The world needs more allies—there’s no denying that. Mobilizing allies is the only way to effectively address the many disparities in our communities and institutions. But what is an ally, and how do you become one?

Our CEO, Jim Grieve, and Varsha Naik, executive director of the Regional Diversity Roundtable, chatted as part of our 21 Chats about wellness series. Varsha walked Jim through what allyship is. As Varsha emphasized during her conversation with Jim, wellness and equity are connected—any focus on wellness overall must also address equity. And when we work to create equitable systems and dismantle oppressive systems, we will generate more wellness. 

“Being an ally first and foremost begins by acknowledging that you have certain privilege. You need to acknowledge that you are on the learning journey, and you will never really know what the equity-seeking groups have gone through or have experienced.”

Varsha Naik

This post is based on the advice Varsha shared about what it means to be an ally, and if you want to watch their entire conversation, we’ve included the video below. You can still sign up to receive the 21 chats about wellness to your inbox – one discussion per week.

What does it mean to be an ally?

An ally is committed to anti-racism and anti-oppression learning and unlearning and supports equity-seeking groups in the effort to achieve inclusion. An ally may be in a formal leadership role, with the power to affect systemic change within organizations or jurisdictions, or may be a leader in their family, peer group or community, taking everyday actions to support equity. When you are an ally, you’re not the one with the lived experience. You have certain power and privilege, which the other group you want to serve doesn’t have and you use yours to support them.

Tips for effective allyship

An ally isn’t a label you give yourself. Allyship is an ongoing and often challenging effort of learning, reflection, and action. Here are some considerations to help you be an ally:

Acknowledge your privilege and be humble

Being an ally begins by acknowledging your privilege. And you need to accept that you are on the learning journey, and you will never really know what the groups have gone through or have experienced. Anti-racism and anti-oppression learning and unlearning are ongoing. You won’t always get it right, so your humility is important.

Draw on the wisdom of the groups you are serving

As an ally, you will hear from those with lived experience as guides and wisdom givers. You’ll seek to gain greater awareness and understanding of what their needs are, what their struggles are, what their challenges are.

One of the best ways to do this is through reading. Seek out information about the experiences of different groups, including first-hand accounts. You may also have opportunities to hear directly from individuals, and you may be able to ensure individuals from equity-seeking groups are included in decision making.

Be a critical thinker and reflective leader who acts

As an ally, you want to not only take note of who is disadvantaged and what the concerns are, but you want to do what’s good for that group and that community from their need and reality.

In addition to your ongoing learning, you can lend your support as an advocate for the issues the group is facing. For example, join a march or rally, use your social media platforms to build awareness, or write letters to elected officials. You can speak up within your workplace or family to point out inequities you know of and use your voice to advocate when decisions will affect the group or when you hear inaccurate or disparaging statements. You can volunteer for organizations and provide financial support through donations.

Don’t center yourself in the work

“Most importantly, you ensure that you are there as a backend support and that you are not leading.”

Varsha Naik

As an ally, you’re never out in front. You provide support from behind. You use your power, privilege, and energy to support the overall mission.

And while allyship can also be tiring and challenging, you recognize that it’s part of your privilege to be able to turn away because you’re not personally affected by the inequity—not living it every day. And so, as an ally, you lean in and accept the discomfort that is inherent in the journey. You acknowledge you won’t always be correct. You’re open to admitting your faults and errors. You reflect. And you keep moving forward.

Be wary of optical allyship

Optical allyship is also called performative allyship – allyship on the surface—for example, in statements or social media posts—but not backed by more profound work to dismantle systems of oppression. In her book Me and White Supremacy, author Layla F. Saad explains signs to tell whether an act of allyship is genuine or optical. For example, whether the intention behind the act is to avoid being called racist, or to receive social recognition, and whether the act of allyship creates the look of diversity and inclusion but doesn’t include any deeper change. Check out the book to read more about optical allyship and other topics relevant to your allyship journey.

Inclusivity as a foundation for wellness with Varsha Naik and Jim Grieve

Watch the complete conversation between Varsha and Jim, where Varsha helps Jim understand more about allyship.

Book suggestions for allies

Here are some book suggestions to help support your allyship efforts. Your local library will be able to provide recommendations as well.

21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out

Caste – The Origins of Our Discontents

Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education

Me and White Supremacy

Seven Fallen Feathers

White Fragility

Our diversity, equity and inclusion work is embedded in our strategic plan and tied to our advocacy work. Sharing learning and information with our members and others is part of our effort to help promote equity and inclusion across Canada. Explore more posts about equity and inclusion.