Systems of Oppression Harm Oppressors as well as the Oppressed: The People Who Inspire Series: Keith Edwards
Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian‘s “The People Who Inspire series” highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s post features Dr. Keith Edwards, campus speaker and educator.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
I was born in rural north central Wisconsin, lived in Botswana for 2 years as a young child, and spent the rest of my childhood growing up in a very small town in Wisconsin. I went to college at Hamline University in St Paul, where I was an RA and student leader which gave me opportunities to engage with difference and ideas of diversity and social justice that I hadn’t had before.
I got my master’s in student affairs in higher education from Colorado State University where that learning continued. I went on to work at the University of Delaware where I had opportunities to lead department and campus initiatives on diversity and social justice and to begin speaking on campuses about men’s role in sexual assault prevention.
I later went to the University of Maryland for my PhD in Higher Ed Administration with a concentration in diversity and social justice education. During my time at Maryland I wrote a few articles for publication including a conceptual piece on aspiring ally identity development and my dissertation on college men’s gender identity development.
For the past six years, I have served as the Director of Campus Life at Macalester College where I provide leadership for the areas of residential life, student activities, orientation, and conduct. I have continued to do consulting on other campuses on sexual assault prevention, social justice education, college men’s issues, and developing intentional learning outcomes guided approaches to education beyond the classroom. I also teach a course at the University of St Thomas on diversity and social justice in student affairs and higher education.
In your view, what is Social Justice Education and why is it important?
Social justice education is the work that many of us do across many different functional areas to make the world a more just and equitable place for all of us.
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
I view issues of diversity and social justice broadly and include issues of race/ethnicity, gender/sex, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability, and their intersections. I am most comfortable around issues of gender and race based on my own lived experience and reflections as well as my scholarly learning and contributions.
In thinking about your work with engaging men on college campuses in sexual assault prevention, what are some important messages that you would like other men to receive?
In taking a proactive approach to stop rape from happening in the first place, we must understand the perpetrators and what contributes their behavior. This may not be necessary and may even be destructive for those working to support survivors, but if we aim to stop men from raping we need to understand what leads men to rape.
Finally, given the rape culture that we live in we need to understand that men’s violence against women is more normal than it is deviant. Our culture literally encourages, condones, and teaches men to rape women – it just doesn’t call it that – it calls it hooking up, getting some, playing the game, etc.
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
Making a difference. I don’t always get to see that difference directly but I believe that education is an act of faith. You must believe that you are making a difference and know that the visible impact of our work may not come until well after those that we are educating are out of our sight.
I love seeing the aha moments in participants eyes, having people stunned because they see the world in a whole new way, or even those who are angry because the message touched a cord that they are yet unable to unpack. What I love most is seeing me describe a dynamic that someone has always felt but thought it was only them and watching them realize that their experience is shared by others.
What aspects do you find challenging?
The insincere disagreements by those who don’t honestly want to engage but just want to drag you into ideological fights so that they can selectively use your quotes to villainize you.
Do you have any words of advice for anyone who might want to share their thoughts, tell their stories, or start working with others to value social justice in terms of transforming their ideas into actions?
I’m often asked by participants the right way to confront rape culture, racism, homophobia, etc. I don’t think there is a right way. I think that we all have an obligation to speak up and do something. That something can be funny, direct, confusing, provocative, emotionally compelling, smart, etc.
I tell folks to keep in mind two things. First, be mindful of what is authentic for you. Others will smell insincerity if you try and do it the way Keith does or anyone else if that isn’t authentic. Second, be mindful of how you might be perceived (age, gender, race, status, power, attractiveness, etc.).
If you are atheistic and mindful of how others might view you, you’ll do good work. It might not always have the results you want, but then you can spend the rest of you day coming up with the perfect comment – which you can use the next time. There is always a next time.
Do you have any special projects that you’ve been working on lately that you’d like share about?
I’m in the middle of a research project coding and analyzing interview of my participants in my student on college men’s gender identity development, five years after our initial conversations. I hope to have a published study in the next year and then begin work on a book telling each participants story in a full chapter. I think readers will find themselves in the participants stories of wrestling with their manhood.
I’m also on a learning binge around positive psychology. It has been transformative for me as a human being and as a leader. I’ve dabbled with integrating this into my social justice education work and it has been amazingly powerful. In the coming year, I’m looking at going all in on this approach to be more effective and more transformative.
What/Who Inspires you?
I have a tremendous inner circle of role models and friends who hold me accountable and move me forward or backward as needed. Generally, I am inspired by community. If there is a video clip of a community rallying around an individual, I guarantee I am tearing up or sobbing. I’m not a sad crier. I am a proud crier.
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
My privileged identities have given me opportunities that others would not have. As I do sexual assault prevention work, anti-racist work, or any social justice work many folks are much more comfortable hearing the message from me than they are the “other.” I’m mindful that systemic privilege makes my work possible and I will use that privilege to work against the systems that grant me that privilege.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We should all understand that systems of oppression not only hurt those who are oppressed but also deeply damage those who are privileged in less tangible, less obvious, and less comparable ways. When we understand that systems of racism are diminishing the lives of White people on a daily basis, White people then become more consistent, sustainable, and effective allies in our work for social justice.
If you know any People Who Inspire that you would like to be featured in the series, email Relando here.
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW