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Use allyship to support communities: Six ways to get started

A community business that supports diversity and inclusion has a large mural with the word love bordered in blue and filled in with various colorful flowers. The letters are on top of a black and white floral background, which shows the contrast between the bright colors on top and the neutral ones below.

Ellen Wolter is an Extension educator.

This May marked the two-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. And recently, our country experienced more racial violence with a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, which was declared a hate crime. Fighting racial violence and injustice requires all of us to play a role, including those of us who are white and/or who identify with dominant culture identities.

Communities across Minnesota — urban, suburban, rural — are becoming more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, along with other marginalized communities, need your support and allyship. As a white woman living in Greater Minnesota, I am on a journey to understand how to be an effective, thoughtful, and useful ally to my fellow neighbors who identify with marginalized communities. I hope you will join me.

What is allyship?

Allyship is defined by Tsedale M. Melaku as “a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and co-conspirators who fight injustice and promote equity through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy.”  Through these efforts, allies aim to improve conditions, policies, practices, and culture for all people in our communities, but particularly for those communities that have been marginalized. As an ally, you can support marginalized communities by building bridges to problem solve and identify solutions.

How can I start my journey as an ally?

1. Educate yourself.

Take the time to educate yourself about the historical oppression that marginalized groups have faced in our country. Our neighbors of color need more than just our support — they need us to be open to learning what we don’t know and about the tools that will help us understand.

Rather than asking marginalized communities to educate you, seek available resources to help you understand what you don’t know. For instance, did you know (I didn’t) about Juneteenth or the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre? What about racial violence in Minnesota’s history, including the hangings of 38 Dakota men in 1862, the lynching of Black men in Duluth in 1920, or the legal authorization to remove Native American children from their parents to attend boarding schools?

Natalie Ringsmuth is the executive director of UniteCloud, a St. Cloud-area organization that provides education to foster an empathetic community to stand up for one another, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, or socioeconomic background. She recalls the negative impacts of jumping into action before educating herself: “The work of wanting to be an ally is an important part of moving out of indifference. Sometimes folks jump right into action before learning. And they do that in a way that is not sustainable.”

Allyship: Partners for Change highlights that learning about the experiences of people who are different from us is a key first step for allies, because we often have a limited understanding of the issues they face and don’t experience unjust treatment in the same way.

Educational materials

Below are resources to get you started on your journey.

The following books and articles may be found at your local library/bookstore or may need a paid subscription to view them.

2. Understand your positionality.

Becoming a better ally requires each of us to seek a deeper understanding of our identity and positionality. The idea of positionality focuses on how our positions in society shape the way we see the world and interact with others. It helps us to see and understand some things while overshadowing others. Considering your positionality can help you to identify your own assumptions and biases. The University of Michigan Center for Social Solutions notes that “By acknowledging the limitations of our own viewpoints and experiences, we can create space for the inclusion of others and actively seek out new information.”

Reflect on your positionality by answering the following questions:

  • What is your own positionality and awareness of your own identities (e.g., racial, gender, sexual orientation, religious, language, socioeconomic)?
  • How does your positionality influence your perspectives, assumptions, and effectiveness as an ally?
  • How does your positionality increase your effectiveness as an ally? How does it decrease your effectiveness?

3. You’re not always going to get it right. That’s okay.

Get ready to be a little uncomfortable during your allyship journey. Being an ally is hard work, but feeling uncomfortable means you are learning and growing. Ringsmuth notes that discomfort is part of the process. “You have some shame in that you haven’t been an ally before,” she notes, “and fear that you don’t know how to do it. And as a white person, you will say and do things that are not correct. To be an ally is to be humble, understand that you are going to be wrong sometimes, but when the rubber hits the road, you have to stick it out.”

It may be unavoidable that you say or do something that is harmful. You are learning. If you did something harmful, offer a short and sincere apology, even if the harm was unintentional. Use the opportunity as a way to learn from the experience. Stick it out and keep practicing. Allyship: Partners for Change notes that a key part of being an ally is to learn from mistakes: “Now that you know what the mistake was, practice doing better. The impact of our words and actions can be greater than our intent.”

4. Be wary of saviorism.

As a person who identifies as part of a dominant culture, be careful not to center yourself in your work as an ally. You are there to be supportive, not to be the hero of the story. Ringsmuth, who leads workshops on ‘white saviorism’ through the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, notes that movies like “The Blind Side” and “The Help” are examples of saviorism — stories that center on white people and their role in creating change. “White people have a role in fighting racial injustice,” she says, “but white people cannot be the savior of everyone.”

It's also common for individuals who identify as part of dominant cultures to paint a picture of despair for marginalized communities. This perpetuates deficit-based narratives and does not take into account a community’s strength and resilience to create culturally grounded solutions for themselves. Marginalized communities have joy, assets, and diversity within their communities and are not a monolith. They have the ability to create their own solutions, but they need support and allies to follow their lead because we all have a role to play in rooting out injustice.

You can support BIPOC communities by building bridges with other white people to provide education about how to be a better ally, identifying and mitigating microaggressions (indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group), and lifting up the voices of BIPOC people and organizations.

5. Start with your circle of influence.

As you consider where to start, use the following social barometer to guide you. This framework can help you understand where to begin and how you can work with others, depending on where they are in their journey. It will also help you identify where others may be on the “ally spectrum” in terms of how they serve as an ally — “leading activist,” “active ally,” “passive ally,” “oblivious neutrals,” “passive opponents,” “active opponents,” and “leading opponents.” Use this framework to reflect on your role as an ally in your circle of influence and consider the following:

  • Where do you fall on this barometer?
  • Where does an individual or group in your circle of influence lie on this barometer?
  • What are your goals or aims for connecting with that individual or group as an ally?
  • What actions are you going to take to achieve the goals to connect with that individual or group as an ally?

Social barometer framework

A social barometer framework that shows where someone may fall on a spectrum of seven groups -- leading activist, active allies, passive allies, oblivious neutrals, passive opponents, active opponents, and leading opponents -- with aims such as, actively support and nurture; encourage; provide feedback; identify and contact; increase cohesion; empower; provide opportunities to support you; encourage participation; inform; win over; build relationship. Find more aims listed on page.

This social barometer framework graphic is a derivative of the "social barometer framework" by Katrina Shields from In the tiger’s mouth: an empowerment guide for social action, used under CC BY-NC 4.0 by UMN Extension.

Aims for leading activists, active allies, and passive allies may be to:

  • Actively support and nurture
  • Encourage
  • Provide feedback
  • Identify and contact
  • Increase cohesion
  • Empower
  • Provide opportunities to support you
  • Encourage participation

Aims for oblivious neutrals may be to:

  • Inform
  • Win over
  • Build relationship

Aims for passive opponents, active opponents, and leading opponents may be to:

  • Not provoke them into action
  • Give them opportunities to change their position
  • Recognize actual needs and fears
  • Arouse doubts
  • Build relationship
  • Soft on person - hard on problem
  • Reveal motives

6. Everyone is on their own journey. Don’t freeze people in time.

Be cautious of freezing people in time based on their opinions and ideas, which can change. We are all growing, changing, and learning to understand how to support our neighbors and our neighbors who have been historically marginalized. When you freeze people in time, you are limiting their capacity to grow their ideas, perspectives, understanding and allyship.

Below are additional resources compiled by the University of Minnesota Office of Equity and Diversity to start you or continue you on your journey to becoming an effective ally:

Author: Ellen Wolter, Extension educator

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