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Demystifying allyship - what can you really do to support others?

Today I spoke on a panel about my career journey through the lense of allyship.

First, lets start with a definition - here is one I particularly like as its simple, concise and accessible to all:

'An ally is any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.' (Sheree Atcheson)

The term ally was not in circulation in the way it is now when I was working in inclusion with asylum seekers and refugee communities, young people of mixed heritage, eastern european migrants or women working in science, engineering and technology 15 years ago. I have had to gain acceptance of the term which felt uncomfortable, foreign, and over the top for what I would have described as the actions of 'good people' in the fight towards equality and diversity.

In my growth and experience I have accepted the usefulness of the terminology and as I looked into it further, I found lots of positives in using this term to describe friends, colleagues, collaborators, and myself as I grow to acknowledge my own privileges.

I am from an ethnic minority, I'm from a working class background, and I'm a woman. In many ways these elements of my identity are the source of oppression in the world of education, employment and society as a whole.

However I am also mixed-race of White British and Black Nigerian descent and my proximity to whiteness is far closer than colleagues and friends who have two ethnic minority parents. Moreover, I am cis gender, straight, hold a British passport, and do not have any visible or non visible disabilities.

These elements of my identity are unearned and have provided me with the privilege, opportunity, and clear path to do many things in life and throughout my career which others may not have had access to due to systemic barriers, discouragement, or even ridicule.

Being an ally means that you become self aware enough to realise where your privilege exists, and then intentionally seek out inequalities in the space around you. You work to include others who are not present due to systemic oppression.

Now that may sound like a big scary task, but I hope I can demystify the concept by arguing that being an ally is simply to...

  1. Notice when people who are different to the majority are not present, or are not being included. This could be women, ethnic minorities, or anyone else that makes up the richness of society, but are often not represented in decision making positions within our workplaces for example. As children we learn to include everyone so that no-one is left out, so why not return to this value and find out why certain groups are not being included in spaces you think they should be.

  2. Have a conversation with someone you trust who has some influence in your organisation/environment to highlight the inequity you have observed, tell them how it makes you feel and try and come up with some next steps that make sense for your workplace.

  3. Lean in actively if invited to contribute your ideas or insights. This could be joining an Inclusion committee, telling your own personal story to encourage understanding of the lived experience and encouraging this to be modelled by leaders so they can start to share their stories and vulnerabilities around inclusion issues that matter to them.

  4. Recognize your own privilege and be self aware enough to take others with you who need to be central to the discussion - intentionally provide underrepresented people with opportunities and micro affirmations.

I hope this provides a framework for working through your allyship journey and emphasizes that allyship is open to everyone and should not be performative to serve self interest, it needs to be rooted in advancing a culture of inclusion.

Allyship is about positioning yourself to do some of the work and make real change happen by inspiring others to join your journey.

It all starts with opening your mind to inequities that are in your environment and having a conversation...

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