Several years ago, the Atlanta Hawks team seized the opportunity to use its platform as a sports leader and its diverse audience to facilitate the tough, yet critical conversations around the issues of diversity, inclusion and other important social issues. What was born out of that was MOSAIC (Model of Shaping Atlanta through Inclusive Conversations) an annual symposium convening influencers, experts and thought leaders to discuss and reflect on topics and perspectives around a topic.
This year’s theme of allyship was thought-provoking to say the least. It’s not enough to accept and include others who are different from you, both in the workplace and in the community, to affect change, encourage fresh perspectives and create a more inclusive world in which we live. But what does it mean to truly be an ally? It’s about moving beyond the transactional perspective and really advocating for others who look nothing like you and are often disenfranchised, underrepresented, powerless and often, voiceless.
What allyship isn’t is claiming you have a black friend and thereby saying you understand the perspective of how she feels at work when she hears about yet another police-involved shooting with an unarmed black person. Nor is it that you have a Muslim friend so you assume you know how your colleague feels when he gets unwanted stares when you travel with him in the airport on business. Allyship is about being there for others who aren’t like you and speaking up for them when it matters, whether it’s stopping an inappropriate conversation about a woman you work with, correcting someone if they use a racial slur as they rap along to music or advocating for inclusiveness at the workplace through gender neutral signs on bathrooms. Allyship is about taking the actions to truly advocate for people who aren’t like you because you know it’s right, it’s important and it’s something that many don’t have the power to do on their own. Allyship is about truly listening to others and not backing away from the teachable moments that can spur change and encourage a different way of thinking in others.
Because it’s not enough to create an equitable workplace, here are some ways you can practice allyship in your life and at work to truly foster an inclusive environment and support an inclusive society.
- Exercise your brain to be curious, rather than closed-minded.
As part of his presentation on why stereotypes exist, Dr. Steve Robbins shared the psychological and neurological insights that make up how we are naturally and physiologically wired to process information. He revealed that because the brain is wired to love patterns, it prefers speed over accuracy and is not inclined to critically examine because it’s all about processing information fast enough to protect yourself. But essentially when you do that, stereotypes are likely to be created in that space. When you see something happen and believe for it to be true in future situations, you then are not factoring in all the other circumstances that fully speak to the truly diverse world we live in.
Unfortunately, many stereotypes are so pervasive in the media and the content we consume that they then affect how we deal with people and conflict in real life. But to be an ally, you must actively take a stand against these thoughts in your brain. You must challenge yourself to think about the truths you’ve established in your head and whether that’s a biased opinion you’re thinking about for others and think about the falsehoods you’ve adopted and determine what about them may be true. Then you must entertain curiosity about each situation you encounter and instead of looking at it through an old, outdated lens, you arrive to it with a fresh perspective and an attitude of openness and learning. This is how people change, and this is where allies are born.
- Support and speak up for other people, especially when they aren’t in the room.
Richard Cabral had to debunk misconceptions and labels placed on him as a felon to become the actor he is today, but that required the support of Father Greg Boyle and Jami Gertz, two allies that encouraged him to pursue the arts full-time. Jason Robbins revealed in his conversation with Soledad O’Brien that when he decided to come out as a gay man in the NBA, he received support from his agent to move forward with this. When it comes to defying the odds and stereotypes to make transformative actions, allies are essential for this to happen. And when you encounter someone who isn’t like you who wants to make a shift in their lives or reveal their true self to the world, you must be willing to support them.
Another common theme expressed in MOSAIC was the idea that true allyship exists when you have to support, uplift or defend someone else in the rooms where they have no access. Having these courageous conversations is another critical step in allyship. Don’t be scared to speak up for others and stand up for them. If you have the privilege and the power to be in the room, what makes you think you’ll lose it because you were convicted to speak up? News flash: you will not lose your social currency by standing up for someone else who cannot speak for themselves. And if you “do” happen to lose your currency, your currency didn’t mean much in the room to begin with.
- Be authentic about your actions; talk the talk and walk the walk. When activist Michael Skolnik was approached by the Martin family to be present during the trial of their son Trayvon Martin, he enthusiastically agreed to be in there to support them, given how close he had become with the family since the tragic passing of Travyon when he was innocently shot and killed by George Zimmerman. However, in his talk at MOSAIC, he admitted that in the weeks and days leading up to the trial, he began to have doubts on whether he should attend, given the death threats he received against his family especially as his partner was about to give birth to his son. However, Michael brushed those fears aside and attended the trial, because he knew it was far more important to be there for the family during this crucial time than it was to have dissenters win over his consciousness and guide his actions.
Michael’s display of authenticity showed up in his actions, and we should be inspired by him and others who don’t succumb to the “what-ifs” when it comes to how they support others. The same goes for you: how can you show that you are an ally for others when it seemingly feels hard for you to do it? Do your actions reflect your allyship or are they not aligned with how a true ally should be for others? Being an ally can be tough, challenging and often times a thankless job, but in the end, it’s always worth it.
These are just a few ways to be an ally at a time when it’s very much needed. Any one can be an ally if we just try.
Erica Smith is an account manager in the Porter Novelli Atlanta office and recently attended the MOSAIC conference in early February.