Decoding How To Become an Active Upstander

BystandersHave you ever witnessed an individual or a group abusing, stereotyping, or disrespecting another person?
Most of us have – in our families, work places, at school, on public transportation, on the street. Some of us are able to intervene even in a small way, and many of us freeze up and later wish we had

Fifty participants in the recent “Being an active bystander workshop” offered by Vision 2020 Diversity Task Group and True Story Theater, shared their feelings about intervening in disturbing situations and then practiced interventions in small role play groups. They expressed fear of violence or escalating a situation, fear of making incorrect assumptions about what was happening, anger about the behavior they witnessed but frozen and tongue-tied when they wanted to intervene. Most were not sure what to do when faced with a disturbing incident. If they didn’t intervene, they felt shame for not speaking up, and regret that often stayed with them long after the incident.

Those who did intervene by speaking up felt excited, scared, empowered, and helpful. Facilitator Maureen Scully told the group that learning to be comfortable as an upstander who intervenes even in a small way is like practicing CPR techniques 100 times on a training dummy. Repeated practice develops the ability to respond in actual situations where rapid action in an emotional situation is required.

Being comfortable as an upstander who intervenes even in a small way is like practicing CPR techniques 100 times on a training dummy

Taking a small step to intervene is often better than doing nothing. An upstander might say “ouch!” or similarly signal that the behavior felt painful and was not okay. Moving closer to the hurt individual or saying “I’m here with you” can signal they are not alone, there is support if they wish it. Naming the behavior and its effects can clarify the inappropriateness of specific acts. Enlisting others who have observed the disrespectful behavior can make it easier to speak up and to reinforce that the behavior was inappropriate. In some cases, calling 911 might be necessary.

An upstander might say “ouch!”

After practicing intervention techniques in small role-play groups, participants were asked how they had been affected by the workshop. Many said they no longer feel alone in feeling fearful and uncertain about how to intervene; they learned it is common to feel that way and to freeze up despite good intentions to speak. Many also said that it’s better to do something, even if it is a small act. That can change the situation and can serve as practice for the upstander. Some spoke of the power of asking others to help them intervene. And one participant noted “my comfort zone of acting is smaller than my desire to act…I will work to make both bigger,” an observation that probably applies to a lot of us.


Mary Harrison, the author of this blog post, is a member of Arlington’s Vision 2020 Standing Committee and Diversity Task Group.

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