The concern has been raised that people might misunderstand the point of the BACKUP ribbons, or misuse them. And I suspect that it’s not immediately obvious to everyone 1) what you’re committing to and 2) what you’re empowered/allowed to do, if you choose to wear one. I thought perhaps writing up my interpretation of these issues might help. (Disclaimer: I am not ALA; I have not run this by them; ALA does not endorse or supply BACKUP ribbons; this is my and Lisa Rabey’s project, not an official thing. I’m not even sure my interpretation and Lisa’s are the same.)
The BACKUP Ribbon’s special powers (hint: there are none)
Let’s clear up the latter, first, since it’s the easiest: you aren’t the police, and you aren’t ALA Conference Services,* and that doesn’t change when you put on a ribbon. The BACKUP ribbon imbues no special power; it just serves as a visible message that you’re a safe person to approach, if someone is feeling harassed/threatened. If approached, you can be solicitous and soothing and do what you can to help the person feel safe in the immediate moment, but ultimately, the situation should be resolved either between the parties involved (“That wasn’t cool.” “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”), or by Conference Services.
I also like to believe that the BACKUP ribbon might help get us over the hump of “bystander syndrome”—but hopefully without making us feel like knights errant. (That seems like a wide range, but it’s easy to overdo it.) We have always had the power to intervene, gently, if we felt like someone was being mistreated, but the Statement of Appropriate Conduct clarifies everyone’s [already existent] right not to be harassed—which should make us feel more empowered to act in our own and others’ defense, a phrase I use with some trepidation—and it gives us guidance about how we can assist (immediately: try to help everyone feel safe; ultimately: find Conference Services or the proper authorities). Stepping in requires some finesse, and I’ll talk more about it in a moment. For now, my suggestion is that it’s probably good to intervene if you see a situation and can help without escalating the situation or risking anyone’s safety. (If safety is a concern, it is probably an issue for the police. You are empowered to call the police, if you have safety concerns.)
Doing BACKUP right
Step one, if you want to be good backup, is to familiarize yourself with the Statement of Appropriate Conduct for this conference. A number of behaviors are disallowed, and knowing what those are will help you determine whether/how to act.
Next, you should understand that you don’t have to intervene to be good backup—being visible as a friendly face and/or letting someone approach you for support is often enough; and if you see a situation but don’t feel comfortable stepping in, bringing it to Conference Services’ attention is plenty helpful.
Even if you choose to step in, there are many non-confrontational ways to do so. In fact, non-confrontational is the preferred method. The goal isn’t to get a harasser (or potential harasser) to back down, but rather to help the person who might (or might not!) feel harassed/threatened to get away. You can do this by asking “Are you OK?” or “Do you want any help?” or you can be somewhat less direct and just try to distract the harasser (irrelevant questions are my suggestion — “Excuse me, where’s the closest coffee stand?” or “Hey, do you know what time it is?”), so the other person has a chance to get away.
It’s worth noting that not everyone will want help, which is part of why I led with asking questions of the person who looks like they might want help, first. Forcing “help” on someone who doesn’t want it is nearly as disempowering/unhelpful as harassing them. So do your best to get a read of the situation, rather than dashing in. Remember when I mentioned knights, above? That’s because “white knighting” is a term that refers to people who force their “help” on others, among other behaviors. It’s not a nice thing.
I really, really like this article, written for men who want to be allies to women at parties. Obviously, a conference is pretty different from a party (well…), but, “bro code” comment aside, the advice is relevant and useful for someone who wants to do a good job of being backup. Read it a couple of times. Internalize it.
I also want to point you to this article. It’s a little more broad—about being an ally, in general, but the emphasis on listening, on letting people tell their own stories, is important. (The whole thing is important, but parts of it are a little outside the scope of this post.) If you’re backing someone up, you are backing them up. It’s about them, and you should find out what they need, rather than assuming you know; as much as possible, you should listen, rather than talking.
I hope this makes sense and sounds reasonable. If you have questions (or disagreements), I’ll try to stay on top of the comments on this post, so we can chat about it (or use Twitter—that’s the fastest way to reach me during conferences). I am hoping other people with insight and opinions will chime in and share their thoughts, too.
* If you belong to one of those groups, you already know your rights and responsibilities to act in case trouble arises.