Ally or co-conspirator?: What it means to act #InSolidarity

Ally or co-conspirator?: What it means to act #InSolidarity

Back in June, Black Lives Matter co-founder and Special Projects Director for National Domestic Workers Alliance, Alicia Garza sat down with NoVo Foundation Program Officer Jesenia Santana for a conversation about what is needed to end violence against girls and women. From discussing the practice of intersectionality to uplifting examples of successful community-based models, Alicia Garza provided tremendous insight into what she believes creates powerful and inclusive social movements. Through this 5-part blog series, we will be sharing with you the movement building lessons we’ve learned from our conversation.

Many of us have referred to ourselves as allies with the understanding that it refers to people who use their privilege to act in solidarity with oppressed people. However, many activists now bristle at the word “ally” and how people have used it to claim that they are supportive of a cause or community without having to actually engage in meaningful action or build meaningful relationships. As well-intentioned as the term is, its use is now fraught, leaving many of us questioning how to show up in social justice movements.

“The thing I don’t like about the word ally is that it is so wrought with guilt and shame and grief that it prevents people from doing what they ought to do,” says Alicia Garza.

Allyship today, whether it’s with Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights or other movements, is often characterized by profuse emotional outpouring yet severe inaction. With so many tragedies happening almost daily, it is easy for movements and their allies to be overcome with grief and sadness, so much so that continuing the movement work seems impossible. But, as Alicia points out, what movements need are people who are ready to act, who are ready to conspire.

“Co-conspiracy is about what we do in action, not just in language,” says Garza, “It is about moving through guilt and shame and recognizing that we did not create none of this stuff. And so what we are taking responsibility for is the power that we hold to transform our conditions.”

During this year’s international learning exchange in South Africa, Movement Makers encountered a similar dichotomy between ally and comrade. For Karen Tronsgard-Scott, Executive Director of Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, she grappled with this following our meeting with Shirley Gunn, a former member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress.

“I remember that Shirley leaned forward in her chair and proclaimed, ‘I am not an ally. I was never an ally, I am a comrade. I was tortured and fought side by side with other MK members. I am a comrade!’” wrote Karen in her blog post about allyship versus comradeship.

After this encounter with Shirley, Karen began to see the ways in which she operated as an ally rather than as co-conspirator in her role as an executive director. This realization was troubling but pushed Karen to imagine ways she can transform herself and use her privilege as a woman in leadership.

“To be a comrade is to be fierce and to take action to upend the status quo…I would be willing to risk social standing, ambition, and acceptance by my peers to do the right thing.”

This isn’t about semantics or about replacing the word “ally” with the words “comrade” or “co-conspirator”. This is about truly challenging ourselves to become better partners, comrades, and co-conspirators to the movements we stand in solidarity with.

Being a comrade requires taking risks. Making that leap from allyship to co-conspirator may seem daunting, but, as Alicia Garza breaks it down in the interview, the very first step is simply showing up. Showing up in ways beyond posting the obligatory Facebook post. Showing up in ways that leverage the power and privilege we hold toward supporting on-the-ground leadership. Showing up in ways that demonstrate a commitment to the movement, even if that means risking one’s social status, livelihood, and sometimes, in Shirley Gunn’s case, one’s life.

Stories like Shirley’s, Karen’s, and Alicia’s are powerful reminders to push ourselves to think and act in comradeship. What does it mean to you for someone to be a comrade in the movement to end violence against girls and women? Do you have a personal experience with challenging yourself to shift from ally to comrade? Please share with us in the comment section below. We would love to hear from you as we continue learning.



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