Nov. 17, 2020

How to do social justice work compassionately

Calling in, calling out, and when (or when not) to do what
compassionate social justice
Photo credit: Shahan Khan Shahan Khan

In an era where we, as individuals and as a society, are reckoning with histories of systemic racism, sexism, and other inequities, how do we stand up for what we believe in? How can we use our voices to support change?

Toronto-based sex and emotional literacy educator Karen (B.K.) Chan is dedicated to navigating difficult conversations with compassion, kindness and transformation. She believes that while call-outs can lead to important change, there are other ways to work toward accountability. During her three-part workshop series for UFlourish, she walked participants through calling out, calling in, and discerning when to do what.

The answer? It depends, and whenever possible, Chan advocates for a self check-in on our own well-being and inner resources before engaging in this work.

Compassion for self first

Before speaking up, Chan considers her personal well-being. She asks herself, is she the best person to be speaking out? Could she be putting her energy and purpose elsewhere?

"Am I able to pave a road with my hands when there are fresh wounds?" says Chan, a fan of metaphor. "I can do it when there are scars, when I have healed, but when I have fresh wounds, the work of paving makes it impossible for me to do any good, let alone to heal.

“Many of us doing justice work are doing it at a detriment to our health, depleting our inner resources, or feeding reactivity — which can be especially high when we are in the depths of trauma, acute or chronic. I meet so many change workers and activists who deprioritize themselves in the process, such that their bodies, relationships, and spirit suffers.

"We inadvertently harm that which we mean to change, not only harm to the 'cause' but to the communities and people — our allies and our peers."

Chan also recognizes that social justice work doesn’t look the same for everyone. Identities, inner resources, and systemic oppression combine to create inequalities in one’s ability to tackle this work, with burn out sometimes the result.

Origins, defining features of calling out

“From my understanding, calling out came as a way to highlight what a transgressor, be that person or institution, has done or gotten away with that has been deemed hurtful or harmful," says Chan. "As a result, attention or resources are taken away — by, for instance, boycotting someone’s work, taking away credibility, public approval, contracts or other forms of income."

Chan looks to recent racial justice uprisings to illustrate why a call out is better than a call in. “The history of anti-Black racism in Canada is so long and so deep and has created so much harm, when after invitation after invitation, calling in feels like a joke. Which is why, for instance, folks are not calling in their police departments.”

“In many ways, call outs are sometimes the only action that can incite change or focus attention on something that’s problematic.”

When to call in instead of out

“Calling in happens anywhere folks can compassionately name the problem and perhaps strategize and negotiate together,” says Chan. “Letters, town halls, one-on-one conversations are all examples of this.” 

Chan outlines conditions for when calling in is possible:

  • When justice seeker and transgressor hold similar power
  • When the transgressor did not mean to act with malice
  • When the relationship between justice seeker and transgressor is still important

In her workshops, Chan uses the Learning Zone Model to illustrate and empower those who wish to engage in conversation, giving examples of what calling in could look like:

  • Asking for clarification 
  • Naming a request
  • A conversation side by side with one another, rather a confrontation at one another
  • Spectrum thinking, for example, where we can be both good, bad and everything in between, over binary thinking, where there is only good or bad
  • Listening, sharing, and being vulnerable
  • Staying connected as imperfect human beings

Space and clarification sometimes necessary when calling in

When situations become overwhelming, or discussions become heated, Chan suggests another self check-in. For example, taking space might be easiest in the form of a quick bathroom break — an excuse to reconnect to your breath, assess and connect with how you’re feeling. 

Coming back to a tough conversation, Chan encourages looking for other ways of understanding, like explaining: “I’m having trouble hearing you, so I’m going to need to slow down, or I’m going to say back to you what I think you’re saying.” 

More resources to aid in difficult conversations, including building emotional intelligence, can be found on Chan’s website.

Courageous Conversations at UCalgary

For those wanting to continue concretely working toward social change, a new speaker series offered through UCalgary’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has just launched. Entitled Courageous Conversations, the series is designed to spark a national conversation around equity, race, systemic racism and anti-racism.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Find support and connect to the strategy here.