“Allies work to end systems of oppression that are not typically understood as targeting their own identities.” Tal Peretz
Across North America, we continue to experience the extraordinary work of racial justice movements (e.g. Black Lives Matter) and heed their collective calls for action on issues dealing with racial injustice, exclusion, and systemic discrimination. In some work environments, calls to action have led employers and employees to engage in listening circles and virtual town halls. In these spaces, members of Indigenous, Black/African descended and underrepresented communities share painful examples of their lived experiences with racism, anti-Black racism, trauma, and resilience.
In response to calls for action and the emotional impact of personal narratives shared by co-workers and community members, many organizations and individuals have issued statements drawing attention to their commitment to allyship. For example, in a statement on Lululemon Athletica’s website, they wrote:
“Our CEO Calvin McDonald, together with our Senior Leadership Team, has made the following commitments to stand up and fund Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action within our organization. This ensures we stay engaged and act in allyship in our commitment to anti-racism. This is by no means the last step. It is just the start.” Lululemon Athletica Inc., 2020.
As more corporations and not-for-profit organizations encourage their employees to act from a place of allyship, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what allyship means, and some tips on developing an allyship practice.
Allyship is an evolving term. Definitions vary depending on which organizations and groups are using the term. It gained popularity in the mid-2000s with the growth and mainstreaming of Positive Space campaigns in Canadian and U.S. LGBTQI2S advocacy organizations, academic institutions, and some corporations.
The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation defines allyship as an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people. They note that allyship is not an identity or self-defined. They emphasize that it is a lifelong process focused on interpersonal relationship building based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.
In developing an allyship process, an individual’s work and efforts must be recognized by the person and communities they seek to ally with to address racial injustice and build inclusive work environments.
An ally is a person who belongs to one or more power holding and privileged social identity groups in mainstream society. They support and take action alongside members of marginalized and/or underrepresented groups to disrupt acts of discrimination.
During media interviews and in training sessions, I am often asked to share my professional insights about allyship. First, it is useful to review some actions that are not considered allyship.
For employees striving to be recognized as allies, they should be aware that allyship is not:
The next step is to consider what is needed to develop an allyship practice. Over the years, I have come to realize that allyship is an expansive process that requires:
When possible act with, and next to individuals and groups who have lived experience with marginalization, exclusion, and intersectional forms of racism; and
Deep knowledge of what your employer’s workplace policies, including anti-discrimination, workplace violence, and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) allow you to do as an ally in work environments. When intervening or disrupting an act of exclusion, racial injustice, or perceived discrimination, you will have to be mindful of workplace policies, practices, human rights obligations, and your level of authority.
Based on decades of conversations with clients, feedback from learning and development participants, and research, I offer a list of tips for employees to consider as they develop an allyship practice. I refer to this practice as intentional allyship to recognize and center how essential it is for allies to move with purpose and act from a place of intentionality.
To build work environments where intentional allyship is actively encouraged, organizations can offer a variety of learning and development opportunities. These opportunities should be led by trained facilitators with direct lived experience of racism, exclusion, and discrimination from Black, Indigenous, racialized, and underrepresented communities.
Employers can also work with their employees to develop allyship plans guided by human rights legislation, internal workplace policies governing employee conduct, and clearly outline expectations. These plans can be integrated into existing EDI strategies.
In closing, I offer this gentle reminder that allyship requires continuous investments in resources, dialogues, supports, and emotional energy. It calls on those who wish to be an intentional ally to be present, emotionally accountable, value differences, and strive to intervene in ways that do not disempower members of marginalized and underrepresented communities. Lastly, it requires each employee to do as Audre Lorde suggests: recognize “[d]ifference…[as a] raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.” When we do this, we engage in essential actions that lead to sustainable change in their spheres of influence and beyond.
Tomee Sojourner-Campbell, Learning, Development, Equity, and Anti-Racism Consultant, Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, Managing Director of Tomee Sojourner Consulting Inc. She holds a Hotel and Restaurant Diploma (Algonquin College), a B.A. Honours in Directed Interdisciplinary Studies (Carleton University), an M.A. in Social Justice and Equity Studies (Brock University), and she is an LLM Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School (York University). Tomee brings over 20 years of professional experience to her advisory and learning program services. She specialized in assisting her clients, on-site and virtually, in the areas of professional development, inclusion, intersectional forms of anti-Black racism, and organizational development. Her firm works with private and public sector clients in law, real estate, hospitality, restaurants, sports and entertainment, and retail.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission has recognized, Tomee as a subject matter expert in consumer racial profiling (CRP). She is also a national and international media commentator CRP, inclusion, and corporate responses to anti-Black racism. Tomee can be reached on LinkedIn, Twitter, and tomeesojourner.com