If you’ve been keeping up with me, you know that in February I underwent training to become a certified Sexual Assault Crisis Counselor at the Aurora Center. For those of you who do not know about the Aurora Center, let me share some words from their website. “The Aurora Center provides a safe and confidential space for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and family members or friends affiliated with the University of Minnesota, TC or Augsburg College who are victims/survivors/concerned people of sexual assault, relationship violence, or stalking.”
It was an arduous 40-hour training but it was worth it. In this blog, I will share some of my experiences. The good, the bad, and the ugly (but not in that order).
I learned something very valuable during the first day of training; I cannot conceal my reactions. When we were going around a circle introducing our partners to the group, one of my white peers decided to introduce her equally white partner as “This be Becky!” I was waiting for her to spit out her best Ali G impersonation and snap her fingers with a “Respec’!” She said it with a laugh in an ironic not so ironic way and the room laughed with her. I ticked it off as strike in my mind but moved on. Unfortunately, there was another time when a white boy explained that his friends have this inside joke where they end their sentences with “swag”, Gucci, Versace.
We also did an activity where we split up into random groups and answered one question together before moving on to a new group. One particular group I was in was with an Asian man, a White man, and White Woman. I was nervous but the more I talked, the more comfortable I felt. We all went around saying hello and the white male decided to shake hands with us. When he got to me, I placed my right hand over my heart and explained that I don’t shake hands because of my culture(such a cop-out, I know). I didn’t have much time so I didn’t elaborate and I could sense he was uncomfortable. The awkwardness was palpable. When it came time to answering questions, he didn’t look me in the eye once as he shared but instead focused on the other white person in the group. And it’s not like I was staring off into space or being a disengaged listener. Quite the opposite! I listened intently to everyone’s stories so I definitely felt some type of way for being left out of the conversation like that. The white girl did the same thing as him and only looked at the white guy when it was her turn. I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking if they wanted some privacy.
Moving on to blander issues, I ate my first baked potato and was thoroughly unmoved. Call me heartless but I like potatoes of a different variety. Speaking of food, lunch times were generally awkward for me. I was great at contributing to groups but when it came to connecting with people outside of that environment I found it hard. I had forgotten white people’s favorite pastime; small talk. So much so that on a particular day of training, I decided to sit alone at table without attempting to converse with others. I bought a soda from the vending machine and when I returned the corridor I was sitting in was packed with people. I sat down in the furthest corner. I knew it was coming before it happened. Someone or some people would assume I was a sad, lonely person who needed saving and ask me to join them. When I saw a shadow standing over me, I slowly raised my head like a naughty child caught red-handed mucking about. One of my kind, friendly peers asked me to join her table. I smiled and accepted, hiding the fact that I just wanted to watch “Formation” a few more times in peace. At the time, I was frustrated because I couldn’t refuse such a nice, genuine offer from a really nice girl. Then I was in a situation a month later at a social event where I didn’t know anyone in the room and I couldn’t find anyone to sit by. I decided to sit by myself, disappointed because I had hoped to interact with some friendly faces. I felt lonely. I felt like an ant, an insignificant part of the universe just drifting through life. This may seem like a dramatic interpretation but humans are social creatures by nature. If that means you need a large group of people to laugh with or even a friend or two to connect, we need each other. During times like that, I really wished someone like that Aurora Volunteer would have come over and asked me pull a chair up. In hindsight, I really appreciate the generous action of someone who cared.
We once had a panel of representatives from different organizations on campus comprised entirely of white women. One volunteer later remarked how that was her favorite part of that day’s training. It reminded me that most people in the room had not noticed the glaring whiteness of the all-white panel.There were many times that I felt alone and isolated from the rest of my team. They wouldn’t understand my experience. They couldn’t even if they tried because they never experienced it. Empathy is not sympathy. Unless you’ve been here, you won’t fully understand the depth and meaning of my experience.
This experience was not a part of training but it is relevant to this conversation. I introduced myself to a veteran volunteer. He asked me for my name to make sure he wouldn’t butcher it. I was surprised by his consideration as I am use to hearing strange versions of my name. When he repeated my name back, it wasn’t quite right. I corrected him and he tried again with no success. I corrected him a third and maybe a fourth time but the name came out sounding nothing like it should. It was almost comical that my two syllable, 5 letter name was trying to anyone least of all someone who specifically stated that he did not want to get my name wrong. I looked to another person engaged in the conversation and when we made eye contact, I knew that she had noticed it too. With a shrug, I gave up correcting. Sure call me “AyIIN”, “On”, or my favorite variation; Ian. I was used to it by now. I was used to saying everyone else’s name exactly the way they wanted and not being able to recognize mine from their lips.
Before I mention an activity that really opened my eyes, I must preface it with an activity that tied in with it. We did an activity around identity and stereotypes. We numbered off and went into groups of 5 and were assigned an identity. Our job was to come up with derogatory names and stereotypes for our assigned identity. Our group was assigned GLBT. We wrote whatever came to mind. One of our members was Indian and he contributed British slurs and stereotypes which were relatively unknown to the rest of the group. The 8 identities the entire room brainstormed were Woman, Man, Black, Muslim/Arabic, GLBT, Disability, Working Class/Poor, and Asian. This obviously does not include all the identities could belong to but it’s what we were assigned. After we were done brainstorming, each group then presented their poster. The energy of the room was filled with shame and discomfort. One girl remarked how even though she wasn’t prejudiced, she was easily able to come up with slurs and stereotypes. This reminded me of my social psychology class when we learned about a study that showed even those that do not identify as racist were able to recognize all of the stereotypes and slurs of the oppressed group.
One of the first groups to present was the ‘Black’ group. One biracial black girl and one white boy went up to present. The girl held the poster and the boy read. When it came to the word nigger written on the poster the boy said it with ease.
I was a little surprised. I expected the black girl to take over and read a portion of the slurs but she remained silent and stoic. Then the Muslim/Arabic group went up. By now the room was absorbed in a tight silence. I made the mistake of looking at the poster while taking a sip of water. I instantly choked and water seared my lungs as I fought for air and held back laughter.
Someone had written ‘DEMENTOR’ on the poster. I wanted to snap a picture and remember this moment. In all my 20 years of life, I had never heard dementor used against me. Towel head, sure. Tent, sure. Curtains, why not? But dementor? Now this is the type of creativity and tenacity I hope to see in bigots and racists alike. The same old slurs get predictable and boring. A touch of pop culture wouldn’t hurt. Someone share this with Donald Trump’s campaign manager.
One by one, all the other slurs for identities were read. Katie asked us to take some time for ourselves and when we were ready, to meet her in the back.
We did an activity called “Step In”. The basic rules are to step in whenever the facilitator says something that you relate to or have experienced. There were some really hard ones like; “I had to contribute to my family’s income to survive” and “I have experienced sexual assault or relationship violence”. I was surprised to see people stepping in for experiences I never would have imagined they had. I found myself comparing my experience to those around me, trying desperately to remember who I could relate to. One by one, the posters we created earlier were brought into the circle. If we felt comfortable we could step in and speak on it. We did. Some angrily. Others with tears in their voice. Every time I stepped in for an identity I related to, I always brought it full circle by denouncing the root cause: white supremacy. I made people uncomfortable, I know, but I wasn’t there to pretend my experience was not my own. Sometimes, people would speak on an identity as though their experience was everyone else’s. In an attempt to distance one’s self from the hurtful stereotypes, they inadvertently invalidated someone else’s (in terms of intra-identities). Sometimes I would step in the circle alone and in an entire room filled with people. This realization robbed me of my previous excitement at relatability. When I tried to discuss this in a debriefing session with other volunteers, my experience was invalidated and I was given the ever so annoying “Do you”.
This was my favorite part of my experience for obvious reasons. There were many happy surprises during training.
- I found another East African and we bonded over our joy of West African music.
- Finding out the owner of the catering business supplying us with delicious food was Black-owned (seasonings galore!).
- Having our VP of Student Affairs Danita Brown, a Black woman, come in and share her wisdom with us.
- Coming early one day and having a profound conversation on race, privilege, and handshaking with a staff member that I was initially hesitant towards.
- Having a survivor come in and share her inspiring journey.
- Talking with an Indian girl over our different perspectives on a specific race issue without invalidating one another’s experience.
- Learning how to actively listen.
- Receiving well-deserved and appreciated compliments on my exemplarily eyebrows.
- Blueberry mini muffins. Infinite amounts of candy.
- Overcoming social fears.
Perhaps the most important experience of all required nothing of me except ability to listen. When the room had filled on Day One, our Director Katie Eichele was the first to speak. I was very happy to learn that Katie is Korean and that a woman of color held not only a position of power at the Aurora Center, but she also runs that shit! I wanted to catch her eye and give her smooth nod in solidarity but I had to feel her out first. There are many Non-Black People of Color that not only ignore black oppression but also take part in anti-blackness. Anti-blackness can be found in every culture and it’s true that the darkest people of all cultures are treated worse than others. My caution is that of both personal experience and historical.
Katie introduced herself like no one I had ever seen. She told us her beginnings and shared deeply personal experiences in front of a room of almost complete strangers. I found myself holding my breath listening to her, not want even the sound of air to get in between her story and my ears. I glanced at my classmates and saw the shock, discomfort, terror, disbelief, and pity expressions that marred their faces. She asked us to be willingly vulnerable that day. She asked us to share our stories and to be open to the experience. The most powerful person in the room had made herself vulnerable and by extension, gave us all permission to be vulnerable.
Katie empowered me that day to not perform but to simply be. To act as I am and not how I think other people want me to be. She allowed me to share my story and gave me the courage to connect with other volunteers in a way I had thought unattainable. Katie was right. The more I shared, the less I cared. Because who could my know story better than me? For once I wasn’t worrying about keeping up with the people around me. I knew that the pace I was going was the pace I needed for myself. There were times the deeply intimate exercises were overwhelming. But Katie’s words stayed with me throughout the entire experience. I decided to talk about white supremacy to a room full of white people. I shared a story that no one else had ever heard to a group of strangers. I made it my mission to find some way to connect with the people around me. When I connected and allowed myself to be vulnerable, I was comfortable in my skin and in my truth. That’s power.
That wasn’t all Katie did for me. She pulled me aside one day and thanked for sharing my experiences to the group and mentioned a couple specific examples. The first words that came out of my mouth were “Really?” I was not prepared for the Director to personally thank me for anything or even remember what I said earlier. That showed me that Katie wasn’t just some schmuck who got stuck in a place they didn’t want to be. Katie believes in Aurora and she believes in her Volunteers. She also shared some very wise words on race, privilege, model minorities, academia and everything in between. I couldn’t believe someone so aware of the issues facing marginalized people was so calm and patient. In that short conversation, Katie taught me how to be effective as a leader. And I knew that if I decided to join the Aurora Center, I would have an empathetic and effective leader.
I completed my training and am now an advocate for the Aurora Center. There were lots of ups and downs, moments of serendipity, laughter, tears, anger, frustration, and joy. I knew, for what it’s worth, that I came out of the training a better person. I knew how to help those around me and I felt capable and prepared. The Aurora Center is ALWAYS looking for volunteers who want to experience something meaningful. If you’re also someone is not well represented on our campus or in the real world, I would encourage you even harder to join. We need you. Your community needs you. We are an accepting and safe resource. Please join us to better serve the needs of people just like you. Check out: http://www1.umn.edu/aurora/
Thanks for getting this far.