The Accompany Project's Rachel Blum Levy leads an exercise at a Bystander Intervention Training.
It is Wednesday evening, and sixteen people are seated in a circle in a Brooklyn church basement introducing themselves, and telling why they are here.
“I want to be able to do something if I see something going down,” explains one attendee. Another person says, “I guess I was hoping to get some courage.”
They are here for a “Bystander Intervention Training” organized by the Accompany Project in New York, formed to address the uptick in harassment of Muslims, Latinos, LGBTQ individuals, and others since the election of Donald Trump. Participants have come to learn how to effectively intervene when they witness violent or harassing behavior in public.
“Nobody in this political moment feels like they have the skills to confront the enormity of what’s going on,” says Kayla Santosuosso, an organizer of the Accompany Project. “We’re in a moment when people are feeling vulnerable enough, and open enough, to show up to something that they might not have shown up to a year ago.”
“We’re in a moment when people are feeling vulnerable enough, and open enough, to show up to something that they might not have shown up to a year ago.”
The training is two hours long and multidimensional. In addition to receiving concrete tips on effective intervention (take a deep breath before you engage, don’t be afraid to look ridiculous), attendees are invited to examine how their own identities may be caught up in the machinery of white supremacy and dominance (consider the role of your own ego in your desire to intervene).
“It’s uncomfortable subject matter,” Santosuosso says. “A lot of people come in thinking it’s going to be self defense with a little bit of an ally badge. People expect that they’re going to walk out being like, ‘I’m going to be a hero,’ but we dig pretty deep.”
Santosuosso started the Accompany Project almost accidentally just days after the election. A white native of a Republican-leaning county in rural Ohio, she majored in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University and worked at the Arab American Association of New York for three years.
“It’s Thursday after the election,” remembers Santosuosso. “It’s midnight, and I’m lying in bed, and I get a message from a Muslim woman in Harlem, who had been harassed two days in a row, on the same line, at the same time, by the same person, as she was commuting to her university.”
Santosuosso created a Google form to collect names of people interested in accompanying this woman, posted it to her Facebook page, and went to sleep. By noon the next day, 1,200 people had signed up.
“Within one or two weeks, it had gone up to 7,000 or 8,000 people,” she says. “And nobody ever promoted it, all that it was was my post on my Facebook page which then just got reshared and reshared and reshared.”
As a first step, Santosuosso got permission from Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, to devote time to this ever-expanding database. This was important to Santosuosso because Sarsour was her boss and, as a white antiracism activist, Santosuosso was uncomfortable in the limelight.
“It made me wrestle with these questions like, ‘How much press attention can I get?’ and ‘How do I make sure that I’m staying oriented in the right way?’ ” Santosuosso recalls. “I had to have a lot of conversations with organizers and activists, being like, ‘Is this okay? Can I keep doing this?’ ”
Encouraged by her colleagues, Santosuosso did continue. She joined forces with Rachel Blum Levy, a licensed social worker experienced in nonviolent de-escalation, and they began planning trainings in December. By mid-January, demand had grown enough that they built up a volunteer structure to help coordinate the events and handle administrative tasks.
There are now more than seventy volunteers, all recruited from the original list. The Accompany Project has coordinated more than two dozen workshops, and most have them have been packed to capacity. Despite the new trainers the Accompany Project hopes to bring on board in the coming months, Levy has every Wednesday through 2017 reserved for this program.
Olive Minor, a participant at this Wednesday’s training, is a research and evaluation officer for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian response group. She says she’s here to learn practical ways to “translate intent into action.”
“There were some really terrible stories about people being harassed or attacked in public, and nobody responding, and it’s so easy to imagine myself being one of those people,” Minor says. “I know my own tendency is a very strong reluctance to engage and my own tendency is to be very passive, so having some practical strategies to fall back on is really useful.”
Jojo Gonzalez, an actor and art instructor, feels similarly.
“If someone’s coming at another person in a violent way, if you’re able to de-escalate it, you’re helping more than just one person,” Gonzalez says. “You’re kind of throwing that pebble into the lake, and maybe someone else will go, ‘If this person can do it then I can do this, too.’ And then it’s like a ripple.”
"If someone’s coming at another person in a violent way, if you’re able to de-escalate it, you’re helping more than just one person. You’re kind of throwing that pebble into the lake, and maybe someone else will go, ‘If this person can do it then I can do this, too.’ And then it’s like a ripple."
Santosuosso thinks the Accompany Project could expand outside of New York City. In the meantime, trainees are being invited to help guard New York Islamic Centers, sift through hate mail, and accompany Muslim women to protests they might otherwise feel too vulnerable to attend. And the group is planning additional workshops on related topics.
“People are wanting and waiting so desperately to be asked, and to be needed, and to find their place,” Santosuosso says. “If, at the end of the day, I trained 8,000 people, and 4,000 of them then thought critically about their role in white supremacy, and 300 were able to make sure that there was harm reduction that took place, then I’d be, like, ‘Cool. Job well done.’ ”