Shortly after the reemergence of the #metoo hashtag and the spotlight people across the world began shining on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, I wanted to do my part to help move the conversation forward — to be an ally.
I decided to organize a townhall to dissect the topic and "force" difficult conversations to happen. I had had some success organizing other conversations around difficult topics — Charlottesville, gender equity among technical roles in the workplace — and thought that I could reuse the same playbook for encouraging dialogue, promoting a safe space, and confronting a difficult conversation.
I moved with conviction because I knew this was the right thing to do. I wanted to use my power and privilege to move the needle on this important issue. Maybe I could reach people as a cis-gender, heterosexual male on the topic of sexual violence and harassment by standing up and saying, "I care about this, too."
As well-meaning as my intentions were, in the days leading up to the event, I realized that the very voices I had been looking to empower and elevate using my privilege had been completely left out of the conversation...because of my privilege. I hadn't asked any woman, who experience sexual violence at high rates, what the goal of a conversation or townhall should be, and whether it was the best approach. I hadn't even considered the possibility that my well-meaning event could retraumatize or retrigger sexual assault survivors. And while I love facilitation and speaking on these topics — inclusion, empathy, privilege, power, equity, and equality — I hadn't considered the truth that this was not my story to tell.
I postponed the event so that I could educate myself and recenter the focus of the event. I learned about the resources that existed for survivors. I learned about the language around sexual violence, and how to talk about it with survivors in a way that centers that person rather than the experience. I had to realize that my value-add was leveraging my connection to other men in order to elevate the importance of this conversation and these stories in circles that extended beyond the underserved or underrepresented. I realized that my superpower was being an insider with outside cultural beliefs, influencing others to listen and act, rather than being the person trying to tell the story.
I learned a lot about allyship through failing to be one. And the biggest lesson I learned from that experience was...being an ally isn't about being the hero.
Sure, being the hero is what everything in our society, every pop culture reference, romanticizes the hero's journey. So it is no surprise that being an ally can feel very aligned with this idea that we have to develop our capacity to save the day for others.
We want to be the knight in shining armor, riding in to inspire and rally those around us. Or maybe we see ourselves as the arrow-wielding rider of a white horse, galloping in like a beacon of hope. Or maybe, we swoop in on a mythical creature, at the final battle, and in the final act, turning the tide in favor of the good and righteous victims that cannot protect themselves.
But underserved and underrepresented communities aren't looking for — nor do they need — heroes or last-minute miracles. Allyship isn't about being a savior.
Allyship is the journey of the trusted sidekick.
And that is because sidekicks do three things very well —
They show up for everyday moments.
They are willing to confront ugly truths, especially about themselves.
They use their special abilities to help the protagonist achieve their goals.
Allyship should be about striving to be consistent in these behaviors because my research** (**research: noun - to watch dozens of movies, read several comic books, and play hours of video games) shows how critical these behaviors are to the journey of the protagonist. Everyone needs a sidekick, even superheroes. And allyship is about donning the right cape, with the right intentions.
Being an ally is like being the Robin. Day in and day out, you don your red, yellow, green and black spandex tights, to fight for justice. It may not be your mission, but you suit up for it and own it as though it were your own. You understand what you are fighting for, and know that just showing up alongside the protagonist of the story is enough to make that fight just a little bit easier. It takes a true sidekick to don that color scheme and not complain about it. Think about how you show up for your colleagues, your neighbor, or a stranger in the “everyday moments”. Maybe that looks like “making space to listen to someone”, because sometimes what is needed most is for someone to take the time to care.
Being an ally is like being Chewbacca. We rarely knew what he was saying, but we always felt like his heart was in the right place. When Han Solo wanted to leave Luke and the rest of the rebels to fight the empire on his own, Chewie's grunts and moans made Han question an ugly truth; that doing the right thing wasn't always synonymous with getting your way or benefitting financially. Without Chewie, who knows if Han would have every returned to the fight against the Death Star, clearing the way so that Luke could take the shot that would save the day. What are you doing to confront ugly truths about yourself or the environment around you? Part of that starts with accepting that we all have biases and being honest and accountable with ourselves about that fact. The second part is opening ourselves up to continuous learning and feedback.
Being an ally is like being Hermione Granger. Despite Harry Potter being the "chosen one", his story would have ended in three books sooner without the intelligence and talents of Hermione. Though Voldemort posed a threat to the entire world, Hermione was there to help Harry be the "chosen one" that the magical world thought he was. She was a gifted witch, and she showed up for Harry when it mattered, using her magic to help him move past dire situations. What is your magic — aka your ability or privilege, and what are you doing to leverage it in support of another’s journey? Privilege is nothing to be guilty about - We all have some form of privilege because we represent a confluence of identities and experiences. What matters is what you do with it.
When we show up as trusted sidekicks, we create a permissive environment that allows people to be their most authentic and productive selves. We empower people to fight for and build the world they want to see.
And that is the true journey of an ally.