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*The Allyship Workshop Series was created in house at Stand Up Speak Up by a small team of writers and researchers with the consultation of several sensitivity readers. We present this information as an invitation to learn along with us and do not claim to be experts on the topic of allyship and advocacy. If you have any questions or concerns about anything you see in this workshop, please let us know. We hope this workshop will evolve as we continue to listen and become better allies.*

“Listening is the root of justice.”

Jamie Utt (from his article of the same name for The Good Man Project)

Before you can be an effective ally for any group, cause or movement, you first need to learn about it. And that involves a lot of listening, which might seem easy enough. What many of us don’t realize is that our listening skills are usually less developed than our speaking skills. This module is meant to help center you in the practice of listening when it comes to allyship and advocacy.

Seek out lived experience

When you’re educating yourself on any cause, community, or platform seeking allies (usually sparked by an event or political action), you will find a variety of voices attempting to influence you and to provide you with “the right way” to help. The best sources are those with lived experience dealing with the issue long before it received media attention. These are people who come from the community that you wish to be an ally for. For example, if you’re looking for ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement, support your local BLM chapter, follow and buy from Black artists and business owners, and take your cues from Black advocates and Black people in general. 

Believe and acknowledge what you hear

When you come from a different background and experience, your first reaction when hearing about others’ negative experiences may be shock, disbelief, and the desire to find a “reason” for why some people are not treated with the equality, respect, and love that they deserve. This is a natural impulse, as no one wants to believe the place they live is not safe for all. So, we try to convince ourselves that the new information is either not true or that we could prevent it from happening to us and those we care about.

When you are privileged to hear others express their truth and stories, resist the urge to question the truth of their experience, even if you feel it will help you understand further. Keep in mind that while the best way to learn can be through those with lived experience sharing their stories, it is no one’s responsibility to educate you on these matters. Most will be open to you asking some questions, but understand that these conversations can bring up trauma and pain. Do your best to allow them to lead the conversation forward without feeling pressure to continue. This can be done by simply acknowledging that you are grateful to hear their story and know that it could be difficult to tell.

 

Resist the urge to debate or make suggestions

While it’s important to challenge people when they display problematic, biased, or discriminatory behavior, there is no room for playing devil’s advocate when you’re actively listening to others’ experiences. As allies, we have the chance to view things as outsiders, without bringing up our own personal trauma. While you may feel that challenging someone is helping you learn, it could be adding to their suffering and the exhaustion of living with systemic injustices on a daily basis. You will learn more through practicing listening to understand, rather than focusing on how you will respond. 

When we’re trying to help someone else, we can also resort to trying to problem-solve. This can manifest as thoughts like: “Have you tried…”, “Maybe if you just…” or “We should…”, for example.  While this is usually done with the best of intentions, it can easily be interpreted as attempting to take the lead or minimizing a complex issue that does not have a single solution. As an ally, the best thing you can do is to offer support and truly listen to the experiences of others. From there, you can start to assess how you might be able to work towards change.

Practice care and control with your emotions

We are often taught that our emotions are always valid and that showing them freely is healthy and a practice of self-care. While this can be true, showing heightened emotion can also shift the focus away from the person you’re speaking as they attempt to sooth rather than continue to share their story. 

This is a good opportunity to use Ring Theory, a system developed by psychologist Susan Silk to help determine how to best support those in grief or trauma. It advises using a method of “Comfort In” and “Dump Out”. In any interaction, those closest to the trauma or pain are allowed to dump out – say anything, vent or show their full range of emotions. Those less directly affected should focus on comforting and providing support.

When you’re listening to someone share their experience of trauma and hardship, do your best to keep the focus on them and give them the space to experience things as emotionally or neutrally as they choose. It is the goal that you take in the emotion of the situation and empathize with them. 

This does not mean shutting off your emotions and reactions all together, which might result in you seeming closed or lacking empathy. Instead, express your feelings while centering back on them: “That sounds so scary.” “I’m sorry that happened to you.” “Thank you for sharing with me and I would like to help in any way I can.”

But we all do need to “dump out” every once in a while. It is part of processing what you have learned. In this situation, you simply need to seek out someone who is equally or less directly affected as you are. In terms of allyship, this might mean someone within your inner circle of family and friends or a fellow ally. This is why it is important to find a community of allies that you can discuss things with, rather than going it alone. 

To learn more about the Ring Theory, read about it here.

Listening Exercise

Listen to the following video:

What was your reaction to Renni Eddo-Lodge’s story? 

When listening, did you find yourself wanting to respond to anything Eddo-Lodge said? 

What sensations/emotions did you feel when you read/heard the title of her essay and now book? 

How do you think you would have reacted to her comments at the Women’s March? 

Active listening does not mean staying completely silent. It does not mean you are not allowed to have thoughts and opinions of your own. It means creating a space where the person you’re listening to feels not only comfortable, but in control and your main focus. If the speaker does feel comfortable, it creates an opening for this to turn into a dialogue where you can engage with your own questions and thoughts. It is a process that starts with simple judgement-free listening without turning focus back onto yourself. 

The next essential for any ally is understanding their own privilege, which we will discuss in the next two modules.

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