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Thoughts About Allyship, Accountability and Resistance

Through various events, moments witnessed, great conversations and experiences through life or work, I have been so acutely aware of the importance of telling peoples stories, of taking up people’s causes that are not our own, and ultimately, of resistance. I am consumed with thoughts of consensual allyship and accountability. Perhaps I should begin with a story, or rather a series of perhaps seemingly unrelated moments that through this writing I hope to make sense of it in all of its related parts.

My Consensual Allyship ‘Aha’ Moment

In the last few months, I have been hearing the phrase “consensual allyship” in professional and community settings. It was a concept I was unfamiliar with, so I decide to do some research and become educated on the matter. With one swift Google search, I came across a piece Speaking For, Speaking Beside: thoughts about consensual allyship. Even though I know her personally, I live in the city that she wrote about, and I exist in often overlapping spheres with the people and events she discussed, somehow I only found it more than a year after it was written.  In Sarah Hunt’s piece, she speaks to “a danger in allies speaking over or speaking for those whom they’re trying to support”, when discussing the complicated aspects of allyship between queer, two-spirit and straight indigenous folks in the context of Pride in Victoria. Through her detailing of a context that was familiar to me, Sarah has fostered a genuine understanding for me, to be able to meaningfully integrate this practice into my life in very conscious ways.

A Life-Leading Quote

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

~Lilla Watson

Exploitative Storytelling

A few weeks ago a man, who self-identified as working with street based-sex workers in a major urban centre in Canada, was invited to speak about his work to a multi-sector audience involved in sex work-related fields in a city far from here. He proceeded to perform what I would classify as an attempted stand-up routine using the story of a drug using, street-based sex worker, in a highly vulnerable situation as the punch line. It was more like a punch to the gut. There were many people who did not find it funny, but what stood out in that moment was the laughter from the group – the active participation in the harm being perpetrated, or at the very least the complacency. I soon realized that there were multiple women’s stories being used in this storytelling, all of which were practically indiscernible from each other. He was using these narratives so interchangeably that it seemed like a reference to the same women, a woman he had stripped of agency through his telling of a story in which he was the hero. I walked out amidst the telling of sensationalist and graphic sexualized violence, feeling the sting of stigma, and feeling caked in dirt.

Calling In

What came of the storytelling that caused such harm is that of beautiful resistance. After I walked out of the room, several women came to me in solidarity. In speaking with each other about the harm that was caused by this man’s talk, we came up with clear ways to engage this situation. While I did not wish to speak publicly, I did want to be named in solidarity, and I wanted to contribute to statements that were read out loud. We re-entered the room as a group and spoke to the man and to the room about the ways in which we were harmed and the learning we can all take with us into our work and our lives. It was magnificent, terrifying, and so severely uncomfortable. I would like to say that: everyone was on board with this intervention; the speaker saw the error of his ways; and the audience vowed to never participate in complicit harm again – but alas, I cannot. What I can say is that it was as powerful as it was necessary. I can also say that I watched three amazing women call this man in to do better in this world, to question the way he does his work, and at the very least to not participate in disrespectful, non-consensual and agency-erasing storytelling. These stories indeed, were not his stories to tell.

I am so grateful to be witness to the intervention that took place, and I have learned so much from my experience.

Lessons of Accountability

I am left now to navigate this space of locating others, as well as myself in the matrix of accountability. Perhaps the ways I can weave these moment and words together is by presenting the lessons I have learned, and how I take this forward into my work. I am profoundly impacted by these moments described above – Sara Hunt’s article, the quote, the storyteller, the calling in – all speak to the responsibility of people doing interconnected advocacy, social justice and social service work. As the coordinator of the Community-Based Response Network, a network of organizations serving diverse populations, I work towards ending violence alongside communities whose discriminations I do not face. My white settler privilege prevents me from ever truly understanding the lived experiences of colonialism, racism and imperialism, while at the same time I work to address these injustices.

The lessons I learn from Sarah Hunt and Lilla Watson intertwine relevantly in this space – the space where I question what role I have, or should have, in this network as a white settler. Both pieces help me to question, but they also beautifully provide me with some answers – it is my job to constantly question my position in this work, to not speak for anyone (unless they have asked me to), and to spend a lot of time listening. It is equally important for me to do this work in bound liberation, not fighting for ‘someone else’s cause’, but fighting for justice like my own life and the life of my children are on the line, because they are.

While I hold myself accountable, and leave space to be held accountable by others, I also am inspired by the ways in which I too have the power, and at times the requirement, to speak up against the harm caused by others. However, I am also acutely aware at how quickly holding others accountable can be used as a form of one-sided dialogue, which merely perpetuates harm. It is clear that holding others accountable must be a calling in, an invitation to have a meaningful dialogue, to learn from our mistakes, and to be given the opportunity to make amends. At the heart of all of this lies the resistance of the violence in our lives and the spirit of collaboration. Rather than holding ourselves and each other accountable by tear things down with critique, we can strive to build together – to make change.

Further Reading:

Speaking For, Speaking Beside: thoughts about consensual allyship by Sarah Hunt

Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable by Ngọc Loan Trần

Working Together at the Speed of Trust by Jodie Tonita