Allyship requires moving past performative action to true understanding, advocacy and empowerment of marginalized communities.
Allyship is one of the latest buzzwords in conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. The title ally can often be worn like the latest fad and not be taken seriously as an intentional, long-standing series of actions to impact progress for marginalized communities.
“I can’t even convene a conversation about allyship until I talk a little about how we arrived at it,” says Pamela Benson Owens, president and CEO of Edge of Your Seat Consulting, whose work specializes in developing emotionally intelligent leadership. “First, the trend was mentorship: constructive advice and feedback. Then it was sponsorship, which is leveraging your network and helping people become visible. But then we realized that neither of those got us to where we need to go. So allyship became the trend. Allyship is mentorship, sponsorship and…advocating for, fighting for and giving authority to [marginalized individuals].”
Allyship is crucial in any attempt toward social good because community and collective power are the cornerstones of meaningful change. However, with change comes discomfort and vulnerability. In both personal and professional interactions, allyship manifests in ways that often come across as performative. It can be diluted to a gesture to check off a box, or to follow the trend. But what does a social-media post documenting an afternoon’s volunteer work at a women’s shelter truly mean if your female friends don’t feel safe sharing their experiences with sexual assault and harassment? Does a Black History Month happy hour in the office matter if a company’s culture causes high turnover for black employees?
“To be an ally, you have to think, ‘I want to help—not in a savior mentality but in a bridge-building mentality. I want to understand. So, when I hear and feel and see [injustice], I can dismantle it,’” Owens says. “The onus should not always be on the person of color. It should be a collective shared responsibility.”
The first step toward being a genuine ally is active and humble listening. Next is self-reflection. What are the primary motives for earning the title “ally?” Do they revolve around a business objective or a status symbol instead of a pursuit of justice and equity? Third is putting the lessons learned through listening and self-reflection into action. How can privilege be used to advocate for marginalized communities? Lastly, genuine allyship requires a continuous repetition of this process. The work is never truly done.
Challenges are present every step of the way, even when someone is genuine in their allyship. Experiencing everything from flippant, ego-driven attempts to be an “ally,” to blatant and unapologetic prejudice, marginalized communities can find it difficult to accept a true ally because of past trauma. Because of this, sometimes even the sincerest attempts at allyship might not initially be received well. This is why avoiding centering oneself in allyship, and instead focusing on building relationships and trust, is crucial.
“People have underestimated the value of trust. So, when it’s time to hit the bottom line, the first work that goes out the window is the trust work, the culture-building work, the community work—because that’s a slow game,” Owens says. “We stop short of having the real conversations, the ones that require us to remove our egos.”
Ultimately, allyship doesn’t stop at creating new seats at the table, because that alone doesn’t impact structural change. Allyship expands to ensuring those in the new seats are heard and taken seriously. With a focus on trust and relationship building, individuals and organizations can begin to move the needle toward social good that is truly diverse, inclusive and equitable.
How to Start the Convo
Educate yourself. Resources on social good, justice and how to leverage privilege are now more accessible than ever because of the internet and social media. Don’t attempt to have a conversation with someone regarding their personal experiences or how to be an ally before doing some research.
Advocate. Being an ally means doing the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable, especially when the people you’re trying to help aren’t in a position to advocate or fight for themselves.
Be willing to learn and adjust. Allyship is not a single action. It’s a constantly evolving practice that requires difficult conversations and continuous support.