Bystander Intervention Training, Reflections

by Maryam Barrie, English/Writing

On the Friday of winter break, the 24th of February, the English Department hosted a thought provoking Bystander Intervention Training offered by Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ) in the Writing Center (LA355). Given that many people may not have been able to attend who were interested, I was impressed to see twenty eight faculty and staff members at the training.  The content of the training was practical and useful, and deserves a wider audience. Su Hansen and LeAnn Soto of Ann Arbor’s ICPJ led us through a well planned and engaging four hour session. They began by leading a discussion about how nonviolent communication and action doesn’t seek to avoid or ignore conflict. Approaching conflict with nonviolence isn’t about being passive. In the packet our presenters shared with us, I found this line: “Real nonviolence does not attempt to create a world where there is no conflict; it recognizes that we face conflict all through our lives, and recognizing conflict is the first step towards finding common ground.” (The italics are mine.)

That notion of finding common ground is likely familiar to those of us who have worked to create dynamic and diverse dialogue in our classrooms. In a series of role-play scenarios, the trainers created situations with us where bystander interventions were needed.  Even though we were just playing at being harassed or harassing, threatened or threatening, it quickly become clear that there are tangible and concrete things we can do as bystanders that could be helpful. Su and LeAnn showed us that there is value in imagining different scenarios that could occur ahead of time, and in training ourselves to be more observant as we walk through our lives.  Some of our role plays involved LGBT and immigration issues, with folks being harassed in and about Ann Arbor. I was relieved that the group had a realistic discussion about poor behavior that happens here in Washtenaw County, even though we may think of ourselves as members of a liberal and tolerant community.  Sadly, racism, sexism, xenophobia and a sort of belligerent, myopic view of what it means to be American are all alive and well here.

Standing up for someone being treated unjustly likely makes sense to most of us, though we did talk about the importance of not taking away someone’s agency.  In one of the scenarios, the intervening bystander directly asked one of the women being harassed if she wanted the bystander to go look for the restaurant manager, or if she would rather do that herself. Directly engaging the person being harassed can effectively interrupt the harassment and signal to the person behaving poorly that you don’t support their actions or words.  If there are other bystanders, it could be helpful to enlist their support for your actions.  Perhaps some of us are more likely to join someone who is already standing up for what is right.

Given the dramatic tensions flying around our country these days, thinking ahead to what you might do if you happen to witness someone being treated unjustly is just practical. I’m writing this a few days after bomb threats were called into Jewish Community Centers across the country (and yes, this did happen to the Ann Arbor JCC). If you are paying attention to the news, there are multiple instances every day of perceived outsiders being attacked, whether they are brown, black, gay, Arab, Jewish, Muslim, Mexican or just poor. There is a compelling need for each of us to be ready to stand up.

In the ICPJ training, they made it clear that the first step any of us ought to take if we witness intolerant behavior is to calm and center ourselves as we assess the situation. Simply taking three deep breaths, or lightly bending our knees (if we are standing) can help us become calm. One of the acronyms in the training packet was CACI – for Center, Assess, Choose a goal, and only then, Intervene.

As one of our trainers pointed out, human beings are unpredictable, and each situation is different.  We need to make our own best judgment, and look for common ground with the harassed and the harasser. If a situation seems potentially violent, it makes sense to think about what you can reasonably do ahead of time. Calling 911 on your cell phone or recording the events happening on your cell phone may be your best shot at stepping in. Think ahead about what might be your strongest skill set. If you have military or athletic experience, you have abilities that an elderly asthmatic English teacher, for example, might not have. Remember though that each situation will have its own unique qualities. Being fully present and alert when or if you happen to be a bystander to a moment of injustice or intolerance and having a clear sense of possible actions you could take will serve the situation best.

The other acronym in the ICPJ materials was CLARA – which stands for Calm and Center, Listen, Affirm, Respond, and lastly, Add Information. The heart of this approach for engaging productively in a heated discussion (say, about what real news is) is to listen carefully to the other until you find a way to authentically connect with them, ideally with an open heart. Not surprisingly, this may not come naturally, but practicing this with intention can be profound. If we can understand and have compassion for the fear, anger, hopelessness or despair that may be at the bottom of someone’s irrationality and abusive or unjust behavior, we have a chance of real human engagement. That sort of engagement generally makes a situation better. None of us are likely to change our ideas, or reevaluate a long standing assumption if we know the person we are in dialogue with only has contempt for us.

Here is what I most valued about the event though: in the service of making contact with the harasser, with the one who is behaving unjustly, the trainers suggested pretending to have a common ground with them, if no readily apparent common ground exists. The premise is that all of us have ‘hidden harm’ and no matter how awful our behavior might be, there is still a part of us that can be reached and urged into the light. I find that enormously cheering and hopeful. One of the options suggested was that if we are a similar age to the harasser, we could pretend to recognize them. For example, we could say, “Hey, didn’t you go to school in Milan? You look so familiar to me.”  If we can invent a way to reach out to the best in the harasser, and trust that the better part of them can be woken up, even with a lie, there is a chance we can use our wits and our words to make a difference.

At the beginning of the training, Su and LeAnn set up some very simple and direct ground rules. They talked about using our privilege (whatever that might be) to dismantle privilege that results in abuse and injustice. They reminded us that each of us has our own hurt history, our own woundedness.  In all sorts of everyday conflicts those issues rise up and take hold of us and influence our actions, unless we work to have awareness of how that hurt still lives in us. What I particularly loved was the discussion about not being nice.  Their phrase was be kind, not nice. Should I be a bystander witness of some poor behavior, I’ve got a better idea of the range of options I’ll have that could make a difference. And how often do we get advice to not be nice, and to lie?