The Importance of White Allyship: Q&A with Rev. Tiffany Curtis
NBA, Rev. Tiffany Curtis | September 21, 2020
Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the phrase Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry, meaning different things to different people, while also encompassing the idea that Black life is valued differently in America than other lives.
When the video of George Floyd began circulating in May 2020, we at NBA began to have open and honest conversations about what it could look like to not just proclaim Black Lives Matter, but show that we mean it.
In addition to the activism and advocacy work the we do as an organization, since 2019, the NBA has been working with a set of consultants and facilitators with expertise in areas of anti-oppression and racial equity. As the NBA, our commitment is to bring to light how we are complicit in maintaining unhealthy systems of discrimination and oppression. As a general ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we actively support and partner with the Disciples Church in our denominational efforts to be an anti-racist and pro-reconciling church, struggling to dismantle racist structures and discriminatory practices.
But we also recognize that this is individual work as well. We each have our own set of experiences and biases that changes how we view the world. Despite those differences, we know as an organization the only way to move forward is to do the inner work, the hard work, our consultants have helped facilitate this work and to keep the conversations going outside of equity trainings. So, we asked Rev. Tiffany Curtis, NBA’s Prison & Jail Peer Group Convener to share with us what her advocacy and activism work has looked both within NBA and outside of the organization.
Q: Talk about your work with the NBA and within the church as it relates to advocacy and activism.
Tiffany Curtis: I am honored to work with the NBA Prison & Jail Ministries initiative. I had been volunteering for about seven years alongside other people of faith in accompaniment/mentorship with folks incarcerated in Massachusetts (through the Partakers program). A conversation in the NBA booth at the 2015 General Assembly eventually led to me joining the first NBA Prison & Jail Ministries Peer Group, and now to serving as a co-convener of the current NBA Prison and Jail Ministries Peer Group, along with Rev. Héctor Hernández.
In addition to this meaningful work with the NBA, I am also the solo minister of a sweet, dynamic Disciples congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Soon after my partner and I moved to New Mexico, a privately-run prison nearby was repurposed as an ICE detention center, and I ended up co-founding a faith-based grassroots organizing network focused on immigration justice. I am now the lead organizer of this interfaith network as part of my local ministry here in Santa Fe.
Prior to moving to New Mexico in 2016, much of my work had been in community organizing. I also am trained as a spiritual director and in clinical chaplaincy, which actually provides a very important lens for my organizing and activism work. I see engagement with social change as a deeply contemplative and even mystical practice, and work to deeply integrate those practices in my ministry.
Q: From June 15-19, NBA decided to pause all operations and provide staff with a bit of reprieve, you invited white staff to use this time to participate in allyship and advocacy work, why was it important to you to make this ask?
TC: While I saw that decision by NBA leadership as prophetic, and was inspired by that bold statement, the invitation I sent out to my colleagues also came from a place of discomfort within myself at the idea of white people potentially disengaging from anti-racism work in this critical time of momentum-building.
I felt unsure what to say, or how to invite intentional engagement, but I felt so strongly that this moment was important. I know that deep engagement can absolutely be compatible with a spirit of rest, but I did want to invite my white colleagues to carefully consider how they could use that unexpected downtime in a way that would intentionally center engagement, not disengagement.
I also was engaging in a spirit of reparations, reflecting on centuries of racist inequality and policies. I was thinking that when white people are given support or opportunities, we should always be asking ourselves how we can be intentional to redistribute that support or advantage, whether that be through sharing in intellectual or emotional labor, sharing financial resources more equitably to support POC-led initiatives, organizing and movement work, non-profits, and businesses. That question feels like it must be at the forefront of all our decisions.
Something that has been with me since last fall is a conversation about race that I watched between white women and women of color, and in that conversation one of the themes that came up was that white people often refer to engaging racism as “work,” whereas one of the women of color said “It’s not a job that I can check into or check out of—it’s my life.” In other words, for many people, racism is a lived experience that doesn’t have an on/off switch. It’s not a project or a job. I think it is so important for white people to try to understand that difference, and to try to stay as fully engaged in anti-racism as possible, and to not see it as “work” that can be engaged or disengaged as we wish. Trying to become anti-racist people, anti-racist communities, and an anti-racist society is a commitment that we must willing to give one hundred percent of our heart, mind, and body to, as if our very souls and lives depended on it, because they do.
Q: How did you spend your time during that week? What type of allyship or advocacy work were you engaged in?
TC: As a full-time pastor, I actually didn’t have extra free time that week, but I did try to be intentional, in keeping with my invitation to my NBA colleagues. I continued to read the work of Black authors and thinkers (that week I was especially reading How to Be an Anti-Racist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, which I can’t recommend more highly), to research Black-owned businesses in my local community and make a personal commitment to support them moving forward (especially as many small businesses are so impacted by the pandemic), and to keep engaging some of the important ideas arising in public discourse around diverting money from policing to community, and thinking more deeply about restorative justice models.
Q: What does allyship look like to you? Additionally, why is it important for white people to be allies to people of color when it comes to issues of racism and equity and inclusion?
TC: My thoughts on this continue to evolve over time. At this point, I do not feel comfortable claiming the title of “ally” for myself. If a more directly impacted person wants to name another person as an “ally” on the issues that impact them, that is an honor, and feels like it should really just flow in that direction. I think it is hard for us to clearly assess this for ourselves; all we can do is authentically engage our best efforts in each moment and each decision and be open to learning and changing over time.
I also deeply resonate with the understanding that none of us are free until all of us are free — or a vision of mutual, interdependent liberation. So even if I am not as directly impacted by an oppressive structure, it is important for me to recognize that I am being negatively impacted by it, even as I may be benefiting from it. I think this framework helps us be more real, more engaged, more sustainable in our activism — rather than almost viewing it as charity work — as something that’s not really about us.
From this understanding of our liberation as mutual, we all need to engage in anti-racism and in dismantling all structures that cause harm. Because white people overall tend to be given more platforms, more access, more resources, white people must be part of the anti-racism movement and take responsibility to work with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in moving towards racial justice and equity. That being said, we should be careful not to center white experiences of race, or white leadership, while also not shying away from white anti-racist leadership. It is a constant practice in monitoring power dynamics as we learn anti-racism together.
One thing Rev. Dr. William Barber II said in early June has really stayed with me. He was offering a reflection as part of the Day of Fasting and Focus, which culminated in a national time of silence in memory of George Floyd and other victims of police violence. (This time of collective silence was a powerful spiritual experience for me personally.) In that reflection Dr. Barber said, “Racism is not about Black people. Racism is a sin against all humanity.”
Q: What advice do you have for white people who want to engage in advocacy and activism work, but aren’t sure where to start?
TC: My main advice is that activism is a commitment of a lifetime, not of a moment. We are moving towards the horizon of God’s Realm of Love, and it’s a long journey. I have already seen a bit of June’s fervor fading, especially among white people. I urge us all to stay present. Make this a sustainable lifelong spiritual commitment. Continue to learn from and listen to the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders, thinkers, and scholars. Listen to podcasts, read books and articles. Pray and meditate and stay steady.
One of the people I learn the most from is Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism. Her writings are a gift to humanity. I urge you to read her work. She recently wrote a specific “word for white people” and it is such a beautiful, challenging blessing. I invite you to read every word and meditate on the wisdom and generosity and truth shared there.
In general, practice with discomfort. If discomfort arises, ask yourself why, sit with it, pray, meditate, and be willing to look at yourself and your social conditioning. We have all been trained in racism and oppressive ways of thinking. It will take years for us all to fully unlearn, if not lifetimes.
But that is the power of God’s grace and love - to overcome all human-created evil and inequity within us and our societies. Any systems, policies, or ways of thinking that elevate one socially constructed category of people over another is antithetical to God’s vision for humanity and is corrosive to the human soul.
As Christians, we must continue to commit ourselves to God’s vision of equality and unconditional love for all humanity and all creation. That is a spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical practice — always trying to bring our minds, souls, and bodies more deeply into the wisdom of God’s love and liberation. That commitment is both deeply personal and very political. We must be willing to learn, to examine and transform our own racism and the racism of our society in every moment of our lives and with all of our heart, mind, and soul.
As it says in the Epistle to the Romans, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2, NIV)
As the health and social services general ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the National Benevolent Association partners with congregations, regions, general ministries, and a variety of Disciples-related health and social service providers to create communities of compassion and care. Founded in 1887 by six women responding to the needs of the day and on their doorsteps, for more than 130 years the NBA has continued to serve "the least of these." Learn more at www.nbacares.org.