Being an Ally

In both my professional life and the volunteer work in which I am engaged, I am often called upon to lead. As an attorney, while my clients inform me of the goals they wish to achieve with my help, my legal license puts me in a leadership role in my effort to help achieve their goals. In my volunteer work, I have served for many years as President of my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, I Chair the Goose Lake Watershed District, and I Chair the Advocacy Committee of the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin.

Since it is my natural inclination to assume a leadership role in most situations, it takes a certain amount of self-restraint for me to refrain from doing so. A few weeks ago, I was asked for suggestions of local people of color who were experts in special education law, and unfortunately I could not think of anyone who fit that description. A few days later, since nobody else could think of anyone who fit that description, I was asked to serve on a panel at a Community Accountability Forum presented as a question and answer session on the policy, training and practice that governs when and how Madison Metropolitan school staff may make physical contact with school children, the impact of such contact and the process for how students qualify for receiving special education services through an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The event was hosted by Urban Triage, First Unitarian Society, the Community Response Team and members of the Building Capacity to Protect Black Children Group.

I gladly agreed to join the panel which was held last night. As there have been a number of racial incidents involving black children with disabilities, including the use of restraints, the event was covered by the media beforehand.

Originally, there were supposed to be seven panelists and two moderators and we received questions which the hosts collected from community members in advance, which the moderators told us they would ask us during the forum. Unfortunately, the Madison police officer who is stationed in one of our high schools, was supposed to be on the panel, but was instructed not to do so by his superiors, which left us with six panelists.

Before the forum, I was asked by a local television reporter to be interviewed, which I agreed to do. In that interview, I stated that:

I truly believe that the district needs to do a better job of training and supporting its staff. We see staff who are under stress and don’t necessarily have the training or the supports that they need.

I also think the district needs to do a better job in dealing with what I would call a community crisis like this, and engaging in the community. I don’t see that community engagement.

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Shortly after the forum began, it became apparent that Brandi Grayson, Executive Director of Urban Triage, would serve not only as the lead moderator, but would end up doing a lot of the presentation with a strong focus on racism. While I did have the opportunity to answer some questions about special education, and present data on the Madison school district’s use of seclusion and restraint, on at least two occasions, when I indicated that I had something to add, Ms. Grayson made it clear that it was not my turn to speak.

Initially, it bothered me that I was not able to present the full wealth of my knowledge and experience to the audience. However, as the forum proceeded, it became clear to me that it was not my role to lead. Rather, it was my role to be an ally, and support the efforts of local Black leaders who sought to empower Black parents and students with knowledge and advocacy skills.

So what does it mean to be an ally? One helpful source describes it this way:

TO BE AN ALLY IS TO…

Take on the struggle as your own.

Stand up, even when you feel scared.

Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.

Acknowledge that while you, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about you.

Even before this forum took place, Brandi Grayson had asked me to be a speaker at another workshop she is planning later this month to train black parents on how to advocate for their children in the special education environment and I agreed to do so. However, after last night’s forum ended, recognizing that my role was not to be a leader, but to be an ally, I checked in with Ms. Grayson, to make sure she still wanted me to speak at the advocacy workshop. I was pleased when she responded with a smile and confirmed that she still wanted me to serve in that role. So, I will continue to be an ally, and understand that while sometimes that will involve my leadership skills, at other times, I will simply transfer the benefits of my privilege to those who lack it because the conversation is not about me.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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