How to Be an ‘Upstander’

An “UpStander” training workshop. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Anti-Violence Education)

[This article has been updated to note that CAE charges for its workshops on a sliding scale.]

What would you do if you witnessed someone receive a tongue-lashing for not speaking English well, complete with an admonition to “go back where you came from”? If you saw someone berate a young woman wearing hijab?  If you heard someone being called ugly, racist names?

Or, take a moment and think back – what did you do when faced with a similar situation in the past?

Many of us want to do the right thing, to help a victim of harassment, to tell off the hatemonger, but we don’t know how best to do that. We can’t all be heroes and save the day – indeed, we can’t be sure that stepping into the fray mightn’t make things worse, and put us at risk for interfering. What’s a well-meaning person to do?

When I saw the invitation from the English Speaking Union on East 39th Street to join an “UpStander Training” workshop, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been a volunteer in ESU’s English in Action program, which pairs fluent English speakers with newcomers to help them practice their English in one-on-one conversation sessions. The UpStander workshop was run by Carol and Velvet, two instructors from the Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE), a Brooklyn-based organization.

We gathered in a circle in ESU’s large first floor sitting room, furniture pushed up against the walls, chairs in a wide circle. After introductions and some warm-up exercises to break the ice, the 16 of us attending the session were primed to learn, and learn from each other. Carol said the strategies, the learning, we could take from the room and out into the world; the personal stories, anything painful that emerged, stayed in the room.

In our warmup we moved around the space, and then at intervals were asked to freeze in place and given instructions: breathe, point to an exit, make eye contact with someone and ask for help. The objective was to emphasize that you need to assess both yourself and your ability to help, assess the situation and how risky it might be (locate the path to safety) and try to make allies. To be an “upstander” (there is no such word in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, though it has begun to enter the lexicon) and not a bystander, you should ally yourself with the target of harassment – “don’t be a hero, be an ally,” we were told. And you should seek out other allies. Finally, remember that there may be some days when you can’t do much to help, even though you’d like to – you may be too tired, too stressed, too fragile.

Still, you may be able to do just a little bit to help. For instance, you could make eye contact with the victim and be a silent witness. Maybe mouth some words of comfort from a distance to the person. Maybe take notes and relay information later on to a national hate incident group. Take a photo? Perhaps. But be careful, as that can fan more aggression on the part of the harasser. Or maybe you could, once someone else has managed to defuse the situation, help to soothe the victim.

“That’s not right!”



“Did anyone hear what I just heard?”

With Violet we practiced using our voices, at different pitches, with different tones and emphasis, to make a point to an aggressor. Speak calmly, and try to notch the adrenalin-fueled anger of the harasser down, gradually. Or maybe you need to step in, and forcefully. Or, try to get some fellow upstanders to help de-escalate the situation. You have to adapt your tactics to the situation, and even change them on the fly as circumstances change.

One particularly helpful piece of advice: distract, distract, distract! Drop something, spill something, ask for directions, anything that might break the focus of the harasser on the victim. When we role played (a difficult thing, playing a harasser, and we each had to do it), I opted to play a drunken harasser, and the person in my group playing the upstander deftly cut in between me and my victim, pulled out his wallet, and asked me repeatedly for change of a $20. The move managed to give the victim time to exit and get out of the way.

Would that things were so easy in real life. Sometimes harassers threaten violence, and Carol and Velvet offered some simple moves to protect our heads from blows, get our wrists out of an armlock, and even kick a violent harasser’s knee to get free from their hold. (Will I remember the moves and be able to use them? Who knows. Somehow I think effective self-defense requires a whole lot more instruction and practice.)

And if the harassment we’re witnessing in public is a form of domestic abuse – either between two adults, or a parent abusing a child – Carol offered a few words of caution. If one adult is abusing another on the street, it may be difficult to ascertain whether the victim wants the police involved, and there could be huge risks associated with interfering. If a parent is abusing a child, observing to the parent that they’re probably under a lot of stress, acknowledging that the daily circumstances of life might be difficult, could perhaps help make the parent more aware of their behavior, and lead them to become calmer. But, said Carol, when a stranger encounters domestic abuse, it’s important to remember: “That story is going to continue.”

CAE has offered its two-hour “UpStander” training workshop to more than 80 organizations in the tri-state area since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Following the election, says CAE’s executive director Loren Miller, there was a surge in concern among CAE’s staff, and in organizations it regularly works with, about how to meet the challenge of identity harassment and hate crimes. Within a few weeks, the curriculum for the workshop was developed. Interest has snowballed, and now the center can’t keep up with the demand for the UpStander trainings, most of which happens by word of mouth, says director of programs Jenny DeBower.

Of the 5,500 people who received training in CAE courses so far this year, more than 2,000 received the UpStander training. Instructors from CAE offer the training in mosques, synagogues, and community centers – but have also been invited by large institutions like NYU Langone to offer the workshop to their employees. CAE changes for the workshop on a sliding scale, and ESU was offered a discounted rate, says English in Action Manager Karen Ruelle.

CAE, which started in the 1970s as Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts, evolved in the 1990s to offer anti-violence and self-defense classes to children, teens and adults. CAE’s mission, in educating about nonviolence, is to promote social justice for all, irrespective of race, ethnic origin or sexual preference or identity. In fact, says CAE’s Miller, the yearlong self-defense classes offered to youth in effect teach the principles of being an “upstander” for the entire year.

For more info about UpStander trainings, as well as its extensive self-defense classes, go to the Center for Anti-Violence Education.

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