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"Leaning In" as Imperfect Allies in Community Work



The work of allies in community work is informed by justice-doing and decolonizing practice. A brief description of being an ally is outlined here, as well as understandings of the importance of the concepts of fluidity and groundless solidarity in ally work. Leaning in is described and offered as a way to invite accountability while resisting righteousness. Leaning in invites collective accountability, which is a more useful concept than personal responsibility, which sides with individualism and the idea we are only held accountable for our personal actions. Strategies for being an ally are considered, including engaging with a hopeful skepticism while reflexively questioning whether we are walking the talk. The limitations of allies are discussed, as well as the need to make repair for our failures as allies. Strategies for resisting both unity and division are addressed, as is the possibility of creating cultures of critique that allow for something other than attack and division. Imperfect solidarity based on points of connection is offered as a useful strategy for maintaining good-enough and required alliances across time. Finally, some exercises are offered for readers to engage with: an inquiry into their histories and imperfect practices of being and needing allies, and some invitations to step into domains where they have previously not served as allies.
“Leaning In” as Imperfect Allies in Community Work
Vikki Reynolds, RCC;
The work of allies in community work is informed by justice-doing and decolonizing practice. A brief
description of being an ally is outlined here, as well as understandings of the importance of the concepts
of fluidity and groundless solidarity in ally work. “Leaning in” is described and offered as a way to invite
accountability while resisting righteousness. “Leaning in” invites collective accountability, which is a
more useful concept than personal responsibility, which sides with individualism and the idea we are only
held accountable for our personal actions. Strategies for being an ally are considered, including engaging
with a hopeful skepticism while reflexively questioning whether we are “walking the talk.” The
limitations of allies are discussed, as well as the need to make repair for our failures as allies. Strategies
for resisting both unity and division are addressed, as is the possibility of creating cultures of critique that
allow for something other than attack and division. Imperfect solidarity based on points of connection is
offered as a useful strategy for maintaining good-enough and required alliances across time. Finally, some
exercises are offered for readers to engage with: an inquiry into their histories and imperfect practices of
being and needing allies, and some invitations to step into domains where they have previously not served
as allies.
ally, community work, leaning in, power, privilege, fluidity, imperfect solidarity
Authors’ Note
This work is profoundly collaborative and owes much to a diversity of activists who have been in
imperfect solidarity with me across time. Graeme Sampson and Sherry Simon, practicum
graduate students from the Adler School of Professional Psychology, critiqued the ally exercises
and contributed to their usefulness. Thanks to WAVAW for allowing me to reproduce a version
of “Story from the 20 Bus,” which originally appeared in their newsletter. Sid Chow Tan,
Andrew Larcombe, Paka Ka Liu, Aaron Munro, Tod Augusta-Scott, Jeff Smith, Allan Wade, and
John Winslade offered generative and expansive critiques that improved this work. Mr. Peaslee
helped again.
Volume 1, Issue 1 December, 2013
Recommended Citation:
Reynolds, V. (2013). “Leaning In” as Imperfect Allies in Community Work. Conflict and Narrative: Explorations in
Theory and Practice, 1(1), pp.53-75. Retrieved from
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Please contact Vikki Reynolds at for usage rights.
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“Leaning In” as Imperfect Allies in Community Work
The story that follows illuminates an experience of messy and imperfect ally work on the number
20 bus that goes through the Downtown East Side, the poorest part of Vancouver, and the poorest off-
reserve part of Canada.
I get on the 20 bus late at night, and like most women, I can tell you exactly how many drunk men
are on the bus. But there is one guy that requires all of my attention because he's loud, he's standing up
and he's shouting racist things at an elder Chinese woman. I stand still, not moving, looking and
listening. I think what am I going to do? The first thing I think about is, I can't take on a great big, drunk
man. I've tried this in my life, it hasn't worked for me and I'm scared of great big drunk men. I'm not
required as an ally to take on that guy, unless I have the power to do it. I am required to be an ally to this
I look at the Chinese elder woman and I kind of throw my love at her. I want her to know I’m
here, I'm with her. I'm going to try to figure out what I'm going to do. She's got her head down, she's got
her groceries on her seat next to her and she's tucked in tight. She's not looking at my love that I'm
throwing at her. This is a good tactic, but it's not working.
While I'm trying to figure out how the heck I'm going to respond, a young, sweet, lovely person
who I could not tell the gender of slips by me, Aikido style, and picks up the groceries, puts them on their
lap and sits next to her. What I saw as a full seat, this person saw as a seat without a person in it.
Beautiful! What a beautiful thing! So now, there is a body between this elder Chinese woman and
this man who is attacking her with racism. The Chinese woman doesn't thank this person. I can tell this
person is looking to say, “Should I put my arm around you? Should I talk to you?”
And the Chinese woman is letting them know she’s not engaging with them either.
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There's a whole bunch of us on the bus that are thinking, “OK. What's the next thing we should
This guy is still going. Now I'm rooting for this young person, and I'm worried for them. My read
is that they are possibly trans, or gender-variant and maybe they are queer
, so they could be next to be
attacked. Why should they be in front of this big angry guy? This is not good.
There's a really large First Nations guy on the bus. I can't tell whether or not he's had a few
beers or he's doing performance art because he's by the window, and he slips by the person on the aisle
seat, puts his hand on the bar and swings around, you know, takes all the room on the bus.
In my head I'm thinking, “Oh man! Big guy stuff, there's big guy and big guy; this is going to be
But no, I totally misjudged this guy. He's being an accountable man, what he's saying is bring it
on, bring it over here.
One of the nasty things the white guy had said to the Chinese woman was, “Get back on the boat.
Go back to China.”
And the big First Nations guy says to the white guy, with humor, “Hey man, you are the original
boat person. Christopher Columbus was your captain. Get back on your own damn boat,” and he's
laughing as he says this.
Everyone on the bus exhales, because we know we are going to be OK-enough, and then
everybody leans in, and the guy looks at me, and though I do seem inept, I am available to be an ally. He
looks at me and, with a smile, he asks, “What the hell boat did you come from?”
I timidly say, “Ireland, Newfoundland, a little bit of England.”
He says, “You can stay, you know your boats.”
He starts holding court, inviting other folks into the fray.
As all this is going down, I notice the elder Chinese woman picks up her groceries and slips out
the door at the next stop. I go out with her. The bus goes on. I don't get to see the rest of this lesson in 500
years of resistance to colonization, but I envision it: it makes me happy.
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But I'm left on the sidewalk with the Chinese woman, and I'm wondering if she wanted me to
accompany her, does she feel safe-enough to go to her home. She puts her head down and she kind of
runs, dragging her groceries behind her. She's probably not new to this. She probably has really good
reasons to not trust me either. I'm not a perfect ally to her, she doesn't love me, she doesn't thank me: she
takes off.
I realize I cannot follow her. A big white person following her would be scary, so I try to let go of
what I want to do. I want to be the perfect ally, but she's saying, “No.”
This is what no looks like. I work at WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) a rape
crisis centre. We work really hard to hear no and listen to no. So I’m thinking, “Vikki, you've got to hear
no too.”
So I know this is going to be imperfect, she's probably OK-enough, and she's probably lived with
this her whole life.
I turn around. There are three other women at the bus stop and we are a real multiplicity of
women. And one of them looks at me, looks at everyone else, and says, “This is nobody's stop, is it?”
And we say, “No.”
“We’re all going to wait for the next bus?”
We all chuckle and respond, “Yeah.”
And that was my moment of the social divine (Lacey, 2005), that four different women would get
off at the wrong stop to accompany this woman who didn't need us to walk her home, and didn't thank us.
And the big First Nations guy and the young, possibly gender-variant person, and all the folks who
“leaned in” on the bus are a part of the fabric of the social divine.
These are beautiful moments. When people do the right thing.
And there I was saying, “Oh man. What am I doing alone at night at an unfamiliar bus stop? This
isn't the best scene for you, Vik.”
But I have these other women in solidarity on this street, and I know there are accountable men and
gender-variant folks on that bus. This changes things for me, it matters for me. I hold these moments of
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the social divine alongside the terror of the racism this Chinese woman experienced. That's the real story,
and that's a heart-breaking story (Reynolds, 2012,).
In community work informed by justice-doing, we act in solidarity with shared purposes and
shoulder each other up to resist structural violence and abuses of power and work to create a more just
society (Reynolds, 2010a). This requires us to act as allies to each other across the differences of privilege
and access to power that we hold. Allies belong to groups that have particular privileges, and work
alongside people from groups that are subjected to power in relation to that privilege. The role of the ally
is to respond to the abuses of power in the immediate situation, and to work for systemic social change
(Bishop, 2002). Allies work collectively to contribute to the making of a space in which the person who is
subjected to power gets to have their voice heard and listened to. Being heard is not enough ― a person's
words must matter and not be dismissed. This contributes to the creation of “Spaces of Justice” (Lacey,
Being an ally is not a badge of honor but a sign of privilege and it is risky to be romantic or
sentimental about this. When we experience being the subject of power, abuses of power, oppression, or
attacks on our dignity we accept allies because we need them, not because it is safe or because we have
reasons for perfect trust. We invite good-enough allies, despite past acts that are not trustworthy as
imperfect allies are required when the stakes are high and risk is near. The need for allies speaks to
structures of social injustice. Our greater purpose is to deliver a just society, not to show up as allies,
because our access to power makes that possible. Ally work requires humility and a resistance to
righteousness, alongside the skill and moral courage required to name abuses of power from people
within the same groups allies belong to.
Power relations are complex and, in order to resist simplification, I will speak of subjection as
well as oppression. Oppression does exist, but it is not the only way in which power is used to subject
people. All abuses of power are not oppression. As well, power is not always oppressive, and can be
generative. I borrow this teaching from critical Trans theorist/activist Dean Spade (2011):
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I use the term “subjection” to talk about the workings of systems of meaning and control such as
racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia. I use “subjection” because it
indicates that power relations impact how we know ourselves as subjects through these systems of
meaning and control... “oppression” brings to mind the notion that one set of people are dominating
another set of people, that one set of people “have power” and another set are denied it...The
operations of power are more complicated than that...our strategies need to be careful not to oversimplify
how power operates. Thinking about power as top/down, oppressed/oppressor, dominator/dominated
can cause us to miss opportunities for intervention and to pick targets for change that are not the
most strategic. The term “subjection” captures how systems of meaning and control that concern us
permeate our lives, our ways of knowing about the world, and our ways of imagining transformation.
For example, this racist attack on the Chinese elder on the bus is not the only way all of the folks
on the bus are subjected to power. It is not only a case of one individual white man attacking an
individual woman with verbal racism. What happens is made possible by the existence of a background
discourse that structures what happens on the bus. Racist immigration laws in Canada, which prohibited
Chinese immigration, disrupted family unification and refused citizenship, and the Chinese Head Tax and
Exclusion legislation, which impoverished Chinese families, are particular policies that have fostered this
racist attack
. Corporate media coverage of “boat people” as threatening and not worthy of refuge is
another part of the operating context.
On the other hand, the elder Chinese woman's multiple acts of resistance are responses to her
subjection to power. Looking down, being hunched over, and not engaging anyone, are acts of resistance
that make up an intelligent and prudent resistance strategy. She has probably had success staying safe-
enough by taking less space. Her acts of resistance are responses to her subjection to power, as there is
always resistance to oppression and attacks on people's dignity (Scott, 1985, 1990; Wade, 1996, 1997;
Reynolds, 2010b).
Simultaneously, the cultural stories the white guy is immersed in are also part of the context.
They continually promote a notion of white men as a vulnerable population at the hands of
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multiculturalism and feminism. He is on a bus, and guys should drive cars. He is by no means the perfect
oppressor, and is subjected by the lies of the particular culture of masculinity held up by capitalism and
patriarchy which demand that men should be in charge (drive) and be rich (own a car). Perhaps he is
responding to the ways in which the dominant discourse positions him as a failure. This event is thus
more than a singular act of oppression of a Chinese person by a white person. It happens at the point of
intersection of “lines of force” (Deleuze, 1995, p. 85) about gender, immigration status, age, class and
race, which are all part of the particular context. It is not accidental, for example, that this racist attack is
not targeted at a Chinese young man who is in the company of six large friends.
While I find Spade's analysis of power useful, it is problematic that the above passage appears
agentless: there are no offenders or agents that write, print, circulate, gossip, lie, belittle, and invent the
“systems of meaning and control.” But these meaning systems that appear disembodied are linked to
systems of oppression, violence, relations of physical and material and social power, and arguably
inseparable from them. Agentless constructions, such as “systems of meaning” cannot by themselves do
injustice: they must be produced, warranted, justified, replicated, used, sanctioned and so on ― by social
agents (A. Wade, personal communication, 2012). But neither can individual agents act oppressively
without the background systems of meaning (J. Winslade, personal communication, 2012). The main
problem with Spade’s view of subjection is that it does not begin to explain the actions of the people on
the bus, not even the drunk white guy shouting racism.
Fluidity and Groundless Solidarity
Like the folks on the 20 bus, we are never perfect allies, but may become imperfect allies,
momentary allies, creating moment-to-moment alliances which are flawed, not necessarily safe, but
required and of use. Being an ally is not a static identity that requires perfection and always getting it
right. It is a tactic informed by strategies, a performance (Butler, 1990). Ally work is comprised of actions
potential allies take together across the differences of privilege that divide them to address abuses of
power. Queer theory has brought exciting ideas to ally work (Jagose, 1996; Butler, 1997) inviting fluidity,
which is movement from the fixed and certain to the confused and unstable (Queen & Schimel, 1997).
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Embracing fluidity in ally work means that being an ally is not a fixed position. Fluidity is useful
for ally work because it acknowledges that in particular situations we all need allies, and in different
contexts we can all serve as allies (Reynolds, 2010c). For example, the First Nations guy on the bus is
called on to act as an ally to the Chinese elder, and to all of the women and gender-variant people on the
bus, because of his access to gender privilege. Simultaneously, all of the settler people are required to
have his back, as the police might attend and he could easily become the victim of police officers enacting
colonization and racism by reading him as the perpetrator of violence and dragging him off of the bus.
Fluid ally positioning is responsive to the multiple different domains that construct our identities and the
access to power we hold in relation to these domains.
Categories, like domains of identity, are useful at times, but also problematic. American critical
race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw writes about how her identity as a Black woman is constantly subject to
erasure (Namaste, 2000) and disappearance by categories (Namaste, 1995). When the category being
attended to is race, she is left behind as a Black woman. When the category is gender she is seen as a
woman, but being Black is invisibilized. Her work illuminating the intersections of domains of identity
has been useful in contributing to a more complex understanding of the intersectionality that comprises
identity (Robinson, 2005). Ally positioning must always attend to this fluid intersectionality of sites of
access to power, and being the subject of others’ power, within the same moments and within the same
Canadian anarchist/academic Richard Day writes about “groundless solidarity” (2005, p.18),
meaning that our activism need not always be tied to one location of power. No location is seen as the
organizing principle in all situations; rather, the intersections and the gaps between our multiple locations
in relation to privilege and oppression are tended to in a complex analysis. Sometimes we need to address
sexism, sometimes it is more important to attend to racism, and, in another interaction, class privilege
requires our attention. Of course, we can and must often attend to more than one domain of power at a
time. We do not need to move our attention from one mutually exclusive category to another, but can
engage in a dance that simultaneously addresses the complexities that comprise power relations.
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In Canada, where I live and work, this intersectional approach always exists on colonized
territories. In order to resist replicating colonization, we enact a decolonizing practice, which means
acting in ways that simultaneously attend to the abuse of power that is happening, and holding ourselves
to account in resisting ongoing colonization (Walia, 2012; Richardson & Reynolds, 2012; Lawrence &
Dua, 2005). This might sound like inconsistency, but as anarchists say, “We can walk and chew gum.
In the situation on the 20 bus, we could address men’s violence and attend to colonization at the
same time. To do so requires that we always situate ourselves on the land in an accountable way and from
that stance we respond to abuses of power. For example, the network of activists resisting the poverty,
gentrification and homelessness that resulted from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver began all organizing
from the decolonizing position, 'No Olympics on stolen Native land'. From that place, we then addressed
the devastating social impact of the Olympics facing most folks, not just Indigenous people. We structure
decolonizing practice and accountability into all of our organizing, whatever the specific context of power
“Leaning in” and Collective Accountability
Individual accountability is a limiting idea that does not require us to be responsible for more than
our own actions, but social injustice requires enormous, collaborative, and resourced social responses
from all members of society, reflecting our “relational responsibilities” (McNamee & Gergen, 1999).
Whether we intend to or not, many of us benefit from the oppression of others. We need not feel guilty
about this, but we are required to respond to the unearned privileges we hold with accountability. I did not
personally take anyone's land as a settler person in Canada, but I certainly benefit from citizenship in the
nation state of Canada, which exists on these Indigenous territories. Activism teaches us to analyze
structures of power, not just attend to our individual acts. Collective accountability (Reynolds, 2009)
requires that we take actions together to change these underlying structures that create the conditions for
abuses of power.
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For example, as a heterosexual person, I hope to respond to another heterosexual person who is
performing homophobia by embracing collective accountability, and acknowledging the relationship that
connects them to me through our shared site of privilege. I want to locate myself as collectively
responsible for the performance of homophobia, and for the fact that it advantages me. I do not have to
perform homophobia or racism or transphobia in order for my status to be elevated on the backs of others.
I have to be accountable for more than just my personal actions. The seduction of identifying individually
and separating myself off from any participation in collective responsibility at these times can be intense
― I want to identify myself as, “not that kind of straight person.” As an ally, I identify collectively as a
heterosexual person in the presence of homophobia, and act to help my fellow straight person move
towards accountability as well. I want to “lean in” with humility and resist being righteous and attacking
the dignity of this heterosexual person. I do not think of people as homophobic, but I know we swim in a
culture that hates homosexuals and that, if we do not resist homophobia, we will replicate it. I remind
myself in “leaning in” that this person did not invent homophobia and it is now my job to help them
understand this and resist this, as others taught me. “Leaning in” towards the other allows us to move
toward solidarity, and act in ways that make space for that person and for us to be walking alongside each
Collective responsibility also contests the limits of human rights talk and legislation as the only
measure of justice-doing. Legal protections would probably not allow for the prosecution of the white guy
on the bus who was attacking the elder Chinese woman with racism. As one direct action activist told a
white supremacist who asserted he was not acting illegally by trying to disrupt an anti-racism march,
“There are a lot of things that are not illegal that you ought not to be doing.
Some laws are inherently racist, and the law is part of the mechanism that subjects people, so it is
more than the application of law that is the issue (Spade, 2011). Collective accountability speaks to a
social justice perspective, which may include legal rights, but is much more expansive. It requires us to
show up and take imperfect actions immediately in the face of the white guy's attack, and to try to hold
what the Chinese woman needs at the centre. Collective accountability invited all of the actions allies
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took on the bus, and more. It suggests that we all work to address racism and men's abuses of power, and
to transform contexts that make such attacks possible.
Walking the Talk: Engaging a Hopeful Skepticism
Kvale's hermeneutics of suspicion (Kvale, 1996; White, 1991), invites a healthy and hopeful
skepticism toward our own practice as to whether we are enacting our ethics and acting as allies in any
moment-to-moment interaction. Holding an anti-oppression decolonizing framework is fabulous, but
theorizing is of limited value in itself (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). Despite the promises of critical theory we
have not delivered a just society. Allies engage with the reflexive question activists ask, “Am I walking
the talk?” They also embrace “infinite responsibility” or to always attempt to be “open to another other”
(Day, 2005, p. 18.) and to the multiplicity of ways we are not acting as allies, despite our intentions.
Would-be allies can inadvertently replicate power-over, lecture righteously, take center-stage, and
make situations worse and possibly violent. Any information a person from an oppressed position gives
potential allies in any interaction about our abuses of power or less egregious ally-fails are gifts to us.
These teachings benefit allies at the cost of the person needing an ally (Tamasese, 2001). Allies work to
accept critique with open hearts, and collectively withstand the spiritual pain we experience when we
transgress (Reynolds, 2011). The following example speaks to the generous “leaning in” that I
experienced in response to my ally-fail with a dear fellow activist.
As part of a Free Tibet rally I gave a speech critiquing the human rights record of the People's
Republic of China. After the rally, my longtime activist ally, Sid Chow Tan, approached me, thanked me
for my work and my speech, and then let me know that when I was speaking of the human rights
violations of the People's Republic of China I only used the words 'China' and 'Chinese'. For Sid that
meant that he was implicated in these human rights violations because of his ethnicity. I had denigrated
every Chinese person, including the Chinese allies who had been present to protest actions of the Chinese
government. I felt a wave of shame, as, of course, this had not been my intention. I thanked Sid for this,
and let him know that I would be accountable and attend to differentiating the Chinese government from
Chinese people in my future activist work. I apologized for the pain I had caused him, and named what I
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had enacted as racism. (Racism against Chinese people is something I get caught up in, living where I do
in Vancouver, where it passes easily in polite white Canadian society). Sid immediately put aside our
conversation, as it was time to go back to work.
He said, not unkindly, but pragmatically, “We just need to be able to work together; we need you
in this movement. I just wanted you to know.”
This event was over a decade ago, and Sid and I continue to work in a less-than-perfect and
mutually respectful spirited solidarity. I hold onto this learning as a gift from my fellow activist who has
been racialized and minoritized
. I welcome this enabling shame (Jenkins, 2005; 2006) as it reminds me
of my failure as an ally, and my need to stay critical and to make repair when I transgress. The
relationship of solidarity Sid and I have in social justice work across decades allowed my transgression to
be seen in context, not as the only story of me as an ally. Sid's willingness to “lean in” towards me, to
teach me and not to sever relations with me allowed me to exhale, embrace being imperfect, and invited
me to responsibility to act more accountably.
Trusting allies is risky, because, as allies, we can always choose to be accountable for our access
to power, or not. As allies we can decide to back down, not notice, be silent, minimize, accommodate, or
smooth things over. As allies, we need to hold our actions and words accountable to the person who is the
subject of another person's power. The ally works to make space and then gets out of the way. For
example, a feminist with white skin privilege talking on behalf of women who are racialized risks further
marginalizing the women she seeks to be an ally to. The ally may need to make space and not speak,
because allies are not qualified to speak. I do not know colonization outside of an academic understanding
and teachings from witnessing people's suffering. For example, I did not suffer colonization and have not
paid the price of this knowledge and so I am unqualified to speak about it.
An anti-oppression stance requires awareness of our locations in relation to power, and that we
act with accountability for that access to power (Razack, 2002). As allies we make our privilege public as
an accountability practice. For example, when I work in the impoverished community of Vancouver's
Downtown Eastside, I find ways to be public
about the fact that I have never lived on the street or
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struggled with substance abuse. I do this, because I am sometimes read as someone who has had these
experiences, and these misunderstandings invite a trust and sister-feeling from workers and clients that is
neither earned nor real. People may feel more affinity and safety with me than my privileges warrant.
Later, they may feel that they have been lied to or that some truth has been withheld from them. When we
act as allies and make our privilege public, it can serve as a beginning place for trust to grow.
Limitations of Allies: Embracing Imperfection
Ally work is complicated and messy. As allies we can engage in tactics that are direct actions to
resist and respond to abuses of power in the moment. We do not often have the luxury of time to step out,
call a meeting and discuss strategies and develop perfect responses, as we need to respond in the moment.
That is why it is useful not to hold ourselves to a perfect standard of ally acts, but to reflect after such
events to critique our actions, strategize how to take on the broader social issues, and make repair, if that
is required. For these reasons it is useful to engage with ally work as an imperfection project.
For example, the gender-variant and possibly queer young person on the bus acted immediately to
put their body between the Chinese elder woman and the angry white guy. The First Nations guy invited
everyone who was willing to participate to converse with him about their “boats” in an effort to
complicate the situation, move attention off of the elder Chinese woman, and create some safety for her,
while simultaneously responding to the white guy in a collective way that required that he address another
man. The collection of folks on the bus did not need instruction on the purposefulness of the First Nation
guy's actions, and possibly some folks did not read the invitation, or chose for their own reasons to
pretend nothing was going on, but the folks who “leaned in” responded spontaneously and collectively to
structure some safety and invite some accountability.
At times it is more useful to survive events, and help people who are experiencing abuses of
power get through them than to publicly challenge hate. Would-be allies often share their shaming
silences with me; times they did not step up or speak out. Other times potential allies fail because of
ignorance, not reading the situation, fear of being wrong, political correctness, the politics of politeness”,
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past harms, self-interest, indifference, being tired, or being busy. While I invite accountability for times
we side with neutrality or fear, I distinguish these times from events in which it is not safe-enough to
speak out. In risky situations, allies are often compelled to attend to the person who is abusing power, and
this centers the perpetrator, as well as further isolating the victim
. I invite allies to centre their responses
in relation to the victim. What do they need? How will my actions serve the victim? This may require
being silent, not making a scene, and accompanying the victim to safer ground. In the absence of the First
Nations guy on the bus, I would not have confronted the angry white guy, but would have stuck close to
the Chinese elder women and prioritized her safety. In situations where there is the potential for physical
violence, allies need to be aware they could easily make situations worse.
Imperfect Solidarity: Resisting Unity and Division
Solidarity is not synonymous with unity. As community workers, we look for common ground on
particular issues, rather than a unified position. While holding a common ground on particular issues and
declining unity, workers simultaneously decline invitations for division (Bracho, 2000). Such imperfect
solidarity requires discernment between division and difference. The point is not to achieve unity by
smoothing the edges of all differences, but to find points of connection in relationships that bring forward
an “intimacy that does not annihilate difference” (Scapp, R. as cited by hooks, 2003, p. 106).
As community workers, we often experience our work as very individual, which brings with it
continual invitations to division. We are separated from each other as workers and organizations
competing for scarce resources in the midst of overwhelming need in a political climate of greed and
privileged individualism. Invitations to division abound in community work, and we can be seduced into
judging other workers, their positions, and their professions. In contexts of adversity, the point is not to
figure out which workers and organizations to blame, but to think of ways to change social contexts. Our
greatest resources for doing that are each other. The First Nations guy invited me in as an ally without
invisibilizing our important differences; in fact, he used our different locations in relation to colonization
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to invite me to perform some accountability to both him and to the elder Chinese woman by
acknowledging that my people also came to Canada on boats, that I am a settler. This created a point of
connection, but did not require us to be in unity. Imperfect solidarity invites workers to be alongside each
other, because we need each other, and because it doesn't serve our communities for us to be divided off
(Reynolds, 2010c; 2011).
Creating a Culture of Critique
Being allies and working in solidarity does not mean that we are ever hoping to achieve total
agreement in collective community work. Creating a culture of critique in which we can challenge each
other and hold our practices and theories up to generative and creative scrutiny in order to serve our
families and communities better is a useful practice. Being allies to each other in community work invites
us to hold each other to account, but we are not acting as allies when judgment and attack are used to
silence other workers and discredit them. Discerning critique from attack is part of our work as allies.
Creating a culture of critique begins with “leaning in” and seeing the collective ethics (Reynolds,
2009) we share as our first point of connection; from there we can disagree and critique theory and
practice. There are always some collective ethics we share or we would not be meeting together. These
collective ethics are the values at the heart of our work, the points of connection that weave us together as
workers. They are the basis for the solidarity that brought us together and can hold us together. Our
practices of solidarity are emergent from our collective ethics. When collective ethics are hard to trust, I
always remind myself that no one is in this movement by accident, and that no one came to community
work to hurt people.
Becoming an ally is not a developmental process toward an achievable state or goal, as we are
always “becoming” allies (Bishop, 2002), and continually being awoken to our locations of privilege. I
did not know I had gender privilege, because I saw the world in the binary of men and women, and only
read myself as a potential and actual victim of men's power. And yet all transgender and gender-variant
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people know that in the domain of gender I hold the privilege of being cisgendered, meaning that my
biology, my identity and how I am read are all congruent, all read as woman. They know that I am safer
going to a public bathroom, that I will not be questioned by other women, or followed in by security
guards. This unfolding awareness has invited me to respond with new ways of being an ally and to unveil
more of my privilege.
Ally work is not innocent, as we learn it on the backs of others. We work to stay ever mindful that
the potential fall-out or backlash for our actions will fall on the people who are the subjects of power, the
victims of perpetrators, not on us. This requires us to stay humble, willing to learn and open to critique.
Our acts of being allies are not enough, nor are they the end of our responsibility. Acting as allies does not
end oppression; it is a small piece of a larger response that is useful, but, on its own, never enough. Allies
do not act out of charity for the betterment of “under-privileged” folks, but in order to enact our own
ethics and our desires to live in a society free of hate. Our collective goal is not to be good allies, but to
co-create a society in which everyone experiences justice.
Despite the absence of any prior relationships, many folks on that 20 bus immediately recognized
and acted upon our pre-existing points of unity in imperfect solidarity. We did not discuss our willingness
to perform as allies who embodied some collective ethics. In that moment we knew enough about each
other to “lean in,” respond immediately, and act collectively and imperfectly.
For Sid Chow Tan, for his great-hearted solidarity and creative activism, for staying teachable and being
of use across a lifespan, for tenacity and moral courage, and for many teachings given with humility,
generosity of spirit and revolutionary love.
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Two Exercises
An Inquiry into Ally Work: Imperfect & Fluid Allies
Ally Work: Experiences of Needing Allies
Find a person you have a safe-enough experience of to engage with in this exercise.
Consider a particular time when you were experiencing an attack on your dignity, or when you
were the subject of another person's power. Choose an experience that is particular and that you
remember details of, not a general feeling. Choose something that is real, but that you can contain
yourself in sharing ― meaning stay present, not necessarily meaning experience without pain.
Thinking back on this experience in the relative safety of this conversation, offer your witness a
thumbnail sketch of this event, with your experience of oppression at the centre:
Did you have any allies in this experience?
What actions did allies take, individually or collectively, that were supportive?
What difference did these ally actions make?
How did you communicate to allies what you needed? Appreciated?
Was there anything that your ally did that you would have liked your allies not to have done?
(replicate power-over, be righteous or shaming, take centre-stage, or take actions that make the
situation worse)
Thinking back on this experience in the relative safety of this conversation, what ally actions
would you have appreciated that didn’t happen?
What did allies or would-be allies do or say that invited your trust or got in the way of your
trusting? What past experiences promoted or harmed your trust of would-be allies?
Was there any way you could have welcomed in some/more allies?
What have these allies taught you about being an ally?
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Ally Work: Acting as an Ally
Consider a particular experience when you were an ally to another person who was experiencing
or an attack on their dignity or oppression, while you were in a location of power and/or privilege:
What was required of you in terms of being an ally in this context?
How did you get your experiences of oppression out of the centre in order to be an ally?
How did you get your own access to power and/or privilege out of the centre in order to be an
What actions did you take as an ally?
What differences might your ally actions make for the people involved? Perpetrator, victim, ally,
others present?
What response did you get from the person you were trying to be an ally to about your actions or
intentions? How could you invite responses about if or how you were being an accountable ally in
this situation?
How did you stay open to hearing if you were not acting in line with your ethics and intentions
for being an ally?
Thinking back on this experience from the relative safety and community of this conversation,
what different actions might you have taken? (If you had more access to power/less access to
How can you plan to respond with the discomfort and possible pain that may come from being in
an ally position?
What differences has being an ally made in your life? Community work?
Stepping Up: Reflecting on our Fluid Positions as Imperfect Allies
What people or communities have I made myself available to as an ally? What multiple ally
positions do I hold?
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What qualifies me as an ally? What ways of being and qualities do I hold that are useful to me in
being an ally?
Who am I comfortable/experienced being an ally to?
What trainings/knowings from my life have taught me how to be an ally in this context?
What ally positions have I not taken? Why?
What trainings experiences in my life have made me less capable/able to be an ally in this
What qualities and ways of being about me get in the way of me being an ally?
What barriers get in the way of me acting as an ally in these other contexts? (for example:
ignorance, not reading the situation, fear of being wrong, political correctness, the “politics of
politeness”, past harms, self-interest, indifference, being tired, being busy…)
What will it take for me/us/our staff team/this organization to act as an ally in less
comfortable/less familiar contexts?
What would it look like?
The Big Questions (To Hold Reflexively, Not Solve, but Always respond to…)
How would you describe the anti-oppression stance you hold for your work?
What understandings of the intersections of your access to power and being subjected to another
person's power do you hold?
How do you/can you center your work in decolonizing practices while holding this anti-
oppression stance?
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‘Queer’ has been adopted by groups of people I work with, both workers and clients, who do not
identify as strictly heterosexual. Using queer as an umbrella term to include folks who self-identify as
lesbian, gay, bisexual, Two Spirit, questioning and queer, is problematic for many reasons (Fassinger &
Arsenau, 2007). Primarily people who self-identify as lesbian, for example, may not resonate with queer
theory or politics at all, and be subsumed by that term. As well, some folks who do identify as queer mean
specific things by it, such as resonating with queer theory in ways that do not align them with gay or
lesbian identities, and find using the term queer as an umbrella term mystifies and erases the queer
politics and ethics that are at the heart of their preferred ways of identifying (Aaron Munro, personal
communication, 2012). People I work alongside who identify as queer primarily identify outside of
heterosexual normativity, which refers to discourses that promote heterosexuality as normal. People I
work alongside who identify as transgender or trans do not identify strictly with the gender they were
assigned to at birth, and may transition culturally, socially and/or physically to a gender in which they feel
more congruent, which could be something other than male or female (Nataf, 1996; Devon McFarlane,
personal communication, 2011). Many people do not identify their gender in any way, and others identify
as gender-variant, gender non-conforming or gender queer, meaning something different than trans and
outside of the normative gender binary (Janelle Kelly, personal communication, 2011). All of these terms
are problematic, contested and evolving. I am using these terms for clarity and because groups of folks I
work alongside have settled on this imperfect phrasing for now (Reynolds, 2010b).
In 2006 the Canadian Prime Minister apologized for the Chinese Head Tax as part of a spate of
'non-apologies' (Coates & Wade, 2009) to various communities. The Conservative government decided to
compensate only surviving Head Tax payers and their spouses. This settlement has only been available to
500 Head Tax families and represents only about one half of one percent of all affected Head Tax
families. The Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion laws impoverished families and halted all Chinese
immigration from 1923 to 1947. Each Chinese worker was required to pay a fee equivalent to the price of
a house. Many families were separated for decades, some never reunited. See the Head Tax Families
Society of Canada website for background (
The terms 'minoritized' and 'racialized' are used for the purpose of naming the power and
intention required in the racist and colonial project of re-constructing the majority of the world's people as
a collection of minorities (Reynolds, 2012d).
American collaborative therapist Harlene Anderson offers the language and practice of 'being
public' in response to her useful critique of the term transparency. Transparency makes a claim that our
work is see-through and this is not possible. The onus is on me to make my work public. It is my
obligation to show, not the client's obligation to see (2008, p. 18). When we make our work public we
invite a richer critique, which invites accountability.
The terms 'perpetrator' and 'victim' are used here purposefully to put words to deeds in a
particular interaction, as Canadian response-based practitioner Allan Wade would say, and to identify
who did what to whom in this event. I am not using perpetrator and victim as identity categories, or to
reify any person as a perpetrator or as a victim. Critically engaging with language is required because
language can often be used to obscure violence and abuses of power (Coates & Wade, 2007; 2004).
... She has written incisively about allyship for years (Reynolds, 2013). ...
... 20 I do not have the expectation that I will always provide solidarity and be an ally in the most effective ways possible. As Reynolds (2013) describes, I accept I will always be an "imperfect" ally. Working with colleagues who call in not call out mitigates the corrosive effects of self-recrimination for mistakes and missteps, making it more likely I can move from disempowered awareness into empowered action, the most useful position for both witnesses and implicated subjects. ...
I have been working with a model of witnessing for more than 30 years (Weingarten, 2000a). In this article, I add layers to its conceptualization by discussing several related concepts: the implicated subject (Rothberg, 2019) and ethical loneliness (Stauffer, 2015) among them. What distinguishes the Witnessing Model positions from the implicated subject is that the implicated subject is always aligned with power and/or domination, whereas a witness may not be. Certain responsibilities accrue if we take our implication seriously. Just as I have suggested there are steps one can take from positions two, three and four of the Witnessing Model to enter, return or remain in the aware and empowered position, a position from within which accountability is more likely, I offer ideas about how one can respond accountably when one acknowledges one's implication. Throughout this article, I raise questions, some of which I cannot answer. For instance, can empathic repair be undertaken by one party to a ruptured relationship, one segment of a society, without an unfolding process of mutual recognition and compassion? The contemporary moment in which we are living presents us with dire outcomes if the answer is “no.” The entire article is an extended meditation on the following central question: How can we, implicated subjects, practice solidarity to diminish ethical loneliness and create movement toward the personal, interpersonal and structural changes necessary to address the truths that our implication entails?
... The Centre felt that it was important to recognise relevant competencies and capacity that, when synthesised strategically, could offer a service that was "good enough" to support families in crisis. As Reynolds (2013) has said of being an ally to communities or individuals subject to abuses of power, "We invite good-enough allies, despite past acts that are not trustworthy, as imperfect allies are required when the stakes are high, and risk is near" (p. 56). ...
Counsellors and family therapists unfamiliar with working with transgender and gender diverse (TGD) people may be hesitant to undertake this work. A lack of familiarity is not a reason to avoid the work. There is a clear need for professionals to be open to supporting people with TGD lived experience and their families, who are increasingly turning to healthcare services for help. This paper outlines an approach adopted by an organisation not well practised in working with TGD people, in response to increased calls for support. The Bouverie Centre, in Victoria, Australia, paired a researcher (who works in other contexts with TGD people and their families) and a clinical family therapist (not well practised in working with TGD people) to synthesise their skills and knowledge to fill the service gap. This paper offers reflections and (un)learnings from these 45+ year old, cisgender workers who were new to clinical work with people with TGD lived experience and their families.
... However, they must be integrated with actions involving processes of indigenizing, revitalizing, restoring, and protecting in concrete material ways the lands, homes, schools, native agriculture, and local economy. Resilience scholars can play an important role in calling for the mobilization of accountability from the dwellers of the modern world to take responsibility and extend their respectful support for a way of life to be solely determined by the Kamentza people (Reynolds, 2013). ...
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In this chapter the authors discuss processes of survival and resilience for indigenous communities impacted by the enduring effects of colonization and coloniality. They focus on what resilience means for the Kamentza people, thus relocating the concept to a borderlands space where Western notions of resilience can dialogue with and be transformed by the local context of this community. They situate their analysis within an epistemology of the South; discuss resilience as a process occurring in borderland spaces; offer a narrative about the Kamentza people of Colombia highlighting key struggles, historical processes, and ways of coping with adversity; and finally, offer their view on the type of research/practice that is needed in the future from this perspective. Examining resilience processes within historical context, power differentials, and cultural systems helps us identify the complexities of communities still surviving at the margins of capitalism and Western ways of being.
In Australia, Whiteness studies have led non-Indigenous scholars and professional workers to reconsider the work they do with First Nations peoples resulting in conceptualizing Whiteness as a position, as a critique, and as a resistance. Whiteness can be considered as an ethnic identity, which in itself is neither positive nor negative, but leads to a critique in which the being of White carries its unearned privilege, itself largely unseen by those benefiting from that privilege. In unmasking the privilege, and realizing and understanding the part played by the White agent in the ongoing privilege, White resistance can take several forms. Ally work is one of those forms, but it also comes with the need for reflexive critique. This chapter questions the purpose and practices of Ally work as mechanisms for resisting White privilege as it offers to act as decolonial mediator, in an attempt to arrive at the way Ally work can itself be a reconstructing force in Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships.
This article describes how I used ideas informed by narrative therapy whilst working with refugees in Northern France.
‘Away Days’ in the National Health Service are a protected time away from usual tasks where a team comes together. They can have different intentions, including connecting team members and establishing team bonds. This paper describes using a Narrative Therapy approach called “The Journey of Life” to run away days. It involves thinking about the journey a team has been on and what has helped them along the way. It invites a team to think about their future directions and how they use skills they have learned when they face obstacles in the road ahead. The importance of preparing for away days, including establishing intentions, creating a feeling of safety and thinking about the role and positioning we adopt as team members ourselves is highlighted. We also outline the benefits we have observed, including a sense of community emerging through the process.
In this paper I frame systemic, narrative informed, group work practice as an act of solidarity; and narrative inquiry as an act of resistance and activism. I describe research I have been part of as an intervention into (and a resistance against) discourses of individualised psychopathology that exist within the mental health services (where I have worked for the last decade) and colonising practices that can and do exist in academia. Part of the narrative is my own story of movement from research informed practitioner to practice based researcher which includes an exploration of an evolving relationship with power. I also describe how I have devised a five-step process to inquire into my own group work practices – a process I have called a responsive, temporally framed narrative inquiry. Responsive because it has been designed to be adaptive and attuned to the inevitable movement between research ‘material’ and people involved in any such inquiry. Temporally framed, and with an emphasis on narrative, because it pays attention to past stories (of abuse and oppression), present feelings in relation to those stories and narratives that develop through inquiry that are ‘future forming’ and speak to ‘preferred futures’.
In this paper, the authors describe their orientation to social justice based community work. The tenets of this work include: an ethical orientation towards staying alive in the work, descriptions of social justice, engaging with a hopeful skepticism, responding to privatized pain with justice-doing, and contesting the individualism of “burnout”. This is followed by reflections on the role of solidarity, the sacred, revolutionary love, resistance, and an ethic of belonging in the commitments to staying fully alive in community work. The authors discuss the importance of forging communities of care with other practitioners through shared and collectively held ethics.