In this piece, Corinna Fitzgerald – Assistant Dean (Student Life and Learning) at Queen’s University, reflects on what it means to be an accomplice, instead of an ally to a cause.
To begin, let me situate myself – I am a white, cis-gendered, straight woman who comes to this territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples as an uninvited settler visitor. I am originally from a very rural community in Newfoundland, where most people thought about diversity in terms of whether you were Protestant or Catholic. In fact, this is the territory where the last of Beothuk people were seen and walked, and where Mi’kmaq, Inuit, and Innu people, in the face of racism and exclusion, thrive as close and connected communities today. Growing up, I learned very little about inclusion and nothing about equity until I went to university as a first-generation student in the mid-90’s. While in university, I learned about feminism through a white cis-gendered lens, and inequality mostly as an issue of class. That time did help me, however, understand the concept of privilege, which eventually helped me understand the unearned privileges given to some, including me, based on identity.
Some of this background, and why I share it here now, forms how I approach my work as a student affairs administrator. I continue to understand the ways in which I benefit from my unearned privilege. As I have moved from one institution, and one role to another, I have made a commitment to keep looking for and finding ways to use my privilege to make change within institutions. I work on trying to make space and being mindful of when I take space; I don’t always get those things right but remain committed to continuing to (un)learn and work on trying to do things better.
Relationships are key to any role we play, but perhaps given my rural upbringing, I see connections to community as integral to getting things done. Building trust within relationships is always important, but it is especially important when doing equity work when you are someone, like me, who benefits from unearned privileges. I have learned that trust is something that must not be assumed and needs to be earned over time. The trust building road is (understandably) winding and is impacted by individual and collective experiences of trauma, colonization, systemic racism and discrimination. For some individuals and communities trust can never be built, and, regardless of my good intentions, this is not something I can or would wish to impose.
The concept of allyship was introduced to me early in my career while working at another university, supporting the development of a Positive Space Program. I really was keen to be an ally and freely claimed (perhaps even pro-claimed!) to be one. I wanted everyone to know I was “all in on all the things”, and here to help. Since then, I have learned that to be a true ally means that someone else claims you as such; it is not something you self-declare. In an effort to understand the role I can play, with all my privileges, I read an article about being an accomplice that resonated. Being an accomplice feels more intentional, more active, and encourages more humility to be a change-maker, while consciously taking a back seat. It’s not a final place, but involves a longer-term commitment and to me, requires flexibility to adjust to spaces and actions. It is something you are called upon to do by friends, colleagues and, for me, sometimes by staff and students.
Being an accomplice still requires lots of checking in; it also encourages building confidence, with humility, when you are told you are off course or trying too hard to “save” a person, or group or cause.
As an institution, have signed on to act on the commitments in the Scarborough Charter and for several years have centered inclusion as core to our work through the Principal’s Declaration and Commitment to Address Systemic Racism, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, as well as through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the TRC Task Force, and the Principal’s Implementation Committee on Racism, Discrimination and Inclusion.
This ongoing work must be done by all of us who are members of the campus community – we all have a role to play. It’s up to each of us to sort out for ourselves what exactly our role is, and in my experience, it is important to sort out our own positionality, privileges, and gifts so that we can act in ways that are helpful, humble, and not harmful to the communities these actions are meant to serve. This work is an opportunity but requires a commitment to building trusting relationships with individuals and communities who are most impacted in a way that makes sense for them. The Scarborough Charter is a call to action, and I hope others – especially folks with unearned privileges like myself – take up the call to act and decide to act as (or learn to act as) accomplices in meeting our collective community commitments.
The author also leads the Scarborough Charter’s Teaching, Learning and Student Success Working Group at Queen’s University.