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Section 5. Learning to be an Ally for People from Diverse Groups and Backgrounds

Learn how to be an ally to people in a diverse community.

 

  • What are allies?

  • Why should you be an ally to people from diverse backgrounds and oppressed groups?

  • How do you become an ally?

"Mind your own business."

Does that phrase sound familiar? Many of us heard that phrase in our families growing up.

As community builders, there may be many times when we really need to mind our own business, but often our work requires us to be involved with other people and make their business ours. We need to get to know people, find out what they're up against, and support them in their struggles. That's a lot of what allies do--get involved and support people, instead of staying on the sidelines.

If we want to develop effective partnerships and coalitions, we need to learn how to be active allies to each other's groups. If we want people to stand up for our concerns and interests, we need to understand and stand up for theirs. If we want to make changes in society so that oppression is not acceptable, we need to learn how to work together as each other's allies.

What is an ally? An ally is any person who supports, empowers, or stands up for another person or a group of people.

Everybody has had the experience of needing an ally. When you were a young person, did you ever have an adult blame you for something you didn't do? Did you ever have so much bad luck that you needed a lot of help from others to turn your situation around? Did you ever get targeted because you were different? Whatever your life story, there are probably dozens of times, when you could have used a person or group to help you when you were in a jam or when you were unfairly blamed, targeted, or left without resources.

In this section we are going to focus on how to be allies to people from diverse backgrounds and oppressed groups.

Why? Because people from targeted or oppressed groups are systematically bombarded by society with unfair treatment, hostility, violence, or other forms of discrimination. People who are targeted need support from those people who are not targeted in the same ways.

Why? Because in order to be an ally to people in groups that have been targeted, it is important to understand how you have been targeted in your life or how your family has been targeted in the past. The history of your own cultural group, often generations back, can influence the way you see other groups. If you are aware of how your own heritage and history has influenced you, you will be better equipped to be an ally to others.

On the other hand, if you are a person who is already aware of your own oppression, some of the information in this section may be familiar. Unfortunately however, our first-hand experience of oppression doesn't automatically teach us how to be allies to members of other groups. In order to work in close partnerships with other groups, we all have to learn how to be effective allies to each other.

Why do we become allies to others?

There are a few important reasons. First, it is in our own self-interest to be an ally. In the long-run, each of our own struggles is tied to everyone else's. In order to live in the kind of communities we hope for, in order to build real unity, and in order to reach our goals of building strong communities, we need to understand that we are all affected when any one person or group is not getting a fair deal or is not able to live a normal decent life. Second, being an ally is simply the right to do. If we want to live in communities that have a high moral standard, we ourselves need to start the ball rolling by doing what is right.

In this chapter we will talk about:

  • What allies are
  • Why community builders should learn to be allies to people from different cultural backgrounds and oppressed groups
  • How to become an ally to people from diverse backgrounds and oppressed groups

What are allies?

There are many different ways to be an ally.

  • A man tells his coworkers that he's no longer interested in telling or listening to any jokes that put down women.
  • An experienced manager gives a new hire from an oppressed group some tactical advice on how to work the system.
  • A individual helps a person of color or a working class person to run for office, through encouragement, fund-raising, and direct campaigning.
  • A college educated man works at a community center in a low-income neighborhood. He trains neighborhood people to lead community meetings, rather than leading the meetings himself.
  • Parents and teachers organize a program about teasing and targeting to help teenagers who are being harassed for being gay in their high school. They also launch a program in which all students can come to small groups to talk about their feelings about sexuality, sex roles, and other related topics.
  • A person stands up in a town meeting and speaks on behalf of an immigrant group that is being scapegoated for "taking jobs" from people who have lived in the community for a longer period of time.
  • A couple helps a teenager by taking him into their home because the teen's family is not able to take care of him.

Sometimes, it's just reaching out and caring; sometimes it means taking a stand against ethnic, sexist, or other oppressive jokes; sometimes it is thinking about a person and encouraging them to keep trying; it can mean helping a person get a seat on an influential board, it could also mean speaking out publicly against injustice; sometimes it means backing a person's leadership; sometimes it entails organizing a demonstration against discrimination.

Whatever the circumstances, as community members, we probably have a greater capacity to be effective allies to each other than we realize. We have the ability to think about each other, empower each other, and act on each other's behalf in our day-to-day lives or in emergency situations.

And like almost anything else, being an ally is a skill. Although being an ally often comes quite naturally, you can learn how to be an ally; and the more you do it the better you get at it.

If you are not a member of a particular cultural group, you have a role to play that is different from the members of that group. You may be able to intervene and be effective in supporting the group in ways that the group members may not.

As an ally, you have a perspective that is different than people directly involved. Have you ever watched an accident take place? Perhaps you stood and watched while two cars crashed. You would certainly have a different perspective on what happened than the people who were in the accident. If you are an ally, you are not directly targeted by that particular oppression or set of circumstances. You can see outside of it and present a different point of view. Your point of view can be helpful to people who are targeted. You are in a distinct position to help.

Additional important points to remember about being an ally:

  • You don't need to wait until someone invites you to become an ally--you can simply take the initiative. You may need to go slowly and learn as you go, but don't assume you are not wanted just because no one asked.
  • Anyone can be an ally to anyone else. If you are Polish, African American, White, Jewish, Catholic, Latino, Native American, Arab, Protestant, disabled, young, old, poor, gay, etc., you are entitled to be an ally and act on behalf of any group you choose.
  • As you learn to be an ally, remember, allies make mistakes! It is part of the job description. If you are going to get involved, you are going to make mistakes. It's either that or sit on the sidelines.
  • Being an ally is not only a one-way relationship. It is often reciprocal.

Why should you be an ally to people from oppressed groups?

As we said earlier, it is in our own self-interest to be an ally to people from diverse and oppressed groups. Ultimately, our own struggles are tied to everyone else's. Here is why:

  • We live in an increasingly diverse country. In order to organize, unify, and empower communities, people need to learn how act on each other's behalf.
  • When you give support to others, you are developing allies for your own groups and your own causes--in fact there is probably no better way to make an ally than to be one to someone else.
  • In order to address and change the systemic problems that cause oppression, you will need a lot of people who work together cooperatively and who are not vulnerable to divide-and-conquer tactics. Strong alliances between many groups can provide the necessary people power to make systemic changes.
  • When you are standing up against oppression, you are creating a moral standard in your community. You are putting people on notice that targeting any group will not be allowed.
  • Groups are frequently isolated from each other: "Us" from "them" and "them " from "us." Often groups that are targeted feel that no one cares about "their" issues and they can't get help. Often non-target groups feel that their lives are not impacted by racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.; they feel powerless, numb, and distant. Being an ally is an antidote to isolation for those targeted by oppression and those in the targeting role--it empowers everyone involved.
  • Our communities need the voices, opinions, and help of people from many different groups. As we reach out to groups, they will be more likely to become involved in and give their energy to the bigger community.
  • Last, but not least, in the process of becoming an ally, you have an opportunity to regain your humanity in a society that can often be dehumanizing.

Why shouldn't you become an ally?

Not everyone should be an ally in all situations. There are times when our motivations are not useful or can even be detrimental.

Here are some examples:

  • Don't be an ally to diverse groups as a way of avoiding your own group. If you don't like your own group or background, you won't be effective with people in different groups. People will detect your lack of pride and will not trust you. In addition, you have to be open to understanding all groups
  • Don't be an ally to alleviate feelings of guilt. Alleviating guilt is not usually a sturdy long-term motivator. Lillian Roybal Rose, expert in cross-cultural communication, said in Impacts of Racism on White Americans, "If you feel guilty this can eventually lead to anger, and your behavior then becomes reactive and resentful." Rose goes on to draw an analogy between a guilty ally and a parent who is compensating for not meeting her children's long-term needs for attention by bringing the children big gifts. The gifts don't take care of what the children need; they are still not happy and the parent becomes angry because the children are not grateful and appreciative.
  • Don't be an ally in order to "help" people because you are "better" than they are. This may be obvious, but it is important. Sometimes people are motivated by the unconscious belief that oppression is the fault of the oppressed--that if members of oppressed groups were more clever, smart, or harder-working they would not have gotten themselves into this bad situation. If we think we are better than others we are merely reinforcing oppressive messages.

Okay. Now let's get down to the nuts and bolts of how to be an effective ally.

How do you become an ally?

Establish friendships with people who belong to groups that are not usually in the center of mainstream culture.

Establishing a friendship may not be a sensational occurrence that gets reported in newspapers, but it is probably one of the most significant things you can do as a community builder and ally. Each person needs to know they matter--friendship is one the most powerful tools we have to communicate that. One of the most damaging parts of oppression is the message given to people that they don't make a difference to other human beings. Friendship is the antidote to that message.

Also, friendship is the foundation for almost any other step in being an ally. For example, having a friendship with someone in a different cultural group can help you get a first -hand look at the problems people face in their day-to-day lives. Breaking down barriers and mistrust between groups usually occurs between two people, not just in the acts of legislation or policy-making.

So, how do you make friends with people from different cultural groups or oppressed groups? In most ways, it is the same as making friends with anyone. You spend time with people. You try to set up projects in which you can work together so that you can have day-to-day contact. You ask what people are interested in and you listen to the answers. You also open up about yourself and put your trust in the people you want to get to know.

Establishing friendships is a slow process which builds with each interaction. When you are making friends with people who have a different culture, or who have a history of oppression, it is important to be more sensitive, more patient, and make more of an effort. When people have been mistreated by society as a whole or by your group in particular, trust will take more time to establish. That is okay; you can't expect that people will trust you right away.

Also, if people tell you about their disappointments about you or other people in your group, try not to be defensive. It may be a sign that you have earned enough trust for people to be honest with you about the way they see things. You want people to be real with you.

Learn about each other's cultures and histories.

If you want to be useful to people of a cultural group, you should learn something about that group--it's history, religious beliefs, its strengths, or how its people have been oppressed. For example, if you want to be an ally to Japanese-Americans, then reading some of books about the U.S. Internment Camps during World War II would be one piece of your self-education plan.

Or, if you want to be an ally to elders, you might ask them what it's like to grow older. How are older people are treated in society? Are they taken seriously? Are they left out of celebrations? And what is it like to have to contend with health care cuts?

Examine your own prejudices.

In order to be effective allies to people that are different from ourselves, we have to face our own prejudices. Otherwise, unintentionally, we can act in ways that are not as helpful as we would like. We have to become aware of the ways that we unintentionally may be racist, anti -Semitic, sexist, homophobic, etc.

We all carry misinformation and stereotypes about people. Especially, when we are young, we acquire this misinformation in bits and pieces from TV, from listening to people talk, from watching the expressions on our parents' faces, and from the culture at large. We also witness people being treated badly because they are people of color or are poor, etc. All these experiences are confusing to young children; they are hurtful experiences that make us feel bad about ourselves and make us feel distant from both those who are targeted and those who are acting out the prejudiced behavior. These experiences, like any hurtful experience, get locked away inside us, but don't disappear. They provide us with a foundation of misunderstanding and fear upon which our prejudices are built.

We are not bad people because we acquired prejudices; no one requested to be misinformed or confused. But once you have them, what how can you undo these prejudices?

You can heal from them. Below are two different methods for overcoming your prejudice:

Re-evaluation Counseling Model:Reevaluation Counseling, an organization that promotes peer counseling, uses a model of healing from prejudices in which people take turns listening to each other. The theory of Reevaluation Counseling states that people are good and no one would develop prejudices unless they, themselves, had been hurt.

In this model, people establish a listening partnership or support group with others who have similar cultural backgrounds. In these groups or pairs, people take turns talking about how they acquired prejudices when they were young, while others listen without judgment.

People often start out by focusing on their experiences being targeted and hurt by others. As each person remembers their own battles with oppression, they are more equipped to face the ways in which other people have been targeted.

When people are ready, they tell about their experiences in acquiring prejudices, or in colluding with discriminatory practices. Surrounded by others who are also taking risks, people are able to overcome their defensiveness. As people tell their stories, they often feel their emotions. People sometimes cry, laugh, or tremble, as they thaw out the parts of themselves that have been frozen in unaware prejudice.

In a group, a man--we'll call him Steve--talked about how he became vulnerable to prejudiced attitudes. As a boy, Steve was consistently targeted for being shorter than other boys. At school no one intervened to help him. He came to expect that the adults would not stand up for him when he was teased or beat up.

He was told to "toughen up." Having to deal with these problems on his own, he began to expect that everyone would have to learn to take care of their problems by themselves. So when Steve's African-American or Jewish or Polish friends got targeted, he did not expect grown-ups to help with the situation. Nor did he feel that he could do anything to help the situation.

After meeting in a support group for awhile, Steve remembered what it had been like to be targeted for being short. He also remembered that early on, he had had friendships with people from many different cultural groups. Eventually, Steve talked and cried about being left on his own to struggle against cruelty directed at him and others.

He began to understand that he had gotten in the habit of distancing himself from others who needed help, and he grieved the loss of his earlier friendships with children of different races and cultures. He made a decision to not let his old experiences hold him back from making friends with people different from himself.

Lillian Roybal Rose, cross-cultural expert, says, in reference to healing from racism"...if White people only confront these issues on a cognitive basis, they will wind up as hostages of political correctness. They will be careful about what they say, but their actions will be rigid and self-conscious. When the process is emotional, as well as cognitive, the state of being an ally becomes a process of gaining one's own humanity. Then there is no fear, because there is no image to tear down, no posture to correct. The movement to a global ethnic point of view requires tremendous grieving. I encourage white people to not shrink from the emotional content of this process,"

What Lillian Roybal Rose says about how White people need to grieve about racism, can also apply to men needing to grieve about sexism, gentiles needing to grieve about anti -Semitism, wealthy or middle-class people needing to grieve about classism, and any other group that needs to overcome their unaware prejudices.

Study Circles Model:Study circles are small-group, democratic, peer-led discussions that provide a simple way to involve community members in genuine dialogue about issues such as race, immigration, and cultural differences. In these discussions people from different backgrounds talk openly about their experiences related to cultural differences, race, immigration, violence and other issues that divide people. Oftentimes in these discussions, people become more aware of their prejudices by listening to the experiences of others and by having a chance to talk about their own experiences and beliefs.

Study circles can take place within organizations such as schools, unions, or government agencies. They have also been used very successfully as large-scale community-wide programs in which sometimes thousands of people address these issues.

Take a stand when groups are targeted with unjust treatment.

Perhaps the most important way to be an ally is to act, speak out, or take a stand when a individual or group is being targeted.

There are a variety of methods and avenues which people use to take action when injustice is being aimed at a group. The one you choose will depend on the situation. It could be an ad in the paper, a boycott, a demonstration, or using behind-the-scenes negotiations to change the situation.

In Billings Montana, in December, 1993, a series of hate crimes occurred. Someone broke the windows of Jewish families who had menorahs in their windows. The town organized and distributed paper menorahs. All around town people put menorahs in their windows, taking a stand against anti-Semitism.

Taking a stand or speaking out against injustice usually requires courage, but it is the bottom line when it comes to being an ally.

Promote the leadership of people in groups that traditionally don't take leadership positions.

You can be an ally by promoting people into leadership roles. This empowers people, so they can take charge of lives, instead of being dependent on help from others. In particular, you can make leadership opportunities more available to immigrants, women, people of color, low-income people, people with disabilities, young people, and others.

You can promote leaders by providing informal or formal leadership training, mentoring them, by inviting individuals to take leadership roles, or by supporting them in elections for local offices.

The organization "Youth on Board" in Somerville, Massachusetts, trains and supports young people to be involved in decision-making that affects their lives. For example, people in Youth on Board:

  • Have helped establish city commissions for young people (run by youth)
  • Support young people to serve on boards of non-profits and school committees
  • Encourage foundations to create committees of young people who help make funding decisions
  • Have provided coaching to a group of young people to negotiate with architects who were designing their high school

In general, they help young people have a voice in any decision that affects their lives.

 In the example above, an entire organization's goal is to empower young people to lead. However, as individuals, we can also act on a one-to-one basis to support people to lead.

Once you have successfully promoted someone into a leadership position, they will need you as much as ever. Everyone needs support when they are in a leadership role, especially people who don't have a lot of experience. For example, you may need to listen to a leader as she thinks through the challenges she confronts. Or you may need to work with group members to teach them how to support their leader, or overcome any prejudices they may have about her.

Support different groups on the issues that affect them most directly.

This one is rather obvious--help people where they need help. If you ask a few questions or pay attention for a short time you can usually figure out what the key issues are for any group and then you can decide to offer assistance. A group may need short-term emergency aid, information about drug prevention, economic development consulting, or other kinds of help.

In the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago, where economic development is a key issue, a few non-profit organizations worked together to help Vietnamese immigrants become entrepreneurs. The Uptown Center Hull House and St. Augustine College with the Vietnamese Association of Illinois set up bilingual programs to teach Vietnamese immigrants skills in bookkeeping, marketing, licensing, customer relations, how to get a bank loan, and how to set up a business plan. The results have been highly successful. For example, Hero Phan went through the program and started Saigon Auto Repair which attracts customers from the Northside of Chicago and some suburbs. He started with plenty of experience as an auto mechanic, but had no experience operating a business in the U.S. The program to support entrepreneurs provided Phan with the skills he needed to make a go of it.

Support groups to gain power in their communities.

One of the most effective ways of being an ally is lending your financial, technical, or human resources to help groups gain long-term power in their communities. This may mean consulting with groups to help them write grants which will enable them to be independent, it may mean supporting a cultural group to gain more power in local politics, or in may mean helping people gain more control over their housing.

In Minneapolis, a Hmong and African-American neighborhood was displaced by a city-sponsored market-value housing and business development. The families were given some compensation, but were relocated throughout Minneapolis, thus dispersing their cultural communities. A Minneapolis group is organizing to support the Hmong and African -American families to help them obtain the right to buy or rent housing in their redeveloped neighborhood.

Help bring isolated or marginalized groups into the center of activity: don't leave groups isolated.

Every group should have contact with the larger community. When groups become isolated, they often need help. For example, young people who belong to gangs need help to become engaged in the mainstream community, so they don't get involved with drugs, violence, or other crimes. Also, sometimes new immigrant groups need to be welcomed and encouraged to interact and become involved in the larger community. Immigrants may need ESL classes, employment counseling, or relationships with people outside their group.

As allies we need to bring people and groups into the middle of things. Here is an example of helping a group with a disability become less isolated:

At Kinzie school in Chicago, a group of teachers and parents worked over a period of years to integrate a group of deaf students into mainstream classes with hearing students. The school started out with two entirely segregated programs. Slowly teachers started bringing the children together. Together, hearing and deaf students learned dance, studied drama, did mural painting, and participated in sports. Then, the hearing students began to learn how to sign. Eventually, the classrooms became fully integrated.

Work to change the system-wide problems that may be root causes of inequality and oppression.

People often direct their anger at groups different from themselves, rather than confront the inequalities in our government, economic, and other social systems which often cause much of their anger. It is easier to be angry at groups of people's scapegoating them--than it is to fix a system that doesn't work. Anger is a great motivator for action, but it's important that our anger and our actions are directed at the real causes of problems, which often lie outside of the target groups. Using the "But Why?" technique can help allies get to the root causes of what's going on.

How can an ally make a difference? You can start by looking carefully at how institutions and organizations affect those who are the disempowered, or who may be different from you. Your first step might be to vote for politicians, laws, ordinances, or policies that create conditions that promote tolerance, empower the disadvantaged, and enhance interaction among diverse groups.

Let's look at a couple of examples. Why are poor people poor? Is it because they are lazy? Or is one reason because they can't get the training that will help them obtain better employment? If that's the case, why is training not more accessible to them? Or if minority businesspeople can't afford to open a retail store in their neighborhood, is it because they don't know how to run a business, or is it because they can't get a business loan?

In both cases, some of the members of the disenfranchised group may be advocating for systems change themselves. Helpful changes might make it easier for a low-income person who lacks transportation to get a ride to appropriate training, or the changes might focus on a bank's lending practices. Whatever the change might be, it will be in those institutions and organizations that have a lot of influence and power over the target group, but which the target group has little influence with. And this is where allies often are able to step in, and use their power where it will do the most good, striking at the root causes of problems.

Get help: train other people to be allies.

As an individual you can accomplish a lot as an ally, but there are some bigger goals you can't accomplish by yourself. You can be much more effective if you work in a group with others. For example, you can organize a group that is committed to thinking about race issues and working to end racism. In such a group you can support each other to become effective allies and set goals to work together to handle racism in your community and make the community more aware of race issues.

Develop alliances among groups.

Being an ally is not usually a one-way relationship. It is more often reciprocal and can involve more groups than two. Partnerships and coalitions between Blacks and Jews, laborers and people on welfare, youth and elders, Latinos and Asians, and many more will make our communities stronger. Being an ally is an empowering role.

As you become an ally to an individual or group, invite them to become an ally to you or your group. As you do so, you will probably need to teach people how to be effective allies for you. Don't blame people if they don't already know how, or if they make mistakes--blaming people often scares them away. Learning to be an ally takes time.

In Summary

As we all learn how to be more committed and caring to each other, we will build a strong foundation for change in our communities. The stronger the trust and commitment people have, as individuals and between groups, the more effective they will be in uniting around important issues.

James Banks, a multicultural educator, says that living in a diverse society requires that we "know, care, and act." In other words, we need to learn about people and understand their issues, care about people with our hearts, and take the action necessary to make sure that people are treated well and that justice is done. That is, basically, what an ally does.

We all have the capacity to care deeply about each other. We all have the capacity to learn and take action. Why wait for someone else to invite you or give you permission to take the initiative? You can make a difference to people throughout your community. You can be an ally to anyone at any time, as an individual, or as a member of an organization. It will make a big difference, in the short and long run.

Contributor 
Marya Axner

Online Resources

Study, Discussion and Action on Issues of Race, Racism and Inclusion - a partial list of resources utilized and prepared by Yusef Mgeni.

Print Resources

Axner, M. (1999, January). Interview with Arthur Himmelman.

Banks, J.  (1997). Educating citizens in a multicultural society. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Brown, C., & Mazza, G. (1997). Healing into action. Washington, DC: National Coalition Building Institute.

Duvall, L. (1994). Respecting our differences: A guide to getting along in a changing world. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Press, Inc.

Ford, C. (1994). We can all get along: 50 steps you can take to end racism. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.

Flavin-McDonald, C., & McCoy, M. (1997). Facing the challenge of racism and race relations. Pomfret, CT: Topsfield Foundation.

Garrow, D.(1986). Bearing the Cross. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Helmer, D. (1996). When hate comes to town. Teaching Tolerance, 5, (2), 16-17.

Kaye, G., & Wolff, T. (1995). From the ground up!: A workbook on coalition building and community development. Amherst, MA: AHEC/Community Partners. (Available from Tom Wolff and Associates.)

McCoy, M., et al. (1997). Toward a more perfect union in an age of diversity: A guide for building stronger communities through public dialogue. Pomfret, CT: Topsfield Foundation.

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College.

Rose, L.  (1996). White identity and counseling white allies about racism. In B. P. Bowser & R. G. Hunt (Eds.), Impacts of racism on white Americans (pp. 24-47). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ruenzel, D. (1996). Let's talk. Teaching Tolerance, 5, (1), 20-26.

Sutton, L. (1998). Teaching immigrants to succeed in business boosts the whole community. Doing Democracy, 5, (2), 6-7.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Organizations

Center for Living Democracy
289 Fox Farm Rd
PO Box 8187
Brattleboro, VT 05304-8187
(802) 254-1234

National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI)
1835 K Street, N.W., Suite 715
Washington, D.C. 20006
(202) 785-9400

Re-evaluation Counseling
719 Second Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98109
(206) 284-0113

Southern Poverty Law Center
400 Washington Ave.
Montgomery, AL 36104