Get uncomfortable!

What does the word accomplice mean to you? Someone aiding and abetting questionable activity? A dangerous co-conspirator? An accessory to a crime?

Today, we’re exploring a different definition of accomplice. As we strive to become a more equitable organization, we’ve noticed movement leaders use the word in an intriguing way. So we sat down with Dr. Kira Hudson Banks and Eric Ratinoff of The Mouse & The Elephant to learn more. Kira and Eric help organizations like ours develop inclusive workplaces and are well-versed in how authentic change happens. Let’s get into it!

What is an accomplice?

An accomplice is someone who holds power in an oppressive system and actively uses it to help others and change the system.

“An accomplice is willing to be involved, not just sit on the sidelines and observe,” explained Kira. “An accomplice takes action. An accomplice unapologetically names how systems of oppression are operating, how they might be benefitting from those systems of oppression, and then actively works to disrupt and dismantle them.”

As people in oppressed groups began to feel the word ally was too basic and linked to performative actions without true impact, accomplice became a compelling and illustrative alternative. Kira said that some people have said the word makes them nervous: It sounds too naughty, too dangerous.

“I encourage them to think about how dangerous it is to live in systems of oppression,” said Kira.

“The idea of moving from ally to accomplice is to push people to actually be in the fight.”

Joining the fight

Being “in the fight” looks different for every accomplice and every situation. It could be a public act of power-shifting support, like how James Tyson stood between police and the protestor Bree Newsome as she scaled a flag pole at the South Carolina state capitol to remove the Confederate flag in 2015.

“Bettina Love talks about this example in one of her books,” said Kira. “That man understood the assignment. He understood that his systemic value as a white man would literally change the dynamic in a collaborative, accomplice sort of way.”

But being an accomplice can also take more everyday forms of action.

“A classic example is you’re in a meeting when someone with less power or with a marginalized identity speaks up, but their idea isn’t given attention or the appropriate response,” Eric said. “An ally might go up to that person after the meeting and say, ‘I heard you and feel like you had something important to say. I’m sorry we didn’t listen to you.’ At least that’s recognizing the power disparity. But an accomplice stops the meeting to say, ‘This person is saying something really important, and I think we all need to take a second and listen.’”

The common accomplice denominator is discomfort. It’s not comfortable to challenge the status quo! Being an accomplice usually means feeling discomfort — and making others in power feel uncomfortable, too — in order to push for systems change. Accomplices remember that people being oppressed are already uncomfortable, at the very least. In many cases, their lives are at stake.

“Accomplices put themselves into the fray to not let that person be uncomfortable alone,” said Eric.

Accomplices for youth

As adults, in most systems, we hold more power than children and teens do. We can use that power for good, to both be accomplices for young people and help them learn to cultivate an equity mindset (see Kira’s video on raising “equity nerds”) and be accomplices for others. Here are a few ways to join the fight for and with kids and teens:

Name systemic oppression

“As we enter a heightened political campaign season, we have to increase our tolerance for having difficult dialogues about naming what is, seeing the broader context and allowing space for nuance,” said Kira. Don’t be afraid to dive way past sound bytes, headlines and memes to help youth understand how systemic oppression works, especially during heated political contests.

Celebrate differences in identity

Kira emphasized that now is not the time to shy away from talking about identities. Instead, highlight how valuing each other’s differences can create strong, dynamic relationships.

She explained: “If I say, ‘I see you in your identity, I value you, and I’m looking for ways to help you get what you need.’ And you are hearing my experience as a Black woman and asking what I need — that’s how we do community.”

“We need to be able to talk to young people about what they are hearing,” agreed Eric, “so that they understand that in many cases people are using identity for political purposes — that they are trying to create an us versus them. But there are also adults who are working to create communities where all young people can be cared for and included.”

Have action-oriented conversations

“Adults can pose questions to help empower young people to be accomplices when they see something happening,” said Eric. When you and/or the children and teens you know witness someone using their power to harm others, we can call it out as wrong and ask:

· What is happening?

· Who is being hurt?

· Did we do or say anything?

· If not, why?

· What can we do next time?

“Those kinds of questions can help young people understand what it sounds, feels and looks like to be an accomplice,” said Eric.

Be willing to be uncomfortable

This means not only being willing to take action that might make you or others uncomfortable but staying open when the young people in your life seem to be pushing too hard or too fast for systemic change.

“We have to remember that most change isn’t comfortable,” said Kira, citing how many leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, were criticized for being too radical. “As young people are playing with how they want to engage in movement building or change, we need to catch ourselves and not squash their exploration simply because we’re uncomfortable.”

Camp Fire’s latest Increasing Accessibility and Inclusivity report showcases examples of pressing through discomfort to create more equitable experiences for young people. Affiliates across the country listened to young people’s calls for change and took action, even when it meant doing things differently; investing extra time, energy and money; and risking upsetting people in positions of power who might not agree with the changes. That’s exactly what it takes to move toward being an accomplice!

Pace yourself

We’re not only in the middle of a contentious political season, but in a decades-long era of change. Choose your battles, practice daily self-care and settle in. Being an accomplice is a marathon that never ends, not a sprint to a clear finish line.

“This doesn’t stop when the election is over,” said Kira. “Having conversations with young people about shared humanity is key to supporting them not just in this season, but in this society.”

Read more about becoming an accomplice:

· How Civil Wars Start: And how to stop them by Barbara F. Walter · Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum · We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina L. Love. · “White Folks: It’s Too Late for ‘Allies,’” by Rev. Dr. Stephany Rose Spaulding in Colorlines · “White Shame: How to Convert Guilt Into Action,” by Ali Pattillo in Inverse (Kira is quoted in this article) · “White Allies, Let’s Be Honest About Decolonization,” by Kyle Powys Whyte in Yes!