Category Archives: Work

Allyship in Professional Settings

Written in the Covid-stricken USA during the late July part of the 2020 BLack Lives Matter protests.

I was hired in March for a temporary position without benefits for an employer where I know I will not be able to get a permanent position. This gives me some freedom to perform acts of allyship without fear of losing my job. Any negative consequences of stepping up for others will be minimal in the long run. Given the circumstances, it is worth it to me to risk burning a few bridges if it leaves ash behind that others can turn into soap to use to clean up this mess. And, it is a mess.

Racism, transphobia, ableism, and more. Just like the rest of the USA, our workplace has issues. Our leadership, however, has been outspoken about wishing to correct internal issues of racism. I leveraged that to begin my allyship campaign at my new, temporary workplace. This article describes a portion of what I have done so far in the hopes that others will be able to glean ideas from it.

First, back in June after the Black Lives Matter protests hit a new nationwide height after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, a member of senior management cancelled a weekly casual Zoom meeting and replaced it with one intended to address antiracism. Being someone who is accustomed to discussions on race, I entered the call prepared to listen and learn. Instead, I found myself stifling a series of would-be faceplams on camera and acting primarily out of allyship rather than from a place of learning.

In summary, the meeting was a disaster. The interesting thing about it, though, is that the person who lead it probably left feeling like it was a success. I will skip past a lot of the details for timeliness for you my dear reader, but I don’t think this senior management person noticed that I – not the manager – was the one providing facilitation. I was the one who noticed that white people were talking over each other so fast that even they couldn’t get a word in edge wise, much less a person of color trying to work up the courage to say something in a hostile environment. I was the one who noticed that it was a hostile environment, not the manager. I – the temp who had been there for 3 months – was the one who said things like “Everyone please hold on, [person’s name] was trying to talk. I think your mic is off,” and otherwise creating space for voices of color to be heard amidst the white clamor. A caucophony, if you will excuse the pun.

Almost no voices of color spoke up, and those who did quickly stopped contributing when they saw how the meeting was going. None of the management called people to task for expressing racism. And, there was a lot of expression of racism; the people who were expressing it just did not recognize it for what it was. I don’t know whether the senior management present failed to recognize it or failed to act despite recognizing it, but either way it functioned to sanction and thereby galvanize the racism, regardless of intent. The black faces on the screen sat flat-flipped and silent for the majority of the meeting, only briefly going wide-eyed at the horrible things various white people said before carefully schooling their faces back to cold professionalism. That silence said more to me about the problems with race in my department than anything that the white people rambled on about for the hourlong meeting. The one thing that all of the different black people in the meeting who spoke all said – the thing they were clearly and unambiguously unanimous about despite only barely speaking at all – was that they wanted more of these discussions to happen. This was a start, and only a start, as far as they were concerned. Personally I found that take generous considering how badly that start went, but I kept my mouth shut.

At the end of the meeting, the senior manager asked me to send an email with the books I had recommended during the meeting. The manager was going to send them out to everyone. If that happened, I never got the email.

I thought about how that first antiracism meeting went badly due to the fact that it was lead by someone unqualified to do so. I decided I needed to say something to the senior manager who lead it. Clearly someone needed to, and most or all of the black people there were obviously not comfortable doing so. I wondered whether I should offer to pass on information anonymously, but none of the black people in my department are on my team and I am so new that they have no reason to trust me any more than they do anyone else. I ultimately sent this to the senior manager in the body of an email:

“I would recommend creating an anonymous way for anyone who wants to give you feedback to do so. I imagine this would make anyone of any given minority you aren’t a part of feel more comfortable bringing up issues in the department and criticisms about your handling of related topics.”

The response I got was disheartening. I won’t quote it directly here for privacy reasons, but the senior manager essentially said that anonymous surveys are not offered because they do not allow the senior manager to address the individual. The message also expressed that anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable going to the senior manager directly can go through someone else they do trust. I thought about how I had only been there for 3 months so it was silly to think I would be able to trust someone else enough for something like that. I thought about the silent faces and didn’t think it was reasonable to expect any of them to trust someone else like that either.

The next week’s casual Zoom meeting came, and I had not yet heard anything about another antiracism meeting even though it had been asked for by several people of color, both black and nonblack. So, when the senior manager asked for questions at the end of the casual Zoom meeting, I asked, “I was just wondering when our next antiracism discussion was going to happen.” The senior management expressed surprise that people wanted to talk about it more, then decided to schedule one for the following week. That’s how invisible people who aren’t white are in a working environment with white leadership. This is why we white people need to listen to our black and brown coworkers and reinforce heir voices with our own. I then carefully suggested, “I think if we could have some clearer goals for that meeting it might be a bit more useful.” The senior manager smiled and promised clarity.

Leading up to the second antiracism conversation, I considered the fact that this senior manager should probably not be the person who runs these antiracism talks. These kinds of conversations have a lot of different goals they can encompass, and each one needs something different. For example, if we want to give black employees a place to air their grievances with the company, the expectations and ground rules are going to be a lot different than if we want to systematically go through our policies and look at what might need to change. The first meeting didn’t have any clarity over what kind of meeting it would be, and that is part of why it was unproductive. I sent another email:


I am CCing [my direct supervisor] and [the relevant middle manager] because I’m not entirely certain who the right person is to send this to. I believe that the following are important goals for our antiracism talks:

  • Creating a learning environment about race, racism, and antriacism, especially for white people.
  • Working together to recognize and dismantle racism within ourselves, especially white people.
  • Creating space for people who aren’t white to voice grievances about the racism in our department.
  • Working together to recognize and dismantle the systems of oppression present within our department.

I don’t think we can do all of those things at the same time both because it’s too much all at once and because several of them are contradictory in terms of responsible ground rules. Each one is also big enough that it would make sense to pick just one at a time for each of these meetings. It is my hope that clear goals such as those above will make the next antiracism meeting a bit more productive.

That is why I asked for clear goals to be set for our next antiracism meeting. I realized after the Zoom meeting ended that my request was itself ironically unclear, so that is why I am sending this email with additional context.

I also think it would be a good idea for whoever leads these antiracism meetings to be someone who has experience doing so.


The senior manager’s response started with thanks and went on to inform me about a Zoom event happening the following week put on by an existing inclusion and diversity group for the entire department. According to the email, the antiracism talks for our part of the department were to be put on hiatus until after the bigger event, that way it could be used to inform policy and tactics moving forward.

The contrast between the bigger event and the earlier Zoom meeting was utterly stark. It was well-organized, with speakers prepared to speak on relevant topics in useful ways. I did not learn anything because they were speaking to those who are just beginning to learn about race and racism, but it was heartening that they were so prepared and the questions people asked showed that they were learning a lot. Best of all, they prospered concrete steps for each group in the department to utilize.

Fast forward to late July, and there was another large department Zoom meeting. This one was designed for people to ask questions about anything, so a lot of them were about things like working from home and salaries. However, this was also the first time since I started working here that I saw an anonymous feature in use. In addition to Zoom’s chat window, there was an anonymous question feature that displayed people’s anonymous questions in a secondary chat for everyone to see. There was also a thumbs up feature, and questions with more “thumbs up” responses got boosted further towards the top of the list.

At the top with the most thumbs up was the question: “When can we expect to see a coherent and transparent plan to address the rampant racism and transphobia in [our departement]?” There were also a slew of other questions, each with their own collection of thumbs up, that made it very clear that there are several people who are very unhappy with the working environment due to these axes of oppression. For context: these questions got as many or more thumbs up reactions as the questions that didn’t have anything to do with social equity.

The senior-senior management team’s response to these questions? Waving it away, denial of there actually being issues, and an admission of not having any plan to make a plan. Somehow the same managers who said things like, “Without more data we can’t really be sure these things are happening” also said things like “If someone really thinks this is happening, they are welcome to come talk to me privately about it.” No one is going to have enough trust left to talk to a manger privately about a serious issue after that manager makes it clear they don’t and won’t be taking it seriously.

One of the managers was new and spent very little time speaking except during introductions, as new people often like to listen more than speak. This was the new manager’s first big meeting. This manager is also black and went from smiling the smile of a giddy new-hire excited to work their new job to the same careful mask worn by the other black people in that first awful antiracism meeting in June.

Yesterday, the senior manager for our part of the department (the same one who had run that first antiracism meeting back in June) had a follow up meeting with us. The email invitation said it would be to discuss working from home, transitioning back to working in person, or anything else from the big meeting that people felt like discussing. This senior manager opened the Zoom meeting with something along the lines of, “This session is for you, does anyone have any questions?”

After a long pause and some chuckling comments about no one wanting to speak up, a middle manager decided to go first. “I found it very informative just how strongly people are feeling about their working environment right now,” the middle manager said carefully. I wondered whether this referred to all the people who hate working from home while their kids were also home, or to all the people who were feeling marginalized because of race or gender.

The senior manager decided it meant the first one and went on for about 5 minutes about working from home, the stressors involved in that, transitioning back to the office, and what that might entail. The middle manager politely waited for the senior manager to finish talking and then clarified: “I was referring more to the people who were expressing concerns about racism, and disparity in pay, and things like that.”

The senior manager was probably embarrassed, and awkwardly repeatedly gave assurances that we can talk about that if it is what people wanted to do. Awkward chuckles and comments came from both managers, and then I asked if I could ask a question. The senior manager welcomed it warmly.

“It seems like a lot of the questions to that end, whether it was racism or transphobia, got rather hand wavy answers. I saw a question on the anonymous chat that was up there towards the top of the list, and I’d like to ask it here: When can we expect a coherent and transparent plan for addressing these things?”

That was enough to get the ball rolling. I was able to sit back and listen, learn a little, and watch as the team finally began to start moving towards taking real action instead of just talking about how important it is to take action.

At some point the conversation moved to trying to adjust hiring practices to ensure a wider diversity in hiring. During this, the senior manager said something about trying to get the gender balance to be 50-50, and a few other transphobic/binarist remarks. I finally spoke up again and asked, “[Senior manger], are you open to some feedback?” The senior manager said yes, so in front of all 20 or so people who work under this senior manger, I quoted the manager’s own words a few times and said, “I would like to remind you that there are more than two genders, so if you really do want this to be ‘an inclusive and welcoming place,’ you might want to consider adjusting your language. It can never be ’50-50′ if it is actually inclusive.”

The senior manager responded by thanking me for the feedback and expressing an intention to do better moving forward. A coworker privately messaged me emojis of clapping hands and called me courageous, saying, “I have never seen someone call [senior manager] out like that!

The next time I spoke up, I wrote out what I had to say ahead of time for the sake of getting through it all despite nerves. In fact, I had written this up before the meeting even started specifically because it needed to be said, and of all my coworkers, I risk the least by speaking up. I put it on a Notepad window directly below my camera and made the window super narrow to minimize eye movement from reading. Our senior manager is so verbose that I was able to edit it to match the nuances of the context of the moment I chose to speak up prior to unmuting my mic. That moment came when the senior manager said something which had been said so many times before: “I would hope anyone who has a concern would feel comfortable talking to me directly.”

I asked to speak to that point, and then said this (which I have done my best to edit to match the words that I ended up actually saying):

“I think it’s important to talk about the intricacies of how the power dynamics involved in leadership roles preclude people from speaking up. By their very nature, the kinds of issues that marginalize people also break down the trust that is necessary to speak up about those issues. Since we know that those issues exist, and we know that we have serious problems in [our department] with racism and transphobia and perhaps other axes of oppression as well, it makes sense to be sensitive to the fact that people on the harmed ends of these spectrums risk a lot when speaking up. Whether it’s a promotion or the chance for a temp like me to get a permanent position or whatever it is, marginalized people are unlikely to be without fear of being passed over for these things or otherwise treated poorly for speaking up. I know I mentioned to you before that I believe it is important to have an anonymous feedback mechanism. This is why. Asking people to trust a leader enough to speak to them directly when they are a leader in a department that marginalizes those people doesn’t make much sense in light of these dynamics, regardless of good intentions. Regardless of your very clear and obvious good intentions.”

I muted my mic again. The conversation immediately progressed to how to go about creating anonymous feedback systems with multiple active participants already on board with the idea. Concerns were raised about how to ensure that it is truly anonymous, considering we are a department of IT people and that means we all know the data exists somewhere if you have to log in with your company login credentials to access the form. A very productive and efficient conversation ensued about the logistics of putting together something that people can actually trust.

The coworker who had messaged me privately before sent a private new message that said, “I would have expected the language you used to be used in an upper level seminar course on power dynamics and institutionalized gender discrimination.”

I talk to a lot of queer people in my spare time. It’s kind of like informal grad school lol,” I responded. Please note dear reader that I used the word “queer” knowing my coworker is about my age. Older LGBTQIA people are often still stung deeply when they hear that word so I do my best to avoid using it as a blanket word when speaking in groups.

In our private chat, this coworker – who has been there for many years – told me that it is very good for this department to be exposed to this language.

Meanwhile, the conversation on the Zoom meeting returned to hiring practices. People threw out some well-researched ideas that have been implemented by other organizations with great success, such wiping names from resumes and CVs before handing them to the hiring committee to remove bias from perceived race and gender, something which studies show happen even when people don’t think they are exhibiting this bias. Look up “unconscious bias in hiring” for more information.

The senior manager voiced support of all ideas that were discussed. It was the first meeting larger than my small immediate team that I have attended since I was hired in March that seemed to be productive in any capacity whatsoever, much less within this context. It would not have been productive if people had not decided to talk about racial inequity even though it is uncomfortable.

After the meeting ended, someone I have never met thanked me privately for speaking up, saying that it made the meeting purposeful and productive, and expressing fear that if they speak up, it risks too much, so they will not be doing so. Speaking up makes a difference for those who can’t. That is why I do it, and that is why I recommend you do it too.

The Power of Unconventional Freedoms

Among other hats, one of mine is “teacher.” I teach workshops to adults, art to children in after school programs, and more. One of the most powerful tools I have found I have as a teacher is the choice to allow what I call unconventional freedoms.

Kids in my class can talk about controversial subjects, go to the bathroom whenever they wish, and choose whether to sit or stand. These freedoms are allowed by some teachers, denied by others. What I mean when I say unconventional freedoms goes beyond this.

My kids can cry in class if they want to. They can walk away from their projects and go lay down on the floor. They can stim (engage in repeated body motions that cause no harm to themselves or others). They can do things considered strange or inappropriate by adults in larger society so long as they are not interrupting me, distracting other students from their work, or causing harm.

These unconventional freedoms allow children the space to grow as people and to explore who they are and how to exist peacefully with others.

Dr. Carol Dweck‘s research about the growth mindset (a mindset which involves believing in one’s own ability to grow in terms of skills) tells us that when children have the support to build a growth mindset, they are able to grow more than children who have a fixed mindset (the belief that they cannot grow in terms of skills). This doesn’t just apply to academic topics, Dweck tells us. It also applies to behavior.

Dweck’s research supports treating behavior like another subject students learn right along with English and math. This means supporting them through conversations meant to help give them the tools to grow and do better rather than tearing them down with punishments. Besides, as most teachers or parents can tell you, when children feel supported, they act out less to begin with.

In most of my art classes for children, there are one or two kids who are easily and vocally frustrated with projects. “I can’t do this” is a common refrain among them, indicative of Dweck’s framing of the fixed mind set. “It’s too hard, do it for me?” they ask. “I can’t do it right,” they pout, staring at the project, either dejected after a single attempt or afraid to even start.

To “I can’t do this,” I say, “Yes you can. It’s just hard. You have to try a bunch of times before it will work. This stuff isn’t easy.”

To “It’s too hard, will you do it for me?” I say, “Of course it’s hard. It’s something new. It’s only easy for me because I’ve done it a lot of times. Unless you do it a lot of times too, it will always be hard for you. Try again, okay?”

To “I can’t do it right,” I say, “That’s okay. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s part of learning, and that is valuable. Besides, sometimes in art our mistakes take is in new and interesting directions, and that can be exciting!”

By the time they are done working with me for the semester, they try. They attempt. They give themselves the space to fail and try again, just like the other kids. I see them go from a fixed mindset to a mixed or growth mindset. Of course, it helps that it’s an ungraded after-school art class. I have a lot of freedom in my class compared to the daytime teachers.

Which brings us back to the point: Freedoms. How do unconventional freedoms play in to all this stuff about transforming young minds from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets? I consider them to be a highly useful tool set. Here’s an example of why:

On the first day of class one term, a child sat staring silently at the project on the table. Everyone else happily worked away. This child remained still. I checked in with the kid, who then began bawling. “I can’t do this,” the kid wailed. “It’s too hard!” We had the same talk I always have with kids who say these things, but this kid was having a huge emotional response to the situation. The kid understood what I was saying and accepted it, but first needed to cry to get all that emotion out of the way. I let the kid cry on the carpet at the other end of the room, but not before making sure to say, “Come back whenever you’re ready, okay? Take as long as you need.”

Weeks passed and that kid continued to struggle. “It’s too hard,” and “I can’t do this,” came out every single class session at first. One day the kid even moaned, “Don’t you have anything I can do that is perfectly easy for me to do on the very first try?!” Talk about an explicit fixed mindset! I didn’t give up. The more I encouraged that kid to try anyway, the easier it got. Eventually the trips to the carpet to cry without distracting others from their projects stopped. By the end of the semester, the moment that would have prompted “I can’t do it” instead inspired mere hesitation, and a glance at me for encouragement.

None of this would have been possible if I had told this kid not to cry in class. Or not to lay on the floor. Or not to do both at the same time. The unconventional freedom of crying on the floor without shame allowed this child the emotional space to develop a necessary life skill, and it harmed no one.

Speaking of harming no one, that is one of the major lines I draw. Boundaries are necessary after all. In my art classes, there are three main types of rules that everything else I list to my kids as rules comes down to:

  1. Consent. Do not touch other students or their projects, or me or my bins of project supplies, without first asking for and receiving consent.
  2. Class Focus. Do not distract other students from their projects or from me when I am talking. No yelling or other loud noises unless it is an emergency.
  3. Do No Harm. Do not harm others or their projects, or any other property.

These underlying foundations mean that when I ever do stop a child from doing something, I have a really good reason. I will explain it if asked, or sometimes without prompting. The kids appreciate this. After all, kids are people, and people do not like being controlled arbitrarily. Kids just don’t have enough world experience yet to guess at my reasons sometimes without it being explained. On that note, children also thrive when given genuine connection and discourse in lieu of punishment, just like adults do. Here is an example of that:

Two kids in one of my classes were friends outside of class. They always picked the same colors on purpose and got along really well. One day, one of them kept grabbing the other’s arm and pushing and shoving. After the second time I verbally reminded this kid about the relevant rule, and heard it broken a third time, I said, “Hey [name], why don’t you come over here with me? Let’s have a little talk.”

As we walked, the kid looked troubled and closed off. Away from the class, at the other end of the room, I knelt down to be on the same level of the kid.

“What can I do to support you?” I asked. “What do you need to follow this rule?”

By the time I finished the first question and began asking the second, the kid was bawling. The moment this poor kiddo realized I wanted to provide support, all the walls went down and the tears came out. We talked about it through the tears, and I learned that this first-grader wanted the other kid to stop engaging in conversation. “Does [name] know you don’t want [pronoun] to talk to you?” I asked. Turns out this kid had never even thought to use words to establish a boundary line. Skills like that are things people have to learn. Heck, I know adults who still need to learn that one! Anyway, by engaging this kid in conversation with the same amount of respect we give adults instead of giving in to frustration over broken rules or conventional punishment systems, I was able to use the unconventional freedom of “have a discussion instead of a time out” to help this kid learn a valuable life skill. This kid went on to employ that skill in the classroom.

When kids actually do cause harm, they need to be stopped and educated so that they do not continue to do harm. However, much of what adults stop children from doing does not constitute harm. How much harm does that do, especially when we remember that children are people too? What is the point in curtailing freedom when no harm is being done to any person or any thing, if firm boundaries are in place around those very important lines?

Snippets from the Week

Any names presented have been changed.

A Morning in Line

This particular food distribution location is my favorite one. I intend to write a post in the future about the full extent of why, but one of the reasons is that folks there are pleasantly social. This distribution location doesn’t use lines in the traditional sense. Instead, they use a “take a number” system. The result is that folks actually talk to one another. With the freedom to move about a pretty church courtyard from group to group, it almost feels like a family reunion full of folks you’ve only ever met in passing.

Ages of patrons waiting for food ranged from 20s to way too old for estimation. Most folks looked well over 40. Many of them had long-wrinkled skin and used wheel chairs or other mobility assistance devices. Several of them asked my name, and I began making new friends.

As usual, I managed to be using the restroom during the morning prayer. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist per se, but I also do not have a desire to pray to a God I don’t believe in. Silently refraining from joining the group prayer prior to food distribution earned me nasty looks from other patrons on my first few visits. Conversely, the folks running “God’s Pantry” took no apparent offense to my discrete abstinence from prayer.

I emerged from the restroom with freshly washed hands clutching my numbered ticket. I asked one of my new acquaintances if I had missed anything important during announcements. He told me that there was a registered nurse there that day, and directed me to her.

I asked the nurse about some concerning symptoms I had. She urged me to see a doctor at my earliest convenience. I thanked her, and went back to waiting my turn.

An Afternoon in Class

My calculus teacher wrote the number of students who received each letter grade on our first test on the white board:

  • 6 – A
  • 6 – B
  • 12 – C
  • 5 – D
  • 4 – F

“What a lovely bell curve,” I thought to myself as I awaited my exam. The teacher walked about, placing each one face down on the desks. Finally it was my turn.

I stared at the back of my test, then flipped it over as if I was ripping off a bandage. My heart danced a little with joy at what I saw.

“What did you get?” asked my study buddy from the desk behind me.

I showed him the big “96% Nice Job!” across the top of my page. He grinned. His score was a 97%. High-fives were had.

An Evening in the Store

I am a superstar at the retail store where work. I’ve got the brain of a problem-solving engineer and the heart of a compassionate teacher. The combination makes me perfect for any employer who wants proactive employees.

I can do anything on the sales floor except work in the coffee shop, including all the things with special training, which means I often don’t get my assigned tasks completely done. My bosses are okay with that, though; they know I am putting out fires.

On this particular evening, the line at the returns desk became wondrously long, so I hopped back there to help out. My last customers consisted of a couple who had come to return their coffee maker because the latch button which allows the coffee to be poured from the carafe had broken off. Their receipt had not expired, but we were out of stock on that model.

It took some convincing as they had their heart set on that exact model, but I walked the couple back to the coffee display to see if we could find something similar that they liked. We couldn’t, but I got an idea, and I pulled out my walkie.

“Nancy, do you copy, Nancy?”

“Go for Nancy,” my manager responded.

“I have some folks with me who would like to return a coffee maker, but we are out of stock on the model they want. It’s just a small piece on the carafe that’s broken, though. Is it okay if we just switch it out for the display model’s carafe?”

“Is theirs still in good enough condition that our display will look nice?”

“I think so. It shouldn’t be too hard to glue this piece back on for display.”

“Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead and do it.”

I peeled the sticker off the display carafe, and handed it to the customers in return for their old one. They left after expressing their happiness. In the break room, I used a cleanser which contained hydrogen peroxide to dissolve the coffee scent from the inside of the pot. It worked remarkably well, although there was still just enough of a hint of it that I hoped it might help drive more sales. When the outside was clean, I put the sticker from the original display model on it. It shined beautifully.

A Night in the Emergency Room

“I’d like you to stay on a clear liquid diet for the next 24 hours or so,” the ER doctor said to me.

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

“I can’t really do that, but I’ll try,” I said.

“Clear liquids are things you can see through,” the doctor explained. He must have thought I had not read the papers the nurse had handed me. “So, things like Jell-O, and…” I interrupted during his pause.

“No, you don’t understand. I live off of food bank food. I don’t get a choice. I will do my best, and I’ll try to be gentler with the food I eat, but there’s no way for me to get my hands on clear liquids other than water. They don’t give us Jell-O at the food bank.”

“Oh…okay…” the doctor said, then went about discharging me. Long story short, suffice it to say that the CT scans show I did not have a concussion or internal bleeding, and the blood work was negative for everything, which is a fantastic combination. I know that “Obamacare” has hurt a lot of people in the middle class and probably could have been implemented better, but if it wasn’t for our current healthcare system, I would never have been able to afford a brain scan when nausea and other problematic symptoms followed a head injury.