In order to craft a new world order – one in which all people are valued equally, free to enjoy their rights, and able to live with dignity – we need profound cultural and social norm change. Breakthrough’s unique contribution to changing culture and building a more just world relies on a nuanced understanding of intersectionality that recognizes how power, privilege, and oppression simultaneously exist within all of us. Recognizing our sites of oppression AND power allows us to increase our sense of agency to activate change.
Breakthrough’s mission is to make gender-based violence unacceptable. Yet we know that simply addressing the patterns of power and control between men and women as they exist in patriarchal systems is not enough. Patterns of power and control are also determined by multiple and simultaneous embodiments of gender, race, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, and religion.
Breakthrough’s commitment to engaging multiple, diverse, and often unlikely constituencies has taught us invaluable lessons about effective frameworks and strategies for transforming a global culture of violence. Holding a nuanced view of intersectionality is critical to building a world in which all of us can thrive.
Breakthrough has 17 years of experience in the world’s two largest democracies doing culture change work, giving us space to reflect and share learnings. Our knowledge base is grounded in our work on racial justice, immigrant rights, and gender equality – from local, to (trans)national, to global.
What is intersectionality?
We often think of intersectionality as the way our identities – our gender, race, class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, immigration status, religion, etc. – intersect and affect our lived experiences. Intersectionality is a term used to help us understand how multiple forms of overlapping oppressions – shaped by sexism, racism, poverty, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and violence – affect our lives in nuanced and context-specific ways. For example, a poor black woman will have unique lived experiences – she will have less privilege than her brother and will likely experience greater levels of discrimination based on her gender.
The term intersectionality was coined by civil rights activist and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and can be defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
Breakthrough adds another layer to this understanding: the idea that our identities include sites of oppression AND corresponding sites of privilege. These sites of privilege exist along with, in spite of, or even as a result of the ways in which we are oppressed, and they give us power that we can leverage to enact change in our communities and spheres of influence.
In reality, everyone has power in some form or another, at one point or another. We may not always be able to access our power, and it is especially difficult to access this power when other aspects of our identities are being targeted. But once we have identified it exists, then we can learn to unlock our power when needed.
For example, a man of color may experience racism, but in being cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied, he would also have power and privilege that he could leverage to create change. He could mobilize his peers to educate other men who engage in sexually predatory behavior against women, using his male privilege to check other men’s privilege.
As noted by Kimberlé Crenshaw, groups are not homogenous. Breakthrough’s understanding of intersectionality allows for and celebrates intra-group differences as opportunities for changemaking.
Our sites of power are not always limited to our identities. Across history, we have many examples of people whose identities were sources of oppression, but a combination of external forces, support, determination, and catalyzing circumstances, along with their agency, voice, talents and experiences, led them to become artists, mobilizers, and leaders.
Why does it matter?
With a deep understanding of intersectionality, and support from others, individuals can find their unique voice and agency, helping them, and others, overcome experiences of oppression. Breakthrough’s culture change methodology includes creative storytelling, deep community engagement, and leadership development, to inspire and direct this shift and help transform experiences of oppression into expressions of agency and action. Our view of intersectionality is not only useful in unlocking this motivating force in individuals, but also seeks to empower changemakers by helping them access their power in creative and innovative ways that are often neglected.
“For the first time in my life, I feel in control of my narrative, in control of my life. In many ways, I have always had this control; I simply surrendered it time and time again. I have succeeded in reclaiming my story and assuming responsibility for the writing of it. That is my proudest accomplishment of all.”
–Justin, 22, he/him/his [As told to THEGWORD]