By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Next Sunday’s bystander-training workshop presented by Anti-Hate Alaska Junction isn’t the first event of its kind in West Seattle.
But it’s the first since two people were murdered in Portland during an incident that began as bystander intervention – three men trying to stop another from harassing two young women, shouting anti-Muslim slurs.
The upcoming local workshop was planned before that happened; we received the original announcement earlier that week. It shone a brighter light on questions about what to do if you’re there when hate happens, so we sat down to talk with the presenter, Rev. Andrew Conley-Holcom of Admiral Congregational Church, and organizer Susan Oatis of Anti-Hate Alaska Junction.
The free (donations accepted) 2 pm Sunday training at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Admiral promises “interactive techniques to help attendees learn how to intervene in an aggressive or harassing interaction – safely protecting the target while not escalating the perpetrator … (to) increase your confidence about intervening when needed.”
We first ask the minister about the Portland deaths and how the situation, as has been publicly reported, compares to what he trains people for. He made it clear that what happened there was murder, plain and simple, and the victims were not to blame, while noting that they were reported to have intervened with force, and in what he teaches, “using force does not lead to de-escalation.”
The goals set in his training are “we need to protect the targeted person and de-escalate the emotional energy in the room.” It’s not a workshop where you sit and listen to instructions – more on that in a minute.
First the backstory: After the escalated rhetoric of last election season, members of his congregation asked for some kind of training to deal with “problematic speech.” Conley-Holcomb’s background included working for a dispute-resolution center and teaching conflict resolution, so he took it on, and led a workshop. Next, his congregants wanted to know how to intervene in hate-speech situations. “So I developed another workshop rooted in ‘Theater of the Oppressed‘,” created by a Brazilian artist to help people “figure out how to claim political power in a totalitarian state.” He used that to “frame up an hour-and-a-half workshop.”
It is not the kind of workshop where you sit around and “talk about what would be a good idea. … there are no ‘spectators,’ there are only ‘spect-actors’ … everyone who is watching the dramatization in the center is going to participate in some way in resolving the situation.” The “situation” follows a scenario, and then participants practice intervening. “You pause every so often and check in on how it’s working, how do you feel, is this working… if people have ideas, they just come in, tag someone out, and try it again.”
Words matter as much as actions, Rev. Conley-Holcom explained – not just the words used by the person portraying the oppressor, but also the descriptions of the roles. “I intentionally don’t use the word ‘victim’ … ‘targeted person’ puts them (in contxt) in the relationship to the oppressor who is making them a targeted person.”
He presented this workshop for the first time in December at Alki UCC; then, at Fauntleroy UCC, at a church in Magnolia, at a school on the Eastside, and now for Anti-Hate Alaska Junction.
He is hoping to help others learn how to lead this training, as his schedule is fairly full already – besides his work as spiritual leader at Admiral Church, “I also volunteer with Moms Demand Action – I teach childhood gun-death-prevention workshops,” and is training people for those presentations as well. “We’re hoping to give one in every school in West Seattle.”
Back to the bystander-intervention workshop: Oatis from Anti-Hate Alaska Junction says, “If we want to live in a hate-free place, we need to learn how to stop it.” Her group has been active since last February and is working on other initiatives including a “Safe Haven” program in The Junction, asking stores to put a sign in their window that “this place is a safe haven” for anyone who is targeted for ay reason. “It means someone can hang around in the store, and (911 will be called) if the situation warrants.” Like the Seattle Police-coordinated Safe Place program, Oatis said, but with a broader scope – whatever reason has a person feeling targeted.
Rev. Conley-Holcom says the ways to intervene as a bystander can be simple: “Be a presence – stand near the targeted person, make it clear you’re listening, especially when it’s clear there’s a power differential – when the person is aware they’re being watched, the willingness (to continue the behavior) changes.” Also: “I want people to be aware, to have an exit plan, if it feels dangerous.” And be aware of your skillset – don’t “overreach.”
This isn’t a self-defense workshop, they make it clear; if you’re interested in learning it separately, he recommends aikido, “which uses a lot of the same principles.”
The workshop has room for 50, Oatis said, and had room as of a few days ago. To RSVP, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, neighborhood, and phone number. First come, first served.
If you can’t make it Sunday – or if it’s booked up by the time you e-mail for a spot – Rev. Conley-Holcom says he has two more trainings this summer, July 30th and August 27th, also on Sundays, 2-3:30 pm, at Admiral Church, and you can contact the church office to sign up.