Years ago, when diversity efforts were becoming popularized, we noted the emergence of majority or privileged colleagues who stood beside marginalized groups in the fight for equity, inclusivity, and social justice. In fact, the first mention of allyship, as we know it in the diversity space, is traced back to the 1940s during racial justice movements. However, it is most commonly known for its origins in the 1970s when the idea of a “straight ally” was identified as a “straight supporter of the LGBTQ+ rights movement.”
Over time, the concept of being an ally grew and was applied in broader contexts. In addition, organizations and institutions developed awards to recognize majority colleagues who exemplified allyship in hopes of encouraging others to follow suit. As an unintended consequence, this type of incentivization led to another concept, “performative allyship,” in which leaders and influencers have been accused of inauthentic demonstrations of support – also called “surface-level activism.”
Despite the critique, research shows that the presence of true action-based allyship leads to improvements in many areas of DEI and, importantly, one’s sense of belonging and opportunity in a complex environment, such as healthcare. This applies to our caregivers, industry partners, patients, learners, colleagues, and staff. There is so much to be gained by bringing in stakeholders from privileged identities to advance the movement. Diversity breeds excellence, particularly when working on…diversity!
So, what’s the state of allyship today, in 2023?
Well, it’s complicated. We are experiencing societal trends that actually work against the public demonstration of intentional allyship:
- Polarizing politics
- Criticism again critical race theory and anti-racism education
- Local and national policies formed against inclusive LGBTQ+ health
- Violence against marginalized communities and their supporters
- Decreased funding for DEI initiatives
- Discomfort in discussing relevant DEI barriers at work
- And more….
As a result, while we still have programs that champion allyship, there is a notable decline in how we see this manifest in our day-to-day work. For example, some ODLC members have noted that in leadership meetings, when raising a concern or comment about equity, other individuals in the room shy away from public endorsement of the point, but may send a private chat comment, text message, or email later, suggesting peer pressure to stay neutral or support status quo. In addition, while verbal support on social media may be rampant, there is a mismatch with the actions taken at a organizational or departmental level that deter inclusion. This can be quite disheartening and can also make our jobs that much more challenging.
Is allyship no longer needed? Is the professional risk greater than the reward?
While the answers to these questions seem obvious to us, many of our would-be allies are struggling to see how they can contribute in today’s world in a way that would be effective and authentic.
So, I propose that we, as DEI leaders, make allyship cool again. This takes more than an award or a social media explosion calling out our favorite mentors. This requires true, genuine relationship and education.
Take a dive deep into the plethora of evidence on allyship actions that have impact and integrate your colleagues into the movement. If someone asks you “let me know what I can do to help or support,” be ready with clear, tactical answers of how they can engage.
If we are ambiguous and uncertain, then the allyship will be ambiguous and uncertain as well.
In this HBR article, the authors outline seven ways to practice active allyship. Modify these to fit the needs of your environment and then pull allies into the work with intention, trust, and mutual respect.
If we all begin to do this well, a key part of our ODLC mission of elevating DEI leadership will be fulfilled – it will become attractive and rewarding to authentically contribute to making this a better place to learn, work, and deliver care for all of us.