How to be an ally to students

Faculty and staff have unique opportunities to serve as allies.  Although our respective spheres of influence may vary, we each have the ability to advocate for students, staff and faculty from underrepresented backgrounds.
Higher education is no different than other major social institutions in facing the murky challenges of correcting historical trends of discrimination and bias related to race, gender, sex, sexual/affectional orientation, disabilities, gender expression/identity, appearance, etc. Students from many different backgrounds need our support as allies. We all have some capacity to affect change. matheisweb
Allies serve to “level the playing field” by helping students identify equitable means of success. Allies advance the research, teaching and public service missions of educational institutions by supporting new pathways of success for a broader demographic of citizens.
The greater the array of students, staff and faculty who are able excel here, the greater social and political relevance we have as a leading educational institution.
Allies recognize the necessity to act for the sake of justice, according to moral and ethical interests, because to do so honors the quality of relationships we already believe we deserve for ourselves and, thus, extends the same quality to others.
Being an ally helps each of us situate our own life and identity in a broader context of social identities in ways that enrich or own experience. Being an ally in your spheres of influence improves quality of relationships, depth of thought and burgeoning imagination throughout daily life, which includes everything from family and community to teaching, research and service. Personal successes like your promotion and tenure could in some ways depend on creative options that will be evident to you only as you explore your role as an ally.
One of the first things to do is to remember that a good ally is willing to adapt, rather than achieve an ally credential.
Consider the following list to be a set of tools and concepts that you can draw from as-needed, rather than a perfect formula for “competency.” -
•    Attend cultural celebrations and observances that are meaningful to students, and learn why they are meaningful
•    Read articles such as “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, “The Common Elements of Oppression” by Suzanne Pharr, or “There is No Hierarchy of Oppressions” by Audre Lorde  and discuss the article with colleagues who are knowledgeable about the subject matter.
•   When derogatory comments occur, do not let them go without addressing them.
•    Include statements of inclusion and non-discrimination in your syllabi, point them out during the first day of class, and revisit discussions about the quality and accessibility of your classroom at different points throughout the term.
•    Consider the differences between “offensive” and “derogatory” remarks.  Some language may offend or annoy people, and some language may be derogatory in demeaning a person’s dignity because of the social and historical connotations invoked.
•    Seek advice and preparation for how to respond to incidents of bias in the classroom.  For instance, consider participating in the annual faculty seminar hosted by the Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program.
•    Assign to all students in your courses a requirement of attending one or more event on campus per term that is related to culture, diversity and improving their understandings of institutional discrimination.  This can be for extra-credit or for regular course credit.
•    Push yourself to learn how you may knowingly or unknowingly benefit from unearned privileges
•    Pay close attention and focus on the experiences students are trying to share.  They are the experts on what it means to be a student, and their testimony should be taken seriously.
•    Make the first move by extending an invitation. Remember that students who are already struggling with access, who are already without a sense of belonging, are unlikely to challenge the flow of social situations by assertively seeking support.  Rather than “leaving an open door”, consider explaining to all students – perhaps on the first day of class – that you welcome them to approach you for support if they are facing struggles given the ways they are treated as a result of their actual or perceived identities.
•    Let go of “political correctness” and avoid the anxiety and dread of making “diversity mistakes.”  Just try your best and be willing to learn, rather than merely avoiding sensitive issues.
•    Recognize your sphere of influence. There will be some things you can affect on your own, and some things for which you will need an ally or a community of allies. Don’t let yourself be daunted by the weight of it all.
Every ally begins somewhere, and each beginning is unique.  I encourage you to decide where and when your commitment, learning, growth and action as an ally can begin.
For those who have already taken up such a role, increase your own knowledge of broader communities, and help by reaching out to your peers and colleagues with an invitation to explore their capacities as allies.

Christian Matheis is the student advocate for the Associated Students of Oregon State University.

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