I Will Never Be An Ally, and other discomforting revelations—Part 2

The inner landscape of personal responsibility for the professional organizer in an unjust present

Why am I in this, and for how long?

This is the second piece in a several part series that shares my ‘revelations’ about solidarity practices for ‘professional organizers,’ drawing from my experiences as a self-directed research fellow with the Laidlaw Foundation in 2015. In Part 1, I framed why it’s essential for professional organizers to do ‘inner work’ through dialogue with others they share identity and experience with. In this Part 2, I will explore what personal responsibility looks like in the context of the unjust present.

In 2013, an experienced frontline organizer in Toronto named Alana challenged my thinking in an important way. She told me a story that ended with, “I do think there needs to be a lot more public conversations around power and the way it’s distributed in the city [and among]… progressive people in the social service field.”

You’ll hear more about what Alana told me later in this piece. For now, I’d like to share how her call shaped my thinking over the last year of this research Fellowship.

Organizers, self-identified allies, & That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named

‘You mean… my power must not be named…?’

For most of last year, I came at this conversation around power differences a bit sideways. I began 2015 by trying to convene a process that (I imagined) would ‘support’ the power of young frontline organizers in Toronto to push back against the precarious, insecure and triggering work conditions they face in the nonprofit sector. I saw myself as an aspiring ally: someone who could, with the right attitude, use some extra energy to ‘support’ this frontline community of peers to organize for better work and pay conditions.

Sitting in the shadows: My process as a ‘Laidlaw Fellow’

For the first several months, I spoke to dozens and dozens of people who generally identified as ‘youth organizers’ or ‘adult allies.’ I offered them a space to talk off the record, and many people trusted me with the stories and views they don’t normally share.

The stories of organizers were particularly difficult to hear (and, I can only assume, to experience). The memories I have of them still make my chest shake. None of them are mine to re-tell. What I can say is that they were stories involving political interference and censorship; back-door funding invitations and maze-like front-door processes; tokenistic engagement and ulterior motives; rampant foot-dragging around questions of compensation and unpaid labour; and at least one account of sexual harassment being upheld by powerful personalities.

A handful of people who identified as allies (I’ll call them self-identified allies) had woken up to some of these dynamics. In the words of one senior nonprofit leader, who said with an exasperated sigh: “The nonprofit sector eats its young for breakfast.” What got discussed less among self-identified allies was the way race, class, gender, geography and the other patterns of injustice play out alongside age. In some cases, the self-identified allies were among those most staunchly resistant to alternative practices within their organizations — at times hostilely so. In many other cases, young frontline leaders were subtly or not-so-subtly discouraged by self-identified allies from speaking out about these patterns. Other organizers alluded to self-censorship, knowing from past experience what could happen if they dared speak their truth.

The notion that people with relative power in organizing spaces must be held to account — it’s a ghost, something invisible and taboo. That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. How can this be?

I sensed in the stories of frontline leaders a tension between mourning the pain of oppression and defiantly creating the alternatives they need. But it’s important for me to emphasize that the stories were not about helplessness or resignation. (As I’m learning, these narratives of helplessness generally come from outside communities — from people who imagine themselves as saviours or, yes, even allies. These narratives are actually part of what is holding frontline organizers back.)

The deeper content of these stories is that they were about young frontline leaders responding and resisting — bravely, provocatively — to the institutionalized and politicized systems of ‘support’ that are actually no longer serving them and are sometimes doing active harm. You can see that quality of resistance in the missions of various grassroots youth-led organizations and the stories of youth organizing I’ve previously shared.

It is of course a problem that mainstream professionals with relative power sometimes act in harmful ways, whether or not they are conscious of it. The bigger problem that strikes me, though, is that there are no meaningful processes or practices to challenge and reconcile these harms. The notion that people with relative power in organizing spaces, particularly spaces with a traditional organizational culture, must be held to account — it’s a ghost, something invisible and taboo. That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.

How can this be?

What I see among the many young frontline organizers I work with is an effort to live and work within relationships of solidarity. It’s high time we as professional organizers started doing the same.

Seeing my own shadow: My positioning

Before I go on, I better address the question: Who am I to be writing this?

I am doing this work in the capacity of friend and organizing partner for a range of networks, foundations and organizations seeking to transform the patterns of injustice while receiving support from the machinery of the formal nonprofit sector. My work takes place from a very particular vantage point: I work with frontline organizers, but I do so as a professional. Like most of us, there are some ways in which the mainstream doesn’t work for me. But the reality is that I don’t have a lot materially at stake with my work; my frontline, such as it exists, is more internal.

As a white, cis-gendered, Master’s-educated man, I unquestionably benefit by being welcomed into the “inner circle” of professional opportunities by mainstream institutions. Over the years, I’ve received accreditation, recognition, approval, funding, lines of credit, contracts, scholarships, travel stipends… you name it. The foundation for much of this was laid before I was even born.

I’ve learned a lot from frontline community organizers of all ages. But now I’ll be applying what I’ve learned to my own context. The stories I will tell here are my own.

An uncomfortable story about racism & the burden of education in the nonprofit sector

“A lot of incredible work gets done, but so many people get disengaged along the way…”

I didn’t know how to answer her questions.

The interview was just getting started when Alana Lowe started asking some questions about my own personal interest in the summer Master’s project I was leading. They were good questions, thoughtful questions — the kind I was hoping to ask her. I was about to interview Alana in her role as an experienced community organizer working with young people in North York’s Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean diaspora communities through her community media organization Stolen From Africa. She had agreed to meet with me through an introduction by a friend of an acquaintance, so that I could share her experiences and lessons within a resource for other young people just getting started in their social justice efforts.

The thing is, while I was skilled at asking questions about other people’s experiences, I was less good at answering them.

So what was my personal interest in the campaign, she wondered? I thought about it as a cranky espresso machine grumbled over the peppy Motown music humming in the background. I was there supporting a nonprofit City Hall advocacy campaign that was trying to bolster funding for city-run youth recreation programming. I had decided to create a resource that I was calling a ‘youth advocacy guidebook.’ The honest answer was about why I was involved was that I wanted to learn, build relationships and create something flashy for my resume. The campaign was a means to those ends. I was interested in City Hall advocacy and wanted to get to know others in that space; the campaign seemed like the most interesting way to do that. I had hopped between a lot of ‘issues’ and spheres of action in my life, and I’d always had difficulty ‘deciding on’ any one focus — or committing t0 one, for that matter. I was never sure on what basis I might make such a decision around what issues mattered most to me personally.

I opted to answer safely. I told Alana about my belief in community organizing after two years in a disempowering government job. Then I transitioned into some well-rehearsed messages from my interview guide. I told her about the campaign goals, and how the stories she shared would be used to share lessons with other young people trying to take action politically. Mine was only a half-answer to her question, but she graciously nodded along.

I remember all this because I recorded the interview. It was only recently, though, that I went back to listen it. I cringed most of the way through. I can hear the way I was emulating a certain professional voice — something held-together, blandly likable but kind of phony. It was a learned voice that I had honed during a university summer job at a call centre job, but that had served me well in navigating bureaucracies and the leadership figures that reside there. It sounded like: The-Customer-And-Or-Authority-Figure-And-Or-Person-I-Need-To-Impress-Are-Always-Right.

“I think there’s an assumption that we’re working together, but we’re really not. It’s so superficial. The social service sector is still very much an old boy’s club.”

About half an hour into my questions, it was Alana who finally made things more real. I asked her what lessons she would offer other young people wanting to push for changes at City Hall. She offered something that was more warning than pro-tip: Be careful. She explained the dynamics of tokenization and exclusion she experienced while working in youth political advocacy groups there. In her words:

“If a young person wants to change things systemically, recognizing how much of an uphill battle that is, they need allies to support their work so that they’re not tokenized. That’s the first thing that’s going to happen. Tokenizing is surface-level type stuff, without having any real relationships with them. Young people are exploited and used for face time at events and in grant applications. People will take their ideas, so they can write a grant application, but the money doesn’t go to the young people who gave them the ideas in the first place. Those are some of the examples of things that I’ve experienced first hand.”

She went on to describe how, even when it comes to working with other young people around advocacy work, it’s often not much better:

“When you get involved in City Hall advocacy, you meet the kids who thrived in these racist-ass, classist-ass institutions. I’m talking about high schools. That was the least safe place for me, you know? So to connect with the people who thrived in those spaces — it’s not that they’re bad kids. It’s just that there’s already a huge disconnect right there. Taking minutes, and the language.” [She paused to knock methodically on the table for emphasis.] “It’s very structured. It’s a little City Hall. It’s a replica of systems and processes that never worked for the communities that I’m from. These are the things that keep my community marginalized.”

I remember the emotions I was experiencing as she described this — the dynamics of racism and classism stated as plainly and matter-of-factly as a comment on the weather. I had never thought of it quite that way before. To me, these had been problems that were ‘out there’ in the world, but I often didn’t know how to see them ‘in the room’ among spaces where I was working. What did it mean that I was one of those kids who thrived in racist-ass, classist-ass institutions?

I began to internally connect dots from the dynamics she was describing to the very ‘advocacy guidebook’ project I was working on. My stomach dropped. I felt as if her words were pointing to a fundamental flaw in an assumption I was making: that the best way for young people to get involved in social change is to confront the politicians who weren’t listening to them.

I was aware of feeling defensive, and trying to compartmentalize that. I was nervous about being exposed. So I tried to reframe the question in order to focus on the ‘tips’ or ‘lessons’ I was searching for. It amounted to asking the same question again, as if she hadn’t answered correctly the first time. She took a step back to put what she said before in context. Again, I hear now how gracious she was being with my cluelessness:

“What I’m realizing lately is that Toronto is actually a very new city, and Canada is a very new country. And there are many conversations in this city that still need to be had. Toronto has the potential to be more progressive than it already is. But I do think there needs to be a lot more public conversations around power and the way it’s distributed in the city. That is the most important thing I’ve learned.
“I come around so many progressive people in the social service field. And we all have so much to learn about ourselves and how we can grow and work together. I think there’s an assumption that we’re working together, but we’re really not. Because we don’t even understand each other, we don’t know each other’s stories. It’s so superficial. The social service sector is still very much an old boy’s club. There needs to be more space for sharing stories and really understanding each other. Creating the spaces for collaboration to actually happen, and not just moving through stuff and plowing through the project.
“I feel like a lot of incredible work gets done, but so many people get disengaged along the way because they don’t feel like they’re important or that they’re being validated. And that’s dangerous, because all that potential within that person, all that work that could have been included in the next thing gets lost. People walk away feeling like, ‘Fuck, I got exploited.’ And it’s not that that’s intentional. It’s just that there wasn’t a space for really getting to know each other.”

I wasn’t able to immediately absorb what she was saying. I remember how, at that moment, I couldn’t both process what was challenging about it while also keeping up the act, that professional voice. And I wasn’t even sure who I was pretending to be anymore. Was I a social service agency intern— the young professional trying desperately to stay impressive, maintain the illusion of coherence, and keep my project going? Or was I Chris — the kid from New Brunswick roiling with uncertainty, white guilt and emotional placelessness about what the hell he was doing, and why, always why?

Finally, I gave up on the illusion of having it together, at least a little bit. I put down my pen, and I put my notebook aside. I was scared to ‘let go’ of my professional cover, but at that point, I didn’t really have the emotional energy to maintain it.

I told her a bit of my own story, including my own experiences feeling totally alienated from the institutions I had worked for. And a bit about why I was so confused about what I was doing now. It wasn’t especially well-grounded — sort of a mash-up of borrowed theories and high-minded editorializing about my life. But then, it did lead to a distinct change in tone.

She asked me some more questions about my life, and I answered them as honestly as I felt able. We talked a bit about how race had played a role in our lives. We talked about how, from my own base of experiences and my own voice, the project could actually be of use to amplifying some of what she was saying. Our interview had became a conversation.

My discomforting revelation: I will never lead social justice in other people’s communities

Maybe it’s a bit too convenient that the practices I take to be ‘the default’ also happen to be those that most work for me.

What I hear in Alana’s words now is a compassionate little nudge to see my role differently. She was — again, graciously (and with probably a fair investment of emotional energy ) — educating me about my own ignorance around race and class.

She got me thinking about it, feeling about it. As I reflected on my efforts around political and non-profit organizing, I realized that maybe the spaces I have access to aren’t the spaces where all young people are best served in working. If I assume that supporting ‘diversity’ in my spaces is as simple as explaining for new people how the current systems work, without creating the opportunity to change anything about them… maybe that’s less about what’s serving them, and more about what’s serving me.

What I see among the many young frontline organizers I work with is an effort to live and work within relationships of solidarity. It’s high time we as professional organizers started doing the same.

From support to solidarity: Social justice starts where I’m standing

As Alana was telling me, maybe what’s needed is a different kind of space — one that accommodates a fuller range of stories, and pluralizes what I take to be “default.” Maybe, I later realized, I need to educate myself about my own relationship to those patterns of exclusion — the default ways that work gets done. Maybe it’s a bit too convenient that the practices I take to be “the default” also happen to be those that most work for me — as a professional, as a worker bee with a schedule to keep, and as someone with a fancy education to justify.

bell hooks, a black feminist educator and poet, has something still to teach me on this:

“Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.”

I started the interview by asking for answers to the questions that I thought mattered most. By the end of it, I was beginning to practice what it takes to listen for the questions I can’t see — the ones without easy answers — and to take responsibility for uncovering my own insights and changing the cultures I’m a part of.

I had started to think and act differently. But I had a lot more still to learn.

An uncomfortable story about genocide & the burden of education in the nonprofit sector

“We need to pay respect to the fact that Canada has committed genocide.”

In the few years since my conversation with Alana, I’ve made some progress at seeking hard answers to deeper questions. But I still catch myself making faulty assumptions or spacing out on important truths — usually, after being graciously reminded of it by a frontline organizer (like Alana) who might be directly affected by my oversights.

This past Fall, I was working with an inter-generational network called the Youth Social Infrastructure (YSI) collaborative that supports youth-led social change, including between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizers in Northern Ontario. My role was to help two (non-Indigenous) leaders within the organization to tell stories of their impact and clarify some of the principles guiding their efforts. The coordinator and I drafted an outline of our publication and sent it our network of young frontline leaders and advisors for feedback. Candace Neveau, one of the young Anishinaabe women we work with in Northern Ontario, had this to say:

“The missing piece is properly learning how to work alongside First Nation people. If we are going to hold space with First Nation people then we need to consider the fact of the sensitive issues they may be dealing with. That’s how this cross-cultural collaboration is going to thrive. We need to pay respect to the fact that Canada has committed genocide. How are we going to make a movement based upon this information? It’s very harsh but very important that we acknowledge this because it is much-needed for First Nation people.”

I knew Candace well enough to know that speaking this kind of truth was a very difficult thing to do. (How could it not be?) It’s hard because speaking in this way, and using the word ‘genocide’ is often something that provokes a strong reaction from people in mainstream communities in Canada. People like me. People who don’t see ghosts — we don’t like to have to face them.

Just like Alana, Candace had put a lot of emotional effort into her words. She no doubt was aware of the risks of speaking these “harsh” (I would say, truthful) words.

In next few months, the work of gathering and sharing YSI’s stories went ahead. I continued to provide editing and writing support to the group effort. Candace’s feedback to us — what facts we need to consider and acknowledge, the genocide we need to reconcile ourselves with — it receded as publication deadlines came to the foreground. I have since learned that there were some conversations about this, but I did not look for them.

In the end, YSI published a “learning document” in December 2015 about how to “support place-based youth organizing.” In the 30+ pages of text, there are five singular references to what Candace has called ‘sensitive issues’ — “colonialism,” “decolonisation,” “deep-rooted colonial violence and trauma” as well as “difficult/ untold history.” These brave words came from three organizer-authored stories: two by Indigenous young women, and one by the YSI Northern coordinator (a woman named Robin who identifies in the document as having “power and privilege”). I have so much respect and admiration for their bravery to speak up.

Elsewhere in the document, the word “genocide” wasn’t used once.

Now, I still don’t know what were the right words that would speak to the particular audience of this document. I’m not sure of the conversations that went into making those decisions. I’m not even positive, now that I think about it, who exactly I imagined the ‘audience’ to be.

What I do know is that the reminders Candace put to me had fallen totally off my radar. And I’m still wondering how I can use my voice to be in solidarity with her in the way that she’s asked of me.

My discomforting revelation: I will never stop ‘ghosting’ on opportunities for accountability

I can re-commit to an education that is patient, gracious, and strenuous.

My point in highlighting this is not to shame anyone (myself or otherwise), nor to impose a value judgement. I simply want to notice a pattern. As a reader, I can notice what truths got top billing and which didn’t. As an author, I can notice on whose shoulders the responsibility to speak fell, and on whose it didn’t.

I spoke earlier about accountability as a ghost in mainstream organizing spaces, as something invisible and taboo. What I meant was that, it’s a ghost for some. It’s a ghost for me. Some people see it just fine.

From support to solidarity, take two: Social justice starts by educating myself, and speaking my own hard truths

In both stories, I could have invoked that ghost of accountability by name. I could have taken proactive steps to give it form. I could have kept reflecting on whether I was using my voice in a way that supported what frontline organizers were saying. Sometimes, I did.

Other times, I was ignorant about the truths of injustice between us. And more times still, I suspect, I had heard what I needed to hear, but forgot about it. In retrospect, it seems, the ghost was me.

Whatever the cause, the effect of my silence was to create a vacuum. I presented these two frontline organizers with a choice: to keep their experiences invisible or to speak them into existence. In so doing, they had to commit energy towards my education. I now see their truth-telling as a very difficult form of labour, one that takes trust or faith in the face of risk.

Maybe what’s needed is a different kind of space — one that accommodates a fuller range of stories, and pluralizes what I take to be “default.”

They trusted me enough to offer this free labour, to educate me. I’m learning to honour and appreciate that labour when it’s given.

Re-committing to patience, grace and strain

Inevitably, I will at times ‘ghost’ on my responsibilities and take it for granted that someone will be there to educate me. I’ve caught myself several times, and have missed it, I suspect, many others.

When it does, I’m learning to re-commit to my own self-guided education, my own forms of truth-telling. I’m seeking to educate myself, and then educate others like me about what it’s like to educate ourselves.

Self-education is hard work. I feel the labour of it. But seeing the patience, grace and strain of people whose personhood depends on it — like Alana, like Candace—that gives me courage for my own.