What is Poison Ivy Privilege?

Poison Ivy Privilege is a framework to consider the aspects of your identity for which you receive privilege rather than marginalization, and how you can use that privilege to enact systemic changes using the analogy of pulling poison ivy.

Prologue: I was wrong. Years ago, I wrote an article about poison ivy and privilege, in which I said I was one of the 15% or so of people who were immune to poison ivy. As I write this now, my arm is itchy and swollen after spending an afternoon pulling poison ivy from our yard this weekend. Perhaps prolonged exposure over time eventually triggered a response. Regardless, the question of how to use your privilege to create a more equitable environment for everyone remains a vital one for us all. With that in mind, we are revisiting the original article:

In New England, where I’ve lived for the last 20+ years, poison ivy is commonplace. But in the UK, where I grew up, there is none. So unlike many New Englanders, I didn’t grow up with regular exposure to poison ivy; nor did I grow up looking out for it, or being able to identify it with a “leaves of three, let it be” chant as I walked through wooded areas.

In my first two decades of living in the US, despite many hikes, and countless hours of yard work in areas with the plant, I didn’t react to poison ivy in the same way my wife and kids do. For most of my adult life I hadn’t thought about it deeply, assuming I’d just somehow avoided touching it. But a conversation with a science-minded friend got me thinking differently. She said that there’s evidence that if someone is not exposed to poison ivy before the age of five, they don’t react to it later in life. In doing some research, I didn’t found any studies online to back this up, but I did find other research to show that at least 15% of people in the US are not allergic to poison ivy, and have no reaction to it. So over the course of a month –  as we worked on growing food in our yard and as my son worked on building a treehouse in the woods behind our home – I became the designated ‘poison ivy remover’ in our family. I became much more adept at identifying it, and diligent in working to remove it. And in the process, I had a lot of time to reflect on how that connects with issues of privilege…

I thought I had always just avoided touching poison ivy and that others weren’t being as careful as me, but in fact, I might have been touching it often without realizing it, because it simply didn’t affect me. And just like so many areas of privilege, poison ivy is pervasive, with incredibly strong roots that are buried beneath the surface and strangle healthy growth over a large area. But once I became more aware of my own immunity – my own privilege – I realized that I am in the unique position within my family to do something about it; to do the work of exposing and removing the roots of this poisonous plant to change the conditions for everyone.

Epilogue: Years later, now that I am reacting to poison ivy, I wonder if this too connects with matters of equity; perhaps it’s fair to say that the more aware you become of issues of inequity and – and your own privilege – the more these issues affect you in ongoing and ignorable ways. The question of what to do when your privilege disappears is a topic for a future article.

This Week’s Tip:

Reflect on your own ‘poison ivy privilege’: 

  1. As you go through your day, take a look at your own areas of privilege. Some you are already aware of, and may have become more aware of over the last year or so. But some privileges may seem small, such as my poison ivy example. Pay attention to those small privileges, and ask yourself how you can use your own privilege to improve the environment around you for those who are affected by their own ‘poison ivy.’
  2. Start to uproot the poison ivy around you. Poison ivy needs to be handled carefully and deliberately – pull it too hard or too quickly, and the roots break, only to continue growing. Follow the roots through the ground, exposing its spread; removing the roots in full without breaking them is the only way to truly eliminate it and stop it from re-growing. What is your equivalent? What steps can you take to identify and uproot the poison ivy in your community?
  3. Identify where others are immune to things that affect you deeply, and ask for the support you need. Just as you can use your privilege to help others who are less fortunate, you too may be affected by something that others can support you with. Take some time this week to identify those challenges, and engage in conversation with colleagues or friends who could make a difference.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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