Ally workshop gets students and staff to step up and out of their comfort zone

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

 Kendra Albert“Appalled silence is too easily mistaken for assent.” This quote by Jennifer Peepas aptly exemplified the spirit of the HeForShe Ally Skills Workshop on May 22, 2019. In the context of the workshop, an ally is defined as, “someone who is a member of a privileged group working to end oppression and understand their own privilege.” The action part of this statement is important, noted Kendra Albert, the technology lawyer who was brought in to facilitate the workshop. Ally skills are actionable responses to oppression by someone with privilege, which is an unearned advantage given by society to some people, but not all.

Kendra came to Waterloo from Boston, where they are a lecturer on Law and a Clinical Instructional Fellow at Harvard Law School. Kendra also facilitates ally skills workshops for a variety of clients. The workshop was initiated following concerns expressed at Science HeForShe committee meetings, where people mentioned witnessing problematic situations and wanted to be better equipped to know how to speak up and use their societal advantages for good. School of Optometry & Vision Science professor Ben Thompson wanted to learn concrete strategies for being an ally. I have wanted to do this more effectively but have not known how,” Thompson commented.

The first part of the workshop was in an informal seminar setting, where Kendra presented an overview of appropriate terminology to use and microaggressions to be cognisant of. We covered terminology surrounding gender, sexuality, disability, religion, race, class, and age. Some participants were surprised to learn that they should not use expressions that are linked to particular types of diagnosis (e.g., OCD). It might seem trivial, but using appropriate terminology shows you are making an effort at being welcoming and inclusive. One participant commented that they “found the terminology overwhelming, and [didn’t] feel like [they] remembered most of it.” Kendra said that it is okay if you do not remember it all right away. If you make a mistake simply apologize, correct yourself, and move on.

The second part of the workshop was scenario-based. Participants were separated into groups to discuss appropriate ally responses in several scenarios, such as: “At the beginning of a weekly department meeting, a man asks the only women [peer] present to take notes. She’s taken notes at the majority of the meetings you’ve had this year,” or “You’re debriefing from a series of graduate student interviews with a group of folks from your lab. As part of the final discussion, one graduate student explains that they would suggest not admitting a specific candidate because the ‘lab doesn’t need another Asian.’” The scenarios were difficult and complex, and deciding on the appropriate steps to take was challenging for all. Kendra recommends that allies, 1) be short, simple, and firm, 2) don’t try to be funny, 3) play for the audience, 4) practice simple responses, 5) pick your battles, and lastly, 6) following the incident, consider whether structural changes are appropriate. Often people worry about making a situation awkward, but Kendra reminded everyone that the person who made the problematic comment made it awkward in the first place.

Many people commented that this was their favourite part of the workshop. It brought them out of their comfort zone, put them in situations that they could learn from, and enabled them to make mistakes in a safe environment. “[I learned about] being able to think on my toes in these kinds of situations,” commented one participant. “[It] is a skill that takes a lot of practice, but there are lots of little ways to practice by being more aware every day.”

If you are interested in learning more, please see Kendra’s book list below on some of the topics covered in the workshop:

  • Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012).
  • Chelsea Vowell, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada (2016).
  • Ijoema Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2017).
  • Joan C. Williams, Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (2014).
  • Allison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013).
  • Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (2018).
  • The Responsible Communication Style Guide (2017).

By: Wynona Klemt