By: Maria Rio, 10+ years of experience in nonprofit project/people management
As the conversation around allyship continues to evolve, it’s becoming increasingly clear to our white colleagues that being “nice” was never enough. In order to truly be an ally, it’s necessary to take a hard look at one’s own actions and hold oneself accountable for making tangible changes.
One of the biggest issues with allyship is that it can often be performative or insincere. In our sector, many of us have witnessed or experienced the violence and weaponization of niceness by self-proclaimed allies. By “violence of niceness,” I am referring to the tendency for white people — especially white women — to prioritize being perceived as nice, easy-going, or polite over taking meaningful action to support marginalized communities. This is often due to a lack of personal accountability, as well as a lack of professional accountability.
So how can we quantify allyship and truly hold ourselves accountable in and outside the workplace?
One way is to set quantifiable weekly, monthly, and annual Tangible Action Goals (TAGs). For example, how many DEI workshops and trainings did you do this past year? How many books or podcasts produced by BIPOC or showcasing BIPOC as experts have you consumed? How many voices local to the issue have you amplified?
In the following sections, I’m going to break down some example TAGs and how they materially help those in your communities.
Having a difficult hour-long conversation with a family member over their use of an offensive word.
Confrontation involves facing discomfort and having an honest conversation with a loved one about the harm caused by their use of an offensive word. It shows a commitment to justice over niceness.
It is important to do this not only in low-stakes scenarios, like with a stranger or someone you dislike, but also with your family and friends. The violence of niceness often deters well-meaning people from confronting close connections, or connections perceived to have more power, when faced with blatant oppression and discrimination.
By doing this yourself, you are removing or easing the burden of educating your loved ones from the marginalized people they interact with at work or in daily life. Educating people is incredibly uncomfortable, harmful, and emotionally draining for many marginalized individuals; be an ally by using your positional privilege to confront those around you when they say something problematic — without exception.
Identifying words like “stakeholder” as problematic and removing them from your communications.
Indigenous Corporate Training Inc has some incredible guides. By consistently seeking out phrases and words that may not be inclusive for everyone and removing them from your vocabulary, you help create a less oppressive environment.
When we avoid problematic words and phrases, we work to not alienate or harm communities that interact with our organization. The easiest way to think about this point is to think of words you thought were appropriate in the workplace 10-20 years ago (whether said by you or others), and apply the same level of rigidity to phrases used today that are alienating, offensive, or un-inclusive. Here is another communications guideline outlining problematic terms.
Listening to a podcast that made you realize something and applying the lesson in your life.
Similarly to educating a loved one, each person must prioritize educating themselves. We do not have the same lived experience as other people in communities we belong to. While we all have various identity intersections that can inform our opinion, we will always have gaps in understanding. That is why taking consistent action is key to allyship. By doing the work yourself, you remove the burden off of someone else.
Not applying for a job posting that doesn’t show the salary and instead emailing the company to educate them on why that is problematic.
Salary transparency is an important step toward creating a more equitable workplace. When organizations don’t show the salary (or discourage you from discussing your salary), they perpetuate wage discrimination. People of color are deeply affected by this as they may — unknowingly — not be paid fairly compared to others.
Creating a culture of secrecy around salaries makes it difficult for employees to negotiate their compensation. You can act against that by emailing your organization or the hiring company to educate them on why salary transparency is important or by openly discussing salaries and benefits. Taking difficult but concrete action to challenge a problematic practice can help create a workplace culture that values transparency and equity.
Attending a protest to support Land Back claims.
This kind of allyship is crucial, as it starts with decentering oneself and recognizing the role that privilege plays in shaping the world. By attending protests and supporting oppressed peoples, individuals are sending a message that they are committed to creating a more just and equitable society.
In the workplace, this same kind of allyship can have a powerful impact. When allies use their privilege and platform to elevate those advocating for concrete policies around diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are helping to create a more just and welcoming environment for everyone. They are showing that they are not just talking the talk, but also taking tangible actions to support marginalized communities.
Talking to the ED or communications director about trauma porn/exploitative storytelling.
Trauma porn or exploitative storytelling refers to the use of graphic and often sensationalized depictions of trauma, poverty, or perceived tragedy in order to create a sense of shock, awe or to gain a donor’s attention. This type of storytelling can be extremely damaging to the individuals or communities being depicted, as it relies on stereotypes, white saviorism, and exploitation.
Such content can significantly impact the mental and emotional well-being of those who view it. It can lead to increased anxiety, fear, and trauma symptoms in some people, particularly those who have experienced similar events in their own lives.
Anecdotally, I was recently asked during a media interview what it was like accessing food banks and what it was like living in a refugee shelter. If you cringe at that, please take action to not put service users in that position.
Turning down a speaking opportunity with only white panelists.
When you don’t question this and take the “opportunity,” you may be taking up space that does not belong to you. By turning down a speaking opportunity with only white panelists, you are taking a stand for diversity and inclusivity, and demonstrating a commitment to promoting a more equitable and representative public discourse.
Moreover, you are letting the organizers know that this is an important requirement for a successful panel, and pointing to the professional excellence brought by members of oppressed communities.
Believing the experience of those who say you harmed them and not centering yourself.
When someone says you have harmed them, listen to and believe their experience. Do not focus on defending yourself. Active listening demonstrates empathy, accountability, and a commitment to understanding and repairing harm. Fighting to be perceived as polite, the victim, or well-intentioned in this scenario can create more harm because it may mean that you are not taking the situation seriously and are not fully engaging with the experience of the person who has been hurt.
Using your privilege to hold those in power and your peers accountable.
By publicly naming names, outing racist practices, and demanding better, allies and activists can take on the “heat” that marginalized people cannot afford to take, whether due to emotional capacity, possible repercussions, or more. A great example of this is Liz LeClair’s “The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Racism and a Failure of Leadership in Canada’s Largest AFP Chapter.” In this piece, Liz shares with her audience a piece written by a former AFP Toronto board member who experienced anti-Black racism. She pointedly calls for an apology, for meaningful inclusion, and calls on other white colleagues to do the same. She says, “I am tired of our profession’s mediocre and tepid responses to acts of racism and discrimination. We are not the voice for the unheard, we are the muzzle that seeks to censor and silence those who speak out against injustice.”
Good intentions do not always have good impacts. By ignoring that, you can be dismissive or insensitive, can further harm a relationship, or exacerbate the harm that has already occurred. It is important to actively listen to and believe the experiences of those who say you have hurt them in order to promote healing, growth, and strong relationships.
Allyship is not a one-time act or a label to be claimed; it’s an ongoing process of learning, listening, and taking action. By setting quantifiable goals and holding ourselves accountable for meeting them, we can ensure that we are truly doing the work to support marginalized communities. These will help you measure your own progress and activity as an ally and advocate. When you start quantifying and tracking TAGs under personal and professional categories, you can assess how many you completed in a week, a month, a year, etc. You cannot change what you do not acknowledge. By tracking TAGs you will be able to assess where you are lacking in your allyship, and question why you consider yourself to be anti-racisct, anti-ableist, pro-trans, or an ally in general, if you only complete one or two TAGs per week.
Organization-wise, we know tracking metrics can help to ensure that allyship efforts are sustainable and that progress is not lost over time. By using a similar approach, you can truly practice allyship.
Maria Rio (she/her) is a fundraising consultant with Further Together with 10+ years of non-profit experience. She is regularly asked to speak on issues related to fundraising and her op-eds have been featured in national publications. She was a finalist for the national 2022 Charity Village Best Individual Fundraiser Award and has a deep passion for non-profit work. Maria also sits on the Board of Living Wage Canada.