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Speaking Truth to Power Workshop

Ilona Roberts (2nd Year undergraduate at Clare College) attended a workshop entitled 'Speaking Truth to Power' as part of the Festival of Ideas

Bystander intervention is a term that sounds incredibly jargonistic until you realise it simply means ‘standing up to oppression in uncomfortable situations’. The title of this workshop is incredibly apt; in everyday environments, it can be hard to challenge power without feeling like you’re making a scene or causing a fuss. However, as the brilliant Dr Amy Erickson, Fellow at Robinson College, and Emma Nicholls, a History postgrad from Clare Hall, showed us, the consequences of not speaking up can be far worse.

When I walked into the room I was surprised to see that I was one of the youngest there. People had come from across Cambridge and beyond, of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities, to combat the problem of implicit sexism and racism: those jokes you think are harmless, for example, or the everyday generalisations we are all guilty of. But the workshop was not about making anyone feel guilty for saying these things, or about being aggressive when people make mistakes. If anything, it took a line of self-reflection, and focused heavily on how we can combat our own implicit bias.

The space was incredibly honest and open

The space was incredibly honest and open. We were invited to introduce ourselves and say something about why we were there, and the diversity in the room was astounding. There were mental health workers, lecturers, post-grads, long-term Cambridge residents, and students, from places as far as Pakistan, America and Russia to name a few. Although the reasons for attending ranged, there were shared themes such as the subject of intervention being rarely discussed, the opportunity for practical help and advice, and the motive to address societal issues that are often buried under everyday incidents.

We then moved on to talk about specific scenarios, which easily opened up the discussion to personal anecdote. Issues like women not having the confidence to speak in public spaces (such as lectures), the problem of parents or friends having very different opinions to your own, and porters checking the university cards of BME students (exclusively) as they enter colleges, were all discussed. None of the questions raised had easy answers; but that was why we were there.

I attended as a second-year history undergraduate from Clare College, and as a committee member of Clare GEM (Clare’s Gender Equality Movement Society). We are lucky enough to be holding our very own bystander workshop, run once more by Amy and Emma, on the 13th November at 7pm. The event will focus on such situations as what to do about being harassed in a club, how to challenge friends on jokes that are discriminatory without being the ‘killjoy’, and how to combat imposter syndrome. It is open to all university members, so please like our page on Facebook (Clare GEM - Gender Equality Movement) and email me ( or Julie ( for more details. We also have exciting talks coming up; the Head of Philanthropy and Sponsorship  at JP Morgan, Carol Lake, will be giving a talk on diversity in honour of Black History Month (27th October, at 4pm), as well as many more. So keep your eyes out!

In the meantime, it is a credit to the Festival of Ideas that such diverse and important issues are being discussed. The workshop was a fun, inclusive and safe space to be, and I would absolutely recommend it to all.

See also:

Breaking the silence - preventing harassment and sexual misconduct 

Breaking the Silence is a major initiative from Cambridge University, see