From Unaware to Ally
In 1984, Bonnie Tyler told us that she was “Holding Out for a Hero.” (1984!!!! Yikes, I’m old!) There are many people who still feel like that today.
In the world of DE&I there is a special type of hero called an ally. The great news is that anyone can be an ally. An ally recognizes that, though they are not a member of an underrepresented community, they can be a supportive voice alongside those who are. If you are reading this, you may be thinking about being an ally. But if you’re like me, you may not know where or how to begin. Well, no worries, I did some research for us, and I’ve got a few ideas on how we can all be better allies in the workplace.
But before we get into the how, let’s spend a minute on the what. In a Harvard Business Review article “Be a Better Ally,” the authors “view allyship as a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy.”
Allyship is not a constant. It’s not stagnant. It’s an active and ongoing practice. In short, it’s a journey. As with any journey, if we don’t know where we are going, how will we know if we got there? The best road map that I found for this journey is DE&I consultant Jennifer Brown’s Ally Continuum. The continuum helps you understand where you are on this journey. Brown refers to movement along the continuum as evolution. Let’s explore ways to progress through the continuum in the workplace.
Brown defines her continuum in five stages of growth: Unaware, Aware, Activate, Advocate and Accomplice.
Stage One: Unaware
Someone who is at the unaware stage does not even acknowledge that there is a problem. There are some who may know that some things aren’t quite right, but they may be unable to articulate the problem. They have a false assumption about reality and equity. For example, when someone in the unaware stage is confronted with the inequities of women in the workplace, their response is, “I get it… I have daughters.” This is a clear sign that they don’t get it at all.
Stage Two: Aware
When you are in the awareness stage, you acknowledge that there is a problem. You become aware of your own implicit biases. You can look at the workplace and recognize that it was designed to favor some of us but not others. You are waking up to the idea that you are not living in an equitable environment. You become aware of all the communities in the workplace that don’t have a voice. Awareness generates curiosity. You may ask, “What gap are we trying to close, and what is my role in this?” In the awareness stage, you are growing. You are very curious about equity and inclusion. But don’t expect to be taught. You must take it upon yourself to increase your knowledge through self-study, using books and articles, listening to podcasts and attending workshops to give yourself the information needed to move to the next stage.
Stage Three: Activate
In the activate stage, you are ready to put your knowledge into action. You understand what inequitable truly is, and you are willing to talk about it. In activation you help people move forward in their DE&I journey. Our actions can be very public, one to many, or they may be private, one on one. You want to keep equity on everyone’s radar screen. At this stage, it’s important to know how people are persuaded. Some people want the data, so be familiar with the research that supports the positive impact DE&I can have on an organization’s bottom line. Some people are more persuaded by personal stories. Brown says that having a variety of arrows in your quiver increases the chances that you will be more persuasive at the activate stage. You want to help people not be stuck on their DE&I journey. However, in the activate stage, you are more reactive than proactive. You wait to be invited into the conversation. You are willing to have difficult conversations, but you don’t seek them out. It’s important to remember that you are going to make mistakes in activation. You may say the wrong thing or use your knowledge in the wrong way. When this happens, ask for forgiveness and keep going. Stick with it.
Stage Four: Advocate
The big distinction between advocate and activate is that you are no longer waiting to be asked or invited into the conversation. You bring up the issues. You notice who is not in the room, and you talk about why. You represent those who are not present and hold people accountable. You make people have the difficult conversations, insist on diverse candidates, sponsor marginalized co-workers. For things to change in an organization, it is important that the leaders are at the advocate stage.
Stage Five: Accomplice
Brown says that “accomplice” might not truly belong on the Ally Continuum, because this work is a little different. At this stage, you are tackling the institutional, systemic, and structural challenges of inequality and inequity to level the playing field. There are only certain people who can do accomplice work. This work must be done by the people who possess the power and can drive the change, for example, closing the pay gap. Accomplices create change that will last for generations. Accomplices also support other leaders on their journey through the continuum.
Saying you’re an ally is much easier than being one. In fact, Jennifer Brown points out that a true ally is not one who calls oneself an ally but rather one who is called an ally by others. Determine where you are on the Ally Continuum and continue to progress on your journey. The continuum is a judgment-free zone. If you are moving forward, you are doing your part. In “Being a Better Ally,” the authors tell us, “Change starts with individual leaders taking responsibility for their own attitudes and behaviors.” So let’s make change happen.