allyship, community, and tools for change: social justice summit keynote (part 1 of 3).

It’s been a minute (as in several years) since my last post, and it feels both familiar and fraught to knock the dust off this platform. The lack of entries coincided with a professional shift in which I moved from a department head job to a associate dean job. Two-plus years into this excellent transition I’ve firmed up my grip on what the real work of administration entails: putting out (and sometimes setting) interesting fires on top of a large unstable iceberg. I’ve delved into radically new focus areas including space design/management, budget, operations, and hr, and through challenging projects involving advocacy, inclusion, accessibility, and public art. In the process I appear to have opened unanticipated regions of my librarian brain… in other words: I have some thoughts, y’all, and it’s time to get writing. And administration is hard to write about, for reasons that I’ll probably write about later.

On to the task at hand: jumpstart this machinery while addressing a previously-not-awesome practice of mine. For as long as I’ve been presenting I’ve had requests to share transcripts: if a session isn’t recorded and openly available with closed captioning, my less-than-helpful practice has been to upload/share an un-annotated slide deck sans notes and be done with it. This was largely motivated by lack of time, but it was an accessibility nightmare and not one I want to perpetuate any longer. Moving forward I’ll transcribe the talks that seem worth sharing (and that I remember to record) here at info-mational. I’ll start by retro-ing a couple of recent ones: first the Social Justice Summit keynote I gave at my university in October, and then an OCLC Distinguished Seminar Series talk from November.

social justice summit

Each year, CSUSM’s fabulous social justice centers (e.g., Gender Equity Center, Cross-Cultural Center, LGBTQA Pride Center) and the Office of Inclusive Excellence work together to facilitate a three-day off campus seminar for 40 CSUSM undergraduates called the Social Justice Summit (SJS for short). The event intensively trains students “in a social justice framework for campus leadership, community engagement, and change activism … that creates a paradigm shift in thought and action to attain an equitable society free of oppression.” A CSUSM employee traditionally gives the closing keynote, and I was elated/honored to receive the invitation this year from colleagues I much respect. The prompt I was given by SJS organizers was quite broad, and is featured as the title of my talk: “allyship, community, and tools for change.”

group of CSUSM students posing at the social justice summit
I had the pleasure of working with and learning from this amazing group of CSUSM students at the SJS.

There have been excellent critiques of the word ally of late, particularly by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. These center on the passive nature of the word and the baggage that comes with it (e.g., one can easily claim allyship without taking any action on behalf of oppressed folks, leading to guilt spirals and/or self-congratulatory posturing on the part of the ‘ally’). She discussed this at a recent talk at CSUSM organized by my Library in conjunction with our Common Read program, suggesting “co-conspirator” as an alternative to ally. ‘Comrade‘ is another alternative that’s been discussed as communicating a more courageous commitment toward a liberatory goal.

I fully understand the criticism of ally’s passivity and share it in some respects, but I do think that the focus on action in solidarity from a place of privilege and/or learning is what is crucial to empowering any of these signifiers (and thus toward redeeming the word “ally.”) In institutional contexts such as higher education that feature established hierarchies, structures, and populations, the idea of active allyship, of identifying means in which your organization can act in solidarity with minoritized populations and individuals, is particularly important to explore. Organizations and members of organizations are constantly engaged in the process of institutional ally-building in the more accustomed sense (e.g., toward resource generation, political capital, space development, etc.). The word itself therefore resonates, and so to work toward an active institutional allyship it is essential for us to identify means in which our connections and resources can be used to the benefit of those experiencing oppression within and beyond our walls.

library as ally

Library-as-ally is exactly the critical conversation I wanted to bring to the committed, bright, and courageous students I had the privilege of interacting with in my time at the SJS. As in, can allyship by organizations and individuals achieve real outcomes (even on an iceberg, even with fires)? How I as a person with my own experiences and perspectives try to apply a justice framework to the work of being an administrator at their university, in libraries, and in higher education more broadly. The talk integrates several of the concepts and actions I’ve been grappling with as I attempt to bring an justice-oriented mindset to new work in administration: how identity and experience can inform day-to-day actions that are more socially just, and how to recognize privilege and oppression in a way that supports a generative (as opposed to circular) dialogue and practice of activism within our (or any) profession.

I was at the event for about four hours on the final day, participating in activities and getting to know participants before the presentation. Highly active and peer facilitator/participant driven, the vibe at the SJS was one of intense energy and the (mostly) productive frustration that comes from analyzing power, privilege, and institutional oppression in a marathon setting. At $7 per student it was an incredible opportunity, and from what I observed the Summit is fully on point in terms of content and strategy. As for engagement, participants were deeply committed to doing the hard work of analyzing oppressions and identifying means of achieving progress in their own individual contexts.

Disclaimers:

  • I talk fast, so even though the words below are accessible and delivered in a less convoluted and/or highfalutin tone than what comes out of me in written form, this would be a LOT of words for one post. For that reason I’ve broken it into three chunks: Part 1 follows below, and stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 in the next couple of weeks.
  • I spoke quite personally and from the heart on this one, meaning there are facets of self discussed that I’ve not written about in depth professionally before: Queerness! Gender! Hard times and amazing people as a result of queerness and gender!
  • I nixed my fill words when they distracted from the content but left things otherwise verbatim. Participant reactions and comments are called out in the text.
  • The recording of this one is way too poor to share, but I’ll include audio whenever possible in the future.
  • I’ve added images of a few slides throughout, and if you’re interested you can see the full deck.
  • I was not compensated for this talk, nor would I want to be – who would take money from these darlings? Not an ally, I don’t think.

social justice summit keynote transcript (part 1 of 3). 

title slide reading allyship, community, and tools or change

Char: “Alright, thank you so much. [Applause.] I haven’t even done anything to deserve that yet, so I’m out of here – bye. [Laughter.] Thank you for giving me this space and giving me this time to talk with you. Thank you to Ariel Stevenson (Diversity Coordinator), Abrahán Monzón (Assistant Director, ASI Community Centers), Floyd Lai (Associate Director of Multicultural Programs and Cross Cultural Center Director), and Erin Fischer (Graduate Intern for Multicultural Programs) for thinking to invite me to this event.

I do a ton of public speaking in my work, but I can tell you – just in terms of my preparation for this event and being able to be here with you today – that this is the most important talk I’ve ever given in my life, and I’m going to explain to you why I think that is. There are a couple of reasons. I exist on our campus for you, and because of you. Not just because you’re students, but because you’re the students who are committed to doing this incredibly hard work, the work of learning about yourselves and about who you are, and how that impacts other people, and how that can help you make social change. I consider that literally my job at the university and in libraries, to try to facilitate that social change, and I do that work because of you and I’m grateful to you for it.

I also want to acknowledge that I’m a white person in a position of a lot of privilege in this room. I’ve moved through my life in that way. And if there’s one thing that I’ve seen today that I’m disappointed by, it’s that I don’t see more white faces in this room. The demographic makeup of our campus is an incredible thing, and it’s another reason why I’m here at the University. [1] But, social change has to be owned by people who look like me for it to work, and for it to happen. This is not your job, and I’m speaking to all the people of color (POC) in the room. It makes me so inspired that you’re here to commit to this work and doing it yourselves, but it’s not only your job. It’s all of our jobs and it’s more of my job because I’m a beneficiary of what I truly believe to be white supremacy culture. I see it every day. And it’s more my responsibility to fight that and to figure out how to use my whiteness and my power and my privilege and all that comes with it to create change.

So those are few grounding things I wanted to say. I also wanted to say that I see the hard work you’ve been doing. I came early this morning in order to get a sense of the dynamic and what you’ve been talking about. It’s hard to come into a group sideways and just be like “haaay, I’m going to drop all this wisdom and just leave.” [Laughter.] That’s not possible. It makes me a stranger and makes me seem like I don’t know what I’m talking about. So thank you for doing the hard work and having the hard conversations.

I felt the dynamic in the room shift over the morning. There were some really hard interactions, and then by the end of it with this awesome 7 Cs exercise [2] I think folks are starting to feel a little bit more positive and hopeful. Which is in and of itself amazing, given the content y’all have been dealing with.

large antique sign, rusted, for the landmark sign company. it has a message board that reads

So, without further ado. I’m a really visual person, a visual thinker, so I use these slides to remind myself what I’m thinking about and talking about. And this image has always stuck out to me a lot in my life. I’m from Texas and I’ll talk a little bit about that later, but there was this one point where I was driving across Texas, West Texas specifically, and I drove through this little oil town – like a ghost town. Literally one stoplight, all these crappy boarded-up buildings, obvious super economic hardship because the oil industry had completely dried up. And I’m going through this one stoplight town and there’s this huge “happiness is attainable” sign on the side of the road. It’s at a reprographics screen printing shop, I can’t even tell if it’s still open or not. And someone had taken the time in this town, with no people and no economic opportunity, to walk up and put these letters on this sign. Right? It’s mind-boggling, I still can’t figure out why this existed. It’s not even a major highway, it’s a little weird road through this dusty down with this busted sign covered with rust. And someone took this upon themselves to make that message in the middle of this context.

It’s always amazed me, and I wanted to include this in this presentation because I think it’s an allegory for social justice activism. To say, look, this is a hard situation. There’s rust on this sign, things are falling off of my building, but I’m still capable of putting this sort of hopeful message on it and try to inspire people – whoever they are – who drive by to hold it in their heart even in the middle of their challenges and destitution.

same sign but superimposed over are clouds and weeds, making it look foreboding

Another thing that’s weird about this image is that where I am in my life and what’s happening in my life affects how I see it. In this current political moment, which is really heavy, and really depressing, what I tend to see in this sign is “how could someone even think to put that up there? What does that achieve – there’s rust all over it and this town is empty… what could possibly come of this situation?” But that’s part of it. You have to be able to get down and see that degradation and that pain and that hardest, lowest point – which is what I think y’all have done this weekend – in order to be able to say “okay, that’s not all there is.” There’s still the flip side of this message, and that’s where the good, hard work occurs is that individual who’s still able to say “yeah, wow, happiness is attainable in some way in this place.” And maybe we’re not talking about happiness, but we’re talking about impacts, and real things occurring. Real change occurring.

What I’m going to talk about is that change. What I think of allyship, what community has meant in my life, and the tools that can be used in the course of one’s day-to-day existence to achieve social change in, say, in a regular job or in your friendships or families. I’m going to focus on my job in libraries and as an Associate Dean at the university because I think so often this notion of allyship is interpreted as passive, and there are some smart critiques out there about that. But I think allyship doesn’t have to be passive, it can be about action. And you have to be able to perceive the potential actions in your environment, no matter what that is, and then take the steps that are available to you to achieve that change. 

So, I’ve got an hour or so. That’s not very much time. It’s an enormous topic and it’s something I think about all the time. I struggled with how to come at these things, and it could take my whole life to explore these ideas with you and to hear from you what you believe of these ideas. Because that’s just as important as me jawing up here. But in order to focus for the next 45 minutes and be able to get anywhere of value, we have to keep asking these hard questions. Over the course of the last few hours I’ve heard y’all asking yourselves hard questions and offering answers that help focus us on that common purpose, that common change and value.hard questions help us focus on what is most meaningfulSuch as:why are we here?

I’ve heard from a couple of you already why we’re here at this social justice summit. And I’d love to hear a couple more voices because I’m relatively new to this process. Why did you come to this?

Participant: I think social justice applies to every single person. As someone who enjoys being a leader, I think it’s my duty to educate myself so that I can be the change in my community.

Char: That’s great, thank you.

Participant: I thought it was a good opportunity to come and learn more about social justice, and I know some of the facilitators.

Char: So, your community is bringing you here. Awesome.

Participant: When you said by using your privilege or whatever, I agree like it’s not the job of people who are being oppressed to have to change the system, but I feel like I have a responsibility to educate myself and try to make a change.

Char: Thank you, and that’s also a perfect segue to my next slide. why do we do this hard work?That exact thing is why I do this hard work. There are so many motivations that can lead people to open themselves to the vulnerability of seeing other people’s pain, and the reason that our identities as individuals can cause that pain whether out of our own volition or out of our own intentions or not. We have to be able to see it and do something about it.

what values are most important to our communities?Another thing it’s essential to ask is about the values we share as a community. And for me, as the Associate Dean of the Library, I have to think about this a lot. Because libraries are like mirrors of communities. We’re all different, every library is different and it should be different in the way that we’re paying so much attention to what you need from us as students as learners as faculty – even though you’re not faculty yet, right. [Laughter.] We have to be able to give this back to you in kind, and with a lot of earnestness and with a lot of hope and work. So values are definitely part of the way that I’ve thought about this talk and what I want to bring to the table. how can allyship inform and inspire our labor?I already mentioned that I think it’s crucial to think about how being an ally can inform your day-to-day work whether that’s in a classroom, in your family, at a job, in your community. This doesn’t happen up here [gestures at ether above head], it happens on the ground in every interaction you have, in every project you take on, in every single thing you volunteer for or decide not to because you’re tired (and that’s cool). I want to focus in on the idea of allyship being actualized in work. Not just allyship to a particular community or the communities of difference that I come from, which I’ll also talk about in a moment. But, how can we actually take take allyship as a methodology of practice in our professions and in our work.

slide of a heart pointing to a shirt with one sleeve rolled up

So I do love my work, I love being a librarian. It’s a profession that’s been very good to me – as a queer person and a trans person I’ve been able to exist in a community of professionals that have not ostracized me. I’ve had my own challenges but I’ve never been sorry that I’ve made the decision to go in the direction I have because it’s enabled me to use my strengths and not be held back by characteristics of that profession that might not welcome me.

I work in a very progressive profession that has radical elements and fringes to it, and I’m very much a part of those radical elements and fringes. And I’m grateful to that world for allowing me to exist within it. That was a conscious choice I made and a choice that used my privilege. I wanted to do good for the world and I also wanted to be able to thrive and not have to struggle to justify my existence, rather to focus on the real work if that makes sense. So, that is a challenge that confronts all people who come from backgrounds of difference is: do you have that agency to be able to make such a decision about where you’re going to put your efforts and what they’re going to achieve? I did, so I have a heightened responsibility to advocate.

I wanted to make an allegory in this presentation that is essential for activism and what it looks like in day-to-day life. I’m blessed to be part of a big talented community of queer and trans activists. Artists, people who do direct action, people who fight so many different kinds of oppression from places of utter devotion to their work. And I value this community more than anything because it educates me and informs the way I approach the world. It educates my experiences and how I can translate them to my own life and practice. And, it gives me awesome examples to be able point to in order to make connections between ideas and actual practice.

screenshot from instagram showing an angular ceramic vessel with gold cracks

One of the activists in my life, a beloved old friend of mine, name is Pascal Emmer. He’s been engaged in HIV/AIDS activism and other social activism for a long time. He’s also a ceramicist, so he’s an artist and he does activism – there are multiple facets to our experience and these two are a particularly excellent combination. He made this beautiful piece once, this amazing difficult thing – if you know anything about ceramics you know that this kid is a genius. But, it exploded in the kiln. He’d put countless hours and weeks of work into this beautiful thing and then he fired it and it shattered into pieces. However, he knew of a ceramics tradition of Japanese origin called kintsugi, described as “the art of embracing damage.”


image of angluar ceramic container with cracks repaired by gold material, and arrows pointing at the gold cracksIn this tradition, when you have a piece that shatters you fix it back together and accent the repairs with gold. You highlight the flaws. And you want to highlight the flaws, because the flaws are what is beautiful, most beautiful, about this piece. You’ve taken a broken object, you’ve reconstituted it, and you’ve said I’m not hiding these cracks, these flaws, these are part of this piece and they make it what it is.

This is absolutely what being an ally is about. Being able to see other people’s cracks as beautiful difference, and being able to take the things that hurt and harm us as people of difference and harden them as strong points in our character. And take those experiences and not only feel wounded by them, but be able to learn from them and derive from them the power that we need to advocate for ourselves and to advocate for other oppressed people. This is certainly true in my life and it’s true in a lot of the lives of those around me who come from oppressed backgrounds who have managed to survive. They do this – they paint the cracks gold and they show them off to other people in different ways. 

I read this article recently by an activist named Frances Lee. It has a clickbaity title and I’m going to tell it to you in case you want to read it: “Why I’ve Started to Fear my Fellow Social Justice Activists.” I can make a pretty good guess that this author didn’t necessarily want to give this article this title, they probably had to do it to get published. [Laughter]. This article is not about how social justice activists are scary, it’s about how our collective and individual pain can inadvertently create a toxic call-out culture that ends up hurting out own movements and our own communities. Through basically not being able to see and recognize and acknowledge that people have to continue to learn over the course of their lives, particularly in activist communities, and that those people still need to be embraced and drawn in and given the chance to learn and grow. The author calls our attention to an idea that can help confront this: “the politics of imperfection and responsibility” [3]the words

I love this. Right? We are all imperfect and we are all responsible for helping others heal their own imperfections and for healing the imperfections we see in the world around us. This is an individual responsibility looking in, and a collective one looking out.

I already talked a little bit about my positionality in this room as a white person, as an administrator at the university. We have lot of employees and as an administrator I have implicit power over many one of these individuals within an established structure. I am not a hierarchical person, but that is my reality, and I have to be very careful how I use that positionality and power in my organization – everyone does. And this is the same for any structure in the world, any society. Relative to who I am and my makeup and the experiences that have informed my life, my position is different than your position. This is one of the ways I inform myself about what allyship looks like and how power works. 

screenshot of the dictionary entry and definition of the word 'privilege' superimposed over the image of the ceramics vessel

Same with privilege. I’ve had a lot of hard experiences and I’ll go into more detail about that – not too much detail, because, you know – depressing. I come from a middle class background in a white area of Texas, and I had a lot of class and a lot of race privilege. And I recognize that every day, and I benefit from it every day, and so I do a lot to give that money away and to give that back and to try and work toward for some sort of change. You can’t just acknowledge privilege and walk off humming a tune. You have to give it back or you’re not helping.

Same thing with intersectional identities. I’m a queer person, I’m a trans person, and I had a hard first 17 years of my life or so. Not that it got all easier after that, but I went through some stuff. Yet, that “stuff” I was able to escape because of my class privilege and because of my whiteness. And I know that, And that increases again my allyship responsibilities. To be able to say “it gets better… for me,” but it doesn’t get better for everyone.


screenshot of the dictionary entry and definition of the word 'ally' superimposed over the image of the ceramics vesselTo be allies, we have to understand each others’ stories. We have to see each others positions, privilege, experiences, the hard things that have happened to us and the hurts that we have created and/or endured in our lives.

And I love the narrative of stories that y’all are working with – moving past the single story. For the rest of this presentation what I’m going to do is tell you a couple of stories about my experience making allyship real, and how what has happened to me in my life has strengthened my perspective of what allyship and community means, and how change can actually come, however daunting this moment in time is. We’re in an incredibly fraught moment in time. There are horrible things happening, violence every day, violence to my community, violence to your communities. And it is so distressing. But, if you focus only on that distress you’re going to despair – solely despair. So let’s celebrate our golden flaws together a little bit today.”

This is 1 of a three-part transcript series from a closing keynote I gave at the CSUSM Social Justice Summit in October of 2017. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3.

[1] CSUSM is extremely culturally diverse and over half of our students are first in their families to attend college.

[2] The “Social Change Model of Leadership Development” is presented by Astin, Helen S. and Alexander W. Astin in their A Social Change Model of Leadership Development Guidebook Version 3 (The National Clearinghouse of Leadership Programs) 1996. Used extensively in higher education leadership, Astin and Astin developed the model at HERI the (Higher Education Leadership Institute) at UCLA in the 90s. Also known as the “7Cs” of leadership development. See the 3rd edition of their Guidebook, shared in full text via HERI’s site, which I assume was an intentional/legit decision. You can find concise examples of how the model is applied in contexts similar to the SJS here and here.

[3] From Why I’ve started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists by Frances Lee: “I have been mulling over sociologist Alexis Shotwell’s call for the left to adopt a “politics of imperfection and responsibility” as one way to move forward toward action and away from purity.”

Postscript: I have a new website at charbooth.com for updated presentation, publication, cv etc. content but will keep info-mational active for blog type things.

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