My Journey to Courage: Getting to Raising my Voice in Identity Based Conflicts

By Jacob Dwyer

If you had asked me five years ago “What is your relationship with conflict?” I would have told you that I’m conflict averse. I avoided conflict, if at all possible, thinking there was nothing that could be gained from it. Instead, I saw myself as a mediator, standing outside of and above conflict, whose objective eye could determine a beneficial path forward for all. 

But what does that same conflict aversion look like when I am involved in the conflict, especially when it is identity-based and spurred by systematic forms of oppression? It meant avoiding the situation altogether. It meant leveraging the privileges I hold to justify my aversion by saying I “didn’t want to get involved” or “felt it wasn’t my place.” It meant waiting for an objective analysis of the situation, when the subjective was all that existed. And it meant that I lacked the courage to be the ally I had thought I was. 

In order to stand up for my values I needed to develop courage. However, developing courage cannot be done in a vacuum. My aversion to putting myself out there for others was rooted in social dynamics, and so, in order to foster courage in myself, I needed to develop courage through social dynamics. I needed to learn the cues for oppression, from the blatant to the microaggression, and gain the perspectives of the oppressed through scholarship and discussion in order to determine when to step in, or stand by. I needed to note when I failed, when I did well, and learn from my actions. I needed to gain a deeper understanding of myself in order to use my emotional responses to my benefit. 

I understand that courage is not something we all have inherently. Some of us need to work at it. However, we cannot say we are allies, advocates or changemakers without it. While everyone may have a different path to fostering courage, here are some of the methods through which I continue to foster courage for social justice. 


Reframing Conflict and Discomfort

When you view conflict through a negative lens, it is easy to disassociate yourself from a situation. This negatively-framed perspective to conflict was where my preference for ‘conflict aversion’ arose. However, in thinking about moments where an individual is oppressed, the opposite of engaging in that conflict is apathy. A quick look through the history of activism shows that little has been gained by waiting it out. Conflict has been a driving force in movements for centuries. Conflict drives activists to push against the status quo and achieve change. Without the conflict of perspectives, values, and understandings, the human rights that I enjoy today would not exist. Seeing conflict as the opposite of stagnation, but rather as a place for growth and a signal to recognize that change is needed, was a necessary first step. 

Simultaneously I needed to look at my feelings toward discomfort. These two were closely interlinked in my mind, with discomfort immediately arising when I ran into conflict. Sitting in this discomfort was originally debilitating, driving me to inaction or to leave the scene. A majority of my discomfort arose from an aversion to ‘rocking the boat.’ However, upon self-reflection, it turned out this was too simple. Instead, my aversion was a mixed fear of potentially feeding fuel to the fire with an inappropriate intervention and of risking social ramifications for taking a side. Hiding behind my identity as conflict averse, I had used my ability to leverage privilege and move on from identity-based conflicts to avoid these risks and move forward. Recognizing this approach was incongruent with the ally I aspired to be, I needed to learn to embrace this discomfort to grow. After learning more about the power in discomfort, especially watching Bill Eckstrom’s TED Talk, I named discomfort as a place for growth, rather than a sign to disengage, in order to begin the process of re-learning and practicing my courage. 


Engaging in Learning and Self Reflection

Understanding that uncertainty was a root for my inaction, I engaged in learning both to better understand the perspectives of others and to better understand myself. While I knew the basics of oppression, I found that my privilege had made me blind to many methods through which people are oppressed in the everyday world around me. It was easy for me to acknowledge blatant forms of oppression, and even easier when they had been called out and explained by others, but what about those moments where the lines are blurrier? My friends mentioned moments where they had felt discriminated against that I had not even recognized. Because power dynamics are constantly shifting, the intersecting dynamics of the multiple identities we all hold create ‘gray’ (as opposed to black-and-white) situations that are much more common, but also more difficult to analyze. I needed to understand from people themselves what these experiences looked like and how they felt in them to better understand how I could engage with them. On my graduate school campus, I joined an initiative founded and led by faculty member, Dr. Pushpa Iyer, which brought together a group of motivated community members to work on being better allies to each other. In the Allies initiative, we discussed books, scholarly articles, blog posts, and news articles. We broadened our understanding of systemic racism, patriarchy and classism and avoided focusing solely on the experiences of our own identities. 

In parallel, I needed to better understand myself, particularly my reactions, feelings and emotions when it came to engaging in conflict. Recognizing my instincts allowed me to practice subverting them. The shaking hands, the pit in the stomach, the widening eyes became signals for me to engage, rather than leave. Reflecting upon instances of oppression allowed me to identify the signals that I read about and apply them to my own life. Sharing my analysis with the group allowed me to refine my understanding of the dynamics experienced by people with identities different from my own. Together we brainstormed approaches that could work or not. Through the self-reflection process, I was able to apply the vague academic notions of racism, patriarchy and classism to my own life, allowing me to identify the real ramifications my action or inaction had on the people around me. 


Spaces of Accountability

It was in this Allies initiative, after shifting my frameworks, filling gaps in my understanding, and applying my self-reflection to better channel my reactions, that I could even begin practicing courage in my everyday life. This was feasible through a space of accountability, which the initiative had fostered through its deep self-reflection and vulnerability. When we came across an instance of discrimination or oppression, we shared what we did or did not do. Through the group I began developing approaches that worked for me. When I came across similar instances, I used these approaches. I checked in with myself and with the group to assess how I did. When I failed to speak up, I shared with the group to hold myself accountable. Through weekly meetings I fostered the courage to act in identity conflicts, while also incorporating evidence-based and tested approaches to my personal ‘toolkit.’ 

Since finishing my graduate program, I have found that these spaces of accountability are vital for me to continue growing in my allyship. In letting go of some of my pride, I have fostered accountability by sharing instances of what I did, or did not do, with friends and loved ones to keep me accountable. These spaces keep me practicing my values and, in turn, developing the courage I need to be an ally. 



Jacob Dwyer is a design, monitoring, evaluation and learning specialist at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) based in Washington, DC. He is also an associate of Compassionate Courage, an intervention approach that ensures systemic change and reduces divisions caused by identity-based conflicts. During his graduate studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Jacob was a member of the Allies at MIIS Initiative led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer, which motivated staff, faculty and students to become better allies for racial equity.