Slicing into the Privilege Layer Cake


By: Kawanna Bright, Assistant Professor, East Carolina University; and Joanna Nelson Rendón, Director of Young Adult Services, Pikes Peak Library District

The Privilege Layer Cake (PLC) activity started as a conversation in Dr. Bright’s Privilege & Equity course and a mention by Dr. Bright in a keynote speech. Co-author Joanna Nelson Rendón was in attendance at the keynote and took the initiative to create a small group activity for her staff and another session for managers based on the activity. The success of those sessions led to an opportunity to bring the activity to larger audiences as webinars held by the Colorado Association of Libraries and the State Library of Colorado (led by Christine Kreger). The goal of the two larger webinars was to introduce the discussion of privilege as a necessary component of improved workplace communication and cultures. These larger webinars included discussions of individuals' privileges and an additional segment that allowed participants to contemplate the impact of privileges on the services that their libraries and organizations provided.

PLC is one piece of the conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). When participants know each other, appearances may lead to assumptions about shared similarities, which are not the case. We found that participants learned a lot about each other and gained a deeper understanding of themselves. PLC serves as a springboard for additional EDI discussions. Organizations looking to expand their community engagement may use this as an activity among employees and community members where discussions of privileges may influence future planning.

Powerpoint slide from Dr. Bright's presentation on the Privilege Layer Cake

The PLC activity can be implemented online or in-person for small and large groups. Larger groups should utilize breakout groups with up to five participants. Participants can be known or unknown to each other - the activity will work for either situation. Here are the basics of the two-hour activity.

  • Set the intention. Let participants know what the activity is and the overall goal.
  • Welcome everyone. Share that this is a time for vulnerability, learning, and growing. This is a safe place to talk and discuss, and the discussion will not be recorded.
  • Group facilitator instructions:
    • Have the group discuss privileges they were born with and privileges earned. Facilitators should share personal examples. Give five minutes for quiet reflection. For online sessions, we suggest everyone mute and turn off their camera during quiet reflection time.
    • After five minutes, ask people to share. Reassure participants that privilege overlap is normal and expected. Take turns sharing privileges.
    • Ask reflective questions. Such as:
      • What stands out to you?
      • What connections are you making?
      • What do these layers mean? How do they interact?
      • What might we not be considering?
    • (Optional): A second breakout discussion addressing: structural policies/processes to reduce privileges needed to access services.
    • Thank everyone for sharing and participating.

Graphic promoting Colorado Association of Libraries Privilege Layer Cake

Most of us struggle to talk about EDI topics like privilege in meaningful ways. We recognize that there is often fear and discomfort surrounding those discussions. However, there is a real need to have these discussions, as they may be the first step towards improved workplace environments and improved services for our communities. While the PLC is not a panacea for having difficult discussions, it has shown itself to be a positive way to encourage engagement between people who may not recognize that they share something in common with their colleagues or community members.

PLC may be used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Ice breaker
  • Staff development
  • Team building

Consider connecting PLC to other topics including cultural competency, cultural humility, and intercultural communication. Individuals who participate in PLC more than once often learn something new about themselves and others.

At current writing, the activity is planned for additional workshops. It is the flexibility of PLC and its positive reception from attendees that leads the co-authors to share this activity more widely. We hope this will encourage others to take initiative and try PLC within their own spaces. The authors are working to develop and share the detailed instructions and scripts for PLC. Those materials will be made available on Dr. Bright’s website.

If you decide to give PLC a try, we would love to hear about your experience. Feel free to leave a comment or reach out to the authors via e-mail at and