Community Activism and the Role of Allies in Social Movements

By Sophia Tulp

Ithaca, NY — 2017 has already been an unprecedented year of social activism, from post-inauguration protests of President Donald Trump, to women’s marches and marches for science and climate change awareness across the globe.

For example, according to data collected by Erica Chenoweth at the University of Denver and Jeremy Pressman at the University of Connecticut, Women’s Marches held in more than 600 US cities were attended by at least 4.2 million people in January.

Women and allies descend onto the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. in January for the National Women’s March. Photo/Sophia Tulp

In an interview with, Chenoweth, an expert on protests and social movements, said it was the largest day for a demonstration in the U.S. to date.

This atmosphere of grassroots activism has seeped into the local culture of Ithaca as well, mirroring the national issues on the community level.

Locally, this weekend in particular, three major events were held in the City of Ithaca and at Ithaca College, all commemorating different causes. From the 3rd annual Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival, to the Believe in Love benefit and Holocaust Remembrance Week, students and community members engaged in activism on multiple levels.

Miss Seneca Lake introduces speakers at the first annual Believe in Love event in the City of Ithaca. Organized by Ithaca College and Cornell students, the event promoted community activism on a number of issues. Photo/Sophia Tulp

Along with these events, many of the organizers took time to reflect on communities outside of the movement that helped to make it possible.

Allies, or those that support a social movement to mutual benefit, can both help and hurt the movements. According to one of the principle studies of allyship, a report by Washington and Evans in 1991, defines an ally as “a person who is a member of the dominant or majority group who works to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate with and for, the oppressed population.”

Susan Olak, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, has spent her career studying the effects of allies on social movements. Olak said oftentimes allies do propel social change — however, it is not without its drawbacks.

“There are broad studies of U.S. social movements that show that umbrella or coalition movements that achieve support from a diverse set of groups … are likely to mobilize larger numbers of participants,” Olak said. “But there is also research evidence showing that having allies does not ensure policy success, especially in terms of specific legislation in Congress. There is also a substantial research literature showing that more diverse social movements are likely to have more internal conflict … which may threaten a movement’s survival and/or success.”

Another prolific sociologist, William Gamson, studied another aspect of this question of the effects of allies in his book, “The Strategy of Social Protest.” In the work, he asked whether social movement organizations that favor multiple issues and had multiple goals were more or less successful than “single issue” groups.

Because a given ally might be organized around a single issue, rather than the many issues that the marginalized groups might be concerned about, movements that try to gain support from very diverse allies might risk diluting their message — or they might risk presenting a more confusing image.

“You need to consider the persistence of ‘allied’ or ‘coalition’ forces — are they temporary ‘fair-weather’ friends, or long-term groups that share parallel goals, tactics, and vision?” Olak said.

The Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival is an event that supports Asian American film, video and media makers both nationwide and throughout the upstate New York area while promoting films created by, starring and about Asian Americans.

The Ithaca Pan Asian Film Festival showcased the work of Asian communities that are often underrepresented in the arts. The event took place at Cinemopolis in downtown Ithaca April 20-22. Photo/Sophia Tulp

Monica Chen, a senior at Ithaca College and an organizer of IPAFF, said oftentimes, narratives about Asian Americans are left out of the media and seldom represented. During award season at film festivals, only 1 percent of nominations have gone to those with Asian backgrounds — the lowest of all underrepresented groups, according to data from the Pew Research Center in 2016.  

Because of this, she said allies are important in using their privileged positions to make the voices of underrepresented groups heard. However, she also cautioned that allies can sometimes outspeak the marginalized group.

“It’s always just a complicated matter of … does your voice overpower the voices of the community that you’re actually trying to support?” Chen said. “It’s about amplifying the voices of the communities — it’s not about serving as the face for them.”

Holocaust Remembrance Week was commemorated by the Hillel club o- campus at Ithaca College. One event was a flag planting ceremony to represent the communities affected by the Holocaust. Each color represented a different group, including Jews, LGBTQ people, disabled individuals and more who lost their lives in the concentration camps during World War Two. Over 11 million people perished, 6 million of whom were Jewish.

In addition to the flag planting, the club is sponsoring letter-writing campaigns to Holocaust survivors as well as hosting speakers and observing a moment of silence in honor of those lost.

Flags mark the different communities that perished in the Concentration Camps during the Holocaust. The flags were planted across the Academic Quad in honor of Holocaust Remembrance week by the Hillel Club. Photo/Sophia Tulp

Allison Copquin, a national Hillel engagement coordinator, came to Ithaca to help with the events.

“We thought that this visual symbolism … would make a greater statement that we couldn’t voice, but that you could see,” Copquin said.

Junior Sarah Krieger also helped organize this week’s events. She said that allies held an important historical role in the hiding and saving of those persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. She said Hillel was trying to channel this awareness and support from all communities by shedding light on all of the different populations that were targeted during the Holocaust.

“For our little memorial service … we’re having different religious groups on campus help out on that, and just making sure that we have the right word choice when we talked about different groups that perished during the Holocaust is really important,” Krieger said. “We’re trying to do our best to educate ourselves and educate the local Ithaca community.”

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