Perspective-Taking as a Tool
for Building Democratic Societies
By José Calderón, professor of
sociology and Chicano studies, Pitzer College
Editor's note: The following text is derived from
an address delivered at AAC&U's meeting on Educating
for Personal and Social Responsibility in October 2009.
To download a podcast of the original presentation,
Students, day laborers, and faculty celebrate the life of day laborer leader Fernando Pedraza.
Students Junko Ihrke and Stephanie Velasco hold plaques presented to them by the day laborers as thanks for their time teaching ESL on this street corner.
When I came to the United States from Mexico with my
parents as a seven-year-old child, I did not fit into
my "English only" school system. In my new
homeland, others rarely took the time to see the world
through my eyes or to learn about me, my culture, and
my family. They often perceived me as mute or as having
physical or psychological problems. Only when a teacher,
Mrs. Elder, reached out to get to know me did someone
realize that I just didn't know English. Mrs. Elder
took steps to learn about my world, visiting me and
my grandparents in our home. Seeing that we lived in
a one-room house--a converted gas station with no indoor
bathroom, no appliances, and a wood stove--Mrs. Elder
responded with empathy, sacrificing her afternoons to
teach me English. What's more, in seeking to create
a similarity between us, she began our lessons by asking
me to teach her Spanish. Thus we became teacher-student
and student-teacher. I am sure that if Mrs. Elder had
not fostered this equitable environment, if she had
not sought to see the world through my eyes, I would
not be a professor at Pitzer College today.
As my experience shows, the ability to communicate
one's perspective affects one's ability to participate
in society, and with it, one's access to power. Certain
individuals or groups have the power to define dominant
culture, and therefore the power to oppress or liberate
others. Power exists in language, too, where words create
a foundation for understanding. In fact, many governments
have used language to oppress others. When the Treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed to end the US-Mexican
war, it included legal protections that Mexican-origin
people living in the United States held by custom and
culture, including language rights and property rights.
But after 1848, the treaty was broken when Mexican-origin
people faced language discrimination, resulting in losses
of land and of democratic access. Thus the value of
perspective-taking lies in part in its relationship
not only to power, but also to democracy.
Perspective-Taking and Democratic Engagement
In The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, the
Association of American Colleges and Universities brought
these two terms--power and democracy--together. The
publication defined democracy as "the ideal that
all human beings have equal value, deserve equal respect,
and should be given equal opportunity to fully participate
in the life and direction of the society" (1995,
9). It also proposed that "when diversity is characterized
by patterned inequity and the marginalization of specific
groups," it "can signify unequal access to
political, economic, social, and cultural power"
Barack Obama began to question this very relationship
between democracy and power when pondering what to do
after college. As he read about the sacrifices ordinary
people made during the civil rights movement, he imagined
himself in their place, as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee worker "convincing a family of sharecroppers
to register to vote," or as an organizer of the
Montgomery bus boycott (Obama 2004, 134). In doing so,
he formed a commitment beyond himself: a commitment
to listening to the perspectives of others (134-35).
When he became an organizer and placed himself in others'
worlds, he deepened this commitment, empowering himself
to empower others.
When his fellow community organizers became tired,
Obama had them look out of their office windows while
asking, "What do you suppose is going to happen
to those boys out there?....You say you're tired, the
same way most folks out here are tired....Who's going
to make sure [those boys] get a fair shot?" (Obama
2004, 171-72). He challenged the organizers to place
themselves in others' worlds. It was no coincidence
that storytelling and listening to the stories of others
later became cornerstones of Obama's presidential campaign.
Through storytelling, campaign organizers recruited
thousands of new leaders whom they trained to use their
life histories and those of their communities to reach
out to the voting public.
By learning to understand others' perspectives, language,
and culture, Barack Obama not only improved democratic
participation, but also became better able to understand
himself, his family's history, and the languages, cultures,
and perspectives of community members with whom he worked.
His experience became a lesson for campaign organizers
in the value of understanding the language and culture
of those they sought to recruit. It is also a lesson
for those of us who are connecting our classrooms with
social change efforts in diverse communities. Through
perspective-taking, we can better comprehend and appreciate
each other's differences in order to find our commonalities.
Perspective-Taking and Leadership
Perceiving the similarities between their own experiences
and those of others led Rosa Park to sit at the front
of a bus, Martin Luther King to advocate for sanitation
workers in Memphis, and Cesar Chavez to live with farm
workers in the San Joaquin Valley. It led writer Gloria
Anzaldúa to perceive sexism and homophobia in
American culture and in her own border culture, and
it led psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark to understand
why black children saw black dolls as ugly and white
dolls as beautiful.
Perceiving similarities transformed Mahatma Gandhi
from a simple lawyer to a great leader. As his granddaughter,
Arun Gandhi, noted:
Ironically if it had not been for the experience
of racism and prejudice, he may have been just another
successful lawyer who had made a lot of money. But
because of prejudice in Southern Africa, he was subjected
to humiliation within a week of his arrival. He was
thrown off a train because of the color of his skin
[...] His first response was anger [...] The second
response was to want to go back to India and live
among his own people in dignity [...] And that's
when the third response dawned on him--the response
of nonviolent action. From that point onwards, he
developed the philosophy of nonviolence and practiced
it in his life as well as in his search for justice
in South Africa. He ended up staying in that country
for twenty-two years--and then he went and led the
movement of India. (Covey 2004, 187-88)
Perceiving similarities led Myles Horton, like John
Dewey, to critique the mechanistic practices that traditionally
dominated American education. While building an alternative
school called the Highlander Center to empower working-class
people in rural Tennessee, Horton came to see that his
students "were usually quiet around strangers or
people they considered 'well-spoken,' meaning educated."
But once the school's staff surpassed that barrier and
came to understand their students, they saw that traditional
top-down approaches to teaching would be ineffective.
By working instead toward "mutual learning,"
the staff and students "could and did learn from
each other, each respecting the individual character
of the other." Horton underscored the importance
of perspective-taking when he said: "Insofar as
I have learned to listen to people and to honor and
respect them as individuals, I have been a good teacher.
When I have failed to do this my teaching has failed"
(Adams 1975, 46-47).
Perspective-Taking and Education
All these examples suggest how perspective-taking can
function as part of an empowering education. Ira Shor
describes an empowering education as a "critical-democratic
pedagogy for self and social change...a student-centered
program for multicultural democracy in school and society...that
approaches individual growth as an active, cooperative,
and social process, because the self and society create
each other" (Shor 1992, 15). If we faculty engage
both ourselves and our students in perspective-taking
as a component of empowering education, we can use our
classrooms to practice creating an equitable democratic
Our classrooms are microcosms of society. They can
be structured in a top-down fashion with the professor
in command and students quiet and passive, as Myles
Horton described his students when he met them. Or they
can be, as Ira Shor proposes, places where students
and teachers have relatively equal status as colearners
and coeducators. Shor claims that inequalities in society
at large result from the distribution of power in these
microcosmic settings. He suggests that classroom cultures
that support debate and critical study are necessary
to advance a more democratic society.
Thus the way we faculty run our classrooms and the
way we connect those classrooms to our communities can
truly affect whether our teaching and learning practices
advance a more diverse, socially just, and democratic
culture. Providing time for students to learn about
the professor's life and for the professor to conversely
learn about the lives of students is essential to building
students' capacity for perspective-taking. To succeed
in fostering this capacity, faculty need to create environments
where students are comfortable questioning the perspectives
of others--of the authors whose works they read, of
the professor, of others in the class.
Perspective-Taking and Community
In my classes, I connect assigned readings directly
to challenges facing our local and global economies.
These challenges affect both students' lives and the
lives of the community members with whom they come in
contact. I use the course readings as media for enhancing
critical dialogue on the possibilities for new models
of democratic engagement and collaboration. To make
the readings concrete, I give my students the opportunity
to work alongside new immigrants in a Pomona day labor
center, day laborers on the street corners of Rancho
Cucamonga, farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley, and
labor and community organizers in diverse coalitions
throughout the region. The readings and our class discussions
become "real" when students meet with these
day laborers and community organizers to work on common
projects that emerge from their dialogue. Just as in
the classroom, students advance to new levels of collaboration
and civic engagement by practicing democratic exchange.
Having identified problems that are relevant to the
workers, students use participatory community-based
research and action to locate solutions. Drawing on
their discussions with workers, students organize various
projects that push for social change. Students and workers
have collaborated to implement English classes, health
workshops, and immigration rights research projects.
Students have also organized petition drives, researched
the constitutionality of checkpoints, marched to protest
immigration raids, and campaigned to ensure continued
funding for the local day labor center. To combat negative
portrayals of new immigrants, students and day laborers
have organized community-wide art and pictorial life
history presentations. Thus the workers and students
join in raising their voices and ensuring that they
are heard. In all these projects, students come to accept
the day laborers as teachers. With the help of the Center
for Community Engagement and funding from alumna Susan
Hanson, the college hosts weekly Encuentros (Encounters)
lunches where day laborers share their life stories
and converse in Spanish with students and faculty. Students
also perform teatro (activist theater) in various
communities during their spring break.
Through the projects and class readings, students become
more equipped to understand contemporary debates over
immigration, free trade, globalization, and the many
myths that circulate about farm laborers, union organizers,
and immigrant workers. By learning to respect each other's
perspectives and by pursuing specific outcomes that
benefit both campus constituents and workers, students
and workers have developed a genuine trust over the
years. In this way, the practice of perspective-taking
becomes a useful tool in understanding the diverse experiences
that intersect in the "border culture" between
academia and the world beyond. Students learn to value
the perspective of the "other": the poor,
the worker, the oppressed, the immigrant, or the person
of another color, class, gender, or sexuality. Similarly,
workers and community organizers grow to respect classrooms
as places where ideas can become deeds that advance
their efforts to be heard.
Ultimately, perspective-taking cannot occur without
addressing questions of power. But academia can follow
emerging trends and break down structures that separate
it from the larger community. This is what C. Otto Sharmer
promotes as prescencing, the opening of "our
minds, our hearts, and our intentions or wills"
to "view things from the source...to develop a
sense of the future that wants to emerge" (2009,
62). A wide range of perspectives about the plight of
immigrants, people of color, women, LGBT communities,
and the working class can exist in and outside of the
classroom. Faculty can draw on these perspectives to
make their classrooms places where students and community
members work together to create a better world: one
with higher levels of perspective-taking, social engagement,
and leadership toward personal and social responsibility.
Adams, Frank. 1975. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The
Idea of Highlander. With Myles Horton. Winston-Salem,
NC: John F. Blair Publishing.
Association of American Colleges and Universities.1995.
The Drama of Diversity and Democracy. Washington,
DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness
to Greatness. New York: Free Press.
Obama, Barack. 2004. Dreams from My Father.
New York: Three Rivers Press. First published 1995 by
Sharmer, C. Otto. 2009. Theory U: Leading from
the Future as It Emerges. San Francisco: 2009.
Shor, Ira. 1992. Empowering Education: Critical
Teaching for Social Change. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.