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UCC pastor leads bystander intervention workshops

After the November 2016 election, Andrew Conley-Holcom of Admiral UCC in Seattle developed Bystander Intervention workshops, which he offered once a month for a year and now offers quarterly.

Andrew Conley-Holcom leads interactive workshops.

For Thanksgiving 2016, the congregation asked him to develop nonviolent communication training and a workshop to gain skills in talking with people in their families they disagree with.

Andrew has worked for a dispute-resolution center and taught conflict resolution.

“Nonviolent communication within families is different from bystander intervention for someone witnessing harassment on the street, at a coffee shop or on a bus.  It’s about people in a committed relationship,” said Andrew.

“With harassment and hate speech on the rise across the country and with effective intervention being difficult and risky, these interactive, immersive workshops has participants practice intervention strategies to learn what works and what doesn’t through role play, interactive games and follow-up discussion to reprogram our automatic fight/flight/freeze reactions and learn to safely, respectfully de-escalate tense situations,” he said.

Andrew had attended an “all head” training focused on coming up with “good ideas” about how to respond to harassment without role play.  While he found the theory a good place to start, it did not address emotional responses, the effect on brain chemistry and the triggering of hare-wired survival responses.

He believes these forces need to be directly engaged to effectively equip participants to respond to harassment and hate speech in ways that de-escalate situations.

Based on the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) developed by Augusto Boal of Brazil in the 1970s to support the peasants’ engagement in social and political change. He studied TO in a Star King Unitarian Theological School class while studying at Pacific School of Theology.

“It is especially useful for bystander intervention because it tries out various intervention strategies and allows group processing, reflection and analysis of both practical outcomes and emotional consequences,” Andrew said.

“Rather than relying on an expert to explain what works and what doesn’t, TO participants observe effective and problematic intervention strategies through participation,” he said. “TO is inherently uncomfortable, because it plays directly with oppressive dynamics and is profoundly liberatory, because it invites the gathered body to find solutions from within.”

He uses improvisational theatre and games to guide people to ways to renegotiate power relationship and problem solve responses to hate speech.

Andrew, a 2014 graduate of PSR, did research into workshops and found many bad, dangerous approaches that encouraged people to be direct in unsafe ways.

“I had never seen theater of the oppressed used for what I am now using it for,” he said, noting that theater is different from a workshop writing ideas on butcher paper, sitting in a comfortable chair with people with whom participants agree.

“The goal is to concentrate on what will help us engage with our own fears, anger and discomfort.  If we do not become uncomfortable and stressed out, we don’t know if the intervention will work.”

In the first half hour he invites participants to get in their bodies and think of how they would posture themselves in their emotions, getting in touch with and speaking the voice of their own “internalized oppressor, the voice within that is self-dismissive, insulting or unkind to oneself.”

Andrew said in the workshop “we ask polite people to be racist, sexist, Islamophobic or homophobic, which we normally control.  That way we are practicing with real vitriolic, harmful speech in a safer environment, but not a comfortable one.”

The workshop has two objectives, he said:

1) to support the targeted person—a term we use rather than victim, and

2) to de-escalate emotional energy in the room.

“If we intervene and intimidate the oppressor, the oppressor might hurt the person intervening,” he said.  “The goal is to de-escalate the energy to make everyone in the room safer, the oppressor, the targeted person and the intervener.”

Andrew said there are a myriad of ways to de-escalate a tense situation, differing if an older white woman intervenes or a young white man or a young black woman.

Workshop participants play different roles of the persecutor, the targeted person and the bystander.

Techniques include empathy, kindness, humility, humor, ridiculousness—whatever breaks the force of the oppressor.

Ways to intervene include “being a presence, standing near the targeted person, making it clear you are listening.  When a person is aware they are being watched, their willingness to continue the behavior changes,” he said, adding that it’s important to “be aware of your skillset” and have an exit plan if it’s dangerous.

Hundreds have participated in the workshops he offers usually to groups of 12 to 30.

“It calls for a high level of self-awareness, and the training is not about going to one workshop, coming once and learning skills.  Some come to multiple workshops.  It’s about reprogramming the brain to deal with stress and conflict, to interact below the surface level.”

He has done them for Magnolia UCC, Alki UCC, Fauntleroy UCC, a St. John the Baptist Episcopal, St. Therese Catholic Church, Bellevue College, Seattle’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration and the Urban League of Seattle.

While he has led workshops for many in community and secular settings, he believes the “Christian faith is the way, the path to peace is the path of vulnerability, integrity and loving kindness.  Bystander intervention is a Christian practice.

“Our ministry is a ministry of reconciliation to help people live out the core Christian values,” Andrew said.

In church settings, he talks about theological implications.

“My ministry is a call to address violence and trauma,” he said.

One participant commented that the workshop was a way “I was finally able to do something positive to work toward a solution instead of just worrying about it.”

For information, call 206-932-2928 or email


Pacific NW United Church News Copyright © January - March 2019


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