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A Coach’s Path to Becoming an Ally

Note -- this post is the second in a series by the WFencing Allies Committee. Each post will feature a different guest author. Check out the Allies Committee page for more.

I was having coffee one morning, working through my emails, and prepping for my lessons in the evening when my partner (a WFencing co-founder) said, “Hey Jeff, you should join the Allies Committee.” My immediate response was “What is an ally?” Her response was “That is exactly why you need to be on it!!”

Me: “Oh boy….”

The confluence of the events of the past couple of years has directly impacted the evolution of my perception of myself, of my privilege, my power, and my role in helping shift the culture of our sport. My path to hopefully becoming a better ally for those that need me has been paved with frustration, anger (at myself), failure, self reflection, more anger (at the abusers), confusion, questioning, additional anger (at the institutions that are supposed to protect), and eventually to the beginnings of being able to take action.

A few notable experiences that have become paving stones on my path:

  • Seeing a coach yell, demean, and verbally abuse a female referee. Moving to coach my another student on a different strip, but having that incident dwell in my mind for days. The shame and self-realization that I probably should have done something. But not knowing what to do.

  • Realizing that the systems that are in place to protect people are flawed, biased, and not fully functional. The secondary realization that my white male privilege was blinding me to institutional injustice because it wasn’t happening to me. Figuring out how to take the blinders off, messing up, saying and doing the wrong things, continuing to try. Being pissed off at the unfairness.

  • Walking out of Walmart next to two young African American teenagers when the loss prevention officer stopped them to check their bags but not mine. Walking back to the security guard and requesting he check my bag. Him saying “Sir, you are good to go.” Responding “I am sorry, sir, but if you are checking their bags then you need to check mine too.”

  • Watching a known abuser stroll around the venue after their meager SafeSport sanction was concluded, and not being able to do anything about it.

  • Changing how I approach language when I misgender someone and having my students educate me about the power of pronouns and why they matter. Feeling embarrassment about underestimating the importance of it.

  • Managing a retail store during the pandemic, realizing one of my employees was having his paycheck sent to a cash card and taking him to the bank to try and open a bank account. Seeing him not able to take the leap to open a bank account and recognizing that the impact of historical racial discriminatory practices is alive and well.

  • Expanding my circle of friends and colleagues to ensure I am hearing a wide array of voices, not an echo chamber. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable in hearing them.

  • Learning to use my voice more, even though it is hard for me to do. Not wanting to say or do the wrong thing. Realizing that the silence is more damaging than anything I can ever say or do.

By whatever forces exist in the universe, I have found myself in difficult situations in which I was needed…But most of the time I didn’t know what to do. Like a lot of the deeper aspects about fencing that I learned by having to teach them to my students, I am going to try and share a way to find the path by exploring the tactics.

A Path to Ally Development

Tactical Step 1: Gathering Information

Congratulations! You are an empathetic human being who is interested in justice, fairness, and helping your fellow humans. Now it is time to start to gather information, just like observing your teammates and your opponents at a competition, by taking a critical look at your environment. Are you surrounding yourself with people who share your values? Are you taking time to consume quality content about these topics to help expand your understanding? Are you asking questions? Are you listening?

Tactical Step 2: Identify your Power

Liz Mayerich was our pioneer blogger on the allies committee and her article had a link to a great article that gave examples of 7 different types of allies. Please take a few minutes and hit that article and identify 3 types that resonate with you and that you feel you could do easily. Now I want you to determine which one makes you the most uncomfortable. Take some time to ruminate on that one.… Just like in the fencing bout, the action that you are most scared to take the risk on is probably the one you need to win… or to be an ally.

Tactical Step 3: Overt vs. Covert Allyship

Don’t underestimate the act of covert allyship. Oftentimes overt actions can draw negative attention to the situation you are trying to help make better and create more hardship for the individuals that need relief. Start identifying subtle ways in which you can exert your power of allyship. Small acts like reporting hateful speech on social media threads you follow, referring someone qualified but underrepresented to a professional opportunity, and ensuring that you are modeling these behaviors for your fencing club (and other communities) can have enormous impact. Support organizations that share your values. Not a WFencing member yet? Join now! These small actions will build your confidence when more may be required of you.

Tactical Step 4: What Comes Next?

I cannot tell you! You need to explore for yourself. You need to mess up, learn from your mistakes, and keep trying. The good news is that you are not alone. The power of the collective clamoring for change is growing stronger and louder, and we need your voice. The silence needs to end.

Serving on the Allies Committee for WFencing has allowed me to connect to other professionals, learn more about what is needed, and be able to contribute in small ways.. When I was called to write this blog post, I wasn’t really sure what would come out. I realized through the process that the “paving stone” analogy was more powerful than just a way to describe my steps (and missteps), it really is a tool that we can use as a community to build a path towards great inclusivity. Fencing, as a sport, holds the potential to support an amazing array of diverse communities. What would the USA Fencing community look like in 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years if we committed to building the widest and most inclusive path possible? I cannot say for sure, but I am excited for the challenge.

Author Jeff Kallio is a full-time fencing coach and leader with Forge Fencing Academy & Club, in Durham, NC. He is an accredited Maitre d’Saber with the USFCA and actively competes in USA Fencing Veteran events. His students have represented multiple teams domestically and abroad.

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