Start by explaining that conflict rarely unfolds on an equal playing field. Instead, power and privilege are almost always at play. Tell students that today, they will be talking about power and privilege. Start by asking if any student can explain what it means to have power. After several students have shared their thoughts, tell students that power is all about options, abilities and action.
Power gives people options, so they can have choices and make decisions. It gives people the ability to take action, to do things, and to make things happen in the way they want.
Ask students to think of someone from their personal life, or a public figure (current or historical), who holds a lot of power. Then, ask students to turn to a classmate and talk about who they identified as having a lot of power, as well as why they think that person holds power (ex. money, status, fame, appearance, etc). After a couple of minutes, call the student's attention back to you and tell them to hang-on to what they discussed with their partners because it will likely be helpful in a couple of minutes. Now, ask if any student can explain what it means to have privilege. Encourage students to participate who did not already provide a definition of power. After students share their thoughts, present the following definition of privilege:
Privilege is a right or benefit that is granted to some people and not others, often on the basis of factors that are out of their control (ex. gender or race).
Get students to think about examples from their own life where they experience privilege. After a number of students have shared, mention that power and privilege are often talked about together because having more power than others tends to naturally lead to certain kinds of privilege. Explain that a number of factors influence a person’s power and privilege.
On chart paper or on the whiteboard, ask students to help you make a list of factors that influence power and, for each factor, identify the high and low power positions (in Canada). Start this activity by sharing one of the factors as well as the high and low power positions for that factor so that students understand what they are being asked to do. Use guided questions to make sure that students have identified all the major factors influencing power, as shared in the READY section.
After making the list, explain that in any relationship, conversation or interaction, the people involved can hold equal power (but this is rare), or there can be a power imbalance, where one person is in a higher power position and the other person is in a lower power position. A power imbalance in a relationship can be a result of any combination of the factors identified. Introduce the term intersectionality and explain that different aspects of a person’s identity might overlap to create unique experiences and modes of discrimination. For example, a woman who is Black does not separately manage the challenges associated with being a woman OR those associated with being Black. Instead, she experiences a unique set of challenges associated with being a woman AND being Black. Students might struggle to understand this idea at first so allow them to ask questions and brainstorm ideas together.
Now, ask students to discuss whether different types of power are more or less useful in different situations.
After listening to students’ opinions, explain that power dynamics are context dependent. For example, whether or not someone’s first language is English will probably not influence their ability to win a race, but it will create a huge power imbalance when they need to express themselves and advocate for their rights. Ask students to reflect on different situations in their life where they might hold different levels of power and how these power differences affect how comfortable, confident, respected, and valued they feel in any given situation.
Finally, spend a couple of minutes talking about how power imbalance has the potential to affect relationships. Consider using the following prompts to get the conversation started:
- How can you maintain a reasonable balance of power in your relationships?
- How is power related to respect?
- Are there any unbalanced power structures within our classroom? If so, what factors contribute to this imbalance? How does this imbalance impact our class community?
- Can power and privilege be misused in relationships? If so, how?
- What action should we take if we notice the misuse of power and/or privilege within our class or school community?