10 Tips for Being a Good Ally

“I Stand on the Right Side of History” — SF PRide 2011 — Photo: Reyes-Chow

This past weekend, I  had the privilege of spending a few days with the folks at the  2014 Christianity 21 Conference in Denver, CO. Along with some truly gifted thinkers and theologies, I was one of the 21 main speakers tasked with bringing a “big idea” to the event. The only requirement was that whatever idea I brought, it not be one that I had presented on before. Now, I have lots of ideas . . . mostly little ones that will never see the light of day, but I eventually settled on talking about the nature of being an Ally, more specifically, #AGoodAlly

This group tends to be White, liberal-ish, justice minded, educated and from a mix of Christian traditions.  I am friends with many of these folks and, while not always agreeing, appreciate the genuine nature with which faith, church and life are faced. Because this is a crowd that I feel comfortable being part of, I also wanted to push a bit on how I have seen them, us, myself behave when in the position of being an Ally.

Below is the the talk and you can see the slides on slideshareConfession — I originally wanted to title this #AllyOrAsshat, but, instead, I went with #AGoodAlly.

As I have shared before, I am a bit uncomfortable with the term Ally in the fight for justice in the world and the church when it comes to issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. As we have seen time and time again, even the best seasoned allies can get into trouble. We overstep our bounds, we overestimate our rolls, we flat out have meltdowns that eviscerate years of good will and we inadvertently add to and exacerbate the marginalization and exclusion that has drawn us to the struggle in the first place. What often begins as a welcomed gesture of solidarity between allies and the oppressed, seems too often to end up with us “allies” and those we are trying to support battling one another.

To be clear, I am not dismissing or discounting the role that Allies play in fight against injustice, marginalization and oppression  for I firmly believe that all movements towards justice must be enacted across many lines of privilege and experience. People need to speak out within their communities, stand up against norms that they have been part of and step out of their places of comfort if they are truly committed to supporting marginalized communities.

Allies are crucial.

Allyhood is also as diverse as the communities to which we belong. In one case I may be the ally to a community (male to female)  and in another I may need allies to stand with the community to which I belong (White to Asian). There is no ONE way to be a good ally.

That said, I think there may be some things that we can all keep on mind as we find ourselves of the Ally side of a struggle. So from my own experience and observations of the best and worst of Ally action, I would like to offer 10 postures, approaches and tips that I believe #AGoodAlly embodies and enacts.

#AGoodAlly uses the ally label sparingly; it is better to earn the title from others than to claim it for yourself. [Tweet it!]

When someone calls him/herself an “ally” I cringe just a bit. I don’t cringe because I doubt the intention or motivation behind claiming the label, but because, when used too often, it can begin to sound like a “if you have to tell us how awesome you are, then you are probably not all that awesome” kind of thing. I generally err on the side of NOT using it unless some from the group I am supporting uses it.

#AGoodAlly doesn’t make the struggle about them or fetishize oppression to feel part of the struggle. [Tweet it!]

Yes, the journey to supporting a group has been difficult. We have had to confront lifelong beliefs and, if it has not already begun friends, family and community have begun to question our state of mind at best and have ostracized us at worst. And while I do not want to diminish what allies going through, we must be careful not to trumpet our own suffering too loudly. You see, for many folks who need our support, LGBTQ, women, people of color, our suffering, ostracization and struggle most often pales in comparison to what they face for a lifetime.

#AGoodAlly knows when and where their voice needs to be heard — or not heard. [Tweet it!]

There will always be times when an ally must speak to his/her own family or community; but we must be careful that the ally voice does not become the default voice for the struggle when the realities of any struggle are best shared by those who experience the struggle in the first place. Allies must both speak for those who cannot speak for themselves while simultaneously working to create space where those voices can be heard in person.

#AGoodAlly knows that one cannot fully know and understand the struggles of the othered. [Tweet it!]

The “honorary [insert marginalized group here]” title is thrown around a good deal both by those who come from particular communities as well as those of us who want to be connected to them. Allies must be careful not to overstep the bounds of understanding. In our yearning to be compassionate we try to place ourselves in the other’s shoes, which is good; but not to the point where we claim, “We know what it like to be . . .” because allies by their very nature and possessing the ability to choose to be allied to a struggle for justice, can move in and out of the realm of struggle.

#AGoodAlly does not see struggle as a game to win, but as a lifelong commitment to solidarity and justice. [Tweet it!]

There will be times when it will feel like we are in a “no-win” situation, being challenged by the community we are trying to support as well as communities that we are trying to challenge. This is to be expected and it will feel unfair and overwhelming. But . . .  if we fall into the idea that the main purpose of being an “ally” is to somehow attain a personal victory then we are only doing it to somehow elevate our own sense of self, which, if we believe that part of being an ally is confronting our own privilege, then ending up at the top of the medal stand should be the the last reason that we are allies in the first place.

#AGoodAlly doesn’t take everything personally and understands the insidious nature of institutional injustice. [Tweet it!]

If some of you have followed the twitter hashtags like #blackprivilege #notyourasiansidekick or #everydaysexism you would not be human if you didn’t feel the urge to respond with, “But not all X are like that” or “But I am not like that” or otherwise try to discount the idea and reality of institutional realities. While we may not always like or agree with what is being said, sometimes sweeping generalizations need to be expressed in order to understand the sweeping nature of institutional exclusion.

#AGoodAlly takes some things personally and knows that being an ally does not purge a lifetime of privilege. [Tweet it!]

Being an ally does not mean that all of a sudden we are devoid of any or all of the things that put us in the position of being able to choose to be an ally in the first place. Our positions of dominance be it gender, racism, ability, sexuality, etc., whether we want them to or not, continually play a role in perpetuating institutional injustices. With this in mind, we must able to name our own personal contributions to injustice and embrace the lifelong challenge to mitigate the negative effects of that privilege.

#AGoodAlly welcomes other allies and understands the power of diverse strategies and partners. [Tweet it!]

One of the dangers, especially for allies who have some public recognition, is that we acts as if we have been crowned THE designated and head ally for struggle X be it LGBTQ inclusion the church, race relations, sexism, etc.  This gets played out in “you’re either with us or you’re against us” rhetoric around particular campaigns (usually out own) or condescension towards people who are new to the struggle, are unknown  or are not deemed to hold any strategic value. Allies must be able to work together which includes welcoming new allies, supporting a variety of strategies and holding one another accountable so that we do not make this about us.

#AGoodAlly avoids saviorism and constantly reflects upon their role and place in the larger struggle.  [Tweet it!]

This might be the most important of them all. Sometimes in our vigor and passion to fight injustice, we fall into the trap of saviorhood. The male that fights for women’s rights, the straight/CIS person who advocates for LGBTQ people, the White person confronting racism. I have no doubt that most begin with great intentions, but as we have seen over and over again, when unchecked and unreflective, even the most passionate and well-meaning person can being to suppress  and oppress the very voices that we set out to support. Again, we must not buy into the idea that it is through our privilege that we will save an entire people, but it is through the deconstruction of that privilege that a people can be liberated from injustice.

#AGoodAlly expects no medals or accolades for doing that which should be done all along. Everyone wants to feel appreciated. [Tweet it!]

We all know that an occasional “thank you for for what you do” feels good. That said, one of the biggest dangers that allies face is to feel as though we somehow deserve recognition for standing with and speaking out on behalf of marginalized communities. This comes out most when we are critiqued and we and our defenders respond, with some version of , “…but look what Ally X has done for the struggle” or “look what I have done for the struggle” as if we not only get a “pass” on being criticized, but should be given an award for even being in the struggle in the first place. When we begin to demand respect and recognition for living in a way that ought to be the norm, we again, lift our own lives over and above those with whom we claim solidarity. So, while there must always be room for grace and forgiveness when we do get a little full of ourselves, allies must find affirmation in ways that don’t require us to be at the center of it all.

Now of course these are just a few tips and there are no doubt countless helpful ideas that may be influenced by personal contexts and the particularities of issue. To effectively stand in genuine solidarity with communities of struggle, we allies must always be self-reflective about our roles while simultaneously being sensitive the needs of the communities that we are trying to support. So in the end, no matter the struggles that we may face in choosing to ally with those impacted by the injustices of the world, if we are committed to a world that is just, reconciling and whole, we will always strive to be #AGoodAlly.

If you have more tips, please leave them here or use the #AGoodAlly hashtag on twitter. And again, if you would like to see, use and liberate the slides, feel free to grab them [10 Ways to be a Good Ally on Slideshare]. 

Originally posted on www.reyes-chow.com

10 Ways to Disconnect from the Next Generation of Progressives

A few weeks ago, I posted this video made by and for some friends of mine:

I have been thinking about this video a great deal when it comes to staying connected to that “next” generation of progressive minds and hearts. Now I realize that there are many ways to define both “progressive” as well as the “next generation,” but rather than fill this post with disclaimers and definitions, I’ll take my chances and  leave it up to you all to define these terms as you will. With this in mind, I hope these 10 ideas can be applied across many ideological and cultural landscapes, but again, I’ll leave this up to you.

In many ways, I do believe that whatever and whoever next generation is shaping up to be, they will cultivate and form a posture and culture of justice-seeking with or without those of us who have come before. I simply think that if we are part of future movements in helpful ways, the entire endeavor will that much stronger. So I write this list, not as much about that next generation, but to my own and those before me. For if we want our good work and our dreams for a better tomorrow to keep moving towards justice for all, we must do everything we can to stay in relationship with those who have been and will be taking our place at the table.

Mock newcomers – Choruses of “It’s about time…” or “Are we still talking about this…” or “That’s what I’ve been saying for years…” in response to folks first discovering a passion and conviction about issues of justice is not only unhelpful, but it is incredibly arrogant and short sighted. Not only does this assume some higher evolutionary ideological stature, but that the process of justice is somehow passed from generation to generation by osmosis as if is the fault of the next generation for not just knowing. Sure, when hearing about people first diving into issues of race, gender, etc. it is hard NOT to feel smug and self-righteous, but these attitudes will only lead to further alienation and exclusion of current and future justice-seekers.

Dismiss youth – Too often we old folks adopt a thinly veiled, “Isn’t that cute…” attitude when young people raise their voices. We mock idealism, use young folks as window dressing, and  we lean into the idea that longevity is the greatest indicator of value and worth. We use young people and their perceived progressive ideology to support what we believe, but we really do not take them seriously or allow their voices to help shape and form progressive thought as a whole. When we do this, we subconsciously set up a “kid’s table” only making room for young people when they grow up — assuming they want to sit with us in the first place.

Foster failure – Well intentioned older folks sometimes throw young people into situations where they are setup to fail. Again, in order for us to pump up our own, “See, we empower young people!” credibility, we place them in situations where gifts and skills are not utilized well, organizational culture is toxic or it’s just not where this person should be serving. And when they fail or falter, unfair as it is, we feed the stereotype of the slacking, unprepared, and flighty young person. When we do this we set up future young folks because, not only do they have to prove their own capacity for leadership, but they must also overcome past negative assumptions based on previous experiences of young leadership.

Create chaos – As we feel our own power and authority waning, we yearn for situations where we can re-establish our place in the power structure. When these situations naturally present themselves, fine, but when we create chaos solely so we can swoop in and save the day, not only do we do a disservice to ourselves, but we weaken the organization or movement as a whole. When it comes to setting up young people, what better way for the grizzled veteran to save the day than to come in after a young person has failed (see above) and prove that we are still needed.

Assume authority – “Because I said so!” may work in some parenting situations, but when fostering leadership in today’s climate of crowd-sourcing, social networking and Wikipedia, it falls flat. Sure, some aspects of longevity deserve respect, but by the same token, simply being around for a long time, does not mean one has automatic credibility and authority. Believe me, I wish it did.

Hold on to power – I have been told by some older folks when talking about the future, “You just want to get rid of us.” This is patently untrue, but what I want is for those of us who have historically held positions of power, formal and informal, to be able to shift out of those positions with grace and joy. It seems as if we too often believe that the only option to not holding an position of power is obsolescence when, in fact, our legacies will be that much stronger if we are able to shift in our roles from leading and driving to supporting and mentoring. When we are able to make these transitions without anxiety or resentment, that which holds  importance can be transferred from generation to generation, while that which needs to change can be driven by those who truly understand and embrace that change.

Assume mentorship – Okay, so while I do say we older folks must shift into mentoring roles, we must not assume that everyone can, should or wants to be mentored by us. Sometimes, our best move is to simply step away and trust that the movement or organization truly is bigger than any single person . . . yes, even us. Assumed or forced mentoring, is rarely helpful as mentoring is not only about passing on knowledge, but finding a synergy of personality, passions and perspective. We can and must offer to be this for folks who may be open to what we have to offer, but we must also not take it personally or become jaded when our mentoring is not embraced.

Be unteachable – My greatest mentors and teachers have always been the ones who are well-experienced, but are clearly still thirsting for knowledge and know-how. The whole idea that we should never stop learning, when modeled well, is not only good for our brain-function, but an inspiring and helpful posture of leadership to pass along. For when we are not open to different ways of seeing, experiencing and navigating the world, we model leadership that is calcified and stagnant, and not leadership that is robust and forward-thinking.

Abdicate authority – Getting older and shifting out of positions of power does not mean disappearing from sight. I get frustrated when people who have such a wealth of knowledge and experience, just disappear. Often well-intentioned gestures of “getting out of the way,” we lose something when an entire generation of knowledge simply goes away. The ways in which we will stay connected, both in tactic and time, will vary depending on many variables, but there will be moments when the stories, strategies and leanings of the past will be integral to the journey towards a better future.

Embrace hypocrisy – Few us of us can live up to the perfection of that we so often demand of others so at some level we are all hypocritical when it comes to our lives. That said, I also know that we are often confronted with situations where we act knowing that there are inherit inconsistencies when it comes to building community, fighting for justice and seeking reconciliation. Some examples of this that I believe disconnect us from future generations — being kind, compassionate and understanding only towards those which whom we agree, demanding ideological and/or platform loyalty over the building of relationships, and using tactics of violence and exclusion in the fight against violence and exclusion. So while integrity and consistency are difficult postures to embody 24/7, as difficult as it may be, when a situation presents itself where we can be more consistent, our collective future demands that we choose to do so.

Honorable mentions – Not being able to receive and respond to critique . . . Not being able to admit when mistakes have been made . . . Seeing compromise and graciousness as signs of weakness . . . Crossing the line from righteous indignation to to mean-spiritedness . . . Unacknowledged and unregulated insider-speak . . .

Now of course, there is much in this post that is severely subjective and admittedly incomplete, so I would welcome any pushback, additions and/or tweaks that you might offer, but I hope these might spur some good conversation as we strive for a better future.