In the April edition of our blog we hear from Jeff Brown, a former Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) for the Alma Mater Society (AMS). In this blog piece, Jeff explores the meaning of allyship. Using examples from his personal life and time with the AMS, Jeff demonstrates that sometimes being a good ally means listening rather than talking.
Being asked to contribute to this discussion is a tremendous honour. I’ve honestly been churning over in my mind what to offer to the blog for a few months now. Then I remembered, I’m white, I’m 5’11 (6Ft on a good day), and I’m a man…. People listen to me most of the time whether I have something really inspiring to say or if I just raise my voice or ask for the floor.
So with the above in mind, I’ll share the biggest lesson I learned at Queen’s working as the Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS: how to stop talking. Learning to stop talking is about using the privilege you have to magnify the hard work of others who have the lived experience to make the biggest impact.
I first learned to stop talking at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI). My Mom was admitted to TRI after a stroke that impacted her speech with Aphasia. It’s been over 15 years since my mom’s stroke and she’s thriving; I’m constantly driven by her grit and humour. My Mom and I were sitting in a windowless room waiting for a Doctor. My mom was raw from surgery, I was in my early teens and I was terrified. At the time my mom’s speech was very limited – knowing her habits and being similar people, I had a knack for helping translate for her. The Doctor walked in and started talking directly to my mom… asking her specific and important question with incredible patience and a palpable caring bedside manner. Trying to help, I tried to voice for my mom – I’d interrupt a bit – then the Doctor kindly but firmly asked me to stop talking……..I could have flipped a table in that moment. This is my mother and I’m trying to help her! I would later come to understand that the Doctor was really trying to help my mom, too. The Doctor gave my mom agency and time and the space to express herself even though it took longer and was the tougher road.
In 2007, I was chosen to serve as Social Issues Commissioner (SIC) in the AMS. I was thrilled and I also knew… for sure… 100% …that I knew everything I needed to know about Diversity…. I grew up in midtown Toronto … after all I had tried falafel.
In 2003, a report came out that shocked many people at Queen’s but validated a lot of concerns that had been raised for years by racialized and Indigenous students and staff: The Henry report galvanized a lot of important conversations. Intelligent, organized, and driven women of colour and others from the Queen’s Coalition against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination easily saw through platitudes and demanded action.
If it wasn’t obvious enough before – I knew nothing, really, about racism. Between 2007-2008 amazing professors like Audrey Kobayashi and incredible staff, most notably Stephanie Simpson, gave me a lot of their time and were very patient. They both taught me to stop talking.
I learned that you can support important action without being the centre of attention. I’m proud of the strides the SIC made that year – we launched a mental health publication and made strides in other areas of Anti-Oppression but QCRED did the critical and hardest work around anti-racism: including unearthing important history around Alfred Pierce – and they were a group without paid staff or meaningful student government funding.
Working on Bay Street in Toronto, I’ve learned now when to start talking. There’s an important role allies can play. Sponsor and mentor people who are different from you for jobs. When your gay friends question the validity of Black Lives Matter’s approach to Pride or carding, bring up the Toronto Bathhouse Raids and remind your white friends of the demographics of incarceration rates- and why the numbers don’t make sense. Speak with your wallet and give money to organizations that deliver essential services that aren’t popular on election platforms. Be a role model, in as many little ways as you can. Learn how to stop talking and how to give the floor to people with something really important and inspiring to say.