What does it mean to be an "ally"?

You won’t ever hear me refer to myself as an “ally” to a cause. While I intentionally work to support the efforts of people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups in their fight for equity, I don’t think “ally” is a title that I should give myself. I interact with the world as a cis-gender, heterosexual, middle class white lady. No matter how much work I do or how much I learn, I will always view the world through that lens and I will always be able to retreat to my privilege when it serves me to do so. Because of that, I am resistant to calling myself an ally. Who am I, as a person in a position of privilege, to tell a marginalized person that I am their ally? They should have the opportunity to give me that label should they find my actions to be in alignment with their cause. What a privileged thing it is for me to label my own actions and define my own character in relation to such deeply personal work, speaking over a marginalized person’s experience of me.

Too often in our nation’s history, people in positions of privilege have told people in marginalized communities that they were on their side when in reality they were there for much more nefarious reasons. Too often people in positions of privilege have acted in ways that we thought were in alignment with a cause, but were actually damaging to it. Too often we get caught up in labels and our willingness to serve as an ally becomes more performative than it is substantive. Too often we are willing to serve as allies when it is convenient and safe for us to do so, but then retreat to our privilege when we actually stand to lose something.

I recently got entangled in a situation where I had to really confront my willingness to use my privilege to further a cause. It was the first time in a long time that I really felt like I might lose something significant if I chose to take a stand. The easier and safer thing to do would be to keep my mouth shut, to put my head down and pretend that I didn’t see this particular injustice. This time, I chose to fight, but I wonder how many times in my life I have retreated to my privilege because I was afraid of losing my sense of safety, stability, or comfort- luxuries I am only afforded because of my identity.

At the end of the day, the title doesn’t matter to me. The work matters. So I don’t care what people call me as long as my actions always speak into my desire to fight for justice and equity.

If you are a person in a position of privilege, I would urge you to do a few things:

  • Consider what you are willing to risk for the sake of a cause. If you are not willing to “go to the mat” on an issue, if you are not willing to actually risk something of value, are you really an ally? There are lots of ways to get involved and many of those do feel safe and comfortable, but marginalized people desperately need people in positions of privilege who are actually willing to risk something.

  • Examine whether your status as an “ally” or “social justice warrior” or whatever you aspire to be know as has become more performative than it has substantive. If you can’t remember the last time you felt truly afraid, uncomfortable, or vulnerable then you might need to examine the work you are doing. That looks different for everyone. What might feel scary to one person might not feel scary to another. I am not saying that you need to literally risk your life for every cause BUT I am saying you need to consider if you are willing to risk anything for a cause or if your comfort is more important.

  • Stop worrying so much about being seen doing the work and spend a lot more time actually doing the work. It doesn’t matter if anyone ever sees the work you do, as long as you are enacting change. Credit, visibility, and acknowledgement are the last things we should be worried about in this work.

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Becoming the Advocate You Were Born to Be

I believe we are all born as really great advocates. Despite mobility & language limitations, babies are the best advocates. There is no doubt in anyone's mind when a baby needs or wants something. Typical babies in loving happy homes scream and cry until their need gets met. If they don't like how you respond, they let you know with more screaming until you get it right. But something happens along our journey and we lose these advocacy skills. Adults told us to sit down, be quiet, stop asking for things. People said "that's just the way it is". Those who have all the power and resources showed us over and over again how small we are and how little we can influence the world. And after being worn down for years in so many ways, we just stopped trying. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it)  eventually life presents all of us with a situation that forces us to become advocates again. A loved one becomes disabled, we get caught in a toxic job or relationship, we are awakened to some injustice in the world. When that time comes for you, how will you reclaim these lost skills? Whether you are self-advocating, advocating for a loved one, or advocating for systemic change...here are a few things you can do to get started or be more effective:

  1. Gather information & learn the rules of the game. It doesn't take long for babies to learn that when they cry, somebody comes to attend to them. How many toddlers work the "fake cry" in an effort to get some attention? Whatever you are advocating for, learn how the systems already work. Read books, talk to people who are involved, try to find out what's working, what isn't, and what has been tried before. In order to be a super effective advocate, you have to know where you are starting before you can ever get a sense of where you should go. 
  2. Make a game plan. Truly effective advocacy work is strategic. It isn't haphazard or always coming from a defensive place, it's proactive and deliberate. Plan for the short term and the long term. As an advocate for my son my "big goal" is to see him live a fulfilling and happy life in adulthood, but that won't just magically happen. It means we have stuff to work on now, even at six years old, to ensure that happens. A couple of additional notes about your game plan: 
    1. Have a clear & simple message/goal. Don't over complicate what you are trying to do. You (and anyone along for the ride with you) will get bogged down in the chaos if you overcomplicate it. It needs to be hella clear what you are trying to accomplish. My goal in advocating for J in the school system is to help create the most effective learning environment for him. That's it. It's a big goal with a lot of moving parts, but it's a really clear and simple idea I can cling to and communicate to others. Every issue I tackle in the school environment comes back to that one goal. 
    2. Focus more on what is possible than what is impossible. People are drawn towards things. People want to hope for something, believe in something. It can be terribly immobilizing to hone in on the things that are not possible or the things that are beyond your control. Your plan should focus on all the possibilities in the areas that you can control or influence. 
  3. Start where you are with what you have. You may not have a million dollars or a huge audience or even be the most knowledgable about a topic. That's okay. Take what you have, what you know, and what you can do and run with it. You don't have to be an expert or have a huge platform to effect change in the world. Making a difference in one life, in one classroom, in one doctor's office...whatever...that matters. 
  4. Partner with others. There is power in numbers. Not only does the message seem a lot louder when more than one person is saying it, you can accomplish more when there are multiple people with a variety of skill sets and experiences working on an issue. You can also lean on each other when things get hard. Advocacy work can be so life giving, but it can also feel very draining and overwhelming. Having people who can help carry the torch when you're drained or feel lost is so important. Those partnerships might be other people or they might be other agencies depending on the work you are doing. You don't have to be the one stop shop tackling all the issues and you don't have to go it alone. Find people with common passions and experiences and go together. 
  5. Get some quick wins and build some momentum. If you are just getting started with advocacy work, get some quick wins under your belt. Find some "low hanging fruit" and grab it. Effecting change, even if it is seemingly small and insignificant can feel super empowering, can boost your confidence, and can help get the ball rolling. After accomplishing something, you will likely feel empowered to tackle bigger and harder issues. 
  6. Play for the long game. Advocacy work is rarely "finished" and it rarely happens quickly. Don't get so bogged down in more minor issues that you lose sight of the bigger picture. When you experience set backs, because you absolutely 100% will, remember your why. Why did you get started in this work? Why is it important to keep going? What are you working towards? Cling to that why for dear life and remember that change takes time and tomorrow is a new day. 

Remember, you were born an advocate. All you need to do is reclaim the advocate that is already in your bones. Over the next many weeks and months, I plan to share some more practical tips that you can apply to your every day work...so stay tuned! Here's to becoming the advocate you were born to be!

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