Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

Allyship: Where Do I Start? And Other FAQs

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of Melinda Briana Epler; a White woman with red hair, glasses, and black shirt; and the orange book cover of HOW TO BE AN ALLY.

In Episode 67, Melinda Briana Epler concludes Season 5 of the Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show by guiding us through the first steps to becoming an ally. She provides some simple but powerful actions that managers and team members can take to help create a safe space in the workplace where learning, growth, and allyship are supported. She also answers the most often-asked questions around microaggressions, what performative allyship is, and how to talk about the business case for allyship.

Additional Resources

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  • “The first step of allyship is to learn, to unlearn, and to relearn. Often our history books—even Wikipedia—are written from one point of view, so there are gaps in our understanding. We get a lot of information from Wikipedia right now and they historically have a difficult issue with a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So pay attention to who is writing the articles and books you’re reading, the podcasts you listen to, the TV and films you watch, the video games you play. Start looking for more diverse, underrepresented voices and perspectives. Really broaden your understanding of our collective history. Also, most of us have friends that look like us, so expand your network; learn about people who aren’t like you and understand their unique experiences.”
  • “An apology is worth nothing if you can’t share and show how you’ve understood your mistake and you’re making corrections, because that is the most important part—how are you taking action to correct? If you’re a leader or a manager and you made a mistake publicly, first apologize to that person privately. And then, I would encourage you to also share that you made a mistake publicly and how you’re taking corrective action…. In this way, you’re acknowledging the harm, making it clear that it wasn’t ok, and you’re being a model for your team to learn and correct themselves.”
  • “You can lead the change no matter where you are, no matter what role you have. Look for opportunities to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in your own individual work…. Advocate for change in your company because companies are uniquely open to feedback right now…. Model allyship; be a great ally yourself. Share your process on social media, blogs, and even internal company channels if it makes sense within your company culture.”


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MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep, real conversations to build empathy for one another and to take action to be more inclusive and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. 


I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder, and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. 


All right. Let’s dive in. 


MELINDA: Hello, everyone! Welcome to the final episode of Season 5 and 2021. Today I’ll be talking about Allyship: Where do I start, and other FAQs. So, it has been a journey. We began these weekly sessions back in April 2020, when our world changed fundamentally. I want to send much love to you all who have experienced loss, stress, financial hardship, anxiety, fear, depression, exclusion, and injustice. 


So, dictionary.com has declared “allyship” to be the word of the year for 2021, which is amazing, right? There has been a collective awakening of violence and injustice, especially against black people in the US and also indigenous Asians and other people of color, as well as people with disabilities around the world. With that collective awakening of understanding what is happening and what has been happening for centuries, there are a lot more people searching for how they can step up to be better allies. And so, we thought it would be beneficial to have an FAQ session. 


At Change Catalyst, we’ve been working on building allies since 2015. We hosted conversations about it at our very first Tech Inclusion Conference. And since then, we’ve hosted allyship conversations at our conferences every year. I personally have spoken on hundreds of stages, talking about allyship, and led workshops with thousands of leaders, and my TED talk on the subject has reached millions. Two-point six million people, I believe at the moment. My book How To Be An Ally was just recently released, which you can learn more about at MelindaBrianaEpler.com. 


No one is a perfect ally. Having said that, I’ve been working for a very long time to be a good ally, 25+ years to be my best ally. So, here are some FAQs. The first is, what is allyship? So, just a quick definition to make sure we’re all on the same page. Allyship is empathy in action. Empathy in action. It’s learning what someone is uniquely experiencing, listening with empathy, and showing empathy, and then taking action to support them. That could be through learning to do no harm, really understanding and interrupting our biases about people, and making sure we’re not intentionally belittling or insulting them with our words or actions, and then advocating for them, being their champion, and leading the change to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive teams and workplaces in the world. 


We’re talking on this show about allyship specifically for people who have been historically oppressed, systemically marginalized, and who experienced exclusion, microaggressions, macroaggressions, and underrepresentation as a result. That’s across race, ethnicity, gender, disability, LGBTQIA+, age, religion, and other identities. 


Okay. So, who is an ally? I believe every one of us can and should be allies for each other, especially for people with less privilege than we have. So, yes, there is always someone with less privilege than you. If you’re listening to this episode, you have some privilege. If you have an identity that is systemically marginalized and underrepresented, if you’ve experienced that, it can be an added burden to the weight that we already carry, and that’s unfair. I believe that it will take all of us to fundamentally change the world.


I also believe in the power of mutual allyship. We talked about this with Vanessa Roanhorse back in episode three. Actually, she really made me think about this a lot. “Surround yourself with mutual allies, people who stand with you and stand up for you. Do you stand up for them?” Sometimes the allies in my life have opened doors for me. Sometimes they’ve given me important feedback to become a better ally. 


I have a friend, Michael Thomas, who says that allies do your own work. Meaning we have all experienced trauma. And if we don’t do the work to understand and move through that trauma, we can actually unintentionally harm the people around us. And the same with burnout and stress. Erayna Sergeant talks about this in Episode #61. And then Michael Thomas, that was Episode #8. So, go back and check out those episodes to learn more, do your own work. 


Another big one, where do I start as an ally? The first step of allyship is really to learn, to unlearn, to relearn. Often our history books, even Wikipedia, are written from one point of view. So, there are gaps in our understanding. We get a lot of information from Wikipedia right now, and they have a historically difficult issue with a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion on their staff. So, pay attention to who is writing the articles and books you are reading, the podcasts you listen to, the TV and films you watch, the video games you play. Start looking for more diverse underrepresented voices and perspectives and really broaden your understanding of our history or collective history. 


Also, most of us have friends that look like us. So, expand your network. Learn about people who aren’t like you and understand their unique experiences. We have to grow our networks. I’ve learned so much by following diverse people on social media, attending events for diverse people, and talking to people there, right. You can also check out your company’s employee resource groups. Many have ally events or other events that you can attend. So, where you start is to learn to unlearn and relearn. 


What does an ally do? An ally learns, shows empathy, and takes action. My book, How To Be An Ally: Actions You Can Take For A Stronger, Happier Workplace, takes readers on our journey through seven steps, seven ways you can be a better ally so that our workplaces can be safer, healthier, happier, and more equitable for all of us. Those steps are to learn, unlearn, relearn, to do no harm, really understand and correct any biases that we might have, and then recognize and overcome microaggressions that we might have that are actually based often on biases, and then advocate for people. Be their champion, take steps to really support people. Stand up for what’s right, intervene when you see microaggressions, for example. Six is to lead the change. And we’ll talk about that a bit more in a moment. And then the second part of leading the change is really transforming your organization, your industry, or our society. That’s the systemic change we need. 


Here is another question that I often get is what if I have no power in my organization to do anything? How can I lead the change, right? So, you can lead the change no matter where you are, no matter what role you have. Look for opportunities to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility in your own individual work. So, really look internally at your own work day-to-day. What can you do to improve? So, start to take action to improve your work, and then lead by example, really show people what you’re doing. That can make a big difference in really providing an example for people around you. Also, advocate for change in your company because companies are uniquely open to feedback right now. I will say as consultants, many of our clients come to us initially because people internally went to them and said, “I need change to happen. I need change to happen.” So put in your request individually. You can also put in your request collectively as well. The more people that do put in a request for change, the more likely your company is to create change. 


Also, model allyship. Be a great ally to yourself. Share your process on social media, blogs, and even entertainment or comedy channels if it makes sense within your company culture. And if you’re leading meetings and projects, leave them inclusively. You can also mentor, sponsor, volunteer. There’s a lot of things that you can do to really lead the change to create a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse world, workplace, team. 


Another one is, what do I do when I see a microaggression happen? How do I interrupt microaggressions? So microaggressions, we actually have done quite a few episodes on microaggressions. Take a look at the episodes that I did over the summer of 2021. All the episodes in season four. So that is episodes 49, 50, 51, and 52. You might take a look at the last two in particular around microaggression. 


Microaggressions are little everyday acts, words, actions that can be belittling, that can be insulting, that can cause harm to people. And, and as we know, from our research on microaggressions, there are short-term impacts, but also long-term impacts both to our health, physical, and mental, and emotional health, as well as the long-term effects on collective stress, collective discrimination, and collective injustice. Microaggressions can lead to a whole host of issues related to health as well. So, it’s super important to address them. 


In my book, How To Be An Ally, I dedicate a whole chapter to how to interrupt them because it’s so important. I share a process for interrupting them, including some scripts you can use. And I discussed ways to treat the impact of microaggressions as well. I’ll just share a couple of things here because I do think it’s really important to go through that whole chapter and really look in detail. 


A few thoughts. If you see something, do something. You can interrupt interruptions. Interruptions are a big microaggression that constantly happens in the workplace, especially to people with underrepresented identities. So, if somebody is interrupted, just say, “Sarah has been trying to get a word on for a long time. I really like to hear what she has to say.” Or, “I realized that Brian hasn’t had a chance to get a word at all. I will love to hear his thoughts if he has them.” Anything to really open the space and let somebody step in to share their ideas. 


You can also echo and attribute people’s ideas. Often people with underrepresented identities will have an idea, they’ll share it, and it’ll be dismissed. It’ll be talked over. People won’t pay attention. And then maybe an hour later, or maybe a day later, maybe a week later, somebody else brings up the same idea, and it is champion at that point. That person is champion at that point. So, that can make a big difference in somebody’s career ultimately, somebody’s impact and respect on the team even. And so, what you want to do is echo and attribute that idea back to that original person. “Hey, I remember when Kanesha said that a week ago, I believe. Kanesha, I would love to hear more of your thoughts about that.” Or, “Do you want to share more of your thoughts about that?” Or, “If you have a moment, it might be great to present more of your thoughts in the future.” Something along those lines to really attribute that idea back to that original person. It can make a big difference in their career. 


If somebody is being passed up for promotion, advocate for them, advocate for their promotion. So now, if there’s a microaggression happening and you want to intervene at the moment, a bigger microaggression or not a bigger microaggression. That’s not the way to say it. It’s a different microaggression. Do check out my book because there’s a framework there. I use the framework from Derald Wing Sue, who has done a number of research projects and written a couple of books now on microaggressions to pause, disarm and educate. 


I also add treating the impact because that is so important. The impact of microaggressions can be severe, as we know. It can affect short and long-term health, right. And then the other thing I have also added in there is if somebody is intentionally harming people, then you might want to skip some of this and report them. You still want to treat the impact. You still want to disarm that at the moment, but education might not have such an impact that you want it to. It might actually put you in harm’s way. Pause, disarm, and report them, and then treat the impact. 


All right. So, the other thing I would say here is to call people in versus canceling or shaming them. Really important to call people in when they have Pretty good intent. We don’t want to punish or shame anyone because shame is not a good motivator for change. It’s one of the worst motivators for change, actually. It can often backfire. It can turn people away from change. So, do show empathy at that moment, assume good intent, unless you know otherwise. And then, give the micro aggressor a safe space to take in that information without being judged or criticized. Okay? 


So, yes, you’re calling people in. And that might look like an aside. It might look like taking somebody aside after the fact and talking with them, or it might be in the room. It kind of depends on your culture. It depends on your feelings of safety. It depends on a lot of things. So, it depends on whether or not you catch it in the moment. Sometimes we can kind of get stuck in our own amygdala hijack can kick in where we just are so in shock that somebody said that, that we don’t have that response right away. And that’s okay. You can bring it up later in the meeting, or you can bring it up one on one afterward. 


I would recommend that you create a safe space on your team for people to call each other in because, again, we’re all learning. And what that might look like is you might start with, “Hey, can I give you some feedback?” This is with a one on one. You might say, “Hey, can I give you some feedback?” And then once they say yes, hopefully, if they say no, you might not do that, right? If they say yes, you might share your own journey or experience. Like, “You said so and so. You said this, and I used to say that too. But then I learned that it can be harmful because of this.” And so, really share that, share your own learning journey because that shows your own kind of vulnerability and ability to transform, and also share what you learned as to why it can cause harm, and also, what the alternative is, right? 


Know that it’s a process. Behavior change can take time. And so, don’t expect somebody to change immediately. They might not change at that moment, but you can start the process. You can see the change, right? And you can continue to support their growth and their learning. The other thing is, you can put some processes in place to reduce the possibility of microaggressions happening. 


And then, of course, treat the impact. We don’t talk enough about this final step. Training the impact of a microaggression is crucial because, as we know, microaggressions can have a significant impact on somebody’s health, their work, and also their career ultimately. We’ve talked a bit about micro affirmations in the past. I talked about that in my book as well. There’s a lot of ways that you can mitigate the harmful effects of microaggressions through micro affirmations, also through advocating for people and really helping them grow in their careers. 


So, what if I make a mistake, right? That’s a big one. We all mess up. Nobody’s the perfect ally. We learn. We unlearn. We relearn. We take action. We also make mistakes, and we apologize. We learn from those mistakes, and then we keep taking action. So, when you are thinking about an apology, it should include recognizing that you did something wrong and harmful and how you will correct yourself moving forward. What will you do to take action so that it doesn’t happen again and potentially also correct the harm? 


Do not expect that someone will say anything to you in return. They shouldn’t have to. Those of you who are experiencing this apology from the other end, people with a systemically marginalized identity, who are now receiving these apologies, I would encourage you to not say it’s okay when somebody apologizes to you because really, it’s not, right. I usually say, “I appreciate you sharing that with me. And I’m glad you’re working on improving.” Or you can simply say thank you and move on. An apology is worth nothing if you can’t share and show how you’ve understood your mistake and you’re making corrections because that is the most important part. How are you taking action to correct this?


If you’re a leader or a manager and you made a mistake publicly, first apologize to that person privately, right? And then I would encourage you if you did the act publicly, then you apologize publicly as well. Share that you made a mistake publicly, what that mistake was, and how you’re taking corrective action and really focus on your mistake and corrective action. In this way, you’re acknowledging the harm, making it clear that it was not okay. And you’re being a model for your team to learn to correct themselves, right. Because again, we make mistakes from time to time, and it is what we do about them that makes the most difference. I will say I spoke about making mistakes with Manisha Amin in Episode #39. So, take a look at that. We talked about that quite a bit. 


What is performative allyship? Performative allyship is calling yourself an ally professing that you believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion and that you believe that they’re important, but not taking action, real action. So, that’s not a black square on your Instagram account that’s doing your own internal work to learn and show you’re doing no harm. And also advocating, standing up for what’s right, leading the change. And I will see that you’re either an ally or you’re contributing to the problem. You’re either an ally, or you’re contributing to the problem. That might be difficult for some of us to hear or to see, but when you stand by without standing up, you’re complicit with what it is. And as we know, it’s unjust, and it’s exclusionary. So, you’re either an ally, or you’re contributing to the problem. You’re either moving toward a solution, or you’re allowing what is to be. Allies take steps to improve the world and our workplaces so that everyone can thrive. 


Okay. Moving to what’s the business case for allyship. We have a whole research piece dedicated to this. So, I want to say, go to ally.cc/report, and download our State of Allyship Report, the key to workplace inclusion. So, just a couple of things here, but you should really go download the report. 


People with at least one ally in their workplace are nearly twice as likely to feel like they belong. They’re satisfied with their job, and they are satisfied with their workplace culture. Additionally, people report that allies significantly increased engagement and feelings of overall happiness, improved productivity, increased psychological safety, reduced turnover, and stress. And, of course, allyship creates greater opportunities for our career advancement as well. 


The last thing here is often we are afraid to do more work internally around allyship, more training, more taking time out of our day to do this work. Our research shows that most people want their companies to do more to encourage allyship. That number is highest for managers. So, go download the reports. There’s a lot more there. 


Another one we often get, especially now because we are redefining work, is can I be an ally in the remote workplace? And 1,000%, of course, you can. And most allyship is pretty similar. There are just a few distinctions. I actually give a workshop on this subject. If you have a team where you’re looking to grow your allyship together remotely, check us out. Contact us at contact@ChangeCatalyst.co, and we can talk more about that. I also share a few thoughts about this in Episode #48. So, I’m going to go ahead and send you there because there’s a whole episode focused on being an ally in the remote workplace. Yeah, go check that out. 


Okay. So, how do I convince people to be allies? Or how do I build more allies? This is the topic I love because it’s a big portion of the work I do. I help organizations to build allies. I’ve been working on behavior change and organizational change for decades, which is why I’ll be discussing this in season six in one full dedicated episode. So again, behavior change is one of my passions, so I’ll be talking about the different stages of allyship and how you can meet people where they are and help bring people through those stages one step at a time. I’ll leave that for our future episodes, so check it out. It should be in one or two episodes from now. 


And then lastly, if you have a question that I didn’t answer, if you have a question about allyship, find us on social media and ask us. You can also contact us at contact@ChangeCatalyst.co. We’ll answer your question. We might answer it on social media. We might even answer it on the air here too. So, please do ask us questions. I’d love to know what people are thinking about. 


And finally, I have a request. As we go into the break here, please, please, please take a moment to leave us five stars and a review on Apple podcasts, a Like and Subscribe on YouTube, or a review on whatever platform you’re listening to. This helps so much with bringing more listeners to the show. More listeners mean more allies. So, please help us build more allies by bringing more listeners to the show. And thank you. Thank you. 


Okay, everyone. Stay safe. Be well. Thank you for listening. I hope you find joy and rejuvenation over the next few weeks. If you are missing us, go back and listen to some of the episodes you didn’t get a chance to listen to. We have about 70 episodes or something right now. Sixty-six, I think. Sixty-six, 67, something like that. So, lots of episodes to go back and peruse and listen to or watch. We will see you in the New Year. All right, bye. 


MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc. 


Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? 


Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you. And thank you for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and the YouTube channel and share this. Let’s keep building allies around the world. 


Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. We appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

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Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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If you’re looking for a way for remote teams to continue their learning and professional development, we’re now offering virtual allyship, inclusion and leadership trainings. We’ve also continued our consulting practice virtually. AND we now offer hourly coaching. Let us know if you’re interested in learning more!
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