NACA BLOG - The "A" Words of Social Justice - 10/14/2020
campus activism

​Oct. 14, 2020
Lerren Bradley-Tyler, University of South Florida - Tampa
Sarah Keeling, Ph.D., NACA Director of Education & Research

We often hear "A" words in the social justice realm, such as advocate, ally, and activist, used interchangeably. While the words mean different things generally, they can also mean different things to people and groups. Our attempt to define them here serves as way to provide you with some base knowledge of the words through a social justice lens. We believe this can be helpful as you navigate these spaces and practice self-reflection, especially if you are working with a marginalized population with which you do not identify.

Let's start with actors. An actor is often seen as a performative ally – "performing" their support of a cause while doing little to nothing to actually support it. Phillips (2020) described it as someone from a nonmarginalized group who professes support and solidarity with a marginalized group in a way that either isn't helpful or that actively harms that group. Performative allyship usually involves the "ally" receiving some kind of reward — on social media, it's that virtual pat on the back for being a "good person" or "on the right side."

Their actions may get the attention of other people in the actor's nonmarginalized group, but they are not typically seen as helpful by marginalized folks.

An ally engages in activism but also has more of an understanding of the issues faced by the marginalized populations they are supporting. This deeper knowledge may come from the person educating themselves or from members of the marginalized population that were willing to teach them. Allyship is a "continuous process in which someone with privilege and power seeks to first learn about the experiences of a marginalized group of people, and take actions on their challenges" (Young, 2020).  

An advocate supports a cause – perhaps they donate money or share a post on Facebook. There is little action on their part, though they may passionately believe in a cause. They may not have a working knowledge or full understanding of the background/issues of the cause they support. However, advocacy is an important part of social justice.

There are two parts to advocacy: vocalizing and amplifying. Although every voice is important, everyone should not be speaking. [Nonmarginalized people] must acknowledge our privilege and take a step back to amplify the voices of others, especially when they are advocating for their own intersections. (Lewis, 2018)

An activist does the actual work of advocacy. They are intentional about creating the change and taking necessary actions. For example, they actively rewrite policies at work that aren't inclusive. They work as an accomplice to those marginalized groups. Instead of just posting about inequality in the school systems, they join organizations directly aimed at closing those gaps and fighting that inequality. An accomplice follows the lead of folks in the marginalized group and helps them dismantle the structures that oppress them. Allies focus on individuals; accomplices focus on systems. Ally work can be seen as more immediate and accomplice work as more long-term (Clemens, 2017).

Again, it is important to remember that different groups and organizations will define these terms differently. You will need to take it upon yourself to learn the preferred terminology of any group with which you may work. It is also important to practice self-reflection on where you lie among these terms and where you would like to be. You may serve different roles as you work with different groups and organizations. You may donate money monthly to one group, while you are actively involved in a different group. What actions can you take to leave behind performative allyship and become an activist?

References and Resources:

Clemens, C. (June 5, 2017). Ally or accomplice? The language of activism. Teaching Tolerance.

El-Mekki, S. (September 24, 2018). Educational justice: Which are you – an advocate, ally, or activist?The Education Trust.

Lewis, E. (February 9, 2018). Advocate and an activist? Have you been mislabeling?Adobe Blog: Adobe Corporate Communications.

Phillips, H. (May 9, 2020). Performative allyship is deadly (Here's what to do instead).Forge.

Young, V. (June 3, 2020). Awareness, allyship, and advocacy. Medium.

Lerren Bradley-Tyler serves as the student programs coordinator at the University of South Florida - Tampa and serves as the chair of NACA's Diversity Action Group.

Sarah Keeling, Ph.D. serves as director of Education & Research for the National Association for Campus Activities and has over 20 years of higher education experience. Her Ph.D. in higher education administration is from the University of South Carolina.

Related Professional Competency: Cultivating a Sense of Belonging

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