Reflections on Allyship training

The University collaborated with the Institute for Educational and Social Equity (IESE) to run a programme of in-person training to colleagues across the University. The course centred on combatting racism in the workplace Allyship

Key to the training is the concept of ‘Allyship’. “Allyship is a proactive ongoing, and incredibly difficult practice of unlearning, and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalised group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.” (Rochester Racial Justice Toolkit, 2020).

It takes practice to be an ally. It involves listening, educating oneself, and taking action to promote equity and justice. Allyship involves a long-term commitment to creating and sustaining social change by everyone in the University.

In combatting racism in the workplace, allyship encourages colleagues to understand and reflect on the types of behaviours around them, and where they would like further help to recognise and address unacceptable behaviours, the University aims to facilitate through training and resources.

We spoke to three colleagues who attended the IESE training last summer: Ronnie Webster – Head of Retail, Monika Anderson - Executive Assistant to the Vice Principal Rachel Sandison, and Erik Meyer – Assistant Manager, Accommodation Services. We discussed how they found the training, any new perspectives they gained on being allies to colleagues in the workplace, and if they would recommend the course to colleagues.

Each colleague discussed the impact of ‘microaggressions’. Racial microaggressions are everyday interactions that send demeaning messages that have a racial element to them. They can take many forms, such as offensive questions, stereotypes, ‘banter’ and ‘jokes’. Compared to more obvious forms of racism, racial microaggressions are subtle and offensive. They can leave the victim confused, distressed, and frustrated.

Monika said that discussions with other colleagues allowed for unique insight from a wide range of experiences of microaggressions in the workplace:

“A lot of the training was led by discussions of our own experiences. We spoke of microaggressions, and how often what may seem like ‘banter’ or ‘jokes’ can make certain colleagues feel excluded. For example, if you have a surname that is hard to pronounce and somebody makes a joke, it may be the third or fourth time that has happened that week. While it may not seem like racial discrimination, that joke can make someone feel like they don’t belong.”

Ronnie agreed that maintaining awareness of passive behaviours is important to avoid microaggressions: “The training made you think about the impact of passive behaviours on others.

Not the obvious racist behaviours that you see straight away, but how passive behaviours such as speech and body language can have a negative impact on other people.”

Erik echoed that maintaining an awareness of your own assumptions was an important takeaway from the anti-racism training: “It taught me to heighten my awareness of how comments and questions can come across to people of other cultures, religions, and backgrounds. You need to always think about how you come across to people and not assume anything based on your own initial impressions.”

The three colleagues agreed that the in-person format of the training was helpful and facilitated constructive discussions. The sessions were composed of a random selection of people from across the University in a multitude of roles, both academic and in professional services.

“It provided a unique opportunity to understand other people’s perspectives on challenging topics that we often do not take time to discuss,” said Monika.

Erik agreed that speaking to a variety of colleagues was enlightening: “There was great value in the discussions with colleagues from across the University. As someone that deals with students daily, it was useful to exchange experiences and perceptions with those who primarily work in professional services, or those who are more public facing.”

Asked if they would recommend any future sessions of the course to colleagues, the three participants were unanimously positive.

“Yes, definitely. I think that it needs to be something that the University builds upon. This should only be the start,” said Ronnie.

“I would go as far as to say that every person at the University should go. Online courses are a useful tool, but you need to have conversations with people to gain perspective and broaden your understanding. The training generated very open and honest conversations and I would say it’s a good learning process for everyone”, added Erik.

“Yes, I would. The training provided a truly unique experience to hear from other people’s perspectives and experiences on what is a challenging but important topic that we don’t as colleagues often get a chance to discuss in-depth”, echoed Monika.

Future anti-racism in the workplace training sessions are planned to be delivered in-house by the University.