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The Path toward Allyship

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Intentionality is central to moving forward

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on October 26, 2023)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Veronica Mobley

Main Photo of hands with different shades of color. Title reads The Path Toward Allyship: Intentionality is essential to moving forward.

For many today, the word "ally" is consistently in our daily vocabulary. Commonly used in terms of national defense, this form of allyship is a personal action each of us can choose. These days, allyship is more common amid opportunities to engage with people from different cultures, communities and backgrounds, particularly those historically marginalized. In my teenage years in the 1990s, being an "ally" was not a common behavior or characteristic. Historically, speaking up for those who did not fit into social norms risked being ostracized.

photo of Dr. Joy DeGruy, historian and author
Dr. Joy DeGruy, historian and author

In the 2014 film "Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity," Joy DeGruy, a black historian and author, walked readers through an early 1990s visit to the grocery store for an example of the allyship we see more commonly today.

DeGruy, her 10-year-old daughter, and Kathleen, DeGruy's sister-in-law, visited the store. Kathleen, who happens to be white, purchased her items first by writing out a personal check. The cashier, who also happened to be white, was chatty with Kathleen as she completed the transaction.

When DeGruy and her daughter began to check out, the cashier's chattiness evaporated. As Joy wrote out her check for payment, the cashier informed her "I am going to need two pieces of identification." Joy reluctantly provided the two pieces of identification. Next, the cashier pulled out a bad-check book, a list of people who'd written uncashable checks in the store.

Kathleen raised the obvious question: "Excuse me, why are you doing this to her? I know it's not your policy because you didn't do that with me." Two elderly white women in line then shared their shock at the cashier's actions. The manager appeared. After hearing about the situation, including the feedback from the elderly women, the situation was rectified.

photo of Toni Walker, my mother
Toni Walker, My Mother

I do not share Joy's story to harp on past misdeeds through a victim mentality, but to demonstrate how our past intersects with and informs our current and future experiences. Joy challenges us to see how Kathleen used her perceived identity as a white woman to not only be an ally for Joy but to influence those who observed what happened but did not initially say anything. I want us to think about the impact that this experience had on Joy's 10-year-old daughter. As a child, I too remember the cold stares and degrading treatment that my single-parent mother would get at the grocery store all because she utilized food stamps just to get by. That short period of time on government assistance was just one contributing factor to a wildly successful 41-year nursing career where she worked every day to save lives. Even the lives of people who viewed her as less than.

Three approaches can help work toward allyship. The first is individual allyship. Awareness is the start of any plan of action. We have to acknowledge we all have been exposed to different experiences and grew up in varied environments. In the words of my former colleague, Anne Shelley, "we have to gain knowledge about the things that we don't know that we don't know." I strongly recommend the book "Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know" by Dr. Adam Grant, as a good starting point for anyone's allyship journey.

photo of Allyship Image from
Allyship Image from

To build awareness, it's important to be intentional in building genuine relationships with those different from you. This is interpersonal allyship. For me, this level starts with empathy that requires action. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, has identified four qualities of empathy as taking the other person's perspective, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people and communicating the emotion you recognize.

How often do you actively listen to someone without judgment? How often do you utilize emotional intelligence to identify and reflect the emotion you recognize in the other person? This type of empathy does not require a response or solution. In the words of author and professor Brene Brown, "Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection."

photo of Dr. Valerie Purdie Greenway, professor of psychology at Columbia University
Dr. Valerie Purdie Greenway, professor of psychology at Columbia University

The last step is structural allyship. Organizations are run by the people. Leaders, and all of us, must understand the larger structures outside of our organization that have an impact on what happens within the organization. Dr. Valerie Purdie Greenway, professor of psychology at Columbia University, has been studying changes in the workforce for decades. She found the research vast and clear that "diverse teams focus more on facts and process them more carefully than homogeneous teams." This makes it less likely members of the group won't end up thinking alike, that their ideas will boost innovation, that decisions are less risky and profitability increases over time, according to Greenway. When we understand that diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, belonging, and allyship are our strengths, we have to make sure organizational values are aligned with leaders' actions within the organization. This requires an ongoing examination of policies, practices and procedures.

The moment we acknowledge and activate our human connection is when we can start to move toward allyship. Each morning, I challenge myself to be intentional about gaining knowledge, establishing diverse relationships and addressing barriers that keep people from experiencing their full potential.

Together on this allyship journey we can unleash the full potential of our divine humanity.



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