So you wanna be a social justice ally?
By Cara Seccafien, Layout Editor
I began doing social justice work by accident. When I graduated from university, I applied to volunteer at a gallery ran by a collective of artists with mental health issues, and wound up getting a job there. I wanted to be there because I have mental illnesses, and I felt like there wasn’t a safe space to discuss this part of my identity in the academic art world where I had obtained my degree.
At the beginning, I felt as if I didn’t deserve to be there. Even though I now feel like I do belong to that community, at the time I was overwhelmed by my differences from those around me. This is often known as white, class, or other privilege guilt.
So what do you do with this guilt? First of all, check that privilege at the door, and keep your insecure mouth shut! Don’t let this guilt paralyze you. If you are receiving anything from a social justice group—a sense of community, power, or money—you must give your most useful self in return. Do not leech off this community, and do not become paralyzed by awkward white guilt. Whatever insecurity or guilt you might have, work it out in private. This includes all those milky, milky white tears.
Then, identify what role you do occupy. At the gallery, I represented a younger generation. I had useful skills that I was asked to use for the community through workshops. I was willing to work for cheap! I was able to try bizarre ideas, solve tricky problems, help difficult people. You must have a reason to be there, not just for yourself, but for others.
Listen. Learn. Repeat. By listening, you adopt the vernacular of the community. Learn and unlearn by sitting through discomfort. Use your skills and creativity to serve others, rather than serve your own ego. Learn the mandate of the movement, organization, or group, and let that drive every action you take. If you don’t like the mandate, leave. If you stay, accept criticism. Talk less, listen more.
If you are new to this, you will soon realize that there is usually a structure in place that keeps you where you belong. People have boundaries, and often you will be told what is appropriate. You might be asked to the take the minutes, and you will take them with pride! Like being at a stranger’s home, you will respect the rules. Take only what is offered. Be humble. Ask questions that you require the answer to, not ones you have a voyeuristic curiosity for. Don’t be rude! Take up less space.
You will become a delivery service for other’s creativity and your own ideas will further that delivery. Remember whose voices you are here to project. You will manifest softness and humility, even when in leadership positions. There is nothing wrong with taking on a key role, but remember who put you there, why they wanted you there, and respect their wishes.
If you find you don’t have enough cultural literacy, take a step back. You can google basic facts, like cultural terminology, and historical events, or read books and blogs about individual’s experiences. However, even after years of being an ally, feeling genuine empathy, and gathering community and respect, a complete understanding of someone else’s life experience will never be obtained.
Learn to laugh at yourself! You will make mistakes, and you will be teased and called out, usually simultaneously. Being teased for being part of the most ridiculous and privileged race in history (see: white people dancing) is not abuse.
In light of the recent fascism south of the border, we all have a role in social justice more than ever before. However, finding that role must be done with grace and care, in addition to showing the utmost respect toward the people who fight daily battles for their very existence.