What Does It Mean to Be an Ally?

Workplace Integrity: Environments free of harassment, discrimination and incivility, and filled with opportunity, especially for those who have traditionally been denied it.

Jill Geisler, Freedom Forum Institute Fellow on Women’s Leadership Jill’s Bio

Let’s celebrate a word that’s essential to the work of the Power Shift Project: Ally.

As we’ve listened to many voices and teach our Workplace Integrity curriculum, we hear from people who talk about the importance of allies and from people who aspire to be allies. But what does the word ally mean for those who strive to create and sustain Workplace Integrity? Here’s our definition:

An ally is a trusted force for good.

The essential elements of that description are: Trusted. Force. Good.

Trusted

You can’t anoint yourself as an ally. Others make that determination about you, one individual at a time.

To qualify, you must demonstrate trustworthiness. Since we are defining our important terms, know that trust is confidence, in the face of risk, that another person will do the right thing.

Understandably, people who’ve historically faced injustice may have a higher threshold for extending trust. Those who have experienced harassment, discrimination or incivility have every right to be cautious and skeptical. Those who’ve harmed them (or still do) may be people they dared to trust. What makes you the person who’ll do the right thing?

Aspiring allies should expect to be vetted for trust, just like a candidate for a job. On the checklist:

  • Your knowledge. (What do you know about historic and contemporary issues related to inequity?)
  • Your willingness to listen and learn. (What do others want you to know?)
  • Your unselfishness. (Will you stick with this if it is risky or if you stand to gain nothing more than the trust of others?)
  • Your track record of supporting others whose life experiences differ from your own and who may lack the advantages and privileges you enjoy.
  • The credible voices who will vouch for you.

Remember: In this “job interview,” your confidence isn’t as impressive as your humility. An ally isn’t a hero. An ally is a helper.

An ally is a trusted force for good.

Force

Allies are often described as people who have privilege or power and leverage it on behalf of those with less. But whether you’re in the same leaky boat with others, you have a nice powerboat or you own a luxury yacht, you can help people move forward on their journeys. That’s the force aspect of allyship.

It’s your willingness to act — from wherever you are with whatever influence you have. It happens when women in the workplace talk with each other before a meeting and preview their ideas so they can verbally back each other up around the table. They are peers, creating a “bandwagon effect” to push an idea toward acceptance (and give proper credit to its author).

Effective as it may be, peers know they’re doing this extra work to mitigate potential bias. It’s a burden they shouldn’t have to bear. When there’s a level playing field, they don’t have to. That’s where people with clout come in. They use their power and privilege to make change, both situationally and systemically.

The person who runs a meeting has the power to ensure voices are heard and ideas fully and fairly discussed. The person who hires the people who run the meetings has even greater power. That individual determines the makeup of the workforce — its diversity and inclusiveness —  and has a controlling hand on the culture. With greater power, your opportunity to be a force grows — as does your obligation.

Being a trusted force requires that you use your awareness of inequity to push back against it. When you hear loaded language. When you see performance evaluations, pay or hiring decisions affected by unconscious bias (because you know how to spot it) When you dig into the assumptions in your workplace about “paying your dues” or “being dedicated” or “looking like management material.” When you see a disconnect between the culture your organization claims it has and the behaviors and decisions made each day.

You are proactive force: Raising issues, questioning tradition, checking to see who’s not at the table and getting them a seat (including the lead chair). You advocate for change so that problems don’t happen, not because they just did. You stay strong in the face of people who dismiss your concerns as “political correctness” because you know they are morally just.

You are reactive force: Initiating courageous conversations in the moment, whether calling out harmful language, stopping bullies in their tracks, or amplifying the ideas of people whose voices aren’t being heard. You decline to take part in professional programs that feature all-white or all-male panels and challenge the organizers to aim higher.

You whisper, you nudge, you debate, you arm-wrestle, you lobby, you invest, you endorse, you mentor, you sponsor, you teach and when necessary, you shout.

You’re a trusted force for good.

Good

Fairness, justice, equity, opportunity and human dignity — that’s the work of allies. It’s done for no personal glory or gain, although we all benefit when the work of allyship succeeds.

Be a trusted force for good and heed the words of Toni Morrison:

“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Jill Geisler is the Freedom Forum Institute fellow in Women’s Leadership and Loyola University Chicago’s Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity.

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