This past Thursday, Oct. 26, the Centre for International Studies (CIS) hosted an off-campus workshop at the Sackville Commons. The event concentrated on anti-oppression frameworks and tackled reflective tools to move past performative allyship.
CIS is a student- and faculty-run initiative that, according to coordinator Tina Oh, aims to “fill in the gaps that we’re seeing [that] are quite bare, especially where the university is not filling the gaps, [nor] even the students’ union.” Oh and Shannon Power are the current student coordinators for CIS.
Carmella Farahbakhsh, a queer, non-binary, mixed-race, Bahá’í, Iranian person from South House Sexual and Gender Resource Centre, and Louise Lyman, a queer, white femme from HeartWood Centre, are both activists based out of Halifax who were invited to Sackville to facilitate the event.
The workshop opened with a community check-in as a way to introduce people’s names and pronouns. This was followed by group guidelines that shaped how everyone interacted throughout the session. It was important that these guidelines were developed collectively to create a space where everyone could engage in ways that were safe and made sense to them. Over the course of two hours, the facilitators centred the workshop around decolonizing communication, active listening, navigating trust in power imbalances, gaslighting and allyship.
When asked to loosely define what the workshop was about, Power said, “Very generally, it’s a framework that aims to be incorporated into your life in all kinds of different aspects, that fights against any kind of system of oppression, whether it be racism, sexism, ableism or transphobia. It’s not just a set of things that you know, facts, or a checklist of things to do or not to do; it’s a framework for understanding how to go about doing things and engage with other people.”
Jill MacIntyre, a fourth-year student who attended the event, described the workshop as a largely reflective learning experience that avoided just “talking at” participants for the duration of the event. MacIntyre said the experience “focused more on pre-formative allyship, so [the workshop] was trying to develop and teach genuine intentions so we are not just sharing an article on Facebook and never acting on it in real life.… I think it’s really good because it will validate people’s experiences and make them recognize their own privileges in ways in which they can grow from and become a better ally.”
“We need these workshops to learn how we are oppressive in our everyday lives and the ways that we can correct that,” MacIntyre added.
The event was free and open to all members of the community, as an attempt to break down barriers that not only exist between the town and the University but across socio-economic and hierarchical access inequities. Oh noted that this was intentional and vital in the planning process: “It was important for us to make sure that the community was invited, not just for this particular event, but all events. We wanted to make a space that is not so university-centric.”
Community member and town council member Megan Mitton attended the event after recognizing the gap the community has yet to fill. “I attended because I feel that since I have been out of university I have had less opportunities to engage in these kinds of frameworks,” she said. “It can be harder to access this type of workshop. These types of conversations unfortunately aren’t really happening out in the community.”
On a wider scale, Power acknowledged that the application of anti-oppression is important, no matter what you engage in. “We all do so many different things and [are] engaged with so many different people, so I think it’s important that people understand how to apply that framework to everything they do in this community,” she said. “You don’t need to be engaged with social justice to be able to use this framework. For me, it’s something that I try to do on a daily basis.”
As a community member, Mitton believes that “to move forward there are going to be some uncomfortable conversations and a lot of this [anti-oppression learning] isn’t going to be very formal. I think that’s something we need to recognize, because it isn’t always a parade or a workshop: It’s the one-on-one interactions that we’re having with people by being aware of our assumptions and reactions.”
With hopes of future engagement, Oh closed by saying, “We’re seeing at other universities students are taking initiatives, especially students’ unions, by making mandatory workshops for clubs’ and societies’ executives….So hopefully we are setting a precedent by starting up this first anti-oppression workshop into something that is consistently free and more mandatory for certain groups.”