Legacy of “Allies”

Confusion was the main emotion at most of the Allies conferences (spilling out sometimes as rage, sometimes as grief). I strongly believe that the Allies conferences were an important attempt to try and address some of the deep sociopolitical differences among and between Deaf folk and interpreters. I do believe that many individuals benefitted personally from the experience, but overall, the conferences did not move us toward any kind of collective understanding. Why they failed, given the good intentions and positive desires of the founders, participants, and later planners, has been a puzzle that I continue to think about.
First, let me record what happened today.


Eileen used the term “ally” as the most recent service model of interpreting for hearing interpreters. Someone asked for a definition, and there was a pause. Eileen said she was asked what it means. There were some chuckles. She said, “It’s still not explained.” And, “I’m not prepared to discuss this today.” “It’s an East Coast phenomenon.” She asked if anyone else wanted to volunteer to explain it? Then she offered an example that Charlotte Baker-Shenk (I think?) used: of a doctor-patient relationship. In which the patient is clearly “lower” in status than the doctor, and a Deaf patient is even lower than a hearing patient, so an interpreter who is an “ally” will try to “raise” the status of the Deaf patient at least to the level of a hearing patient, “if not more.” She added that Teresa Smith (I really hope someone will correct me by using the comment feature if I’m getting any of the names or other details wrong) had explained to her that the notion of an ally involved a sociopolitical view that included advocacy and trying to deal with power. At this point we moved on.
During break, Wendy and I recognized each other vaguely and realized that where we’d seen each other was at Allies. She said she almost started laughing when that person asked Eileen what “ally” meant. ­čÖé Wendy attended the first three conferences in NH before she “got fed up”. I told her I was a glutton for punishment and had gone to all of them, including Connecticutt and New York, but I’d missed the very first one in Pennsylvania. She made a really good point, she said we’re stuck “using old language to discuss new concepts”. As my brain was buzzing through the rest of the workshop, I thought I landed on another reason why the Allies conferences didn’t work out so well.
At some point I learned from systems theorists and people who do large group consulting that you have to include all parts of a system to really understand it. So, one problem was that there were no hearing interlocutors at the Allies conferences: one third of the main players in the event were absent from the discussion – not just missing-in-action, but not even considered. Today, I realized something else. Deaf people (in the Allies conferences) were not (in general) engaging hearing interpreters from a position of status equality – they were addressing the concept and practices of interpreters being “allies” from the position of being users or consumers of interpreting services. This means the CONDITIONS of the conferences were SET UP (not on purpose, of course) to replicate the structure of oppression that puts the interpreter into a hierarchical position “above” the Deaf interlocutor.
How did I get this idea? Because Eileen had me thinking about what if Deaf interpreters and hearing interpreters had an “allies” type of discussion? What if they meet as peers, as professional colleagues, as individuals coming from the same status position? Blow my mind AGAIN! ­čśë Of course, there are a lot of barriers and problems between deaf and hearing interpreters working as teams, as Eileen pointed out quite clearly. Yet, that fact could make such a conversation a perfect site to work out some of the deeply embedded issues (history, dynamics, cultural differences) that happen repeatedly (and painfully) during interpretation.

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