The notion of the American Dream is the belief that wealth, health and prosperity are attainable by all, no matter where one starts in life. But a new fact-based board game about structural inequality is challenging that idea.
On March 12, the Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, held the second of four sessions comprising the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Series.
At the helm was Natalie Gillard, creator of Factuality, an interactive and educational seminar about structural inequality by way of playing the new board game. Most playing the game would notice it is quite similar to the popular board game Monopoly, but with crucial differences.
“When I created this, I found myself reimagining what Monopoly would look like if I brought the diverse aspects of my identity to the pawn,” Gillard said. “Would I have limitations and advantages off of race and gender? The answer is yes, and most of us would.”
Although Factuality has reached a wide audience — Gillard said that in February alone she facilitated games in 13 states for more than 1,000 people — the session at the JCC had a board specific to Baltimore neighborhoods; several of the statistics Gillard read were specific to Baltimore.
Gillard has facilitated diversity trainings for more than a decade, and until recently was the assistant vice president of multicultural experiences at Stevenson University. During trainings, she noticed “resistant patterns.” Participants did not want to feel lectured or have to sit through an all-day training. Gillard also said, “They didn’t want to show up as themselves.”
When playing Factuality, most participants won’t be themselves. Rather than pawns without gender, class, race, sexual orientation or faith — like in Monopoly — players are assigned to be one of eight characters, each with a unique identity that figures heavily into which opportunities that player can or cannot take advantage of during the game. Players all begin with different amounts of money — Brian, an Asian man, starts with the most. Sonia, a Latina with a disability, starts with the least. The four players who earn the least in the beginning of the game — all of whom are black or Latinx — are also redlined. This means they are restricted from purchasing property on the half of the board that represents wealthy neighborhoods.
Three of the four corners of the game board are prison squares. For all but two players, landing in a prison square comes without consequence. But Mason and Justin, respectively a black man and a Latino, need to spend $50 for bail each time they land in prison.
Hard times came for each player at some point during the game. Periodically Gillard blew a whistle signaling for a pause in gameplay, at which point she shared statistics regarding hate crimes, bank loan discrimination, employment discrimination, etc. For example, the FBI says most hate crimes based on religious bias are against Jewish people, so Jewish character Emma loses $50 to cover hospital bills.
By the end of the game most of the players who began with the most money finished with even more. The vast majority of those who earned the least at the beginning finished with less than when they started.
For staff members of Associated agencies, the statistics were disheartening, but they were grateful for the opportunity.
“It opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t know before. Coming from a social work background I kept thinking of different resources. How can we change things, knowing what we know now?” asked Naomi Taffet, director of service coordination at CHANA.
“We’re a service provider. We need to be aware of all the people and what they’re bringing when they come to see us,” Taffet added. “We only get a snapshot of a person when they come to see us or call us on the phone. This led to a much bigger discussion. We need to change some of our thoughts and pre-conceived notions.”
Sam Hopkins, the Israel program coordinator for Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, felt that the rules and information that moves the game along could easily be applied to Israel. Learning to appreciate diversity of background and diversity of thought, he said, will help people in Israel and in Baltimore to engage with each other productively.
“I think what’s most important is to be able to internalize someone else’s experience and react outside of your own frame of reference, while acquiring a new sense of the real diversity of not only background or ethnicity, but how many twists and turns life can take,” Hopkins said.