accountable for their own actions, but the actions of well, really, humankind.

Consider the following a list of human failings that we commit in acting for social change and humanitarian efforts.

Photo: Eugene Peretzz via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Eugene Peretzz via Flickr (Creative Commons)

1. Seeking to support others, without thinking about ourselves, and “burning out” instead of building a resilient social change culture.

2. Focusing on a single issue (e.g. climate change and health care reform) as opposed to working for intersectional, and cross-issue campaigns/projects.

3. Engaging in campaigns that are sexy rather than campaigns that are more impactful but garner less limelight.

4. Expecting our reason and facts should be enough to convince people we are right (i.e. talking at someone), rather than just talking to individuals like you would to “A Friend in a Bar” (i.e. talking with someone).

5. Looking down on activists whose passions we do not share (“How can someone care so much about animal treatment when people are dying in _____?!”).

6. Getting angry at people who aren’t active agents of change or advocates for social justice (i.e. people we may call apathetic).

7. Believing good intentions are enough to make positive change, even though we know these good intentions can lead to negative results when not tied to clear analysis.

8. Congratulating ourselves too much for our lofty ideals.

9. Ignoring our own creative energy and needs, without considering ways we can instil it within our own activist life and organizations.

10. Fostering a negative mentality/isolating ourselves when something doesn’t go as planned (e.g. low-attendance at an event or unsuccessful lobbying for a particular piece of legislation), instead of learning/seeking our supportive community.

11. Attaching our own self worth to a project’s success or failure.

12. Mistaking self-defeating talk for humility.

13. Comparing ourselves to people who do less/more to make ourselves feel better/worse rather than being inspired to emulate/lead.

14. Thinking that any given problem can be solved with a single “silver bullet” solution instead of needing multiple impactful approaches.

15. Getting discouraged by the enormity and entrenched nature of the status quo.

16. Focussing too much on what is broken rather than using appreciative inquiry to bolster that which is already working well and could work better still.

17. Ignoring the big picture or ignoring the details.

18. Getting pulled into a professionalized nonprofit world that doesn’t allow for accountability to the grassroots movement and limits us to social services, rather than addressing root issues.

19. Letting the importance of data/research get in the way of listening to and acting on people’s stories and calls to action.

20. Falling into the logic that good ideas need money to work or thinking that money alone can solve a problem.

21. Separating “work” and “life” as opposed to building a supportive community of activists.

22. Remaining neutral when injustice is occurring because it’s “not my issue/expertise” or it’s “too political” instead of speaking out or actively supporting the actions of those who do organize against injustice.

23. Thinking that change can only come from the top or that no change can come from the top.

24. Using “its just the culture” as an excuse for why change cannot happen.

25.  Stooping to degrading or oppressive imagery or marketing slogans to raise funds (e.g. “Poverty Porn”).

26. Publicly promoting accomplishments, without taking significant time to internally reflect and celebrate as a team within our groups.

27. Over-selling the amount of change an idea can produce.

28. Sharing our successes and hiding our failures, when others could learn valuable lessons from both.

29. Putting in time for short-term victories, instead of also putting in the effort for sustained long-term movements.

30. Waiting for someone else to give us a vision for how the world can be, instead of outlining our own world vision as a way to inspire action.

31. Equating ideology with being inflexible and dogmatic, instead of as a values-based framework that explicitly shows what you believe.

32. Using online media and mobilizing as if they were the same as on-the-ground or face-to-face organizing (e.g. go to meet someone or pick up the phone rather than sending that email!).

33. Perpetuating the “[white, male, etc.] Savior Industrial Complex,” and focusing on what we want for people as opposed to listening to and following the people most impacted by oppression.

34. Adopting polemic stances of the oppressed and the oppressor wherein change is pitted against groups or institutions (environmentalism= nature versus corporations, feminism= women versus men, racial equality= minorities versus whites, etc).

35. Thinking empowerment is about instilling new ideas/skills in someone, rather than as a way to give personal and leadership development opportunities to someone.

36. Edging out others less experienced from taking leadership opportunities because we think we can get the job done more efficiently.

37. Putting a completely balanced amount of effort into everything you do, when really it is more about juggling (i.e. the amount of time you put into your priorities can fluctuate [e.g. maybe this week I spend more time with family/friends and next week I focus on the campaign]).

38. Only looking at institutions of oppression outside our organization, as opposed to also looking at what we can change within our own groups.

39. Being serious all the time, even though it can really improve our personal AND organizational life by just having a little humor in our activist work.

40. Lowering expectations for both ourselves and others by accepting adequate/OK results, rather than always pushing for excellence.

41. Continually seeking to create something new and original, when we should be learning the fundamentals from those who organized before us.

42. Separating out spirituality/religion from our activist work, instead of incorporating spirituality/religion into our organizing.

We asked in the intro what kind of list we might generate by realigning the audience on this holiest of holy days. While I hope you’ve found it illuminating, one larger question still persists;


What do we do with this list?


If this list has only weighed you down with the collective failings of those trying hardest to do good in the world then you have missed the point. Nor was this merely an exercise to humble those who take pride in doing good things.

The point is to strive.  We are human, we have failings, and we also have the capacity to overcome them. But we cannot overcome a failing until we have identified it.

So what we at Organizing Change and Advance Humanity would encourage you to do right now is reflect on this list and remember one or two errors that resonated with you personally and make a conscious effort to change that behavior in this new year. In Hebrew this final step of repentance is called Teshuvah.

After all, the very word Chet in Hebrew while commonly translated to sin actually means “to miss the mark”. So take this year, and give it another shot.

As discussed earlier this repentance is at once both individual and communal, so if you feel so moved, we encourage you to share this post with our ever-growing congregation of change agents, do-gooders and everyday humanitarians.

We would love to hear your own ideas for other common ways in which we miss the mark in our efforts to make change and foster the promise of a better world in the comments section or on Facebook.


Culture Changing

Here’s How Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and MLK Approach Neutrality

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

I grew up trying to be neutral so seeing this quote was one of a few that completely altered my life’s direction.

I enjoy being a positive person, but when being a positive person leads me to avoid taking sides or hiding my true values then I am being an individual who supports our current power structures.

Desmond Tutu’s words show us that as our nonprofits, community organizations, and friends increasingly state their desire to be “nonpartisan,” we must remind them that by aiming for neutrality/nonpartisanship they buttress our oppressive systems.

Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading moral voices and activist for ending institutionalized oppression, saw first-hand in South Africa how being neutral was a partial reason for the continued strength of the apartheid system.

Freedom fighters struggled for decades before the international community stepped out of their “neutral policies” and denounced South Africa’s apartheid state. Even then, many nations advocated for gradual reforms from the government, instead of supporting the movement demanding the realization of the Freedom Charter (principles for a new just society) and the overthrow of colonialist institutions.

South Africa and the United States reduced their levels of repression only when committed groups and individuals took a strong stand for the values of justice for all people.


Silence and neutrality


“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel

Photo: PinkMoose via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: PinkMoose via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Today we are constantly faced with injustice (e.g. school-to-prison-pipeline and exploiting indigenous land to fuel dominant fossil fuel use), though many times we stay silent. Some may be quite vocal about a few issues, but remain neutral in areas “outside their area.”

In particular, I’ve seen so many organizations refuse to do what they think is right, because taking action “might upset the funders.”

Most funders, whether from foundations or government, encourage organizations to work within existing power structures, resist groups that are politically active and mobilize against governmental, financial, or cultural systems (even if they clearly perpetuate disenfranchisement). This suppression of activism occurs because funders are already deeply entrenched in current ways of operating.

If our groups are operating under the barrier that they must be neutral and avoid confronting our existing institutions of power, then don’t you think they are going to have to keep solving the same symptoms of poverty, educational inequality, and health disparity over and over again?


Impossible to actually be neutral


“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral ” – Paulo Freire

Often in more liberal or community development fields, there is a strong desire to remain impartial and “objective.” However, in doing so they “side with the powerful.”

While having a desire for collaboration, consensus, and community is not bad necessarily, we have to keep in mind that these ideals can expand the reach of injustice.

For example, dominant male culture promotes the expectation that men should ignore sexism and just accept that “boys will be boys.” This passive bystander approach to sexism, is one of the main contributors to our extremely high rate of sexual violence.

By saying one is “not going to take sides” and just remain on the sidelines (e.g. allowing someone to blame the victim), these individuals provide their tacit acceptance.

So how we change this culture of neutrality?


Building a culture of active response to injustice


“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict…[an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote provides another voice that starkly outlines the damage caused by neutrality, but it also leads to one of the primary ways we can build a culture of active response to injustice.

Speak out against any and all injustice, both large and small. Whether you witness an act of interpersonal oppression (e.g. homophobic comments) or you see a trend of institutionalized oppression (e.g. the media and politicians correlating those with mental health issues and violence), try to find ways to illuminate darkness.

Share the voices of those committed to exposing injustice. If you are not ready to be as vocal as you wish, highlighting the thoughts and actions of those dedicated to denouncing injustice (e.g. Angry Asian Man and Feministing) is a great way to build your own courage (it certainly helped me!).

Analyze areas of your organization and life to see where you have remained neutral, in order to decide how you will become active against oppression. I know I rarely, if at all, thought about where I was neutral since it was so ingrained in my every behavior. Thus, you may need to take a close look at where you are quiet and where you have started to express yourself.

Agitate for increasing how your organization (and even yourself) encourages an environment of active responses to injustice. Identity how you can provide training, change policies, and lead by example.

Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King Jr., provide a clear moral and strategic outlook at how we can approach neutrality. Their lives show that taking a stand is challenging, but is essential to dismantling injustice. Luckily, we have the opportunity to learn from their experiences.

Have thoughts or examples on other ways to resist neutrality? Post your thoughts on Organizing Change’s Facebook page!

Culture Changing

What Went Wrong?: The Rise of Good Intentions and Terrible Results

I know I have many good intentions for my work, but what if I’m wrong?

These conversations I have with friends or with my trusty journal, about ensuring our work remains positive, often make for difficult times; however, the time I put into critically thinking always pays off.

So if you ever have doubts about the work you are doing and then making sure to have challenging reflections, then you are probably going in the right direction.

If you’ve never seriously considered the idea of being wrong (and I mean really thought about it, not just in idle moments), then you probably should be.


When people don’t consider the impacts of their intentions


For those familiar with U.S. politics, it’s not hard to find a time where inflexible world views about what was right and wrong led to terrible results. With so many to choose from, here’s just a few examples:

  • Starting Indian boarding schools: many thought keeping indigenous children in boarding schools would teach students how to “succeed” in the “civilized world.” In what was one of the most heinous of U.S. policies, children were traumatically ripped from their families, not allowed to speak their native language, and forced to demonstrate Western ways and values.
  • Spreading democracy: U.S. officials, along with a significant number of the general public, felt that U.S.-style democracy was the best form of government and thus, the U.S. should “export democracy.” This included supporting military coups against democratically elected leaders (e.g. Allende in Chile), and installing military dictators favorable to U.S. foreign/corporate policy.
  • Eliminating sign language: some felt that sign language created a barrier for the Deaf to “assimilate into U.S. society.” These folks did not/do not recognize the Deaf community as a linguistic minority with the desire for ensuring self-determination.
  • Capturing Joseph Kony: the Kony 2012 campaign advocated for capturing Kony through military intervention, and focused on what outsiders could do to “help.” Teju Cole brilliantly writes how the Kony 2012 campaign fostered a “White Savior” narrative, ignored the solutions promoted by Ugandans, and encouraged militarization of the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni.

I could keep on going with this list, but you get the idea.

Our past and present is littered with cases of people doing what they thought was right, only to detrimentally impact those they were trying to “help” (though without even asking if those communities wanted their assistance).”


How to have good intentions AND good results!


Whenever I try to think of the work I’m doing and whether it is having my intended impact on the world, I make sure to take time to listen and carefully reflect. Make sure to consider if what you are doing is right for you AND others or if it is more the former.

Support efforts for self-determination and let the community identify its own needs, don’t say what someone needs without even bothering to really understand.

Always leave open the possibility that you are wrong. It’s easy to find yourself always in the right if you never consider the possibility of being wrong.

Oftentimes, nobody knows the right answer or there are multiple competing ideas. This is where you must research and evaluate the impacts of your work to see if it is having the intended effect.

Accept criticism and be willing to be uncomfortable. I know I sometimes want to push away or not really acknowledge criticism of my work (especially if I have taken time to prepare and considered multiple points of view); however, I never want to get into a place where I am only hearing those who agree with me.

Identify your personal frames and their influence on your proposed solutions. Many times the most intersectional responses require us to move back and see what preconceived notions may impact our analysis.

So when we work for change, good intentions are critical; however, just as critical is a well thought-out understanding of the situation. We don’t need to have all the answers, we just have to remember we don’t always have all the answers :)

What to keep up with a reflective community seeking to make positive change while not perpetuating injustice? Then sign up for Organizing Change’s updates where you can find out what organizers are doing to ensure critical analysis and action!