After my success with asking First Nations students to decide whether or not to use a video about one reserve’s struggle against alcoholism, I began to use the same procedure with other content that I thought might be problematic. I remember a video and an article about a group of mothers on welfare who were fighting back against the way they were portrayed in the media, and the way they were treated by social workers and others who had power to grant or deny them benefits.
I wanted to use the material because many of the students were on welfare, and were often ashamed by it. The video and film would bring them into contact with women who had a different sense of themselves as welfare moms. Yet I knew that some students were not on welfare, and, if they had not been in a literacy program, would never have found themselves rubbing shoulders and exchanging ideas with people on welfare. Further, everyone, no matter how much or how little money they had, shared some of the prejudices and stereotypes about welfare recipients—that they were lazy, or cheats, or that they couldn’t manage their money. This played itself out in many ways, but particularly around check day. Who missed class to stay home and wait for their check so it wouldn’t get stolen? Who went to the cafeteria for lunch every day, and who only on the few days after check day?
The Preview Committee at Work
I asked for a small group of “welfare moms” to preview the material and decide if it was appropriate to use in class. After their preview, they okayed it for the class. On the day scheduled for the class to see the video, they stood as a group at the front of the class and gave an overview of it, particularly noting that things were said that were hurtful to anyone on welfare, but that all the hurtful things were said in the context of the group of welfare moms fighting back against the stereotypes used against them.
As with the first group it was useful as a “trigger warning” to the class, but it was more than just that. Because I asked for a group of mothers on welfare to come forward to preview the material, I likely got a group that was already feeling a little political about their status. Anyone in the class who was “in the closet” about being on welfare would not have volunteered to preview the material.
So when the group sat down to do their previewing work, they were already willing to talk about their experiences, especially in a group of like-minded women, and they were ready to relate to the women in the article and video on their terms. Most of them knew each other only superficially, as classmates. Their discussions in the preview session gave them the chance to connect and to exchange experiences, feelings, and ideas about a troublesome identity.
They found many commonalities. They had had similar meetings with social workers, and, since it was a small city, they had sometimes met the same social worker. They all had struggled with trying to give their kids enough to eat, and had to deal with the kids’ disappointment and anger at not being able to buy the things other kids had. They had hard-earned strategies to share with each other about how to deal with the welfare system and with poverty.
The Personal Becomes Political
As they read, talked, and watched, they made connections with each other, with shared experiences, emotions, and ideas. They were not alone. And since they were not alone, since people looked down on all of them for being on welfare, maybe it was not their fault—maybe there was something wrong with the system.
As a result, when they stood up to introduce the video, they were a tight little group whose body language said, “Don’t mess with us. We get a bad rap, and we don’t like being put down for being in a situation we’re trying to get out of.”
They took leading roles in the class discussions that followed the video and the article. Because they had done the previewing, they brought a deeper and broader range of ideas to the discussion, making connections that I think they would not have made if I had introduced the material in the usual way.
For the rest of the students, those who had not come forward to be on the preview committee, there were benefits, too. The richer discussion was a benefit for sure, but more important, I think, was that the small group who had previewed became a kind of incarnation of the women in the video and article. Ideas that would have seemed strange and off-putting were more accessible coming from their classmates rather than only on paper or screen. They were willing to listen to someone they knew say that people on welfare were not bums and cheats, and perhaps they were willing to recognize the stereotypes for what they are.