When hot issues are brought up (again and again) by advocates, I often see a few standard reactions from potential or actual allies:
- “I’m so angry” — which is nice and all, but your anger is not helpful to me. I need action, which this article will show you how to help in productive ways.
- “What can I do to help?” — also good, and this article is for this type of person.
- “I can’t deal with your truth, I need to take a break from social media/you/the news/reality” — OK, go do you, Boo!
The first two examples are the type of people we can usually work with. I don’t believe in trying to convince people of my worth (or a cause’s worth). I don’t believe in wasting my energy on people who are not ready to hear my reality without feeling personally offended, or who do not want to do the work necessary to help improve society. The work being decolonization, anti-oppression, harm reduction practices, anti-racism, and similar. If they are not ready, I need to move along and work with those who have the will and energy.
People who want to help a movement, but who are not part of the community are usually called “allies.” For example, a man who is a Feminist would be considered an ally to women. A white person who wants to fight racial injustice would be an ally to BIPOC.
When we speak about allyship, I know some will feel it’s futile. Being an ally has become a thing people proclaim and think if they just say it enough, it will be. But being an ally is not a title — it’s an action. And it requires constant work and action. Sometimes that work requires you to not take action (more on that in a bit), but it is not a “one and done” sort of event. Nor is it a title you give yourself. You earn being called an ally once the community accepts you are doing the work correctly. Not just any work, but the important, useful, and most helpful work. If no member of the community you are working for — and maybe it’s best to consider yourself an employee or in the service of the community — has called you an ally, you are not yet an ally.
Many self-advocates say, “I don’t need allies, I need coconspirators!” It’s true. But if I titled this piece “Coconspiracy 101,” it probably won’t get the same attention, so let’s work with reality and our limitations. Also, maybe coconspirator is a deeper level of allyship and one has to start somewhere. So let’s work with the idea that one has to start off becoming an ally before they can become a coconspirator. The groundlevel work will be necessary before any sort of effectiveness can happen. And keeping with the Boss-Employee comparison of this relationship, consider coconspiracy a job promotion.
Having established the above, let’s get into the details of how to be an ally in a way that is actually beneficial and productive to the members of a community, and not in a way that is harmful or simply performative.
- Learn, Read, and Learn some more. This was called Quiet Time at school. This is not the time to start yelling from the rooftops. This is the time to learn and reflect. It might feel like it’s not helpful, but trust me, it is. Because you need to understand our issues inside out before you can engage in effective allyship. And you need to dismantle the systemic oppressive thinking you have deep inside yourself, through no fault of your own! We were all raised in a colonial and repressive system. Equity only comes when those with privilege relinquish a bit of their power. You have to do that work in yourself and oppressed people cannot hand-hold you through that very deep and personal process.
- Build and Discover Community. Find your people. Find fellow allies and make yourself known to those you want to help. Explain where you are at in your journey. This is a time of letting go of people who are not yet ready to change and finding those committed to making change happen.
- Follow The Leaders. The leaders are the people with lived experience. Follow them on social media to learn from them. If they ask for support and you are able to support in the way they require, do it. If they ask allies to jump in to help take down trolls, do it if you are able. If they ask you to march with them, go if you are able. If they ask you to amplify their voices, do it if you are able. If they ask you to stay quiet, stay quiet. Part of allyship is knowing when to act and when to take a step back. Allyship should not be about ego, but about doing what is most effective for the greater good. Hold that ideal top of mind.
Like any change, it doesn’t happen overnight and this is a process. We must keep learning. People change and the needs of any given community will change. As an ally, you have to be OK with adapting to that. Even if you feel you have already learned so much, you can still be wrong, but you can also still make it right. The point is to keep trying and to build that internal resiliency that oppressed people have had no choice but to lean on in order to still be alive here today. Let’s work with each other to create a better world.