Identifying and Exploring Power Structures

To understand others, one must understand the world they inhabit. Identifying and discussing power structures, particularly the structures of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability, is a necessary part of learning empathy.

Current research reveals a growing belief among many Americans that we are all the same, everyone has the same opportunities, and that differences no longer matter. Paradoxically, such a stance can be an obstacle to developing empathy. Social and emotional learning (SEL) Challenge Programs provide context for the understanding of self and of others through the sharing of stories that help youth develop empathy and compassion for one another.

Youth learn to recognize stereotypes, discrimination, and other social structures that influence different groups’ experiences as part of building empathy. Through the process, youth, whether from majority or minority groups, better understand how these forces alter perceptions and opportunities in their own lives and the lives of others. Empathy is also supported by presenting a framework that doesn’t blame individuals.

Quote markWe want people to understand that social injustice isn’t primarily about individuals treating other individuals unfairly, but it’s about systemic and institutionalized factors that perpetuate privilege in some groups and injustice in others.

Over time, youth begin to understand the larger societal picture, as Paul Griffin at The Possibility Project revealed:

Quote markOur young people are now looking at their own experiences and connecting their experiences with violence to macro-level violence. Violence isn’t character based and it doesn’t happen to individuals randomly. So they begin to see that if they’ve experienced violence, they’re not alone. And if they haven’t experienced it, they begin to get a realistic sense of the way the world is. If these young people are growing up in a bubble, that bubble bursts. And youth who are growing up with violent experiences begin to understand they’re not alone. So that bubble bursts as well. Everyone starts to see the patterns that make up the bigger picture that is our violent society.

Forming and exploring identity is a fundamental task of adolescence, and out-of-school programs can provide contexts “in which youth can make sense of the vexing and contradictory forces that shape their lives. Once they establish an understanding of systems, youth are able to own and articulate their identities in relation to these social structures.

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

Sometimes it’s hard to see the systems around us. How do you help youth see oppression as not only localized, but systematic?