Unlocking the Cycle of Departmental Allyship

This month I’m talking about the relationship between being an ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator. This relationship, I argue, is a cyclical one – allyship is just the first stage.

Marathon or sprint?

Many people have said of antiracism and DEIA work that it’s “a marathon, not a sprint.”

It’s true that substantive and structural change in the culture of a classroom, a department, or an institution won’t happen overnight. It’s true that it takes a long time.

Some people use the marathon metaphor to explain away the lack of progress their organization has made over months or years.

I don’t think they know how marathons work.

Just showing up isn’t going to get you any closer to the end goal. You actually have to act by putting one foot in front of the other.

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There might be some obstacles – physical, like an untied shoelace or inclement weather, or emotional, like feelings of regret or despair or anger at yourself for realizing that you didn’t train enough for this. But these are all obstacles you can – and will – overcome as long as you keep going.

You won’t get anywhere by just showing up. Nor will you make it to the finish line by sitting in the grass and watching as everyone else passes you by.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Rules of engagement

I use words like “mandatory” and “recurring” a lot in this post. I do this intentionally.

This is because we have to remember that doing something one time is not enough. If it’s going to make an impact, it has to be integrated into our usual way of doing things. It has to be non-negotiable.

Dr. Tiffany Jana (2021) sums it up best: “Becoming an antiracist organization is not a one-shot deal…It takes time, effort, and intentionality to lead the way in equity and antiracism by getting on – and staying on – the right side of history.”

If something that is integral to developing an antiracist department isn’t mandatory, only a fraction of the department will show up.

Similarly, if a workshop or reading group or lecture series is a one time thing, there are several implications.

First, only certain people will have an opportunity to attend. Missed it when it was offered because you had a conflict? New student who just joined the program? Too bad.

Second, it’s just performative. The work is 100 times more meaningful when you commit to it long term. When you don’t invest the time (and, occasionally, resources) up front, it sends the message that antiracism work is of low priority and importance.

Defining Allies, Accomplices, and Co-Conspirators

Allyship is the thinking and learning phase. This phase is largely personal and self-centered.

This phase lacks deep, authentic relationships with people in the demographics they “support”. As a result, those who identify as allies frequently exhibit “ally privilege”. This is the ability to care about social justice issues without actually showing up and doing anything about it.

Accomplice work involves showing up for historically excluded groups.

Accomplices use what they’ve learned and whatever access they have to help course correct systemic bias. They disrupt and interrogate institutional bias whether they have access to or relationships with colleagues of color or not.

Although sometimes a noble endeavor, this can lead to a savior complex wherein people begin to think that they know best what historically excluded groups need.

Co-conspirator work can be summed up by one phrase: “nothing about us without us.”

This form of allyship involves showing up with historically excluded groups. Co-conspirators have, seek, and create meaningful relationships with the people they actively support. They show up with BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ and listen.

They do not co-opt the cause. Co-conspirators respect the work already being done by leaders in justice spaces and offer meaningful support. They ask how they can show up for the people already doing the work.

Conceptualizing the relationship

I was trying to find a way to make the relationship between these three concepts or roles clearer, and originally came up with the image of a staircase. We start at the bottom, and as we take on more risk and more active engagement in antiracism work, we move up the staircase from “ally” to “accomplice” to “co-conspirator”.

But once I began thinking of examples of each of these steps, it occurred to me that it wasn’t as linear of a process as I once believed.

In reality, the relationship between “ally”, “accomplice”, and “co-conspirator” is more of a cyclical one.

We all begin as allies who are learning and unlearning behaviors. We consume a lot of media, organize and attend a lot of community discussions, workshops, and reading groups.

Then, when we feel better equipped, we shift into the “accomplice” stage. This is where we use what we’ve learned from all of those discussions and readings to disrupt and interrogate institutional bias and systemic racism.

Compared with the internal, personal work of allyship, being an accomplice requires more action on your part. These actions can occur with or without pre-established meaningful relationships with marginalized groups.

Once you’ve started taking action and building relationships, you’re better equipped to transition to the “co-conspirator” stage. This is the stage where meaningful relationships are forged and reinforced. You prioritize listening to and amplifying the work of marginalized individuals.

This is where you show up with, not just for these groups.

This stage is also not about doing what you “think” is right, but rather acting on the specific needs of those groups. This is why those relationships are so important.

But how do you know what to do in order to meet those needs? Well, you have to start from the beginning – doing your homework.

Hence, the cyclical nature of the process.

What does this cycle look like for departments?

The ally phase may look like organizing a reading group where participants will read and discuss a particular work, such as Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist.

Note that this discussion is internal to the department – it is not advertised to anyone outside of it. In this way, it operates in the same way that reading and reflecting on the book on your own might.

In most cases, this is where the allyship journey ends.

You read the book (or maybe you read a summary online). Then you join the Zoom discussion and leave with some really great food for thought! You feel enlightened! You pat yourself on the back for showing up! Maybe you even contributed to the conversation! Go you!

But…what would it look like if the department moved into the accomplice phase after this discussion?

In order to do this, that “food for thought” – general takeaways from the reading and suggestions proposed in the discussion – needs to become points of action. The central question you should be asking is: “How can I make this tip actionable in my own department?”

And then you need to do it.

Becoming a co-conspirator requires a little more planning and a lot more paying attention to who’s actually around you.

In terms of planning: no one is asking you to be an expert in antiracism here. In fact, it’s impossible to become one overnight.

But just because you aren’t an expert, doesn’t mean there aren’t other people out there who are. Hell, there are definitely people who are at your own institution.

Seek them out.

Collaborate with them. Not just on workshops, but on your courses, lecture series, and everything in between. Doing so makes it clear that you value their opinions and their contributions.

It might feel uncomfortable to cede that power or responsibility to another person, but that’s all part of the process of becoming a co-conspirator. It’s about sacrifice.

Another part of the process of becoming a co-conspirator involves forming meaningful relationships with your colleagues from historically excluded groups and listening to them, too.

But what if there are no POC in my department?

If you’re thinking this, I encourage you to think again.

Are there people of color on your staff?

What about people who identify as LGBTQIA+? The same principles can apply to making our departments more inclusive for them.

There is always someone, somewhere who would benefit from some changes in your department – you just have to really see them. And then talk to them.

Hire someone to professionally run an anonymous survey on the climate of the department. When you get the results, listen to them.

How will we know you really listened? You find ways to act on the specific needs of individuals in your department from historically excluded groups.

If you have several students lodging complaints about incorrect pronoun usage, organize a mandatory pronoun workshop.

Wondering why promising BIPOC aren’t accepting your offers to join your program? Find out why.

If it’s financial, find ways to better support those students.

If it’s because there isn’t enough representation in your department for them to feel like they belong, find ways to rectify this. The most obvious way would be to hire more BIPOC, but a lower stakes avenue could be to start a (recurring) lecture series highlighting the work of POC in your field.

A little bit can go a long way.

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