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How to become an effective ally

January 2021: Actively supporting underrepresented groups in our personal and professional lives is important to many of us. But what does “allyship” really mean, and how can we practice it effectively?

What does an ally do?  Fundamentally, allyship means playing an active role in making change happen for the benefit of others. Yet that doesn’t mean that our motives must be selfless, nor that our motivation be charitable. 

"Identity is complex," says Dr. Evelyn Carter, a Los Angeles–based expert in diversity and inclusion. "You can be privileged in one area but marginalized in another. That means that we all need to be allies to each other."

Addressing the global White & Case community in a recent virtual event, Dr. Carter shared her insight on how we can all become more effective allies in the workplace. This event marks one of the ways that we, as a Firm, are building a culture in which each one of us understands what it means to be an effective ally and how we can become an inclusive Firm for all.

How allyship ultimately benefits everyone

Although certain aspects of our identities are fixed—our ethnic heritage or country of birth for example—many others can change over time. 

For example, a young and healthy person may one day be elderly with complex health needs. A family member may become disabled and need a vocal advocate. Moving to a different city or country may highlight an aspect of your identity that you never previously considered as “different.” Encountering people with other identities can also cause us to reflect on our prior assumptions, even prejudices, in a new light.

Therefore, being alert to inequity and practicing allyship ultimately benefits everyone. It creates a more level playing field for those who are disadvantaged and creates a workplace culture (and personal mindset) that focuses on achieving equity for everyone. 

Making a personal commitment

"The most important thing to remember is that allyship is a verb, not a noun. You can’t simply ‘be’ an ally. You need to practice it. You need to use your identity and privilege to make change happen,” Dr. Carter noted.

Being an ally starts with a personal commitment. This can mean embracing discomfort, perhaps by acknowledging who has been disadvantaged by the status quo in your workplace or within your personal sphere. 

Often, there’s a learning curve for allies that involves making time for reading and researching the issues. It also involves examining how our individual actions (or lack of action) may have unintentionally contributed to inequality, before joining in the wider conversation and learning what needs to be done to bring about real change.  

Amplifying the challenges, taking action to create change

Sharing and amplifying these challenging conversations is the next step, followed by taking action to support others. “If you speak up and challenge injustice, especially when the marginalized person or group is not ‘in the room’, that’s when it really counts,“ explains Dr. Carter. “Ultimately, it’s about feeling that others have ‘got your back’ and being prepared to step up to offer them the same support in return.” 

Dr. Evelyn Carter’s 5 Ally Skills to Practice

Be personally committed to inclusion
Intrinsic motives are best, but extrinsic motives also count 

Embrace discomfort
Lean in:  Accept your own culpability and understand how you could do better

Notice inequity
Put yourself in others’ shoes: Does the status quo disadvantage them?

Amplify the conversation
Prioritize listening, then use your networks and platforms to spread the word 

Speak up and act
Take action: Use your own social capital and privilege to step up for others.