Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ally is a Verb - Part III

- by Stacey Prince

In previous blog articles (Ally is a Verb - Parts I and II) I explored what it means to be a member of a dominant or agent group and to be an ally to members of marginalized groups. For example, as a white person, how can I stand up to racist comments made by friends and colleagues? As an able bodied person, what can I do when I see that policies, events, or learning opportunities are not accessible to persons with disabilities? In this third installment, I would like to explore further the idea of allyship, including some research bearing on the topic, thoughts about adolescent bullying, and thoughts about adult allyship.

Leticia Nieto in her book Beyond inclusion, beyond empowerment conceptualizes allyship as the most skillful level in the development of agent group members. Specifically, she defines allyship as “awareness + action”. The “+ action” part of that equation is so important – it’s not enough to be aware of unearned privilege, marginalization, personal and systemic oppression – if one sees and is aware of these processes, but does nothing to challenge them, one is not truly being an ally, and instead is colluding with the systems of power that maintaintheir privilege.

This article could also be called “the power of bystanders,” because research has shown that bystanders have a tremendous potential to change the course of violent, aggressive, and discriminatory behavior. For example, in this article the behavior of third party witnesses to aggressive incidents was studied. Results clearly indicated that the behavior of the third party bystanders had a tremendous impact on the outcome (particularly, whether the incident escalated to violence or not). Further, this effect increased with larger groups of bystanders, and was most effective when there was a coordinated, collective response from multiple witnesses rather than isolated individual responses.

The fact that third parties in this study served to inhibit, rather than facilitate, aggression speaks volumes about allyship. First, it suggests that being an ally really can make a difference—even when only a single bystander intervened, there was some inhibitory effect on further aggression. Second, allies benefit from having their own allies (even strangers) who join in the effort to reduce aggression—the inhibitory effect was greater with larger third party group size. These principles have been harnessed into a fascinating program some of you may have heard about called The Green Dot. From their website:

The Green Dot strategy is a comprehensive approach to violence prevention that capitalizes on the power of peer and cultural influence across all levels of the socio-ecological model. Informed by social change theory, the model targets all community members as potential bystanders, and seeks to engage them, through awareness, education, and skills-practice, in proactive behaviors that establish intolerance of violence as the norm, as well as reactive interventions in high-risk situations – resulting in the ultimate reduction of violence.

Through training which includes personal awareness, knowledge, relational and skills components, Green Dot participants learn ways to actively and effectively speak out against power based violence. Trainees then spread the word, training others in their organizations, on campuses, etc. with a goal that this will result in a pervasive social movement toward non-violence as normative behavior. Hence the Green Dot image: you know how often red dots spreading across a map are used to illustrate the spread of something bad (cases of HIV, rapes, other acts of violence). The premise is that the spread of so many red dots has resulted in a culture of bystander inaction. Now imagine a green dot representing every incident of someone standing up, speaking up, taking action to prevent or call out power based violence and promote safety. The idea is that if enough of these individual actions take place, the red dots will be eclipsed by green dots and eventually power based violence will not be normative. For more information on this compelling program click here. This website also has ideas for green dot actions one can do every day.

So, thinking about green dots and bystander behavior got me thinking about bullying. There has been so much in the news lately, particularly around the issue of bullying of LGBTQ youth. Even though we are urged by the media not to conclude that bullying was causal, so often it does seem to be a part of the history of LGBTQ youth who attempt or complete suicide. A recent, fascinating segment of Dateline NBC focused on bystander behavior when witnessing bullying among adolescents. The results of their informal study mirrored much of what the research article cited earlier found: while peer pressure could influence some of the bystander kids to join in with the bullying, others were able to stand up to the bully (or tell an adult), and the effectiveness of bystander interventions increased with the number of bystanders participating. What the segment did not cover enough was the huge role parents must play in teaching their kids to intervene or not (let alone in condoning bullying behavior itself), and modeling effective allyship for their kids (versus modeling messages of intolerance towards kids who are different). As we think about effective interventions to reduce bullying based on social group membership (ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, etc.) it’s so important to remember that parents have to be involved in this effort; no school based anti-bullying curriculum is going to be effective if kids are getting the opposite message at home.

Finally, what does all of this say about how we can best be effective allies as adults? I really liked the article entitled Interrupting the cycle of oppression: The role of allies as agents of change, recently circulated by our friends at the Seattle Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW), in which Reverend Andrea Ayvazian explores her own personal experiences of allyship as a white women and suggests avenues of allyship for others. First, she gives a specific definition of allyship which I appreciated for its attention to the fact that allies benefit from the oppression they are standing up to, and that is one of the barriers to being an ally. She says,

An ally is a member of a dominant group in our society who works to dismantle any form of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit. Allied behavior means taking personal responsibility for the changes we know are needed in our society, and so often ignore or leave to others to deal with. Allied behavior is intentional, overt, consistent activity that challenges prevailing patterns of oppression, makes privileges that are so often invisible visible, and facilitates the empowerment of persons targeted by oppression.

She notes that members of dominant groups speaking to other members of that same group have an incredible potential for making change, and cites Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays as one well-known example. Like the research study described earlier, she notes the power of groups to dismantle oppressive systems and reduce violence. She also discusses the symbolic power inherent in allies eschewing some of the unearned privilege normally granted to them – for example, when a heterosexual couple chooses not to be legally married until same-sex couples are granted the same legal rights and social status.

When we stop colluding and speak out about the unearned privileges we enjoy as members of a dominant group -privileges we have been taught for so long to deny or ignore-we have the potential to undergo and inspire stunning transformation.

She finishes by noting that allyship is arduous work, requiring patience and perseverance, and that “allies need allies” in order to sustain our energy.

So, these are some of my continued thoughts on allyship in its various forms. I hope you will share your comments and thoughts here, and hope that TJP can be a place where we nurture and sustain one another on our journeys of allyship.

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