Who’s Got the Power?

In addition to Jess’ and my afternoon responsibilities as conversational English teachers at The Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet, we were also given the tasks of reporting and publishing* the confirmed self-immolations that occurred inside of Tibet since January 2013. Additionally, we were delegated the task of researching, writing, and publishing the news events that took place in Tibet from January to March of 2015 in its quarterly English newsletter. In this way, the learning that we are experiencing alongside our Tibetan colleagues and students has compelled me to consider the power and privilege that I have been subjectively granted as an English speaker and as an English-educated researcher and writer.

Initially, I was uncomfortable with the notion that I would be placed in an “expert-level” teaching position in a classroom—this was a space in which I had next to no tangible experience apart from English being my native language. Additionally, I had not critically reflected on how I might also be viewed as an “expert” researcher and writer based on my completion of post-secondary education in Canada in the English language. For instance, on our first day at our placement, we were given only a brief walkthrough of significant events in Tibetans’ history of struggling for freedom before were informed that we were welcome to change the format of the newsletter. They had only inquired briefly as to whether or not we had any previous publishing experience. Although I had chosen to read and reflect on some additional articles about Tibetan politics beforehand, how did my colleagues know that I had dedicated any time to looking into it? Why was it assumed that I already had the knowledge base needed to write these pieces? Was it because of the research skills that a Western university degree presumably develops in its students, or was it simply assumed that I would have access to a wide array of sources and be able to learn quickly because of my privileged English language skills?

Furthermore, although the websites from which Jess and I gathered research were provided by Gu-Chu-Sum, we remained in a position of power in our research and writing tasks since we had the agency to make decisions about the facts, ideas, and photos that we include, and more significantly, that which we exclude from our articles and reports. Pondering my positionality has pushed me to ask myself further questions when I am put in charge of deciding which fact, idea, or photo hits harder than another in moving toward more critical engagements. I debate, Who am I to be excluding or including content when I do not even belong to Tibetan culture? Is my work truly valuable and should I be taking up office space to begin with?

As Jess and I continue determine the level of language accessibility for our pieces, we not only hold writing power, but also power over the individuals that desire to read these self-immolation reports and newsletters. Knowing this, one of my goals as I work on the newsletter is to be more mindful of my language in my writing. As I note this, however, I must also be mindful not to undermine the capacity of Tibetans and supporters who do in fact have the language skills required to read this type of piece. In this way, I would like to highlight that the significance is not about who is or is not reading the report or newsletter, but rather, in the acknowledgment that I am awarded the power to create the audience for these pieces based on my English-speaking/writing identity that has arbitrarily been awarded to me. Overall, this reflection has provoked me to act on my discomfort in an “expert” position and work towards fostering a workplace environment for which I have and will persist to give my utmost critical attention.

-Jillien

*The self-immolation reports were published in Gu-Chu-Sum’s annual magazine called Tibetan Envoy.

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