The Oppression Tree: Facilitation Tool

The Oppression Tree Tool

The “oppression tree” is a metaphor COCo uses in our anti-oppression training with community organizations. Over the years, it has spread around the city, and we are excited to see more and more people using it!

In this metaphor,

  • The leaves and the branches are the outcomes and impacts of oppression. For example, racist and homophobic slurs or the way a city is organized.
  • The trunk of the tree are the ideologies and institutions of oppression. For example, the idea that people of colour need to be saved, or the institution of policing.
  • The roots are the systems of oppression. For example, colonialism or white supremacy.

All of the parts of the oppression tree are connected. The leaves/outcomes (the way a city is organized) might reinforce racism (like photosynthesis!); at the same time, racism reinforces the way cities are organized and resourced (like the roots absorbing water).

If it is winter, and there are no leaves/visible outcomes, the institutions and beliefs still remain. You have to cut down the oppression tree at the roots for it to truly die.

Further, trees are connected to each other! This can help us explore intersectionality.

Using the oppression tree can help us think about the root problem of a system. Sometimes we focus more on the visible outcomes of oppression (represented by the leaves in the tree) and miss that it is the root that feeds the leaves. We often use the oppression tree with community groups to get them thinking about what is feeding the oppression in their workplace or communities and introducing them to change their underlying systems by doing root cause work.

Oppression Tree vs. Oppression Iceberg

COCo developed the oppression tree because we were getting somewhat frustrated with the limitations of the oppression iceberg (no shade to AORTA, we love your work!). For us, the tree has been a more rich metaphor.

Facilitating the Oppression Tree

When we use this as a training tool, we start by drawing a tree with the three labels for each part of the tree. Then, we choose a system of oppression to start with (racism, homophobia, sexism, etc). The group fills in the different parts of the tree, aided and supported by the facilitator. Try to help the group connect clearly between sections! For example, one leaf could be racial profiling; supported by the trunk of institutions like the police and a belief that Black people are inherently dangerous; supported by the roots, a system of white supremacy.

When you have done your first tree with the group, you could

  • Layer a different oppression “on top” or alongside this tree (e.g. racism + sexism).
  • Do a tree where the leaves are all outcomes in the specific group, organization, or community you are working with.

Here is an example of a completed oppression tree from the Midnight Kitchen Collective.

anti oppression tree

Click to access the oppression tree

*** This metaphor was developed for training of staff and floor fellows within the residence structure at McGill University. If you have clarifying questions, please send us a line. Otherwise, feel free to use and disseminate this image. 🙂

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