Today was Holocaust Memorial Day, so it's particularly suitable to write about Evanston4All's Upstander training session that took place at the Unitarian Church of Evanston last weekend.
About 30 intrepid Evanston residents braved a cold, snowy day to attend the training, which was led by Grace Lutheran Church's Pastor Daniel Ruen, Kingian nonviolence trainer Gail Schechter, and diversity and inclusion facilitator Rina Campbell.
The trio taught participants a variety of strategies that everyone can use to interrupt acts of bigotry, racism, and hate--to be an active upstander instead of a passive bystander--and led them through role playing exercises to identify different scenarios and consider the various way to respond.
As we all know too well, over the past two years there's been a dramatic upswing in the US (and around the world) in ugly, or violent--and sometimes deadly--hate crimes, racism and racist attacks, bigotry, virulent anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant sentiment. The behavior is exhibited by everyday people, media personalities, political extremists, and from the highest levels of our national leadership.
In this climate, it can be difficult to remain hopeful or optimistic, and we can feel a sense of smallness and powerlessness against the onslaught. Learning how to be an upstander and practicing upstander strategies are the perfect antidote: giving us a way to do something action-oriented, tangible, and immediate to stop hate and help change the culture of our communities.
"We need a culture shift where we say, 'this is not okay in our community, in any town,' and that actually makes for lasting change, systemic change," Gail told the group.
Pastor Ruen explained that while humans are hardwired for fight and flight, we're also wired to be curious when something out of the ordinary happens.
"Upstander training is about getting people to wonder about a situation they're witnessing," he said. "It's about getting people out of the fight-and-flight response to ask, 'How can I use creativity, in the moment, under stress,'" to diffuse a hate-filled situation.
The leaders, using videos, role-playing, and lecture, took participants through the "Five D's" of being an upstander:
Direct. Distract. Delegate. Delay. Document.
In all these strategies to interrupt hate or serve as a supportive ally, Gail emphasized, an upstander must assess their safety and the safety of the person/s being harassed.
"Think about whether you or the other person will be harmed and that will inform which strategy you take," she said.
In any upstander situation, it's also crucial to make some type of connection with the person being harassed to make sure they are comfortable with your intervention.
1. Direct. The most common approach, it’s the one where you step in, directly, to intervene and stop a harasser who is assaulting their target: "Stop it. That's not acceptable. Stop bothering her."
2. Distract. Distract is much more subtle than Direct. The goal is to derail the harasser. For example, distract the harasser from their target by pretending to be lost and asking for directions. Or 'accidentally on purpose' spilling your coffee. Or, as Pastor Ruen demonstrated in a role play, tell the harasser that it looks like their car is being towed.
The bottom line: distract the harasser from their laser focus on their victim to interrupt and end the harassment.
When an incident requires that you look to someone with more power or authority than you have to stop it. For example, when you encounter a harasser on a train and you report them to the conductor who can then call the transit police. Or you report violence or harassment in a bar to the bartender. Or you look to others around you to help you figure out how to disrupt an ongoing situation.
4. Delay. Sometimes you simply can't act in the moment. For example, the harasser is drunk, or way larger than you are, and you can't take them on. Or maybe you're less prone to jumping into a situation--or you yourself are part of a marginalized group and could put yourself in danger by intervening.
In this case, you allow the incident to occur, but you pay attention to what's happening and then check in with the victim after it's taken place to empathize ("I'm so sorry that happened to you") and ask, "Can I do anything to help you?" This is one of the most powerful ways to support a victim. It shows empathy and tells the victim that they are not alone.
5. Document Record the incident or assault as it happens. Film it. Write down the details. Then provide the information to authorities.
"Documenting is something anyone can do when there's a hate crime going on," said Pastor Dan. "You can say, 'I can bear moral witness.' If something's happening where you don't feel you can be an upstander, you can still make notes on your phone--where you are, the time, a description of offender and the scenario. And you can report it."
The Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which addresses hate incidents and hate crime on many levels, offers a confidential hotline number where people and institutions can report hate crimes and remain anonymous and also request resources: 1-844-9-NO-HATE.
During the question-and-answer period at the end of the session, a participant asked, "Because of my personal history, almost all my life I've avoided conflict. It goes back to a dysfunctional family. So I am one of those people who's fighting years and years of wanting to flee. How can I get over this?"
Rina's advice for those of us who tend to avoid conflict is to ask ourselves: 'What would I, in that moment, want someone to do for me? What kind of support would I need?' Then, offer that to the targeted person. And remember that it doesn't have to be right in the moment. It can be once the bullying or attacking has stopped. Again, just ask, "Are you okay?"
Saying, 'I'm sorry that happened to you, you didn't deserve that.,' Rina says, is a quick but powerful way to let the person know that no-one should be treated that way."
By learning to be upstanders, we're reinforcing the norms of appropriate behavior.
"We want to say that harassment is not okay, we want to reinforce a culture that says each and every person, regardless of their story, regardless of their background, is unique," Gail said toward the program's end.
When we realize that we have the power in ourselves to help other people, and when we use that power, it creates a ripple effect.
"When you see that you can create change, you stand a little taller, and you become a role model for others. What we're learning here is a philosophy, a discipline that requires constant practice and a community of support."
Evanston4All is a group of neighbors that formed soon after the 2016 presidential election to act in solidarity with people who are targeted for harassment or expressions of hatred and violence, based on protected status (national origin, resident status, faith, race, age, ability, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnic heritage, or culture).
To stay informed about Evanston4All's upcoming trainings, events, and activities, please check out their Facebook page.