May 27, 2021

Creating Space at the Table

A new affinity group, the Black Alumni Network, invites you to pull up a chair. Anyone, of any colour, is welcome stress the two founders, Liza Arnason, BA’92, and fellow alumna Donna Robinson, BA’92. The two met as UCalgary students and have been "besties," since.
Liza Arnason
Liza Arnason, BA’92, co-founder and chair of the UCalgary Black Alumni Network

We’ve all been there.

On a Zoom meeting. At a dinner party. In line for the C-Train. You know it’s coming . . . that awful “joke” the same person always cracks about LGBTQ2S+ or those throwaway lines about “being colour-blind” or the question, “Don’t all lives matter?” Your gut twists. You look away. You pray someone else says something. And no one does.

As an ally, do you know what to do next? What do you say? When do you speak up? What can you do to make change?

This phenomenon, in which no one in a group of witnesses chooses to challenge a problematic event, is called the bystander effect. So, do you want to be an ally or an active bystander? And can you be both? There’s a distinction between the two. An ally is someone who does not suffer the same oppressions as you but who supports your struggle for rights and freedom. An active bystander responds, or takes action, against the concerning behaviour.

This confusion around language can paralyze people with good intentions, explains Liza Arnason, BA’92, co-founder and chair of the UCalgary Black Alumni Network and CEO of Arnason Consulting. “But you can start by being genuine and authentic,” she says. “Allyship is an action verb, not a spectator sport.”

The newest of 12 UCalgary affinity groups, the Black Alumni Network has a simple purpose — to connect past, present and future Black alumni to each other in order to build a supportive, resourceful and positive professional community. “We welcome all alumni and allies to join from across Canada and the globe,” says Arnason. “If you want to help us reach our goals — networking, professional development events, mentorship and scholarships/grants — we want to hear from you.”

“Anyone, of any colour, can join . . . whether you’re in Toronto, Calgary or Halifax, doesn’t matter,” adds Toronto-based Arnason, who created the group along with fellow alumna Donna Robinson, BA’92. While the affinity group is still in the developmental stage, one of the themes that will underscore what this group takes on is bound to be an area that Arnason has cared about since she was a UCalgary student — challenging the status quo. “You can start by creating equitable education and a workplace which includes everyone at the table,” she says.


How do you become an ally?

In trying to make the world a more equitable place, allyship has underscored Arnason’s life work in Equity Diversity and Inclusion which she has addressed in her classes and coaching sessions as an instructor and consultant.

“But be careful what type of ally you choose to be,” warns Arnason, who had a similar message in the ’90s when she started a Black students group on campus. “Most of us want an ally, which isn’t someone who talks for us. What we really need is for allies to just say, ‘Where’s Liza?’ or, at least, make room and stop talking so the voices that haven’t been heard yet are given space to speak.

“Look around and start making space for others. All we really need is a bigger table!”

Other tips from Arnason’s blog on how to become a better ally include:

Do your own homework: Be reflective, learn, unlearn. Know your privilege; look inward, not outward. Get outside your bubble and be courageous.

Understand your own privilege and use it to make the table bigger! Just because it’s not an issue for you, doesn’t mean it’s not an issue for others!

Listen and unlearn, again and again! Seek out resources to continue learning. Apologize genuinely when you make mistakes. Be honest, have empathy and be authentic.

Stay in your lane: zip it and listen. Don’t speak for us, just create the space for us to share our lived experiences and ideas, as everyone in the Black diaspora is different.

Allyship is a verb: act, act act. Do the hard work with us, not from the sidelines. Be vulnerable and take risks when speaking up on matters of equity, diversity and inclusion. Validate, uplift voices, be deliberate. Ask if you need to clarify.

“And finally, enjoy being an ally,” says Arnason. “When you actually let down your guard, take some risks, be quiet and stay in your lane, and stand up when you need to, you can't imagine the networks and opportunities that will open up for you and the positive change you can make.”


Interested in discovering more about the Black Alumni Network? Learn more about its next virtual event on July 6 at 4 p.m., or join the group on Linkedin. For more information about Liza Arnason and her blog, click here. For information about UCalgary’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and its many programs and events, visit here.