Allies create safe spaces, not take them over

Monday, June 17, 2013

By Renee Bracey Sherman

My father is an odd fellow, one not reflected in most Father’s Day cards. He rarely watches sports, would never buy a sports car, hates golf due to working as a caddy in his teens, and doesn’t wear ties. While he loves his tools and is constantly reconstructing our family home, it’s not because of any need to display masculinity. He does it because he worships my mother and wants her to have anything he can create. It’s a bit of selflessness that is rarely reflected in mainstream media, and appreciated or expected of men – especially towards their partners and the world around them.

My father was born with many privileges – a cisgender straight white man, born and raised in Minnesota to a large lower-middle class Catholic family. A man who dropped out of high school because he didn’t like what the nuns were teaching, but went on to put himself through college, receive a Master’s degree, and finish nursing school. He’s smart, thoughtful, and caring. And while he has a lot of privileges in life, he has taught me the one lesson I hold dearest – how to be a great ally.

Growing up, I remember people from his work coming to the house for hours, days, and weeks at a time to sit with him around the kitchen table and tell him about their problems. I didn’t understand why they were there, just that it was important and I wasn’t allowed to bother them. He would listen so intently as they’d share their stories and sometimes cry, that he couldn’t hear me complaining that I was bored. Sometimes we’d have to go to his job and walk with signs, chanting and making signs. It was exhausting, and I would have rather stayed at home. Little did I know that I was marching for my own health care, safe working conditions, and fair contracts through the nurses union that my father volunteered for full-time. He recognized that as a white man, he was always given the space to share his opinions and offer recommendations, but realized that he wanted to use that privilege for something else – to cede the floor to others who were facing challenges in his workplace and share their stories and experiences. He wanted to be the person to open the door and then step back and let them shine.

I believe he learned these lessons from his mother, a homemaker who grew up during The Depression and raised eight children, including Rita, the youngest. My aunt Rita had seizures as a child and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and she couldn’t walk or speak. Doctors said she wouldn’t live past the age of thirteen (she lived to forty), but that didn’t stop my grandmother from making sure Rita got the best care, was treated equally by our family, and raised her in the family home – this was at a time when doctors pressured her to put Rita in an institutional group home. When we would travel to Minnesota to see the family, my father’s eyes would light up every time he saw Rita. He couldn’t wait to take her for a walk, share updates of our family with her, and feed her – she always had a spot at the dinner table. Watching him interact with Rita taught me that everyone has a voice and everyone has value, whether they can speak or not, whether they can walk with you or not. Even though she could never respond to him, he looked in to her eyes to listen for her stories.

Recently, I asked my father about his own stories and experiences – in particular if he felt pressure to change his life path. His answer was simple, “Yes, and I don’t care.” Other people’s hesitations will not impact the care and support he gives to those around them. His job is to make sure everyone has access to the opportunities in life that he has had. It’s to ensure that everyone is treated with the utmost respect and has the opportunity to pursue happiness – whether that is through a career choice, a partner choice, or quality of life. And as a person with privilege, it is your duty to stand with and support others in that endeavor. To create safe spaces, not take them over.

He has rarely uttered the terms “privilege”, “oppression”, or “ally”, but he has taught me how to use the seat you’ve been handed to bring others to the table. This Father’s Day, I want to thank him for sharing this important lesson with me: Don’t wallow in your privilege, use it to make change and empower others. Before the Papa’s Day campaign came along, there wasn’t a card to thank him for that.

My father taught me to go against the grain. He taught me how to stand up for what you believe in, even if you’re the only one standing, because more often than not, once you stand, others will stand with you and appreciate you breaking the ice. You don’t have to follow the path society sets up for you – and I don’t have to send him the Father’s Day card society tells me to buy him.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist who shares her own abortion experience to encourage others who have had abortions to speak out and end the silence and stigma. She's shared her story on the BBC Newshour,, The, and various college campuses. By day, Renee is a fundraiser at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia. In her spare time she serves as the social media coordinator for the Bay Area Doula Project, the board chair for Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Bay Area Chapter, writes for Echoing Ida - a black women's writing collective of Strong Families, and shares her home with folks traveling to the Bay Area for abortions through her local abortion fund, ACCESS Women's Health Justice. Renee, a proud Chicagoan, holds a Bachelor's degree in Economics and Sociology from Northeastern Illinois University, and is currently pursuing her Master's studies in Public Administration at Cornell.

This blog post is part of the Strong Families' first Papa's Day celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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