When I was 16 years old, a close friend gave me a powerful gift. In a quiet moment, he very timidly, almost secretively, told me that his mom was gay. He had never told anyone this before but trusted me enough to share something that was both deeply personal and deeply terrifying.
I remember sitting there quietly, listening, hearing the anguish and trepidation in his voice. When he was finished, I told him that I cared about him, gave him a hug, and let him know that he could count on me to love him—and his mom and her partner—just as much as I ever had. In that moment, I learned what it was to be an ally. It was an experience that would shape the rest of my life.
My journey begins
That was the first coming out moment that I would be privy to, but it wasn’t the last. The fear my friend had experienced to reveal something so personal, and, at the time, potentially shameful touched me deeply. I didn’t want anyone else I knew to experience that—to feel that they had to hide themselves, their family, or anything about their lives from me for fear of feeling ashamed, judged, or rejected.
The more urgent this feeling became to me, the more I realized how important it was that I do something about it. So, I got active in the LGBT+ rights movements, learned more about how our power and privilege can oppress others, and worked to share what I learned with the people around me—including my children.
Most importantly, though, I kept listening. And accepting. And loving.
Being an Ally
I can’t say that I set out to be an ally. I didn’t decide one day that it was who I was or that it was the right thing to do. I came to that conclusion because I believe being a human means working to understand and respect other humans. And I don’t say this in a “color blind” way. Being respectful of others doesn’t mean ignoring difference—it means working to identify and appreciate difference. It means recognizing that there are parts of me that give me advantages over others—my white skin, my relative affluence, my ability, my national origin—and that it is a responsible use of that advantage—which I did nothing to earn—to apply it to helping others without the same power or privilege.
Being an ally is one of the critical things I can do and can be—especially as a leader. Providing a safe space for others to be themselves, for them to show up at work and in life as they authentically are, no matter how they are, is part of what I strive for every day.
6 ways to practice allyship in your own life
Helping others to become allies is also part of that work. Here are my suggestions for developing your own allyship, in your workplace, in your family, in your school, in your community, in your faith congregation, or anywhere else you engage with other people.
- Listen. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone that is different from you is your attention. Particularly when someone is sharing personally of themselves, or expressing how they experience the world, the most valuable thing you can do is to listen—openly, without judgment, and with the mind of a beginner.
- Practice acknowledgment and acceptance. We live in extremely divisive times, when opposing opinions have the power to drive whole communities apart, or to violence. Practicing the acknowledgement and acceptance of someone who is different from you—fully and completely, as they are—is a profound experience.
- Educate yourself. It is not up to someone else to educate you about their experience. Instead, take it upon yourself. Learn the jargon. Read the biographies. Attend the rallies. Know the history. Expand your horizons. Ask the questions. Listen to the answers.
- Understand how you show up in the world. Unpacking our own advantages—in the form of power and privileges—can be a valuable means of learning to understand others and our impact on them. Most of us aren’t aware of how and when we exercise our own privileges. By learning more about the “isms,” and the advantages that we receive through our own majority status, we become sensitized to when and where we can use that advantage for the benefit of others—and when our own behavior might be keeping others down.
- Use your voice. Saying you’re an ally is one thing; being an ally is something else. Allyship is active. It means identifying as an ally. It means standing with oppressed persons. It means speaking out when you see discrimination happening. It means building trust through the congruity of your words and actions. It means owning your advantages and using them to dismantle systems of oppression.
- It’s not about you. Being an ally takes a wrong turn when it becomes about us and not about the person we are standing with or for. If you’re not sure, ask yourself about your motivations. Are you self-aggrandizing or looking for recognition or reward? Are you using being an ally to control or “save” others? Are you priding yourself on how “woke” you are?
Part of why I feel proud to be a Schneider Electric employee is because of our commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We value difference in its myriad forms and working here allows me to openly express not only who I am, but also my passion for welcoming and including others as they are.
At Schneider, I get to practice being an ally every day by providing an example for others and by helping to build a workplace that is free & equal for all. It’s work that is not a destination–it is a continual, and in my case life-long, path of self-discovery, testing, growing, and learning. It’s never too late to begin, and the rewards are too numerous to count!
To learn more, I invite you to contact me.
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