2009 - Second Annual, Dr. P.B. Poorman Award
for Outstanding Achievement
on Behalf of LGBTQ People
Susan Simmons ceremony remarks
Good evening. In October 2006—so the last October that PB was alive—PB presented a best practices workshop on Power and Powerlessness at a teaching psychology conference in Atlanta.
PB spent years refining her exercise on Power and Powerlessness. Basically, with PB steadily asking questions and drawing out feelings and thoughts from observing and participating students, one student would sit on the floor while another stood over the seated student. Towered over that student. Each student in the dyad then took turns saying, “My thoughts and feelings are as important as yours.” First PB demonstrated the exercise with a co-demonstrator. Then the class broke into dyads to perform the exercise. Then the class gave ideas about how to shift the dyads so they could observe the impact when factors such as sex or race or age or authority or ability were altered. And finally, PB divided the class into groups of seven or eight and had them encircle the one person sitting on the floor. After each said, “My thoughts and feelings are as important as yours,” PB asked the groups—both the standers and the sitters—to see if they could find a way to bring about equity or improve the power imbalance without touching the seated person.
I received a lot of letters from PB’s students after she died and many mentioned this exercise and how it changed their point of view. PB used to come home after presenting Power and Powerlessness really charged up about how each particular class attempted to generate change. She believed in Paulo Freire’s concept of Conscientização or “Learning to perceive social, economic, and political contradictions and to take action against oppressive elements of reality.” Learning to perceive… Learning to take action… This was her goal in developing this exercise. PB’s work with the Inclusivity Initiative was part of this same vision.
We Gs and Ls and the rest of our alphabet are both powerful and powerless. We, too, have the responsibility—the mandate—to reach out to the powerless in our personal lives, in our work, in our political lives. In our daily lives. People who have areas of powerlessness in their lives need help from us. And we can give it. We are a community of great power and privilege. I think that can be easy to forget. I think it’s easy for me to forget.
As a lesbian, I can easily focus on the power and privilege that is kept from me. I talked about that the last time I was here. And that, too, is true. We—our community—need help from the people who have power and privilege over our equity. PB had come to believe that gays and lesbians had little chance of achieving equity until ethical people of power and privilege began taking personal and political risks to make it so. She also believed that we needed to live our daily lives in such a way that everyone would come to know that they knew or were neighbors with or family to or colleagues with or had been helped by or taught by someone who is gay or lesbian. She also came to believe—after a considerable dry spell in this regard—that political activism and speaking out on our behalf was essential. For PB, working as a member of the Inclusivity Initiative for LGBTQ People was her essential response to that belief. The work of the Initiative was—and is—very important to her.
When PB walked into a room, it lit up and things got started. She took great personal and professional risks teaching about power and powerlessness. A lot of people don’t want to hear. Telling the hard truths—advocating for change—can be costly. PB lost jobs, was blackmailed, and was threatened for speaking out. And she got discouraged. But she strode back into the room, it lit up, and things got started. Again.
I see these same qualities in Mariamne Whatley, tonight’s honoree. Reaching out and speaking out. Taking risks. When Mariamne put her hand to it, it happened. No greater honor would be possible to PB than to have an award for service to LGBTQ people with her name attached. I know how exuberant PB would be—is—to have her name linked to Mariamne’s through this award.
You were and are all dear to her heart. And to mine. Thank you.