3.5 - Developing our “Both/And” Skill Set – Learning to Use a Systemic Lens

3.5 – Developing our “Both/And” Skill Set – Learning to Use a Systemic Lens (1 hour 15 minutes)


Materials needed: Butcher paper, tape, Skill Sets of Agents resource sheet, Skills Transition worksheet, pens and pencils.

Purpose of piece: To reflect on the use of the terms “allyship” and “solidarity,” investigate how the Skill Sets of Agents theoretical model, by Leticia Nieto, might help us more effectively engage people while offering a systemic lens, and reflect on our own stories of how we became aware of systemic injustice.

Say to group: It’s important that we ground ourselves in our values and intentions when talking with people we hope to influence. One of the things we need to be clear about is why we are invested in racial justice. What is our stake in this work?

One area to consider is how we relate to the terms allyship and solidarity.

  1. What does it mean to be an ally? What thoughts, intentions, and beliefs does it inspire?
  2. What does it mean to work in solidarity? What thoughts, intentions, and beliefs does it inspire?

Take a few share outs for each questions. Take notes on butcher paper taped to a wall. (5 minutes)

Increasingly, people are offering critiques of the ally approach. This is partly because the following ideas are common within the ally approach:

  1. Being an ally is about helping other people.
  2. It’s the right thing to do, but it doesn’t imply me having a personal stake in the issue.
  3. People from that marginalized group need me to take action because they do not have the power to stand up for themselves.
  4. My involvement in their liberation is essential.

Regardless of intention, these motivations/rationales support supremacist thinking (albeit unconscious) that undermines the agency of other people and contributes to a destructive sense of self-importance.

Alternatively, solidarity implies the following:

  1. I am invested in justice efforts because injustice is bad for all people.
  2. Our collective liberation is bound together, and I must do my part.
  3. Each group has particular contributions to make to our collective liberation.

Facilitator’s Note: This discussion is not meant to leave participants feeling chastised for using the term ally. In many places, the term ally is the best first step toward creating a racial justice practice. The intent for this discussion is that participants can gain a clearer view of a current shift in language and thinking taking place so that they may understand the rationale (and impacts) and modify their speech as needed.

It is important that each of us develop our own authentic language to convey why we’re invested in racial justice. Given what has just been discussed, take a few minutes to write down some reasons you engage in justice work that focus on your personal stake.

Some questions to consider while you brainstorm are:

  1. How does racial inequality impact you?
  2. How does racism affect your connections with others?
  3. How would life be better for you, your family, and your community if racism did not exist?

(10 minutes)

Say to group: The reason crafting this language is essential is because we will draw upon it when explaining to others why we think this work is important and invite them to be involved. The message we give to others makes a difference, and the more we can avoid sounding like we’re motivated by a savior or guilt complex, the better.

Say to group: What I am now passing out is a tool that describes various skill sets people use when they are in an Agent position (the privileged position within a particular social category). The ideas were developed by Leticia Nieto as part of a larger theoretical model. DISTRIBUTE HANDOUT.

When reviewing this, note on the far right column that one of the characteristics of allyship is working to educate and activate other people within the privileged group. This is an example of a moment where we invite the both/and. Yes, many are critical of the focus on allyship for the reasons we’ve discussed. And, there are beneficial tools offered under the guise of supporting allyship that we can use.

The importance of this document is its ability to help us be realistic and strategic. We cannot expect people to move from Indifference to Allyship overnight. For many, it’s a fairly lengthy process. This model can help us identify where people are in their skills and what might come next. For example, for someone who exhibits overt racism or is indifferent, the next step might be trying to get the individual to see people of color in relationship to our common humanity, moving a column or two to the right.

Another important aspect to note is that there is a doubled line between Inclusion and Awareness. This indicates that the three columns on the left involve the use of an individualistic lens. The two columns on the right, on the other hand, involve an understanding of the systematic nature of oppression.  (5 minutes)

At this time, take a few minutes to review the handout, including the definitions at the top of the page.

  1. In your own words, how would you describe the five different ‘skill sets’?
  2. How might this information help us approach conversations with others?

(15 minutes)

Facilitator’s Note: Some white people living in highly segregated communities may object that this work isn’t as necessary because a large number of people of color are not part of their network, community, or city. However, it’s essential that facilitators make the point that we can (and must) engage in these conversations regardless of how many people of color we interact with regularly. To do otherwise would reinforce the idea that race only exists when people of color are present, a primary point of privilege that must be challenged.

Say to group: In order to prepare ourselves to more effectively communicate the value of using a systemic lens, it is important for us to understand where we are in our own journey. Some of us may find that interpreting things systemically is new and difficult. Others might have interpreted things through a systemic lens for so long that we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to focus on individual responsibility and agency. Regardless of where we are on the journey, when we talk to others who are not yet in a position of acting as ally or solidarity partner, the most effective strategy may involve telling personal stories.

Say to group: To anchor ourselves in our own stories, stories that might be useful to tell others, we’re going to reflect on the personal experiences we’ve had that helped us shift from one of the ‘skill sets’ to another. In other words, what experiences helped move you from one column to another? (Distribute the Skills Transition worksheet.)

Individual reflection (10 minutes)

Say to group: Now let’s move into pairs (or triads).

  • Share some of the important moments in your life that helped you move from one position to another. (If you can’t think of anything related to race, consider an experience that caused you to think differently about another issue.)
  • Consider what it was about these experiences that made such a different in your thinking. Why were they so impactful? What did they make you realize? (20 minutes)

Large group debrief: (10 minutes)

  1. Has anyone had experiences that helped you interpret events/issues through a systemic lens?
  2. How do we accountably hold a “both/and” in terms of how each person needs to feel a sense of personal agency and that systemic injustice affects people’s lives?
  3. How might telling our stories and experiences be useful when speaking with others?
  4. What would make you feel more confident engaging in conversations about the systemic nature of oppression?

Facilitator’s Note: It is not expected that this single activity will generate a lot of confidence. This is a moment when the community could discuss how to continue providing practice and learning opportunities for infusing systemic ideas into conversations. Small groups of people could meet together to support one another either practicing or debriefing together. The point would be to create a habit of practicing these skills. They do not come naturally. Putting in time and effort leads to effectiveness. Handout 3.5d, Conversations Offering a Systemic Lens, is an additional resource that may support further strategy and practice conversations.

Wrap Up: To offer a final word on this process, it’s up to Agents to work to expand the perspective of other Agents. We can talk about it as allyship or solidarity work. Either way, being strategic is important. And recognizing that multiple stages of development might be needed is part of that strategic understanding. Also, it will take lots of practice before we develop a sense of confidence in our ability to engage people in a way that effectively expands their perspective. That’s normal. Hopefully we can work together to help each other use our voices and stories as effectively as possible.