What does it mean to act as an Ally?

By Eaman Fahmy, Inclusive Program Designer, Pillar Nonprofit Network | ALLY acronym attributed to Kayla Reed on Twitter

At this tipping point in history, those of us who possess power and privilege are being called upon to act. But before action, we must first pause and reflect. We must reflect upon how we operate at the intersection of complex identities, and how those identities are attached to different privileges in different spaces. We must acknowledge our role in upholding systems of oppression. And we must identify ways by which we can disrupt these systems in order to address the inequities faced by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities.

Those of us who work in the nonprofit and social enterprise sector have the power to address systems change. We have the opportunity before us to collectively commit to allyship and the work of anti-oppression. As allies, we recognize that this work is hard, and we must be in it for the long haul. Only then will we see real change.

Ally and allyship defined 

Let’s start our exploration of this important work with the definition of the word ally. An ally is an individual who stands up for a person or group that is targeted and discriminated against. The term allyship then – as defined by the Anti-oppression Network – is an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group. 

It is important to note that allyship is not an identity. If you are calling yourself an ally, you’ve already got it wrong. Instead, it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals and groups of people. Even more important is that allyship cannot be self-defined; our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.

Understand that all oppression is linked 

Before we can explore some of the steps we can take to act as allies, we should stop to reflect on the fact that all oppression is linked. The system of white supremacy that perpetuates anti-Black racism is the same system that perpetuates anti-Indigenous racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. 

By reflecting on our role in upholding white supremacy, we can arrive at how we can act in allyship with marginalized groups and disrupt oppressive structures and systems. Understanding white supremacy, and our role in upholding these structures, is a learning journey and takes time. We are called to accept that most of what we have come to learn was taught to us from a white supremacist lens. Those with privilege have a responsibility to unlearn, which is active, sustained and hard work. 

Steps to practicing Allyship 

For many of us, it can be difficult to know how to support the BIPOC community in the most helpful way, without saying or doing the wrong thing. We must first accept that there is no one good way to be an ally, and that what is helpful to one person may not be right for another. This is difficult work, we must be flexible, adaptable and open to shifting as we learn and do better. Here are a few tips to help you to get started or to continue the work of allyship in a helpful and meaningful way. 

A – Always centre the impacted 

Seek to understand how the impacted community wants to be supported.

  • Don’t assume you understand the particular needs of a group you want to support.
  • Understand that sometimes a community may want your help to advocate, and that, other times being an ally is about the act of making safe spaces for folks to share their stories.  
  • Consider the difference between intent and impact – someone may think that they are being helpful, but their words or actions may be perceived as insensitive. 
  • Pause to refocus your efforts in another way if you are told that impact you have had was hurtful rather than helpful. 

L – Listen and learn from those who live in oppression

  • Seek out the opinions and stories of the groups you wish to support.
  • Understand that no group is monolithic, each person has their own experiences and opinions.
  • Consider the intersectionality of various groups – the aspects of a person’s social and political identities that can combine to create discrimination and/or privilege.
  • Take ownership of your own learning process and don’t expect to be educated by those facing oppression.
  • Reflect on the biases that you have, and any problematic language you may be using, and begin a process of unlearning.

L – Leverage your privilege

  • Take the time to reflect on your privilege, and how we all hold different privileges in different spaces.
  • Consider the different ways you can leverage your privilege, for example: 
    • If you have a platform, amplify the voices of the marginalized. Disrupt power imbalances in your workplace or social circles to create meaningful inclusion.
    • Be an active bystander and intervene in situations of discrimination, such as, taking power away from the perpetrator by talking to the target and interrupting the harassment or getting physically in between the harasser and the target to literally create a safe space.

Y – Yield the floor

  • Speak less, listen more, and consider how much space you’re taking up in conversations, in rooms and in organizing groups.
  • Reflect on the intersection of your identities; how much space do you take up physically and verbally as a result of the power and privilege located at that intersection.
  • Create a safe space for diverse voices to share their experiences and perspectives.Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

    Practicing allyship will, at times, come with both relational and personal discomfort. We must commit to the work of confronting racism in all forms as we interact with those around us. We cannot be afraid to have difficult conversations with family, friends and acquaintances about racist comments, jokes, and language. As we look outside our own immediate circles, we must also hold elected officials and institutions accountable for their words, policies and actions.

    On a personal level, we have to be honest about your shortcomings and learning journey. We all make mistakes, but accountability and a commitment to do better are the most important things in allyship. Our actions should not be propelled by guilt but out of a responsibility to make a difference for those who are on the margins. We should always ask ourselves, what risks are we taking to disrupt oppressive power structures and build an equitable world.

Additional resources 

If you’re interested in exploring more of the concepts discussed in this article, take a look at the links below curated by members of the Pillar team. 



Power and privilege 

Anti-racism and equity in the workplace 

Organizations to support