Examining Privilege: An Effective Strategy for Overcoming Resistance in a Power and Oppression Workshop

  • Kathy Castania Opening Doors Diversity Project
  • Brenda Alston-Mills Opening Doors Diversity Project
  • Maryellen Whittington-Couse Research Foundations SUNY at New Paltz College of Education
Keywords: White privilege, Intersectionality, Workshop activity, Overcoming resistance


We offer an approach for working with participants in a three-day retreat workshop on power, oppression, and difference. Opening Doors: A Personal and Professional Journey is a workshop designed in 1992 and revised in 2011 and 2015. High levels of resistance by participants to viewing personal experiences through the lens of privilege ultimately led to the development of a strategy that gives participants a path to examining and accepting the implications of privilege in their lives. This article describes a process whereby participants are asked to meet initially in identity groups based on where they have experienced exclusion and discrimination. In these groups participants share their experiences witnessing the privileges of members of the “dominant group” to their excluded group. This practice of meeting in excluded groups first confers their engagement with the concept of privilege, so that they experience less resistance to owning it in their dominant identities. Another key to the success of Opening Doors workshops has been the focus on integrating multiple oppressions simultaneously, and applying concepts of social identity development and intersectionality. This paper will outline the strategies, tools, beliefs, and language that led up to this unit and how a team of facilitators, with the aim of assisting participants in their movement, has effectively processed the nuances and complexities that arise during the group discussions.

Author Biographies

Kathy Castania, Opening Doors Diversity Project

Kathy Castania is a lead facilitator and author of the Opening Doors: A Personal and Professional Journey workshop.  She is the former Project Director and co-founder of the Change Agent States for Diversity (CASD) project and former Multicultural Education Coordinator for NYS Migrant Education Program. As a mentor for new facilitators, she specializes in Oppression Theory, Social Identity Development and Whiteness.  

Brenda Alston-Mills, Opening Doors Diversity Project

Brenda Alston-Mills is retired as an Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Organizational and Professional Development for Diversity and Pluralism in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Michigan State University.  She continues to present diversity seminars related to higher education nationally and internationally.  She serves as a lead facilitator for Opening Doors: A Personal and Professional Journey.

Maryellen Whittington-Couse, Research Foundations SUNY at New Paltz College of Education

Maryellen Whittington-Couse is a lead facilitator of the Opening Doors: A Personal and Professional Journey workshop. Her focus is on white identity development. She is the Director of the Mid-Hudson Migrant Education Program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. There she coordinates academic and advocacy support for the children of migrant farmworkers and migrant out of school youth.