Let the Oppressed Speak for Themselves

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were all lynched during in 1964 while working to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi. The three activist were apart of a larger campaign to register African American voters in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. This campaign was a threat to the status quo. Their deaths symbolize the risks activists faced during that time and the significance of allies in the movement. The two Jewish activists from New York died alongside a Black activist from Mississippi.

They died serving a movement firmly grounded in removing social and political barriers for African Americans. They served as allies. Jewish Americans and other White Americans made great contributions to the Civil Rights Movement as allies and leaders in their own communities. Leadership of throughout broader movement was owned by Blacks.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an ally and what it means to be a leader. As an activist across movements, I often find myself serving as an ally. Whether it was an action supporting access to higher education or one to pass the DREAM Act, I have stood in solidarity with activists on issues not directly affecting me. As an organizer, I’ve been tasked with bringing leaders together around a certain cause or issue. As a leader I have served as a voice on issues affecting women, youth and the African Diaspora. I’ve also seen some amazing allies contribute in invaluable ways to movements while respecting their roles as allies and not leaders.

So whats the difference between an ally and a leader? Well this question made more sense to me after sitting in on a session at the Center for Progressive Leadership this past weekend. I’d just finished up facilitating a session on different forms of power and what they mean in the overall progressive movement. The segway into an ally discussion was perfect. Oftentimes individuals care about a plethora of issues. The reality however is that we cannot work on every single issue. We can not take up every fight, we can not own every fight. This is why being an ally and having allies is so important. Three of the key takeaways from the session were:

  • Allies don’t speak FOR other people, but try to make space for people to speak for themselves
  • Allies have less less to lose than the community or person they are aligning themselves with
  • Allies walk the walk, they don’t just talk the talk

I am an ally to many movements, but only strive to be a leader when I can provide authentic ownership.

In progressive spaces I often work with allies who elevate themselves to leadership positions. When you have less at stake than the group you’ve aligned yourself with, I think you should proceed with caution and deference. Now, this concept is harder for me to digest in some spaces. As a Black person, I’m not confused when it comes to who can lead or make key decisions in a movement for my freedom. People identifying and living as Black can and should. That makes sense to me. As a feminist, I’m encountering a different struggle.  I struggle with men who assert their leadership and intellectual position as feminists. I’m questioning what the role of men can be and should be in the movement to end gender-based discrimination towards women. Yes, we need you as allies. We need you to work with other men, open minds and build relationships based on mutual respect.

When men jump to say “we’re also oppressed under this patriarchal system,” I don’t disagree with that. Men are affected by patriarchy in real and oppressive ways.  I just ask that you see past your oppression and serve as allies in a movement to achieve equality and fairness. Can we have our space as women, seeking liberation for women? I demand that we must. Feminism is for everybody, the movement has room for everybody. Build new spaces instead of seeking to own ours. I ask that you build with other men. We need you as allies, to stand in solidarity, not as leaders.We have the ability to speak for ourselves, we need you to speak to men as men. We cannot do this alone.

Oppressed groups have the ability to speak for themselves, they need allies to stand in solidarity. Let the oppressed speak for themselves, trust that they can and support them when they do.