Interrupting oppression with strategy and heart

Feminist activist and scholar Sally Eck discusses tools and strategies for interrupting oppressive attitudes and language.

Subscribe to “Nonviolence Radio” on Apple Podcasts, Android or via RSS.

We all have unconscious bias and we all have work to do to become aware of, and unlearn it. It’s a life-long effort, and like anything in nonviolence, it can be done with strategy and an open-heart toward the people involved.

For over 21 years, feminist activist and scholar Sally Eck has been leading workshops on “interruptions,” and “calling-in.” She offers empowerment, tools, and strategy for interrupting oppressive attitudes, language, and what she refers to as “microaggressions,” which in a culture of violence can make marginalized groups feel unsafe when they happen because they invite in other stereotypes and cultural biases that can lead to direct physical violence. In a nonviolent culture, we can do “call-ins,” which are opportunities for us to learn from our mistakes and grow in awareness and strength as allies. In her words, “It’s taken a really, really long time for us to be this expert at hurting each other. And it’s going to take a really long time for us to get really expert at loving each other.”

In this interview from “Nonviolence Radio,” Sally calls us to come to this work from a place of strategy, heart, and courage. She shares that doing interruptions will never feel totally comfortable, but we do them because they can help us to grow closer and stronger as communities of trust and practice.

Stephanie: How did you get into the work of women’s studies and the work of interrupting oppression?

Sally: I came through it as an activist. I was volunteering and working at a shelter for women and children who were escaping interpersonal violence. And it was a skillset that was being used at the shelter. The shelter is still open here, called, “Bradley Angle House.”

And I really loved the training that we have there. I wanted to take the ideas that I got from the training to other places. I was surprised about the way that we talked so openly about having really important conversations, about the way oppression is showing up in our lives at the shelter because I was noticing that people are very shy about, and really kind of put off by having those conversations in other places.

But they felt really necessary to me. At the time I was also a college student that was kind of wandering around and not really knowing what I was doing. And so, my activism and I needed to take it to the university to get more theoretical background. Also, teachers at the university weren’t doing the interrupting or work in the classroom. It was really obvious, and we were losing students because people weren’t being taken care of.

And I started asking every teacher if I could run an interrupt oppression workshop in their class. And a lot of them said, “Yes.” So, I started practicing.

Stephanie: That’s amazing. And what do you mean by an “interrupting oppression” workshop? What is the basis of this and what weren’t the teachers doing that you noticed?

Sally: Yeah. So, an interruption is an opportunity to have a dialog or an action about the experience of oppression in our lives. Oftentimes, what people do in classroom situations is they ignore those moments when we’re kind of – when people are kind of treading on other people’s identities and experiences with kind of across the frameworks that have been socialized – where people have been socialized and turned into as they’ve come up through their years.

We get raised and socialized with oppressive ideas. And then we just say them to each other without having thought of them. And a lot of times in classrooms that there’s a lot of people who come together who don’t know each other and don’t know each other’s experiences and identities and they will say things.

And the saying of things is the reproduction of a microaggression. Microaggressions support and promote bigger systems of oppression that result in institutionalized inequities. So, it was a really big deal when these things show up in the classroom. And a lot of people don’t really know what to do with it when it shows up because they’re also trying to be polite and be nice and not be adversarial. Although, saying something oppressive is, in fact, adversarial.

Stephanie: Right. And then this idea of there’s something called, “The call-out culture.” That instead of doing necessarily “an interruption” that you teach, there’s also sort of a culture of saying, “You said this thing and you hurt me by it and you’re bad for that.” Can you somehow break that apart and what’s the difference between an interruption versus a call-out.

Sally: Well, I would actually say that a call-out, is in fact, an interruption. It’s a form of an interruption. A call-in, which is a more gentle invitation to consider the thinking around the oppressive framework is another form of an interruption. And there are lots of things kind of in-between. The super gentle version and the very brisk and abrasive version. And all of those are actually interactions.

But my invitation in the workshop and in courses that I teach for people who are really considering this is to consider it deeply. So, what is the desired outcome that you would like to kind of build toward? What’s your goal in having the conversation? So, there’s – whether you choose to use a call-out or you choose to use a call-in, what do you hope will happen?

So, I call that, “The desired outcome.” So, we consider the desired outcome because also being someone who’s engaging in an interaction practice is a visionary. So, if you’re a visionary, then you have a vision for a desired outcome. And you kind of work backward from there. So, if the desired outcome is that you and I stay in each other’s lives for years and years and are connected and supportive of each other’s growth, then my approach with my interruption will probably be more of a call-in than a call-out.

And there’s a lot of different factors we might consider that would help inform the practice. But the idea is that we really get kind of expert and strategic to about what is happening when we’re engaging in the process. Oftentimes people are so activated they feel so nervous about engaging that they haven’t thought through what the desired outcome could possibly be. And so, that’s kind of thwarting any progress that could have been made, or any important learning moment, or any kind of calmer, more thoughtful frame.

Stephanie: Yeah. That’s brilliant, Sally. And in some nonviolence training that we help with, sometimes the thing to do is to use humor, for example. And it’s really hard to draw up humor at a time when you’re feeling afraid and scared and nervous and anxious about the situation. It’s really not easy. It takes practice.

Sally: Yes.

Michael: You know, this idea in the language of calling out versus calling in suddenly reminded me of the whole distinction between our present criminal justice system which is retributive and the alternative system that’s actually catching on pretty call, called, “Restorative Justice.” And down south there, the Prison Ashram Project, they have characterized this as in a retributive system what we’re basically saying to an offender is, “Hey get out of here.” And in restorative justice, we’re saying, “Hey, get back in here.”

Sally: Yeah. Yes, it’s wonderful.

Stephanie: You’ve really been ahead of the curve with the restorative approach to the interruption process. When we say something that comes from unconscious bias,  all of us do a lot of the time. And then we’re interrupted, it can feel like we’re bad people. Can you talk about that and how it feels to receive an interruption and whether or not that means that we’re bad people when we’ve made a mistake like that?

Sally: It’s really important to make the distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is, “I’ve done something wrong.” And shame is, “I am bad. I am wrong.” And, you know, with guilt there’s some hope. With shame, there’s not a lot you can do with that. So, if we can kind of help people recognize the difference for themselves they’ll also be able to recognize their agency.

And people believe that the vast majority of us don’t actually want to support and promote an oppressive system. We would all like people to have access, equity, enjoy good, meaningful, deep, beautiful lives. We’re also socialized to support a lot of stereotypes and ideas about other people – other groups of people to which we don’t belong – that aren’t valuable, culturally.

And to be able to ask ourselves to think through our own thinking and to know that we can change and can move us from shame to guilt to empowered, and agency. As people who are recipients of interactions, what I ask people to do is really just to also try to ask and look for the message. We don’t actually have kind of a standard or traditional way of informing people about how to be more generous and kind with each other around identities and language.

We are bumbly. We are awkward. We don’t have a strategy, necessarily. And so, it takes a lot to kind of to speak up. It’s a hard practice. And so, our job as people who are receiving that information is to be like, “Wow, I see how hard that practice was for you and I appreciate it. And even if you’re rude or aggressive or you seem upset, I’m really going to look for the message to what you’re offering.

Stephanie: Do you have any stories of people whose lives have been transformed by this?

Sally: You know, I actually had a really important conversation with my son yesterday morning on the way to school. We were talking about how he had a teacher who was talking about students, how important it was for students to set goals for themselves, which in and of itself is an important skillset. And the goals that she kept giving examples of were about weight loss.

“I just,” he said, “I feel teenagers are really – we’re just so trained to hate our bodies. It seems really dangerous for her to be talking like that.” And I was like, “Well, you can talk to her about that.” And he said, “I think I’m going to.” And he came home last night, and he said, “Yeah, we had a conversation about it. You know, I invited her to think about the health at every size movement and body positivity. And to think about that for the students because I told her that it was probably making them sad.”

I just feel so proud of him for having that lens around bodies and size and who gets to feel included and who doesn’t. And because he is privileged, he belongs to a privileged identity category in terms of size because he’s fit, tall, and lean. It’s not necessarily even on his radar for his own body. But he knows what the stories are. And he has that sensibility. And so, he was like, “I just felt like I needed to say something.”

People who have access to influence, huge numbers of people, like teachers and politicians and health care providers–there are some very obvious examples – really do need to find ways to hear and to incorporate anti-oppressive lens into their practices.

Stephanie: I remember in the workshop too, Sally, there were ideas that just hadn’t crossed my mind yet, and now I can’t get them out. So, I think in terms of the world of social justice, so much language is around “standing up” and “walking the talk. “If you were to do an interruption on that, what speaks to you? What comes out to you when I say things like, “Let’s stand up for justice and let’s walk the talk.”

Sally: Yeah. You know, that’s just ableist language. It limits who’s available to engage. And so, if I was going to interrupt that I would say – I might just provide an alternative. I would say, “Oh, I want to invite you to consider.” Instead of, “Walk the walk,” “Do the work,” or “Be engaged.” Or, you know, things that people could do from whatever position they might hold in their bodies. Because it is – that is the thing about – which is what is so exciting about a good interruptions practice is that everyone can do it.

And something that’s true about changing the world right now is that it is going to take all of us. In addition to wanting to broaden our language to be supportive of everyone, it also invites more people into the work if they feel what they have to offer will be included in the story.

Stephanie: That’s really beautiful. And what do you say to people who say, “You’re just trying to be politically correct?”

Sally: You know, I wouldn’t base anything on our political system right now. We really, really are needing some practice on a broader scale. So, I would say that that’s kind of a way to get people to be quiet. And I would just say, “ I’m very sensitive for the world.”  And I’m trying to encourage the world to be more sensitive. And like I said, most people don’t want to be oppressive, so an invitation to have better language isn’t necessarily always thought of as a threat. It could be received as a gift.

Stephanie: I want to sort of go over some of the tips that we can leave to our listeners, now that they’ve learned a little bit about the importance of doing interruptions and paying attention to their own. What tips might we give? Like one you said that I remember was trying to reframe, to think of what you’re really trying to say.

Sally: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Say what you mean instead.

Yeah. A lot of colloquialisms we offer aren’t particularly useful anymore. We can just use different language. It’s pretty simple practice. And we can offer other language to people in our community. So then, people have alternatives. That’s helpful because sometimes people are like, “What do I say then?” And it’s like, “Well, you can see this is, this is, and this instead.” And that can be very helpful.

I would say we consider the desired outcome and then we operate with that mind. But that’s not necessarily going to resolve everything because, you know, as we know, sometimes our plans don’t always get resolved in the way we anticipated. So, that’s important to remember. But if we keep that in mind, that will be helpful. I would say try not to use a script when talking to people in the community.

Try to be present with the moment and say what’s in your heart about what’s happening there because a script is a really challenging way to engage with someone. The other person isn’t going to know their lines. So, that will be a challenge. And people don’t necessarily want to be talked to as though it’s a scripted conversation. It will feel more like a reprimand that way and that might feel off-putting.

Although, if that is where you’re at with your practice, that’s okay too because it is important to just do it and to just practice. I would say remember that we’re planting a seed. And it’s taken a really, really long time for us to be this expert at hurting each other. And it’s going to take a really long time for us to get really expert at loving each other. And we’re just going to really need to practice.

So, planting a seed is sometimes kind of the best that we can do and we’ll see, you know, what happens as a result of that.

Stephanie: Beautiful. And of the things that I’ve heard you say on this interview as well, Sally, making mistakes is okay.

Sally: Oh gosh, yes.

Stephanie: Reminding ourselves that we will make mistakes either when we are – even though we’re doing interruptions, we might need to be interrupted ourselves and to be open to that.

Sally: To always be interruptible will make our practice much smoother.

Stephanie: Yeah. And then you said to be humble.

Sally: Yes. Yes, yes. Be looking for that message and be – and recognize that we’ve all kind of – we’re all complicit in the system. And whenever we have an invitation to get out of it, we should take it.

Stephanie: Well, Sally, how do people get in touch with you if they’d like you to do workshops with them? Do you ever leave Portland to do workshops? And how can people learn more?

Sally: I do. I’m actually – I get to go to Berlin to do all those theories here in November, which I’m very excited about. So, I do. I leave town when I can. And I’m happy to talk with anyone more about this work if they’re interested. My email address is because interruptions are heart-work and we have to learn how to do that.

Stephanie: Well, Sally, this has been so wonderful reconnecting here on the show today. Thanks so much for joining us for this time.

This transcript was provided by Matthew Watrous and was edited for length and clarity.

Related Episodes