allyship at work
Keys to developing allies in the workplace

The Keys to Allyship: Understanding What an Ally Is and the Role They Play in an Inclusive Workplace

With the re-emergence and reinvigoration of social justice movements over the past year, allyship has become a central talking point for people within corporate diversity circles and those looking to do more to support their colleagues who come from oppressed communities.

But what is allyship? How does one do it well? And how can companies help people take their allyship efforts from performative gestures to real action that better serves members of their workforce and the extended communities?

Here are some best practices to help you define what true allyship looks like and support an inclusive workplace for people in your organization.

What is Allyship?

Defining allyship often depends on who you ask, but the answers will generally hold some common themes. Broadly speaking, allyship is when a person from a privileged group works in conjunction with a marginalized group to help remove systems that challenge their basic rights, equal access and ability to thrive in society.

The National Institutes of Health also underscores that allyship is “the practice of emphasizing inclusion and human rights by members of an ‘in’ group, to advance the interests of an oppressed or marginalized ‘out’ group.”

However you define it, allyship has some consistent traits. It’s a lifelong process that involves building relationships anchored in trust, accountability and consistency in interactions with marginalized groups. People are only allies when the group(s) they seek to be an ally for begin recognizing them as such. In other words: Allies are not self-identified.

Additionally, allies possess a level of self-awareness. They own their mistakes and look to educate themselves to become a better ally, along with being a good listener, identifying their own biases, acknowledging systems of oppression and their participation in them, and being open to the truth about the history of the struggle oppressed groups have faced.

WATCH: A Fireside Chat: White Women Allies in Action

Why Allyship is Important

Allies are important for several reasons. One crucial component involves recognizing their own privilege and using it to influence inclusion and call out or challenge behavior perpetuating bias and systematic oppression based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and ability.

In majority-white societies, effective allyship is paramount in overturning systems of oppression and helping people understand and accept that inequities persist on a systemic level. An ally feels a sense of responsibility to use their knowledge, skills and position of privilege to drive tangible change.

In the grand scheme of things, the work of an ally is often just a drop in the bucket, but with enough allies working intentionally in partnership with activists and marginalized communities, sufficient and collective momentum can stimulate the change that these communities seek.

Ally Frustrations

As events unfolded in 2020, many well-meaning would-be allies were left wondering what they could do to help. Many did take their commitment to the next level, attending protests and donating to activist groups and nonprofits committed to social change. In many cases, it simply didn’t feel like enough.

For observers in communities impacted by the events, it didn’t feel like enough either. The use of hashtags and clever signs at rallies were nice, but in reality, it amounted to little more than a performance of allyship. Social media grandstanding made people feel better about themselves while appearing to be doing something actionable.

The truth is, beyond the performance, there is often little substance in these efforts. True allies move to educate themselves and examine where in society they can make an impact. They learn to take criticism and feedback with grace, and they take their advocacy to places where it can make a difference, whether that’s the workplace, City Hall or a community meeting. Their goal is to develop relationships with other like-minded and committed individuals.

For organizations, the work is to support allies in doing this work by easing their frustrations around finding the necessary time to become involved at a greater level. Companies, in turn, do a service to oppressed communities by empowering allies and giving them the knowledge and tools necessary to assist in furthering the cause.

Best Practices

For organizations looking to be better corporate allies and to help employees be better individual allies, there are some key concepts to keep top of mind.

Emphasize Education

You might be tired of hearing it, but education matters in this fight. In many cases, people honestly don’t know how they experience privilege or what they can do to change it. Listening is often difficult for people who haven’t seen or experienced the dynamics of privilege, microaggressions, cultural appropriation and systemic racism.

Preach Accountability

While intentions may be pure, they can be as meaningless as performative allyship if they fail to have any impact. Facing that can be difficult and invite criticism that is hard to hear, but true allies use it to learn from mistakes and improve their efforts moving forward. Organizations can help people see their privilege, how it shows up in their everyday lives and why they must avoid reverting back to it when the work of allyship becomes frustrating or overwhelming.

Set a Tone

Since allies typically come from a privileged group, they often have the power to amplify, helping to set standards for inclusive language, creating a culture of openly engaging people who perpetuate oppressive norms and debunking stereotypes. They can also raise awareness of social issues and the need for diverse perspectives around the workplace — particularly leadership circles.

Focus on Support

Allyship is often summed up by what the aspiring ally is saying or doing when it really should be centered on the oppressed groups. Support looks different than other forms of advocacy because it is out of the limelight. Examples of this include amplifying current efforts by people in a marginalized community, taking up less space in conversations and listening, respecting the space that marginalized groups have created for themselves, or simply not making yourself the center of attention.

Plan to Act

Ultimately, accountable and effective allyship requires action. Encourage aspiring allies to take inspiration from and collaborate with marginalized groups to decide on initiatives and develop an infrastructure of support for each other’s goals. Action is often political, meaning allies cannot shy away from taking a stand in the voting booth or lobbying policymakers, creating petitions and attending protests or rallies that promote social justice.

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