What is an ally? This question is part of almost every presentation I do. We discuss this whether it’s a 20 minute presentation for 100 educators or a six hour workshop for 10-30. The answers often range from, “an ally is a friend,” to, “an ally is someone who has your back,” to, “an ally is someone who doesn’t judge.”
Yes. An ally is all of those things, but is not ONLY those things. GLSEN research shows that visible allies play a crucial role in ensuring that LGBTQ students feel safe in K-12 schools, but what if I tell you that being an ally in the ways described above isn’t enough? That in order to make a difference, you need to DO allyship?
My team and I often say, “Ally is a verb. It’s not a title you can claim for yourself. It is something you must do. To be an ally, you must DO allyship.”
So what does allyship look like?
Here is a brief list of actions that are required for allyship. Allies:
1. Listen and learn
2. Use inclusive language
3. Speak up/speak out, especially when they see or hear something harmful
4. Learn about their privilege(s) and then use them
5. Use their platforms
This list is not at all exhaustive, but is a bite-sized start, because learning to do allyship can be hard and uncomfortable. It often means getting really honest with yourself and being willing to get humble and introspective. It requires leaning into the discomfort of considering that your privileges affect the way you see and experience the world. Doing allyship means relying on others to explain how they experience the world and how your words and actions impact them. It means listening to what others say when they tell you how to do allyship better. It involves listening with an open heart and mind, and vowing to do better even if you don’t completely understand what you haven’t yet gotten quite right.
When I say learning to do allyship can be hard, I mean it. Sometimes people think that because they “love” or “tolerate” all people and they aren’t overtly homophobic / transphobic / racist / misogynistic / ableist, then that means they are an ally. However, if they are unwilling to get uncomfortable by doing numbers 1-5 above, they are not an ally.
Being an ally isn’t a label that you can claim for yourself. It can only be earned by doing allyship.
Over the past several years I’ve had the honor to learn how to do allyship better AND teach others how to do so. For the most part, people come to me when they want to learn. Just this past week, I got a call from administrators at a local school who found themselves with a situation. They reached out and asked, “What did we do wrong?” and “How could we have handled that better?“
I was impressed with their leadership and willingness to grow. Their humility in accepting that they may have done something that caused harm – regardless of their intent – proved that they were willing to do allyship. It also proved without a doubt that they care about all of their students. Then they listened with the intent to learn and followed it up by putting their new knowledge into action. They thanked me for helping them, but the truth is, they did more hard work in that situation than I did, because let’s be real…
Constructive criticism is easier to give than receive. It takes a growth mindset to listen to constructive criticism and learn from it.
I’ve had lots of practice on both sides of this experience. People willing to listen to how they (unintentionally) cause harm to already marginalized folks are my heroes! Folks willing to learn how their words or actions (unintentionally) perpetuate harmful systems of power are doing allyship! These leaders courageously exhibit what it means to live Love out loud through their willingness to sacrifice their own comfort so that others can be more comfortable. They understand that when they know better, they can do better. They are not afraid to admit both to themselves and publicly that they have learning to do or that they made a mistake, because they understand that there is no shame in making mistakes. We all make mistakes and that’s how we learn and grow!
After several years and thousands of conversations, I’ve discovered that there is only so much I can do when helping people learn how to do allyship better. I always try to approach it gently, with empathy for the fact that people are a product of what I call the four “E’s”. Environment, Experiences, Education, and Exposure. (More to come on these in my book.) Essentially, I understand that people don’t know what they don’t know and I’m willing to meet them were they are. I can help them with the education piece, but only if they’re open to it.
People who are willing to grow will accept feedback, even if it takes them a bit to process and reflect on it.
People who are not (yet) willing to grow will feel personally attacked and become defensive regardless of how kind or gentle I try to be. Unfortunately, I do not have the power to control whether or not people are willing to learn and grow. That is only up to them. All I can do for them is continue modeling doing allyship in at least the five ways listed above and hope that they eventually realize that leaning into their own discomfort is where the growth and magic happens.
Now that I’ve learned I’m capable, I love making magic happen, so that’s where you’ll find me. I’ll just be over here listening to and amplifying marginalized voices, learning about my privileges, speaking up when I see intervention necessary, using my platform to help bring awareness to injustice, and calling in other allies so that we can change the world, all while using inclusive language. 🙂