Originally published on Seattle 500 Women Scientist Medium page on 8/26/2020
Allyship is a journey, not a destination. All allies make mistakes and there are many ways that an ally can cause just as much harm as good to those they seek to support. Sometimes they can cause grievous harm, specifically because they were deemed safe in their professed roles as allies. Advocates, defined here as allies who speak on behalf of communities that they don’t belong to, are particularly vulnerable to causing harm to the communities they are trying to advocate for.
My personal belief is that in most circumstances this kind of direct advocacy (driven by people external to a community, in contrast to self advocacy) is not, in the long run, truly helpful and should be avoided whenever possible. Most of the time, allyship is best demonstrated by stepping back to support self-advocates speaking for themselves and their communities. However, there are plenty of instances when direct advocacy happens anyway, and there are even circumstances where it is truly necessary, such as when members of a community are effectively barred from accessing the levers of power that would relieve their oppression.
Given that direct advocacy is sometimes necessary and realistically will continue to exist even in instances where it isn’t truly necessary, it is a reality that instances of an advocate harming the community that they are representing will happen. This is inevitable, no matter how good the intentions of the advocate might be. When this scenario arises, an important question that comes next is how should other allies who are aware of the behavior and harm caused respond? A lot of energy and discussion has gone into this question, particularly about the difference between “calling out” and “calling in” an ally. There are many examples of what calling out looks like, and many discussions about how to do it well. Unfortunately, because calling in is more typically performed using private communications, very few practical examples of what this can look like exist for public consumption.
This is a shame, because calling in is an emotionally fraught exercise that involves more steps than the relatively simple call out. Calling out usually just consists of a public announcement about what an advocate has done (or not done) and how that has harmed the community they profess to advocate for. Calling in requires a much more delicate balance of providing honest and effective communication about the harm done while attempting to keep the advocate from feeling accused, shutting down and rejecting the feedback. There are a variety of reasons that a lot of effort might be put into calling someone in, such as if the person is a particularly prominent advocate who commands a lot of power and respect in that activism realm. Another reason could be a conviction that the advocate doesn’t know that what they did or didn’t do caused harm, and if given this information there is a reasonable expectation that they would change their behavior. The call in calculation becomes even more delicate and fraught when a personal relationship with the person being called in doesn’t exist or is very superficial.
Up to this point I have been speaking in general terms, but the reason I am writing about this is that I have participated with a group in the process of calling in a prominent advocate who we didn’t have a personal relationship with. While that call in action didn’t result in the desired effect (a change in the advocate’s behavior), the process that we went through to call her in was an extremely impactful one for us, and I think represents a powerful practical example of how a call in can be initiated. The outcome is never guaranteed, but the effort was a valuable learning experience and I hope can serve as a template for others.
Note: The identity of this advocate is not intended to be a secret. However, I want the focus here to be on the act of calling someone in and what can be learned from doing that rather than on her or her actions, so I will not be using her name or her organization’s name throughout this essay.
I am telling this story as an individual, rather than as a collaboration by the group, because I was the person that this advocate had harmed, and it was my feedback that the group was calling her in to hear. This detail is important because while there may be instances where calling in or calling out an advocate or ally could be done without the involvement of the person or community harmed, that would be a different process than the one I am describing.
I would also caution those who might be inclined to do a call in or call out without the involvement of the person or community harmed to think twice. In that instance, you are likely playing the role of another advocate jumping in where you may not be needed or wanted. There are scenarios where wading in without the involvement of the person or community harmed may be useful, but think carefully and hard about whether your call in or call out would be performative rather than truly helpful.
In this case, I experienced harm due to the actions of an advocate for a community that I belonged to, specifically significant trauma triggering at one of her organization’s public events where she was the primary speaker. The harm was untargeted (she never interacted with me directly) and I had reason to believe that the advocate was unaware of the harm she and her organization had caused. When I had processed the experience to the point that I could explain what had happened, I reached out to the leadership team of the Seattle chapter of 500 Women Scientists, an organization that I was a member of (and trusted), to help me call in this advocate to provide her with feedback about how she had caused harm.
The first thing that the other members of the group did was validate my experience and ask how they as individuals and the organization as an official entity could support me. During the initial conversations, I was still in a state of trauma activation and didn’t really know what I wanted to see happen other than for no one else to experience what I had just gone through with this advocate. They helped me formulate the outcome I would ideally like to see happen, and helped me strategize the first steps for making that happen.
As the first step, we wrote a letter from us as an organization to the advocate giving her feedback about the harm done to me. By reaching out to her through another organization instead of on my own, I was able to give my feedback anonymously. This was a self-protective measure that I would recommend as a way to give the person harmed some distance from the person who just harmed them, even if it was unintentional and there aren’t concerns about retaliation.
Seattle 500 Women Scientists operates in overlapping activist space with this advocate and her organization, and had a superficial relationship with her and her organization, so could approach her as a fellow ally. None of us knew her or anyone in her organization well, but we were certain that she had to be unaware of the negative impact her approach to advocacy could have on the survivors she sought to advocate for. Therefore, we wanted to make her aware of this impact.
We anticipated that the message might be very difficult for her to hear, and spent time discussing how we could approach her to do our best to encourage her to accept the important feedback we were trying to give her. I was able to focus purely on conveying how I was harmed in the form of a testimonial and the rest of the group took care of drafting a letter to accompany and contextualize my testimony.
The letter started by thanking her for her advocacy work, and situating us on the same plane as her as her allies, and as supporters of her organization’s goals.
We want to thank you for your leadership and stewardship of the public campaign of [organization name]. We are grateful for your public work in the face of terrible retaliation and also your efforts to build a movement and empower others in this fight.
We went on to acknowledge our own fallibility as allies, with the potential to make mistakes. We reiterated that our movement’s strength comes from solidarity and that mistakes are a source of growth.
We acknowledge that we, as women scientists, have almost certainly been complicit in contributing, whether actively or passively, to degradation or harm towards others. We believe that in order to promote a better scientific community, women need to provide a safe place to support each other. Our organization also recognizes that we are all still learning how to be the best leaders and allies we can be, which for us means holding our community accountable to prevent and reduce further harm. We are stronger together.
We then focused on our values as activists in this space (which we assumed she shared), specifically that the focus should always be on centering survivors’ voices. This led into letting her know that we were contacting her with the purpose of giving her negative feedback about her behavior, on behalf of the member of our group that was harmed. As the person harmed, I had total ownership over how I represented myself and my experience in the form of a first-person testimonial that was then attached to the group’s letter. In this way, we hoped to give her a little bit of preparation that she was going to hear something negative, and to allow me, as the person harmed, to speak directly to her without carrying the full burden of communicating with her.
In striving for an ever-safer, ever-more-just community, we believe it is vital to center the voices and experiences of those who have been hurt, violated, and erased. Part of that accountability, we believe, is listening to and centering the experiences of those who carry trauma with them.
The letter went on to convey that we as an organization would also be taking steps to try to make sure our future communications and events were trauma-informed. This was true, as everyone in the leadership team was shaken by the severity of my experience and was concerned that we as a group and they as individuals had the potential to make similar mistakes. However, the purpose it served in this letter was to situate us, as an ally organization, as just as capable of making the mistakes she had made. It was yet another way that we situated ourselves as allies alongside her, not as opponents criticizing her.
In light of this moment, we’ve begun to review our own communications and look into strategies to prevent this kind of triggering and further harm. We are starting with the recommendations of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and looking into more trauma-informed communication strategies. We want to be a community that reduces, rather than perpetuates, harm.
Finally, we reassured her that we knew that the harm done had been entirely unintentional. We reiterated, once again, that sharing this feedback with her was an act of solidarity, not confrontation.We then offered to continue the conversation if she wished, and reiterated that we cared both about her as an individual and about her organization’s goals.
We fully understand this outcome was not your intention and therefore we want to privately, honestly, and openly communicate with you on this. Ultimately, our strength and solidarity in the struggle, across the many lines of individual actions and experiences, comes from believing each other and upholding each other. Writing this letter is a part of the process of solidarity and sisterhood.
Unfortunately, this particular call in action did not result in the desired response, and the advocate didn’t change her behavior. That didn’t negate the value of this experience for me. The act of collaborating on a call in action was an exercise in articulating our organization’s and our personal values in a way that we hadn’t had to do before. The entire exercise also served to completely validate my experience of being harmed by an ally, which is a disorienting, painful and extremely discouraging ordeal. For that reason alone, I believe that this action was worth taking.
The primary messages that I would like readers to take away from this story can be separated into two categories: points to keep in mind if you have been harmed by an ally, and points to keep in mind if you are considering a calling in action on behalf of or with someone who has been harmed by an ally or advocate.
If you have been harmed by an ally or an advocate:
If you are considering a calling in action on behalf of or with someone who has been harmed by an ally or advocate:
Check out this article for additional considerations and a good step-by-step process to follow when crafting a call in action.
I chose not to focus on what to do if you are on the receiving end of a calling in action for this article, as that is worthy of a whole article by itself. I do offer some basic advice to consider if you find yourself in that position in this twitter thread, which also contains a bit more context about the experience described above.
Our letter to this advocate is just one example of what a calling in action can look like, and it is certainly not the only way to do it. Each instance will be the product of its circumstances and based on the needs of the people involved. The key point is to give agency to the person harmed and work towards the outcome that they would like to see happen.
At the end of the day, no one else can control how someone will receive negative feedback and there are no guarantees that you will get the outcome you are aiming for. However, it is freeing to know that you tried your best, and the process itself can be valuable and healing for everyone involved. While the initial experience itself was traumatic for me, the process I went through with the rest of the Seattle 500WS leadership team as a result was a tremendous learning and team-building opportunity for all of us. I am extremely grateful to the other leadership team members for their support for and belief in me.