Allies: Are You Really About This Life?

There’s been a lot of great conversation taking place on the interwebs about allies, allyship, and solidarity lately.  And when this week’s guest contributor sent me this post, I knew I had to publish it.  It definitely says plainly and clearly what any of us who fashion ourselves “allies” need to know.

Marcus SimmonsThis week’s post comes from Marcus Simmons, a writing and diversity educator based in Chicago.  Marcus Simmons is a native son of Texas who has worked as an intercultural communications educator/artist and a writing coach in Chicago for the last nine years. With a background in performance, conflict transformation and higher education, he views his work as amplifying stories that reconcile, build community, and push deeply into the end of abuse culture. Marcus currently serves as the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Lecturer at North Park University, where he is completing graduates studies in theomusicology. He’s also involved in a number of creative projects ranging from blogging to video game modding. He is absolutely obsessed with music and double stuff Oreos.  Connect with Marcus on Twitter and Facebook.

Allies: Are You Really About This Life?

I’m tired of people making anti-abuse alliances all about tolerance and benevolent privilege. Being an ally is more than promises, pretty words, and potlucks. It’s more than re-posting liberal think pieces on facebook and winning arguments with bigots on twitter. You call yourself an ally, but are you really about this life?

Sayin’ It Ain’t Bein’ It

You may think yourself an ally, but that doesn’t make you one. Too many crusaders, dripping with self-belief and entitlement, elbow their way into spaces wanting to make a difference without really investing in the community.

Anti-abuse spaces are clogged with slacktivists who study the community from a distance, expecting to impact the lives of people they know precious little about. These people show up with great ideas that are great because they said so. They usually have a limited understanding (if any) of their own privilege and the power dynamics that animate it. They act with a lot of passion, but often lack people skills and wisdom.

You can’t be a good ally if you don’t know how to care for people. I’ve done work with numerous fair-minded, sincere people only to learn that at the end of the project, meeting, rally or dialogue, I become invisible again. Don’t be one of those people who are married to the cause and divorced from the people.

Becoming an ally begins with asking permission to be a listener, a supporter, and a co-worker. Be motivated by a love for people – not a need to erase whatever guilt, fear, or shame you feel because of the privileges you have. You can’t base a movement on that. To be an ally, you actually have to join the community, be mentored in it, and take your cues for action from your relationships with the people there.

Do the Work

Here’s the thing about privilege: it teaches those who have it to press your own well-being and desires over and against others. It conditions you to think that people without social advantage must take time to teach you, the one with the social advantage, how to be a better person to them.

You’re wrong.

I’ve lost count of the number of white “allies” that have accused me of not providing them with enough inspiration, education, suggestions, and closure to sustain their anti-racist work. This is a textbook example of internalized privilege.

Alliances are mutual so I don’t mind partnering with you, but I refuse to be held responsible for you “getting it.” I am confident in your ability to get your stuff together without me having to get it together for you.

Allies Do Not Give Agency 

If you think oppressed people need your help to survive, do not apply.

Many well-intentioned (but ill-informed) allies make the mistake of thinking their job is to speak for the voiceless. This is another textbook example of internalized privilege. There is no such thing as a person without a voice or the ability to articulate their situation.  It’s just that sometimes that voice is in a language, a body, or tone that some of us would rather not acknowledge.

Allies understand that they can be helpful without being the hero. Fighting abuse culture is less about “empowering people” in their humanity and more about making sure that people’s inherent humanity is recognized.

What the oppressed require more than anything else are ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart that won’t forget, and feet that won’t turn and run for the hills (or suburbs) when the fight becomes difficult.

Allies Are Not Experts

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The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Salaries

If you’ve watched the news in the last few days, you would think all of the teachers of Chicago were greedy assholes who care nothing about the needs of their students or the parents of Chicago.

After all, they turned down a 16% raise, right?  Wouldn’t most of us LOVE a 16% raise?

First, let’s be clear.  This raise was meant to accomplish two things: compensate teachers for the proposed 90 minute increase in their work day (an 8% increase) and to increase teacher pay to keep up with the cost of living in Chicago (something the remaining 8% most certainly would not actually do).  That doesn’t even keep up with the rate of inflation over the next four years.

But despite this fact and even though compensation and benefits are definitely important to Chicago teachers, the issues on which the negotiations between the city of Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union are stalled have little to do with teacher compensation.

This strike is about class size.

The teachers in Chicago Public Schools work incredibly hard to deliver quality instruction and outcomes to the 400,000 students in the city, but the deck is stacked against those students and teachers.  I should know.  I used to teach in CPS, and many of my good friends are dedicated CPS teachers.

No one disputes that students who live in poverty are much less likely to succeed in school for a myriad of reasons, and in Chicago, 87% of students who attend public schools live in poverty.  Further, there is a research-proven causational relationship between class size and level of achievement in school.  Plus, the gains made by students of Color when class size is reduced are even greater than for their White peers (a notable fact considering that in Chicago Public Schools, 91.2% of enrolled students are students of Color).

Despite these facts, though, Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Education are demanding that teachers sign a contract that would allow classrooms with up to 50 students.  When I taught, I had one class with 42 on the roster.  When even 36 of those students would show up to my classroom with 34 desks, learning was INCREDIBLY difficult.  The teachers of Chicago know that such high caps on class size will be wildly detrimental to their students’ learning.

This is a strike for a system that values holistic student learning.

Following the example of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Public Schools wants to tie teacher pay to their students performance on standardized tests.  The idea of pay for performance is a complicated one.  In some districts, it has brought about some pretty stark achievement gains, which is a good thing!  However, those who oppose pay for performance (like the National Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union) say that it is problematic in two important ways.

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