Allyship (v.) is an active and consistent practice of unlearning and re-evaluating beliefs and actions, in which a person seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalized individual or group of people
A New York University tradition, Ally Week is a week of events, seminars, workshops and activities that show support for all of those who identify with a minority, or marginalized group. At NYU Shanghai, we chose to celebrate the week as a community, regardless of where we come from or who we are as people. With only a small cohort of 750 students, our events were a triumphant success, with almost every person attending at least one seminar, activity or bought a Strictly Cookie – 4 RMB of every cookie was donated to HIV/AIDS work in China.
Kicking off the week was a CommUNITY picnic, where students gathered outside the Academic Building on Sunday afternoon and were treated to an afternoon of free food and a lack of pollution. In addition, students were able to take photos in front of the Ally Week banner, with pledge placards, stating why they were allies. A few of the reasons students and faculty gave were “love is love”, “we all need support in one way or another”, while others credited NYU, saying “I graduated from NYU, so I know better”. The other reason, was “why not?”.
While the CommUNITY picnic was a chance for individuals to speak with their community in an informal setting, other events such as the Forum on Microaggression, were chances for students to speak up about their personal experiences and share their opinions with fellow students. Moderated by NYU Shanghai writing professor Jennifer Tomscha, the Microaggression Forum aimed to create awareness around the idea of “microaggressions” – negative comments that are made unintentionally about somebody’s relationship to a marginalized group. Microaggressions happen in everyday life, and can have the same psychological effect as intended discrimination.
The forum was centered around student experiences with microaggressions and from the viewpoint of different societal minorities. Sophomore Stephanie Ulan described her experiences as a ‘white’ Hispanic, which meant that she benefited from white privilege, despite the fact that she has Hispanic roots. Ulan also spoke of microaggressions that are made within one’s group, and the need for this to be acknowledged.
For students, the Microaggression Forum was a prime source of racism education. In Freshman Ricardo Chacon Rodriguez’s opinion, “Having a microaggression forum was an amazing idea. Given the nature of our university, being surrounded by people sharing very different backgrounds is just the norm. And as such, people will be used to say and do things that would appear perfectly normal in their respective home countries, cultures, etc. Nevertheless, many of these common practices can come across as rude or disrespectful to others. Therefore having a forum where this concerns about microaggressions can be addressed, is just another way for people within the NYU-Shanghai to learn how to coexist with each other in a respectful way.”
Other students who spoke at the forum included Mercy Angela Nantongo, who spoke about racism within African communities and the way in which “not all black people are African, and not all Africans are black”. Mercy also dismissed the African look, suggesting that every person is the same – no persons should be grouped together by appearance. Sophomore Hannah Lyon also spoke of the struggles she encountered as an adopted Asian-American, and of the microaggressions that she has received in relation to her adoption. For Lyon, her main issue was the problem of generalizations – both around Asian-Americans and adoption. The discussion was not limited to racial microaggressions: gender stereotypes and stigmas around sexuality were also discussed.
Over the week, students also had the opportunity to hear from members of the international community, such as Mac Millar, who was brought to NYU Shanghai by Rotaract@NYUSH. The 10-year-old Australian is currently collecting donations to purchase soccer balls for kids in North Korea to encourage literacy and education. Students in attendance were able to view how individuals can be allies on a worldwide scale – something extremely important for any international community, like NYU Shanghai.
In addition, as another example of an international ally, the Q&A Society’s Faculty Advisor Anjuli Pandavar joined NYU Shanghai students for a discussion on allyship. Anjuli Pandavar, a true global citizen, is a South African born British writer and social critic who currently teaches English for Academic Purposes at NYU Shanghai. She has lived, worked, studied or travelled in thirty five countries, speaks four different languages, holds four degrees and grew up amongst three religions.
She discussed how she, a black, gay, left-wing, woman needs an ally and how she has been discriminated against for one, a combination or all of these adjectives in all the countries she has been to. Even despite the depths of her personal history, from growing up through the Apartheid in South Africa and living in countries where homosexuality is illegal, she sat down and shared her experiences and her beliefs, unbroken by the social injustices she has been subjected to.
Her girlfriend, whom she will marry this coming June, was also in attendance. Together the pair talked about being gay in Shanghai. Both admitted they feel safe as China is not a particularly violent country, but they still take precautions. For example, they still gage the atmosphere of a place before they ‘steal a kiss.’
The discussion then opened up to questions from students and the discussion turned to the differences between social and legal justice. Pandavar talked about how legal infrastructure needs to be in place and changes need to be made within legal systems, but acceptance will not truly be achieved without allies. In her opinion, an ally is someone who is willing to put their own position in society on the line for their belief in social justice.
The concluding forum, held last Friday, was a discussion between students and Global Academic Fellows about what it means to be an ally. Organizers Cato van Schaik and Luke Noel commented the following:
“GAFs Joshua Dy Borja, Maxi-Ann Campbell, Daniel Cuesta, Charlotte Evans, and Jessica Tattersall lead the discussion in sharing their own experiences both in times that they have acted as allies and in times that they have benefitted from acts of allyship of others. These kinds of learning opportunities are what Ally Week boils down to— all of the fun involved in art galas, picnics, movies, and performances would be meaningless if we weren’t to actually address how we can unlearn certain behaviours in order to become more attuned allies. The panel focused on the idea of allyship not as a passive and one-size-fits all definition, but as a constant process of self-evaluation and engagement within the community. This process is personal, not always the easiest, and often involves acknowledgements of one’s own mistakes— no one person is a super-Ally. In line with this, the discussion ended with the GAFs addressing some of the difficulties that arise when faced with others who do not share your particular set of beliefs, and how to be an effective ally by balancing patience and the urge to persuade others.”
The last week of the event was the Art Gala – in essence, a party to celebrate the amount of work that the NYU Shanghai community that went in to every event. The Gala aimed to use art as a form of communication between social groups. For example, Nicole Chan submitted some of her “Fusia” series, which looks at cultural differences. Members of SPSM, a club centered around performance and music, also performed various songs by artists dealing with issues of marginalization.
For Claire Schapira, “The Art Gala was my favorite event of Ally Week, because it is really a culmination of everything we have worked on, and at the same time everyone gets a moment to relax and enjoy themselves! In addition, it is a chance to showcase some of the amazing artists we have at NYU Shanghai, while also talking about the power of art as a tool for advocacy.”
Overall, Ally Week was a chance for students to open up about their experiences and discuss issues in fun, lighthearted and informal settings. Freshman Isabella Baranyk, who organized the events as a part of Q&A society, said “attendance at this year’s Ally Week exceeded expectations and certainly surpassed that of last year. It’s likely that the events catered to a wider range of people as we tried to move the focus away from just LGBTQ issues and more towards intersectionality among a variety of marginalized groups. There’s always an element of uncertainty as to whether things will come together and whether people will actually show up, but I think that our student body is one that really understands the importance of participating in something like Ally Week. Hopefully attendance and awareness will continue to grow as our school does.”
This article was written by Isabella Farr. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU