How can I be an ally and not a saviour?

9 November 2020

In Episode 2 of The Aperture I talk with Leyla Okhai from Diverse Minds about the role allyship plays in creating and maintaining diverse and inclusive workplaces. We talk about power and privilege, and systems that create advantage. We also discuss a question we both get asked frequently, ‘How can I be sure I’m being an ally not a saviour?’

So, what is allyship, and how can we be a genuine ally and avoid being a saviour?

An ally is someone who is not a member of an under-represented group but who takes action to support that group. Allies maximise their position to create a more inclusive workplace, with opportunities for everyone to thrive. 

Here are a few key differences between allies and saviours:

  • Saviours talk more than they listen: allies listen more than they talk.
  • Saviours speak on behalf of others: allies amplify others’ voices
  • Saviours rush to help: allies step back and create opportunities.
  • Saviours make other people feel ‘othered’: allies find ways to make their privilege work for others

As an ally, you will consider when to be passive and when to be active. Examples of what to do and what to avoid are given in the podcast. Here are some further suggestions:

  • Recommend people from under-represented backgrounds for learning opportunities and leadership development.
  • Talk about the expertise you see in others, especially during performance and promotion discussions.
  • Share your colleague’s career goals with influencers.
  • When someone proposes a good idea, repeat it and give them credit for it. For example: “I agree with Rasheed’s recommendation for improving our returns policy”
  • Review the delegate lists for strategic planning meetings, events with key partners, and other career development opportunities. If people from marginalised groups are missing, advocate for them to be invited.
  • Ask someone from an under-represented group to collaborate on a proposal or project.
  • Read publications, blogs, or social media content by, and about, under-represented groups. Start by subscribing to The Aperture for regular social change thinking podcasts!
  • Speak up if you witness behaviour or comments that are degrading or offensive. Explain your position so that everyone is clear why you are raising the issue.
  • Believe the experiences of others, even though they may feel far removed from your own.
  • Listen and ask questions when someone describes an experience you have not had. Do not jump in with your own personal stories and avoid asking questions that amplify power dynamics

Being an ally requires committing to being on a journey. In the podcast Leyla says, “It’s not a one and done, it’s a rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat…”. It is ongoing because the driver for being an ally is to dismantle discriminatory structures, not to achieve personal goals.

The Aperture episode 2 – the one about allyship