Arlene Wells is a feminist adult educator and co-founder of Bridges, a program for women survivors of abuse in Victoria, British Columbia. She wrote 'Building Bridges', a guide for setting up programs similar to Bridges, which has become a model for community-based approaches across Canada. Her recently completed a research report, 'Making Connections Across Cultures: Critical Reflections on a Feminist Adult Education Resource', explores how a set of curriculum materials deals with feminist issues for learners and teachers who are excluded from, and marginalized by, the dominant culture. Arlene believes that education can be a powerful process for social change; she has been engaged in that process with learners from diverse backgrounds for 17 years. 

This report is a reflective analysis of how a particular adult education resource addresses feminist issues for learners and teachers who are excluded from, and marginalized by, the dominant Canadian culture. The resource is Making Connections: Literacy and EAL Curriculum from a Feminist Perspective, published by the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. The writer situates her inquiry in the context of the debate about how feminism addresses racism, classism, and heterosexism. She explores theory and practice presented in this resource compared to critical literacy theory and antiracism practice. Conversations and workshop discussions on using Making Connections with learners from diverse cultures are also reflected upon.

A key analysis running through the report is to what extent Making Connections' material is located in feminist approach which is complicit in the dominant culture's othering, exclusion and marginalization of cultural groups, and to what extent it resists the dominant culture in theory and practice. This analysis found that Making Connections includes many narratives of lived experience which make visible how oppressions of racism, classism, and heterosexism interlock with sexism. It frequently provides strategies for teaching from these narratives to empower learners; it articulates fewer strategies for investigating the larger power structures, engaging in collective action for change, or addressing biases and assumptions of privilege in teachers and learners.

Educators are encouraged to see it as a feminist resource for teaching culturally diverse learners, rather than a prescriptive text or a complete curriculum. The writer proposes that the question of how effectively Making Connections addresses cultural issues of feminism has no single response, just as there is no one feminist approach.


I want to acknowledge the many individuals who played a part in my undertaking of this project. Family and friends gave me extraordinary support and encouragement, particularly Andrew Kennedy, Gary, Lyle, Glenn, and Eugene Haerle, Ruth and Sonya Lukaitis, Sheila Moult, Mary and Jessie Casselman, Daisy Foster and Sandra Stott. Colleagues offered support, insights, and suggestions in our discussions, particularly Colleen Kasting, Pat Rasmussen, Cynthia Bamfield, Lisa and Tomoko Okada, Amerjit Bhalla, Liz Bloomfield, Maggie Warbey, JoAnne Lee, Rennie Warburton, and Pauline Waterfall. I particularly value CCLOW colleagues who shared their experiences: Maureen Doherty, Nancy Cooper, Dharini Abeysekera, Julianne Hodgins, Janet Isserlis, Deanne Bradley, Nzula Tavormina, Janet Smith, Priscilla George, Jenny Horsman, Moon Joyce, Bernitta Hawkins, Maria Cordeiro, Joanne Lindsay, and Christina Starr. Thanks also to all the participants in my five workshops on Making Connections. My Final Project Committee, Catherine Joyce and Bill Carroll, provided constructive feedback that kept me focussed on my enquiries, aware of which boundaries could be extended, and confident enough to complete the task. Joy Davis advised me about the expectations of the Intercultural Education and Training Diploma Program, and offered encouragement. My list of acknowledgements extends to all those not named here who gave me support.


My Research Interest

How did I arrive at this project? During nearly 30 years of involvement in education and social change, I have sought ways for people on the margins of Canadian society to move into the centre, sometimes collaborating to develop programs and curricula that challenged paradigms of the dominant culture. My recent work has been primarily with women survivors of abuse. Through writing Building Bridges: A Guide for Setting Up an Employability Program for Women Survivors of Abuse (Wells,1994), I learned how hard it is to confine a vision to print, to hear and include the voices of many 'stakeholders' in ways that will expand the vision and not corrupt it. As a facilitator, I know that learner-centred, woman-positive, Canadian materials are scarce.

My personal goal in the Diploma Program in Intercultural Education and Training (IET) was to be better able to engage in reflective action as an adult educator working with diverse cultures. My studies brought increased understanding of the complex systemic barriers which exclude ands subordinate many groups. I was also challenged to examine my own locations of privilege as a white, Western, middle-class, university-educated woman.

A unique opportunity to integrate some of these new ways of knowing into practice presented itself to me a year ago. I was contracted facilitate workshops in British Columbia on behalf of the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW), introducing and getting feedback on their new resource, Making Connections: Literacy and EAL Curriculum from a Feminist Perspective (CCLOW, 1996) 1.

I was excited by Making Connections' rich array of materials and their possible uses, and by its philosophical/political grounding. I also became curious. Does Making Connections go beyond white Western feminist theory and practice? How does this resource deal with issues of interlocking oppressions that marginalize many women, notably by their sex, but also by their culture, race, sexual orientation, class, religion, ability, age? Does it confront these barriers, not only for learners, but for practitioners as well? These questions led me into this final project for the IET Diploma Program.

Project Focus and Objectives

My final project to meet requirements for an IET Diploma has been to undertake a reflective analysis of Making Connections (CCLOW, 1996).2 My key question was: How effectively does this resource address cultural issues of feminism which may arise in adult education settings for learners and teachers - particularly women - who are excluded from, and marginalized by, the dominant Canadian culture? Some additional questions guided my enquiry: Does the material succeed in its aspiration to " include voices, experiences and values of all women, whether or not they would define themselves as feminist?" (Nonesuch, p. 10) To what extent does the manual provide a feminist approach which can be embraced by individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds? How well might this new resource be accepted and used in adult education settings that serve cross-cultural populations? Who will resist using it with cross-cultural groups and what objections will be raised?

The following summary of project objectives (See Appendix A for more detail.) delineated activities which I hoped would inform my enquiry:

1. Using relevant literature and class notes to analyze selected materials in Making Connections for inclusiveness and sensitive and effective application of both feminist and intercultural communication theory.

2. Making observations and forming personal opinions about the actual and potential use of Making Connections in programs which include learners from co-cultures based on comments/feedback from workshop participants and other adult educators.

3. Commenting on the degree to which the feminist approach presented in Making Connections is cross-cultural and inclusive by reflecting on related discussions with colleagues who self-identify as members of co-cultures, and charting changes in awareness of my 'cultural blinkers' as a white, middle-class woman.

4. Reflecting on background information about Making Connections' writers, preparatory research, and details about intercultural and feminist issues in the text itself and from CCLOW workshop facilitators meetings.

5. Completing these activities, a written report, and an oral presentation.

The Text and Its Context:

Making Connections includes a 400-page book and a cassette of songs used in specific lessons. The book's introductory section orients the reader to its feminist approach through a brief account of how the book was developed and three theoretical chapters on feminist and woman-centred curriculum and on dealing with disclosures of abuse. Thirteen topical sections follow, each presenting detailed lesson plans, practical suggestions for adaptation, handouts and resource bibliographies, each written by a different woman. Sample section headings are: "Daily Lives", "Gender Roles," "Cultural Awareness Activities," "Women and Work," "Songs about Women's Issues," and "Women of Courage: Herstory." Abundant in the material are personal narratives, particularly by learners, which often recount experiences of violence, racism or other kinds of discrimination and alienation. All the materials and teaching suggestions are meant to include women's lives as subjects for learning.

CCLOW is a small national non-profit organization with a 20-year history of researching and advocating for women's access to education. A study they conducted in 1994, The Power of Woman-Positive Literacy Work (Lloyd, Ennis and Atkinson), found that literacy workers wanted women-centred materials, and that violence against women creates many barriers to learning. In 1995, CCLOW gathered a group of Canadian women educators to create a practical teaching resource that would help address these issues.

Making Connections was developed while Canadian education was being reshaped by cutbacks, back-to-basics movements, tighter curriculum guidelines, and greater pressure for 'hard' outcomes (e.g. skills training at the expense of social learning). Amidst it all, this new resource bravely took a feminist approach and dared to say so in the title, invited learners and practitioners to look at issues of women's lived realities (including oppression and violence), and emphasized social rather than functionalist learning.

How would adult educators respond? In 1997, CCLOW secured Literacy Secretariat funding to introduce Making Connections across Canada and to get some idea of how it was being received. The agency assembled a new group of women to facilitate workshops around these goals.

In undertaking this research project while I was contracted as a workshop facilitator, I sometimes struggled with differing roles and expectations as promoter of Making Connections in the workshops, and as observer, analyst, and critic of the process in which I was a participant and the resource I was promoting. CCLOW wanted feedback on their new resource, which the project could provide. I did need to take care that my data collection in the workshops did not interfere with the work I was contracted to do. But what if my research identified places where the material failed to address race and culture? What if certain findings challenged its feminist perspective? How would this project affect the relationships I developed with CCLOW and with the other facilitators, some of whom had written parts of the manual? It was not always easy to be both a participant and a critical observer.


What it all comes down to, is I haven't got it all figured out just yet ... Alanis Morrissette, CD Jagged Little Pill

My initial goals for a related literature review were to explore cultural issues of feminism and intercultural communication theories which would help in my analysis of Making Connections. I particularly wanted to find information about educational strategies for dealing with cross-cultural issues from a feminist perspective. I reviewed sources from IET courses. I read widely on antiracism; multiculturalism;race relations; critical literacy; critiques of mainstream feminism;writings by women of colour; theories of intersection of race, class and gender; and alliance-building in the women's movement. It seemed that no matter how much I read (discussed, reflected, wrote), it was not comprehensive enough. Each article/book, each conversation, each personal reflection initiated a new search.

Intercultural Communication

I found myself concentrating more on sources related to feminism and critical literacy than intercultural communication because they shed more light on the issues involved (or at least on my evolving ideas about what those issues were). Intercultural communication theory focuses on sociolinguistic patterns of communication within and between cultural groups (Samovar and Porter, 1997; Brislin, 1994). Although some theorists explore 'macro' levels of intercultural communication, the sources I know focus on "the more personal aspects of communication Ñ what happens when people from different cultures interact face-to-face." (Samovar and Porter, p. 2). Differing socialization processes can lead to miscommunication in cross-cultural exchanges, and so, as part of deconstructing my own ethnocentricity, I do want to learn as much as possible about diverse world views. However, if that is all I do, I risk locking myself and 'the other' into cultural stereotypes. Culture and identity are fluid, changing over time and with each individual and situation. Moreover, this approach largely bypasses examination of the political construction of difference, where 'othering' sets up hierarchical relationships between those who have power and those who do not. In this project, I became more interested in the larger sociopolitical analyses of relations between cultures.

That being said, I have also realized that intercultural communication theory about ethnocentrism informed my understanding of terms in feminist literature like Eurocentrism and essentialism. Pursuing these theoretical intersections would be another interesting direction, but outside the scope of this project.

Namesis: Terminology as Barrier

Often I struggled with problems of terminology. An example arising from intercultural communication theory is the term co-cultures in my project proposal. Co-cultures are defined as groups within a domestic society which "share a common religion, economic status, ethnic background, age, gender, sexual preference, or race (which is different from) the dominant European/Canadian culture." (Samovar and Porter, p.135). In Linguistics 397, Issues of Cross-Cultural Communication, we discussed how the dominant culture uses the term 'subcultures' to assign outside groups an inferior status. Co-cultures implies resistance to the notion that the prevalent Canadian culture is superior; it indicates that other cultures have equal value, and I liked that. I believe that language has a powerful influence on perceptions. But does the new term then downplay oppression and marginalization by the dominant culture? In partial recognition of this soft-pedaling, I revised the definition, including a phrase the writers use later in the text, 'frequently in conflict with the dominant culture.' (See Appendix A for this and other revisions based on rethinking my project objectives.) Still, it is a false equality, since the dominating culture is set apart as the standard of difference.

Throughout the project and the writing of this paper, I had similar struggles with what names to use. What meanings and positionings are implied by certain language? White woman, woman of colour, representation, diversity, culture, curriculum, feminism, and many other words threatened to transfix rather than translate concepts. I call these crises of terminology 'namesis' - my struggle to anticipate and/or escape from linguistic traps. The struggle continues ...

Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Feminist Debate

An overriding theme in the literature and in discussions was the debate about how (or which) feminism addresses racism, classism and other -isms. The controversy provides a context for considering how effectively Making Connections addresses constructs of domination, and which feminism(s) it projects.

The feminist movement has often been associated with white, Western, middle-class, academic women. Since their voices have more often been heard and published (at least until recently), their history has predominated, while "histories of third world women's engagement with feminism are in short supply." (Mohanty, 1991, pp. 3-4) The mainstream feminists named women as an oppressed group and patriarchy as the systemic culprit through which women are disadvantaged relative to men. In their analyses, the family and reproduction have been two primary agencies of women's subordination and exploitation, (Knowles and Mercer, 1992) along with limited access to labour force participation. Certain goals have been high on the feminist agenda for women's empowerment: economic, politicaland social equality, reproductive choice, and stopping violence against women. Many assumed they were speaking for all women, and that all women would agree on the enemy, the issues, and the solutions, and all would rally at the same sites of struggle. "We are all sisters," they said and, "Sisterhood is powerful."

They/we (for I am also a white middle-class feminist) did not notice, and/or did not want to see, who was being silenced, who was feeling ignored/left out/betrayed. It was women from the margins who began to speak about their differences, to name blind spots, to challenge the mainstream feminist movement about its complicity in oppression and subordination, through race and class in particular.

There is a growing body of such writing, in which women have spoken of experiences of alienation, made the personal political, critiqued and challenged mainstream feminism.4 As I read these critiques, I questioned myself in relationship to this project. Who has the authority to speak? Do I? Or am I "appropriating" space that rightfully belongs to women of colour (or poor, or uneducated, or lesbian, or First Nations women)? Does Making Connections construct "common ground" for women of diverse classes, cultures, sexualities, ages, and abilities, or does it replicate the fractures? These questions, I realized, set up polarities where answering yes to one view erases the other ; they limited my choice of responses to two. Me or other. Commonalities or conflicts. Are there not more options?

I have witnessed/experienced painful confrontations between women who could be allies, and listened closely to the exchanges - and the silences. Susan Stanford Friedman (1995) describes scripts around feminism and racism - landmines which maim women's alliances when they explode (p. 4).

Scripts of accusation (by women of colour): "You are a racist." "I am not like you." "You haven't confronted your racial privilege." "I am both a woman and black (Jewish,Chicana, Native American, etc.), and I can't sort out the oppressions of race and gender." "Gender can't be separated from race and class." "You can never understand my experience or perspective." "You are oppressing me and you don't even know it." "You have left out the women of colour and assumed that your own experience is like all other women's." "You shouldn't teach (write, talk, etc.)about women of colour because we women of colour must speak forourselves." "You must include women of colour in your classes (books, articles, etc.)." "You have to take responsibility for learning about us on your own; we should not have to take the responsibility (time, energy, etc.) to educate you." "I don't want to waste my time trying to talk with you. I'm going to devote all my energy to my sisters of colour." (p. 10)

Scripts of denial (by white women): "I am not a racist." "I'm a feminist, so how could I be a racist?" "I'm oppressed, so how could I be an oppressor?" "My experience is just like your experience." "We are all sisters." "Tell me about yourself; I'm sure I can understand." "Are you a woman or are you Black (Jewish, Chicana, etc.)" "Which have you suffered from more, being a woman or being a minority?" "We are all oppressed as women." (p. 9)

Scripts of confession (by white women): "I am a racist." "I am guilty." "I'm so guilty that I can't do anything but think about how guilty I am." "Feminism is a white middle class movement." "Western culture is totally oppressive." "There must be something bad in being white." "I want to help women of colour." "I must listen to women of colour and not answer back." "White women always leave out women of colour." "I am not going to leave out women of colour any more." "I want women of colour to like me, approve of me, be my friend." "Women of colour are more authentic than me, more oppressed than me, better than me, and always right." (p. 10)

These scripts are familiar and I often feel anxious when Iwitness/participate in them, as in some discussions around Making Connections. I don't want to open myself to accusations, and nor do I want to mire myself and others in guilt and denial. When I am confronted, see others confronted, or confront myself, my first response is to retreat and reflect. Then I just want to stay there, in my learning style comfort zone, unengaged.

While we are stuck in our scripts, we are not challenging the interlocking systems that oppress us. Luckily, these scripts are not rigid, inevitable, or without the possibility of transformation. There are times when I/we return, persist, and make a breakthrough, create a workable new theory, or forge a new connection.

Other arguments concern ranking which subordination is worst:sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism. Which should be attended to first? Recognition of, and resistance to, sexism and women's oppression is usually a place of common ground among feminists. That ground becomes shaky when, for instance, a white feminist " asserts the primacy of gender" or a black feminist give primacy to race. (Knowles and Mercer,1992, p. 109) Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack (1998) call the conflict over competing marginalities the "race to innocence." The failure to consider the layering, interlocking nature of systemic oppressions has generated great misunderstanding and deadlock between us. When different stories of subordination are told in a discussion of issues and strategies, tellers can fall into the trap of disconnection from each other, because each does not want her place to be discounted or diminished.

According to Fellows and Razack, we keep repeating this pattern for several reasons. We seek allies for the struggle to keep our marginality visible and to work for empowerment. Knowing, speaking, andacting on our "own specific position on the margin" are necessary preconditions for change. Because we have not experienced a specific oppression, we "convince ourselves why the Other's claim is not as legitimate as our own" (pp. 5, 6). The more places of privilege we occupy, the more our thinking is likely to be tied into the 'othering process' of the dominating hierarchies. Attached to the resulting boundaries which give us our sense of self; we act on that attachment by not acknowledging the oppression of other women. We leave the dominating hierarchies intact. Radha Jhappan clearly and gently affirms the strategic utility of gender and race essentialisms while exposing their traps; they "imprison us in our identities" and divert us from uniting against subordinating systems. (p. 57) She helps point the way to meeting places where white and non-white women can fight racism and sexism together. 5

In the literature and practice, there is growing openness to different definitions of feminism along with "searches for common ground" (Friedman, p. 15). Processes of acknowledging my/our participation in oppression (Fellowes & Razack, 1998), of reconceptualizing theory, and of coalition-building are hard and fraught with conflict and pain, but it is vital for us to engage in these processes, if there is to be any hope of change. Women in more privileged positions who remain silent betray and disrespect those who are speaking from locations of oppression. As Lee Maracle (1993, p. 130) says, "We are going to have to give up the quest for power and seek self-empowerment ... A person in command of their spirit, at one with humanity, will labour over discord between allies until a solution is arrived at."

As I considered various aspects of Making Connections -- writers, intent, content, reactions -- I saw the feminist debate reflected in this attempt at coalition-building and reconceptualization of theory and practice. Where it succeeds, there is cause for celebration. Each time a Making Connections narrative or learning topic exposes an individual or group experience of oppression, it opens possibilities fora sking, "Why did/does this happen? Where is the power situated? How canwe change, not just ourselves, but our society?" Lessons like "Neighbourhood" (CCLOW, pp. 42-44) include suggestions for learner research on social conditions (finding out why trash isn't collected regularly, inviting municipal representatives to class), to strategize and to act (writing letters, challenging officials.) Where it falls short, there is a space created for learning what else needs to be done. How many educators will shy away from using a story or poem that describes an experience of racism, or will unwittingly reinforce a stereotype, because relevant teaching suggestions are absent? I look forward to the planned addition to Making Connections of a section on issues of race, culture and class as they intersect with gender. CCLOW could seek funding for a revised edition which guides practitioners in learning activities that explore both systemic issues of unequal difference and strategies for unified action.

Critical Literacy and Anti-Racism

I looked at approaches in the literature which integrated feminism with critical literacy and/or antiracism. In both, education is a process for changing social hierarchies of domination and subordination. They are examples of theories and practices which address cultural issues of oppression.

Critical literacy has its roots in Paolo Freire. He developed a model for education as the practice of freedom from the culture of silence in literacy work with culturally oppressed groups in South America. 6 Freire's ideas inspired bell hooks to engage in feminist teaching that is both antisexist and antiracist.

Critical literacy educators engage in actions which seek to liberate learners from oppression. Rather than an educational model where the teachers as subjects narrate knowledge to the students as objects, critical literacy is "problem-posing education." (Freire, 1970, pp. 57-67) Critical literacy requires entering into a learner-teacher dialogue, connecting with everyday lived reality, and learning incommunity. Writers of Making Connections suggest similar strategiesfor teachers to dialogue with learners, using day-to-day experience as content and community as the site of learning. All of the section, Daily Lives, builds lessons around learner discussions of family, gettingand giving help, and typical home life. (CCLOW, pp. 31-61) A bingo game leads learners to identify common roles (survivor, mother) and interests (hunting, music). (CCLOW, pp. 100-102) Many lessons stress developing each learner's dynamic self-perception as subject (not static self-perception as object), which initiates the process Freire (1970) calls cultural action for freedom. For example, The Woman I Am in My Dreams leads learners to examine their self-perceptions. (CCLOW, p. 91)

Individual empowerment requires an object for action -- understanding the systems that set up the culture of silence, and acting (collectively) to change them. In Making Connections, I found fewer clear strategies for learners to investigate and change systemic roots of complex oppressions so graphically presented in its many narratives. Lesson suggestions in Listening to Old Messages and Looking at Learning introduces painful narratives of discrimination without asking key questions about social control. (CCLOW, pp. 69-71)

The neoliberal agenda -- predominant in today's politics -- makes the marketplace central and works to "reduce social relations to property, consumer, and labour-management relations and forget about relationships between people as citizens." (Menzies, 1996, p. 41) It does not support critical literacy, feminist, antiracist and culture-based approaches. Through this agenda, educators are being coerced into/rewardedfor using a functionalist approach which purports to be neutral, yet melds students to fit this system. Functionalists employ prescribed texts to inscribe the dominant culture and measure learning success in terms of acquisition of concrete, marketable skills.

In contrast, critical literacy acknowledges that education is never neutral. Teachers and learners become transformative agents,"involved in new social relations of learning and addressing the hierarchies of power and privilege inherent in conventional schooling." (Lankshear and McLaren, 1993, p. 47) Critical pedagogists, by definition, engage in guerrilla tactics because they are critiquing the hegemonic discourse, which requires more creativity in the present political climate. "Promoting class, gender, and race and ethnic consciousness can be done by using whatever freedom and control teachers have over the curriculum, although the spaces are becoming increasingly constrained." (Lankshearand McLaren, p. 46.)

Henry Giroux (1993, p. 369) locates critical literacy within "the politics of difference." Rather than confirming exploitative interests in maintaining hierarchies of difference, literacy should involve language "in which one speaks with rather than for Others." So teachers and learners must unlearn their own racism, sexism, and classism; they must learn to speak from their location about the political realities which have woven the "web of social relations." By including materials which guide teachers through these processes, Making Connections would more fully address systemic hierarchies. 8

Making Connections claims to speak from a feminist perspective - but which one? What Is a Feminist Curriculum? (Nonesuch, pp.9-12, see also Appendix E) presents one perspective, which I was told all the writers agreed on. Yet each writer also expresses her own perspective (explicitly or in the material). Is that contradiction of one/diverse views counterproductive? I believe "it ain't necessarily so." Rather, the differences can create a space for individuals from various cultural backgrounds and for many feminist approaches. Jeanne Brady andAdriana Hernandez (1993, pp. 332-3) wrote Feminist Literacies: Toward Emancipatory Possibilities of Solidarity as a "multiplicity of voices, not only as a white Anglo woman and a Hispanic Argentine woman, but also different voices and silences according to the diverse spaces we inhabit." They offer a discourse of multiplicity which would open shared literacies and dialogues leading to solidarity.

In the same way feminists have learned to live with multiple meanings so should we be initiators of multiple literacies. D. Beckleman, Defining a Feminist Literacy, Canadian Women's Studies, 9, 3/4.


The Workshops

The CCLOW workshops provided an opportunity to use and discuss Making Connections materials with groups who were either adult educators or had related interests/experience, and to hear and reflect on comments they made relevant to this project. See Appendix C for a summary of the dates, sites, and participant profiles of the workshops.

The main goals of the workshops were, on behalf of CCLOW, to introduce Making Connections and get feedback from participants about support they need to use it, kudos and concerns, adaptations for different groups of learners. (See sample workshop outline, Appendix B.) My project inquiries were necessarily sidelines to CCLOW objectives.

For most of the participants, the workshop was the first exposure they had to Making Connections. Some groups had copies to preview beforehand, and a few individuals had it in their programs. Their brief examination of the resource was guided by my interpretation of its content and approach.

Feminism is a controversial issue across cultures, both dominating and subordinated. The workshop brainstorming on what participants think of as feminist approach revealed their cultural perceptions of feminism; words and phrases they generated reflected positive and negative views, some of which were attributed to public opinion (dominant discourse?) 9. In all workshops, there was general agreement that the public perception of feminism is negative. One participant commented that feminists are usually discounted when they comment on issues like violence. Several thought that the term has so much negative baggage that it should just be abandoned; fighting the issues was more important than saving the term. There were personal stories about feeling shut down, attacked, or discounted by feminists.

A conference organizer who had wanted to change the workshop description to read 'humanism' instead of 'feminism' talked about her fears that a feminist curriculum would exclude and judge people. She was a woman of colour, and I wondered if she had felt excluded by mainstream feminism. I summarized the description of feminist curriculum,which discusses inclusion and raises issues of power related to "race, culture, sexual orientation, and ability as well as gender." (CCLOW,1996, p. 10). After, she said the discussion had addressed her concerns.

In these discussions of feminist approach, I spoke of disagreements about what feminism means. I shared my belief that havingmany definitions and approaches is positive; it allows for issues to be fought in a multiplicity of ways. I suggested that getting clear about what definition is being used can avert mistaken assumptions. In hindsight, I wondered if I could have been more proactive in raising the criticisms of feminism around race and class in the workshops. However, I then recalled that I had often given examples where race and gender issues intersect, such as Making Connections materials which raise issues of overlapping oppression, like the songs I Black Woman and A Cautionary Tale (CCLOW, 1996, pp. 279-80, 282-3) and the Herstory chapter (pp. 355-388)

In each workshop, I asked about using Making Connections with learners of diverse cultures. Many said it was difficult to respond without examining the book more closely; some were not adult educators. Several practitioners commented that any material needs to be chosen and adapted on the basis of learner needs and interests.

Those who worked in ESL expressed the most concerns. Some worried that certain students would regard feminism as an imposition on their culture. The chapter Choosing Safer Sex (pp. 245-274) was judged inappropriate for many ESL groups, either because their students were older and likely monogamous, or because the frankness and Western presentation would be embarrassing. Participants debated whether the 'charged' material, particularly about abuse, would be appropriate for an ESL class, or if it was more relevant to the 'Canadian-born.' One responded that ESL students are interested in Canadian culture and want to learn about it in order to 'fit in.' I wondered how grounded these assumptions about the learners were. Many of the painful stories of abuse and exclusion in the book are told by immigrants and ESL students. In my experience, women of colour (Canadian-born or not) have been concerned about injustice and abuse, and, if the learning group feels safe to them, have welcomed the opening such material gives for discussions of community perceptions, violence, and discrimination that challenge the dominant discourse, where their voices too can be heard.

A key criticism was that the book did not directly address how a teacher might identify occurrences of racism and heterosexism in the class or give strategies of action. While some lessons do address those issues (e.g. heterosexism, p. 114; racism, pp. 174-5; both, p. 283), many others say little or nothing. Several practitioners wanted to discuss what to do when their students made racist, sexist, or other biased statements. When I used proverbs lesson (pp. 147-151), some participants worried about the potential for cultural as well as sexist stereotyping. Some suggested more margin notes and a 'jagged heart' 10 caution would lead to more sensitive handling of the material.

Other comments that reflect connections made between cultural issues and the resource included: Making Connections addresses issues and covers topics (e.g. history) that are rarely addressed in ESL materials; it deals with real, everyday concerns, which is exactly what ESLstudents want to talk about; when a student had talked about abuse, an ESLtutor had not known what to do, and Responding to Disclosures of Abuse in Women's Lives would have helped (pp. 15-30); the questions about the statue, Columbus and a Native Woman: What do you think he is thinking? What is she thinking? (p. 361) could imply that everyone knows what a native woman would think.

How well might Making Connections be accepted and used in adult education settings with cross-cultural groups? Several participants planned to use Making Connections with cross-cultural learners. Those working with women-only learners seemed more interested in using it, particularly if they identified as feminists (or interested in feminism). For some, its inclusion of diversity of women's experience and emphasis on social learning signalled a proactive approach to cultural issues of feminism.

Who resisted using it? Those who critcized its social learning approach and lack of focus on the mechanics of language skill development (functionalist approach) said some of the material would be difficult to adapt for beginning language levels. These participants were also uncomfortable with the focus on women's experience; they were concernedthat men would feel left out, and that both men and women might be alienated or silenced by topics that are not discussed openly in their cultures. One workshop facilitator, who encountered similar reactions, reported some teachers saw the jagged heart symbol as identifying the material they would not use.

I believe that a person's decisions about using the materials with diverse cultures are dependent on factors such as pedagogy, agreement with feminist approach(es) in Making Connections, assumptions about their learners' cultures, conceptions of learners' needs, awarenessof own cultural/political alignments, program constraints. These factors also will affect how the materials are used - from being adopted as a whole package (content as curriculum) to being adapted/selected to serve learners (content as learning resource).

The Discussions

Several discussions with women informed my reflective process and helped me articulate my thoughts more clearly and confidently. Sometimes they showed where I was caught in my own assumptions and prejudices. The women were community adult educators, counsellors, college instructors, university students and professors, and Making Connections writers and workshop facilitators. Some called themselves feminists, and some did not. Some brought their lived experience as women of colour, First Nations women, or lesbians to the discussions. We talked face-to-face or on the phone, through email, and at the June facilitators' meetings in Ontario in 1997 and 1998. All these interactions provided fresh perspectives - and raised new questions.

Women of colour often spoke of their feeling of disconnection from feminism. One woman said that people from her ethnic community mightregard her a feminist, but she shied away from the term herself. Her experience in one feminist organization was that family came second towork, while for her family was always first. Another said that sometimes white feminists did not understand times a woman's loyalty to her ethnic community takes priority over gender (as in responses to violence). Two fellow students thought of feminism as a white middle-class movement which often appeared harsh and rigid, failing to make room for women of colour. They did not personally know any women of colour - particularly black women - who would call themselves feminists. However, they both agreed they held feminist principles.

We discussed the principles outlined in Making Connections as modelling a more inclusive definition. (See Appendix E.) Two elements had particular appeal - the emphasis on power issues and what feminism is not. They noted with approval that daily lived experiences are central tothe materials section, many stories describe subordination by race, ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality, and learners are supported torecognize and voice their own experiences (leading to increasedself-esteem). Unfortunately, as one woman pointed out, what was often missing was a move from personal experience to theory and a broader analysis (i.e. the systemic roots of oppressions) and from there to social action. Her insight echoed other critiques that social transformation is too seldom articulated in lesson suggestions.

This led me to re-examine the materials and the teachingsuggestions; gradually, I began to see what they were seeing -- more emphasis on personal empowerment than on social action. Some argue that individual empowerment is a political act. But isn' t that what our dominant culture teaches - encourage individual enterprise, and leave the structures intact? "(A)lthough increased self-esteem may be necessary for action, it is not sufficient, since it focuses on the individual and not on changing the conditions that contribute to the systematic denigration of groups." (Anderson and Irvine, 1993, pp. 97-98)

A teacher from an Aboriginal college that field-tested Making Connections reminded me that in her community's history and today, roles between women and men have been viewed as complementary and interdependent, not hierarchical. "We're humans first, Heiltsuk second, and gender is not an issue." (In contrast, I thought, my history is European and patriarchal). "So to us, feminism is a new idea." Because colonization in First Nations society has upset those traditional roles through violence, racism and oppression, it is important to restore both men's and women's roles. In mixed gender classes, then, material focusing only on building up women's roles does not address that cultural need, so they now use the book only with women's groups. Also, students and teachers could identify with the first-person narratives of Aboriginal people, which marked their inclusion. However,the lessons did not go far enough in addressing issues of racism, violence and oppression that they triggered. As many First Nations communities look to their own culture for ways to heal from effects of racism, she suggested Making Connections may most effectively serve as a supplementary resource book, drawn from and transformed to suit their needs.

The Facilitators Meetings

As part of the workshop contract, all facilitators met in June1998 to debrief and to initiate products reflective of the undertaking. At these meetings, First Nations workshop facilitators also spoke of the importance of developing their own culture-based ways of learning. This feminist curriculum, coming from outside, is not what they need now. The women described culture-based approach as starting where learners are andre/connecting them with their culture. Beginning with evocation through a cultural concept (e.g.alternative Aboriginal art); learners ask questions and identify interests and directions, which lead to cultural teachings; objectives are identified, and then the learning is evaluated. Their description reminded me of Freire's accounts of teaching literacy, where the learners are the subjects, teaching is a dialogue, and a new curriculum is created each time.

A facilitator who works with deaf learners made a sign language video to introduce Making Connections to her culture. She pointed outthat packaging a cassette tape with the book was a barrier to those communities, marking it visibly as "for the hearing." Another facilitator met resistance from ESL practitioners who made assumptions that some materials would not be understood or accepted by learners because of their culture, e.g. a Moslem woman would not be able to relate to a song like I Black Woman because she is not a black woman. They made the decision on behalf of the learners, leaving their own biases intact. The facilitator was dismayed that practitioners' biased and racist assumptions were not conspicuously addressed in MakingConnections. She suggested that an introductory section to raise consciousness about racism is equally as important as feminist approach, woman-centred learning, and dealing with abuse disclosures, which are addressed in detail.

It seemed that the group anxiety level rose each time facilitators raised concerns about omissions regarding race and culture in Making Connections. Scripts of accusation, denial, and apology were played out. Women of colour expressed frustration and anger about resistance they sensed to their concerns and about underlying accusations of reverse discrimination. One woman explained she wanted the group to truly listen and discuss these issues. White women responded in several ways: by defending and explaining, by silence, by listening and engaging, by avoiding, by smoothing over, by moving to other issues. The process often bogged down in the familiar mire of conflicting marginalities. The positionalities were not static; individuals often spoke of their mixed emotions and changing opinions.

I believe that our group did move through the impasse. When working groups were eventually formed to respond to key issues, one was onantiracism and culture-based approaches (in which I participated). On the last evening of the meetings, a traditional talking circle gave space, time and safety for each to speak if they wanted to. As the meetings ended,this particular coalition of women had managed to hold together and to make some progress on this (and other) issues.

One concrete result was a draft strategy, statement, andsuggestions our working group developed to address the culture and race issues raised, a document which will be distributed with Making Connections. Here are some excerpts from an early draft of that unpublished document:

CLOSING ANALYSES AND REFLECTIONS Whodunit? Writers and Workshop Facilitators

I re-read Making Connections often in the course of this project, each time reflecting on my central question: How effectively does it address cultural issues of feminism which may arise for marginalized adult learners and their teachers? In the light of discussions with colleagues, the literature review, from my own background and experience facilitating the workshops, I got a sense of the great challenges the writers faced.

They had to negotiate among themselves to agree on a vision of a resource that proposes to deviate from the hegemonic discourse in education today, and that was a consensus of their feminisms. What compromises were made? How much was their collective vision constrained by the dominant culture? In creating and implementing a resource under the dominating system, "there is a danger of shuffling ... cultures on to an ideological terrain in which they can be disconnected from whatever radical impulses which may (but need not) have fuelled them and be connected to more conservative or, often, downright reactionary cultural and ideological tendencies." (Bennett, 1986, p. 19).

To ensure goals of inclusion are reached, information about the project must be accessible to suitable candidates. The committeedistributed the writers' call "across Canada, in literacy journals and newsletters, through the Feminist Literacy Workers Network and local literacy networks." (Ibid.) Perhaps calls both for writers and facilitators excluded potential applicants from marginalized groups, either because those groups were not part of the distribution networks, or because individuals did not see themselves in the candidate profile. White and middle-class women were the majority in the writers' and facilitators' groups. However, both groups included a diversity of women with a diversity of feminisms. Making Connections describes the writers as, "First Nations women, women of colour, white women, lesbians and heterosexuals, rural and urban women; our ages range from mid-20s to 50; we have a variety of hidden and not-so-hidden disabilities." Each woman wrote a biography and preface for her chapter; for some women, these pieces include information about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, politics, and/or references to personal experiences of oppression and marginalization.

Facilitators informed CCLOW about how the resource was beingreceived in various learning communities. Some of what was shared in the facilitators' meetings gave me additional perspectives for this project.

One of the writers expressed fears that Making Connections would be used in the ways contrary to its purposes. The text repeatedly encourages practitioners to use and adapt materials for learner needs. Adaptation is inevitable, as Bennett points out:

Say What? The Content

Making Connections is a 400-page book with an accompanying cassette of songs used in some of the lessons. The size of the book, the range of topics (a 30-page introduction and 13 topical chapters), and variations in approach between writers made analysis a complex task.

From the first, I was impressed with the range of women's experiences in the material. Women's stories, told through prose, poetry, song or art, are crucial ways of revealing oppression and marginalization of gender, class, race and ethnicity. Voices of EAL andliteracy learners speak from many pages. Some celebrate everyday lives,and others "tell the truth when the truth is difficult." (p.11) 11

How does Making Connections deal with cultural issues of feminism? By including such narratives where lived experiences of racism,classism, sexism are voiced. By 'inviting women (and men) to look at their lives and the lives of others, to make connections between them -- to talk to each other about them -- and to think about issues of invisibility and power." (Nonesuch, p. 11) By describing many strategies for this level of awareness and empowerment. Fewer and shallower (with important exceptions) are strategies for "defining who has power," articulating the larger social and historical dominating structures, visioning alternatives, and, most important, planning and carrying out strategies for action.

How easy it is to fall into the trap of seeing personal transformation as the key rather than seeing the labyrinth of locked cells -- particularly if my cell is less enclosed! So in Making Connections, there could be more teaching to 'unlearn': unlearn racism, classism, all those places where we each fail to notice our 'location of privilege' and so we serve the system we want to change by gripping tightly to our perch. And there could be more analyses of power structures, more suggestions for and examples of transformative action, and accompanying reference lists -- of feminism from the margins. CCLOW is responding to some of those critiques, through the follow up documents to the workshops as a start. Making Connections was intended to be a resource. However, the subtitle, Literacy and EALCurriculum from a Feminist Perspective, (for a start) has led to assumptions that it is a complete curriculum, which sets up expectations it cannot meet.

Endings? Writing the Circle

My project has been ambitious in scope, even with the revisions made to the original proposal. This report has reflected on my insights, developing thoughts and opinions about my research questions and possible responses. It does not reach any resounding conclusions; rather it is a record of my understanding of the issues and how Making Connections intersects with them, developed through my connections with others in conversation and reading. I hope that my learning journey through observing, feeling, thinking, and intuiting about feminist issues on race, class and gender will inform others on similar journeys.

Marge Piercy, excerpts from Councils 


(usage note - after clicking down to a footnote, click on the back button to find your place back in the text)

1. The acronym EAL stands for English as an Additional Language. It is an alternative term to ESL, or English as a Second Language.

2. I submitted a Final Project Proposal in January, 1998, and subsequently submitted proposal revisions to the IET Program Director, Joy Davis, and to my Final Project Committee, Catherine Joyce and BillCarroll. (See Appendix A.)

3. As Radha Jhappan introduces herself in an article where she discusses "voice/representation debates" and critiques of whitefeminism by women of colour, she struggles with the question ofcredentials: "Who speaks? Who listens? And Why?" (hooks, 1994, p. 40)

4. Some good examples are: Bannerji, 1993; Mohanty, Russo, and Torres, 1991; hooks, 1981, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1994a; Minh-ha,1989; Maracle, 1996; Berry, 1995; Houston, 1995; and Lugones, 1995.

5. For examples of collaborations across sex and gender, see Bridges of Power: Women's Multicultural Alliances (Lisa Albrecht & Rose M Brewer, eds., 1990), Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women Midge Wilson & Kathy Russell,1996), All the Women are White, All the Men Are Black, but Some of Us Are Brave (Gloria T. Hull, Patricia B. Scott & Barbara Smith, 1992), and Overcoming Racism and Sexism (Linda Bell & David Blumenfield).

6. Paolo Freire has contributed many writings to the field,including Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), Cultural Action for Freedom (1970), Education for Critical Consciousness (1973), Pedagogy of Hope (1994) and, with I. Shor A Pedagogy for Liberation (1987).

7. Freire has been roundly criticized for sexist language in his earlier works; some feminists rejected his work for that reason. He later apologized, thanking those who had taken the issue up with him.(Freire, 1994, pp. 65-68).

8. An example of materials promoting antiracism awareness is the questionnaire in Tia Cross et al. (1982), Face-to-face, day-to-dayÑRacism CR.

9. From the brainstorming session, positive associations included experiential, accepting, equal, respectful, inclusive, valuing diversity, centred, fun, empowering, honours personal experience, promotes choice, sharing knowledge. On the negative side werewords and phrases like strident, man-hating, aggressive, frustrating, extreme, language police, excludes, creates barriers, tells people what todo, devalues women who stay home.

10. A 'jagged heart' symbol is used throughout the book to designate material may evoke strong emotional responses from the learners, and to suggest alternate teaching strategies. See Appendix D for more information and an example from the text.

11. Some examples from the materials: Hanan's Journal Entry (Hanan Bawazir, pp. 34, 51) and Something about My Life (Dominga Caballero, pp. 41-2, 55) are accounts of barriers imposed onimmigrant women; Lakeview Indian Day School (Mary Lou C. DeBassige,66-8, 80-2), describes the abusive suppression of a student's Odawa/Ojibway language and culture; Still Sane (Sheila Gilooly, pp.168-70, 184-6) tells of being labelled crazy as a lesbian; poems and songs: I Black Woman (pp. 282-3, 295-7) by Faith Nolan, about racist/sexist treatment; A Cautionary Tale (pp. 279-80, 289-92), by Jane Field, about disabled woman using martial arts against a male attacker; Lies (pp, 281-2, 293-4) by Moon Joyce, indicts the pornography industry. Layers of race and gender oppression interlock in Loving Obscenities (Louise B. Halfe, pp. 304-6, 317-8),and Nellie Belly Swelly (Lillian Allen, pp. 306-7, 323).


posted 10 September, 1998
links updated 30 August, 2006

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