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“Allyship is not self-defined - our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.” ― Layla Saad

Allyship is intentional, compassionate action. An ally is someone who dismantles oppressive systems regardless of whether that system has affected or benefited them. An ally recognizes their advantages and uses their influence to uplift the voices of others. An ally is willing to dim their own light to allow others to shine brighter. 

What is an “Oppressive System”?

Systems – hierarchies, clubs, orders of operation, etc. – take root in history and culture. An oppressive system is designed to serve and reward a limited ideal of “good.” Those that fit the limited ideal maintain power and marginalize those that don’t. Dismantlement means asking questions, changing definitions, and removing barriers to success to create equity for those living within the system.

It can be difficult to determine if a system, policy, or practice is oppressive – especially if “that’s just the way it’s been” for a long time. Here are some questions you can ask when identifying an oppressive system:

  • What do the “winners” in this system have in common with each other?
  • Does someone have to sacrifice their well-being or identity in exchange for success in the system?
  • How often are the rules reviewed under this system, and who participates in that review process?
  • Is it easy to break or circumvent the rules of this system?
  • Are the consequences for breaking rules in the system disproportionately severe?

Am I a Good Ally?

Ally is a title that is earned, not declared. You won’t know if you’re being a good ally until someone tells you that you’ve been a good ally to them. As you practice allyship, ask yourself these questions to gauge progress towards earning and/or maintaining the title of ally:

  • Did anyone ask me to speak on their behalf? 
  • Who can I invite to lead, learn, or participate in the spaces where I already succeed?
  • Have I acknowledged my own unconscious biases and privileges in spaces where I am successful?
  • Do I have to be totally comfortable before I act in the service of someone other than myself?
  • Do I value, prioritize, and welcome learning opportunities?

Why is allyship so hard?

Change can take a while. It’s easy to get impatient waiting for the return on your investment. It might seem easier, sometimes more logical, to only do the work that benefits you – but a safe, thriving, and inclusive community does benefit you, and you will not lose anything when others succeed alongside you. Uplifting your workplace communities (including those that don’t look, think, or act the way you do) benefits everyone now and in the future.

But even the most selfless leaders struggle with allyship sometimes. Your enthusiasm for change is motivation to take the reins and lead the cause! With allyship, we must hand the reins over. When it feels hard to let go, reflect on the mentors and partners you have had along your journey. Feel the gratitude you have for those who have lifted you up (or perhaps, the struggles you could have avoided if someone helped you when you needed it.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do that for someone else? As an ally, you can.  

Isn’t empathy enough?

No. Understanding the struggles of others is not the same as resolving those struggles. You must continuously act on your empathy to make significant changes. Choosing empathy without allyship diminishes your integrity as a leader.  

Ask your teams what you can do to remove barriers to their success. Reflect on who/what makes you successful and try an equitable replica for others. Do your own research into causes that your teams value. (Browsing this and other DEAI topics on the Leadership Learning Hub is a great start!) 

Is allyship worth it? 

Yes. Systems that only benefit a select few are limited, unsustainable, and harmful. The success of oppressive systems relies on the detriment of those they oppress – the exact opposite of our goal, which is to empower those we serve. Allyship dismantles oppressive systems and closes the gap between tolerance and anti-intolerance. Allyship brings power to knowledge and strengthens diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workplace and communities.

As a leader, acting in allyship for your team and the people you serve creates sustainable, humanitarian change. Allyship is always worth it. 

Resources from the Enterprise

From Minnesota Management and Budget

Enterprise Talent Development (ETD) offers Skills Development Courses on this topic. Review upcoming scheduled courses on the ETD website. 

Connect with our enterprise Employee Resource Groups.

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