Allyship in 2018: Lessons from the Art of Listening

Words by Justin Zagorski and Kokayi Nosakhere

 

The first step of allyship is acknowledging the need for allyship and you are willing to learn how to become an ally. And, you want to do so without risking your life or economic ostracism.

 

So much confusion swirls around how to effectively address social justice issues, finding organizations dedicated to eliminating that confusion becomes the number one question for those seeking a way out of the confusion.

 

This article continues exploring the pathways, available on the local and national levels, for the average American to learn how to make bridges, rather than contribute to the social divide he or she views as unacceptable.

 

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Justin Zagorski, Anchorage’s YWCA Social Justice Program Manager

 

The Anchorage branch the YWCA, a national organization, stands as a portal into the social justice world. Justin Zagorski is their Social Justice Program Manager. His answers are presented here as a model for you and I were our presence is felt.

 

What is the schedule of public offerings made by YWCA towards anti-racism work?

 

JZ: Every year, in April, our national organization, YWCA USA, organizes a month-long Stand Against Racism campaign. Local chapters, like mine in Anchorage, are encouraged to host local stands, which are anything from musical events to facilitated dialogues.

 

For 2018, I decided to extend our historical one-day event into a week-long experience. We facilitated seven dialogues and staged two events. The topics we focused on had not been discussed much by YWCA Alaska in the past. To put it mildly, I was nervous. But, there was such a positive response.

 

We decided to continue offering dialogues that are free and open to the public. Our hope is to keep dialogue going and lead more people to be engaged in the movement for social justice.

Currently, we host a dialogue approximately every three weeks. Topics are selected at random and cater to issues currently impacting our community. While our most recent dialogue, focused on “structural racism”, we also discussed its intersection with gender-based violence, related to the Kavanaugh hearings and oppression of Indigenous women.

 

We choose dialogue topics that aren’t often talked about, but are effective in illuminating the evolution of racism: Islamophobia, implicit bias, microaggressions, assimilation, etc. Our two remaining 2018 dialogues are colorblindness (Nov) and environmental racism (Dec). We plan to keep the process going with our 2019 dialogues, and already have several topics in mind.

 

What are the patterns to the conversations you have facilitated or hosted so far in your work?

 

JZ: Inter-group dialogue is near and dear to my heart. During my years working with college students, I implemented several series of inter-group dialogue. Among the students and staff, there always developed interesting dynamics. I learned how to spot the most common dynamics that play out and the strategies intentionally used to navigate them.

 

To respond to this question, it would be helpful to explain why people use a variety of processes during inter-group dialogue.

 

The group opens with some version of ground rules: a review of definitions, agreements and suggestions for creating a brave space for dialogue. These tend to help conversation flow more smoothly.

In the large group dialogue about racism, usually, when there are white people and people of color in the same group, people of color tend to speak the most. White folks tend to share less.

 

If the topic is transphobia or homophobia, heterosexual would people speak less.

 

We also use smaller group dialogue, usually consisting of no more than six people. This group size is ideal for extroverts to process with people who are more likely to be actively engaged, compared to while sitting in a large group where people are not turned towards each other. The smaller group caters better to the preferences of many introverts.

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Listing of public offerings provided by the Anchorage-branch of the YWCA

Also, I’ve noticed that many people raise their hands to receive permission to speak in the large group. I think this can inhibit the free-flowing dialogue I hope they engage in. My goal is always to transition from facilitator to participant, but I find that is difficult outside of small groups. Nobody raises their hands in small group dialogue. White folks tend to share more in these small groups as well. If I am going to engage the large group or small groups in dialogue about a potentially emotional topic, I tend to offer a couple minutes for individual reflection, or pair up and share before introducing the emotionally charged material.

At this point, the participants who come are almost all female (I presume; I have not asked participants.) Another interesting observation is what happens after the dialogue concludes. I am often approached by people of color and white people, who thank me for facilitating. But, the thank you seems to differ slightly between racial identity. White people offer sincere gratitude, as if they are grateful for having had the experience. When people of color thank me, there seems to be more weight behind it (like, finally this is being discussed… or I’ve been telling them this, but I guess a white person needed to say it), and it’s typically followed by more of their racialized experience. White people have a racial experience as well, but I think it’s safe to say we are usually unaware of it.

 

What has surprised you?

 

JZ: Right from the very first dialogue, I was surprised that all participants provided positive reviews and found value in discussing very complex dynamics of oppression. Of course, this was definitely a pleasant surprise. Our current approach is different than the YWCA Alaska approach which proceeded me, and an alternative to other efforts focusing more on increasing participants’ cultural competence. I try not to say whether either method is more effective, but I am super grateful that this dialogue approach is being very well received.

 

There are moments when I realize that some people are using language during a dialogue that they may have never used before, like Islamophobia or verbally identifying themselves as “white.” I’m often surprised by how vulnerable people are willing to go. So far, participants are folks who really want to create a more equitable world, even though everyone enters the dialogue space with varying levels of awareness.

There is one more thing that surprised me. It feels awkward to acknowledge it as surprise, but I think the dynamic aligns with this question, regardless.

 

When I first returned to Anchorage and the task was advertising YWCA Alaska’s former cultural competence effort, I met with a lot of organizational leadership at local businesses. We would talk about the cultural competence effort and its value to their employees. I left more than 30 meetings with essentially the same response, “We are really diverse, and really inclusive.”

 

I started to wonder, does racism just not exist in Anchorage? Had this community overcome it? First, I realized that all people in leadership positions I had met with were White, every single one.  I started having conversations with community leaders and professionals who are people of color, and nearly all of these folks, painted a different picture.

 

I realized that Anchorage is a place where many people, a lot of who would probably describe themselves as liberal, were celebrating diversity. Some of the Anchorage neighborhoods are the most diverse in the United States. That is great, but I immediately noticed that these same neighborhoods are the ones I was taught to be afraid of when I attended college at Alaska Pacific University.

 

The same story could be told about many other cities in the U.S. It surprised me that so many people seem to equate increased diversity with inclusion, when logically it would make since for increased difference to lead to increased discomfort and conflict if people aren’t equipped with the awareness and skills needed to navigate such difference.

 

What has confirmed your biases?

 

JZ: I constantly have to remind myself that this is a life-long process. I am always growing. I can’t remember if this was after a dialogue or just a conversation with this colleague, but they helped me realize that America refers to much more than the United States. This colleague is from Chile. After this, I started seeing this happen everywhere. A country was trying to Make America Great Again while closing a border to the southern parts of America.

 

Ever since getting that feedback, I find myself pre-emptively changing my language, or back tracking in mid-dialogue to be specific about the United States, without excluding our neighbors to the north and south. I have not traveled much. I really aspire to and I will, but coming from a working class family, traveling out of the U.S. hasn’t been my experiences. I went to Mexico for a month during college and I’ve now driven through two territories in Canada. So, I know that I have to make an intentional effort to expand my world view. Even when I’m posting an article on our social media page or thinking about income inequality, my understanding is often constrained by not having a more expansive knowledge of the world. I suppose this is a real reason why diversity is so valuable.

A more recent, less development realization, is how whiteness and racism prevent me from developing deep, meaningful relationships with people of color. Technically, I don’t need many close connections as an introvert and a close friend did move back up here with us, but I suspect there is more to this.

 

At this point, I know a good amount of people of color, I get invites, and I am welcomed. A few of my closest friends across social media are people of color. However, the majority of my friends are still White.

 

I am an outdoor recreation enthusiast. I’m headed to a climbing film at Bear Tooth tonight, and the room will be filled with mostly white people. It feels like I often find myself at the initial stage of what could grow into a deep, meaningful friendship. I think this is due to my understanding of racism, and additional dynamics of oppression. But, it feels like I prevent the relationship from deepening, even when I subconsciously want to dive below the “what you been up too” conversations.

 

Here is a quick example of what I’m trying to explain. The Wakanda Ball happened. I watched Black Panther movie on opening night and got a tremendous amount of value from the film. I knew some people attending the ball. I believe a couple even invited me. The advertisement clearly said that anybody could come and encouraged people to wear their cultural dress.

 

I did not go to the Wakanda Ball, for two reasons. First, I have no idea what my cultural dress is. When my ancestors agreed to the benefits of whiteness, we gave up our connection to our ethnic history. I presume it was lost in the generations. While people of color are significantly more severely affected by white supremacy, but this was merely an unfortunate outcome of whiteness for me. So, I didn’t know what to wear and would feel out of place. But, that is the second more pronounced reason. Would I feel out of place as a White person. I’ll just end by saying, whiteness gets in my way more than I would like it to. I imagine I’ll overcome that someday.

CALL TO ACTION

If you would like to schedule Zagorski to speak to your organization, please email him at jzagorski@ywcaak.org

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Woman displaying her patriotism at the youth-driven March For Our Lives. (Medford, Oregon)

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