From Unaware To Accomplice: The Ally Continuum

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer shares the 4 steps of the ally continuum, and what it takes to move from one step to the next. Discover how to best use your voice to support others and how to overcome the pushback that can sometimes happen when exhibiting ally behaviors. Jennifer also shares a possible 5th step in the ally continuum.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why Jennifer developed the ally continuum (3:00)
  • False assumptions that keep people from being allies (5:30)
  • The importance of awareness (8:00)
  • The danger of calling yourself an ally  (11:30)
  • How to be more persuasive (16:30)
  • When bias training can do more harm than good (17:30)
  • The pushback that can happen when exhibiting ally behavior (20:00)
  • Why allyship needs to be earned (22:00)
  • The next step in allyship (25:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta, and of course I am joining Jennifer Brown on The Will to Change. Jennifer, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hey, thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Today, our topic is the continuum—the ally continuum. My first question for you, first of all, I didn’t know that there was a continuum of being an ally. Can you say a little bit about that?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. When you’re a consultant, everything looks like a continuum.

DOUG FORESTA: There you go.

JENNIFER BROWN: A better way to describe it, maybe an easier way to describe it or understand is that it’s an evolution. It’s not a destination, but rather, a journey.

I think this is important. A lot of us are well-meaning, well-intended people. I think that, generally, we are on board with the idea of inclusion and valuing diversity—or we’re trying, some of us, anyway. I don’t know if it’s a lot of us, but everyone that’s listening to this probably is.

I needed a way to speak to where everyone is from being completely unaware that there’s a problem or unable to articulate what the problem might be in terms of diversity and inclusiveness challenges that are faced by most, if not all, employers, in my experience. And knowing that there is a journey ahead of you and where you are vis a vis your colleagues, and what does success look like? We’re a culture that’s obsessed with arriving at a successful outcome and being “done” with the work. That’s one of the lovely challenges of D&I work. We haven’t ever really arrived.

Some would say we might have arrived by the time we achieve parity of representation, say, of women and diverse talent or underrepresented talent. I have to say, it’s going to be a long time coming for most companies that I know and most industries I know.

Goals are good, but it’s working your plan and having a plan and acknowledging where you are and taking incremental step to better yourself, your skill set, your attitude towards that work, and developing a muscle which gets stronger over time.

That’s why I wanted to develop a continuum. For those of you who have seen some of my talks online, in particular, I can direct you to a talk I gave at Inbound in Boston. If you look my name up with “Inbound” in YouTube, you can see a talk where I get to a slide about this continuum, and you can actually see it in action in that talk. I just want to point people to where they can see me talk about this live, Doug, to give this some more context.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s awesome. Thank you so much. Yes, let’s start with that first step in the continuum. Can you tell us what that is?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. On the left side is “unaware.” This is step one. It’s not really a step, it is more of a current state, I guess you could call it, and it’s where a lot of people are, frankly. If you stopped an average person on the street and you said, “Tell me about your workforce, tell me about the place you work.” Many people, being well intended or believing that somehow equality is something our society has—these days, I would never say a lot of us believe we’ve achieved it. A couple of years ago, people would say, “Oh, we have a black president, we don’t have any more race issues in our country.”

DOUG FORESTA: Right, exactly. Problem solved, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Little quips like that. I never believed that that was true at the time, but I think now we’ve been shown that unless you’re living under a rock, you should know that we’ve got some issues. I like to put it on the continuum because it acknowledges where people are. There are a lot of well-intended people in “unaware,” within that first stage. Meaning that everybody has equal opportunity, my company values women just as much as it values men and the success of women. I think there are some false assumptions about reality. It’s not badly intended, like I keep saying, it is an assumption that we all want to look at ourselves as well-meaning people.

We all want to be able to say, “Oh, I have daughters. My wife is a professional woman, I understand what she goes through.” But that’s not the same as being an ally. Honestly, to me, those are baby steps. When you can start to talk about these things, it doesn’t really count too much.

When I teach, I want to give people a starting place. When I say “unaware,” I say, “You don’t know what the problem is, you don’t know there is a problem, or you might characterize us as being more successful than we really are.”

And then you have an opportunity to move them to level two, which is awareness. This is the moment I think when we see companies rolling out massive amounts of unconscious bias training, for example. They are trying to build awareness. They’re trying to create an “ah-hah” moment for people who are unaware that we have an issue that is leading to inequity in our workplaces, and has, historically, led to workplaces being built that are unequal—fundamentally and institutionally, and which perpetuate inequality. Again, without being done maliciously by individuals, but that it is baked into how we walk around the world, and a certain blindness to the fact that the workplace was built for some of us and not for others, for example.

Unconscious bias training or inclusion training, like that which my team delivers, is meant to wake you up. Whether we take the scientific approach to say, “We’re all biased as humans, we walk around this world and we shortcut a massive amount of data that we’re thinking in so that we can make quick decisions and judgments, probably using our lizard brain to make sure that we’re safe, to make sure that we can decide if somebody is a threat or the situation is safe or not.”

So these things served us and were important to us in our survival on a primitive level. But now, we know better, right? So those classes are about, you’re biased, we’re all biased, this is the way we were raised as well. It depends where you grew up, but most of us inherited the biases of our communities, our parents, and our family units.

DOUG FORESTA: Sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Even if we like to think we’ve evolved past them, it’s quite startling to be noticed, to develop that muscle of awareness that you may be choosing something that is more comfortable for you because it’s with someone who looks like you or that you may be recommending somebody for something that has the same educational background as you. Or perhaps you’re having biased thoughts that a leader or a colleague who looks a certain way is capable of the task or not.

You may find yourself thinking these things, and you might wonder, “Where did this come from, because I’m a well-meaning person? I should know better.”

But these narratives and these scripts are very deeply embedded, and we’ve been surrounded by them in a white-male-dominant—I wouldn’t say world, perhaps I would say U.S. and I would even say the business world in the U.S., since that’s my focus.

It’s in us. The goal is to generate awareness, but not to remove bias—that is the goal, but it’s impossible, right? It’s in us, whether we like it or not. It served a purpose, and I think it probably still serves a purpose. If I’m a woman walking down the street, I’m going to be looking over my shoulder. And if there’s a large human that’s bearing down on me behind me and I hear footsteps—

DOUG FORESTA: You’re going to pay attention to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m going to probably pay attention, yes. Some of these things are important, but we have to recognize when they’re not serving us, and especially when they’re not serving others or propagating a biased workplace that shuts so many people out. That’s when it really becomes a problem, particularly seen through the leadership lens.

Doug, that is level two.

DOUG FORESTA: Level two, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m awake, I’m aware, I was taught that there is science behind this. I have realized that if I’m not proactive against this, that it will continue to rule my actions and my decisions. That’s the other really interesting thing—this is a new muscle for a lot of us. It’s something you have to overtly practice, and you need to make it a priority because, for most of us, it’s very easy to slide into “othering” people who are not familiar to us, avoiding situations that are uncomfortable, like seeking like—these are all very human behaviors.

Literally, when you become aware, the measure of a person is, “What do you then choose to do?” This is a choice point, level two.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. Before we go into level three, I want to say that one of the things I’ve learned from you is that you don’t get to put a badge on that says, “ally,” right? I want to step back a second to say that an ally is something that you have to be called, right? You have to wait for someone.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, totally. Some of my most-admired practitioner friends say, “I’m only an ally if you tell me I’m an ally.”

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Because I’m going to be over here doing my work. Whatever you call me or you don’t, I have innately committed to this internally, regardless of how it’s showing up or whether I get rewarded for it. This comes up, honestly, in a lot of our corporate clients because they want to launch ally initiatives, for example. This is the thing, companies are really starting to do this—not just allies for LGBT people, but all allies for all of us. We all have a level of privilege that we can use for others—all of us. There is always something you can do—a room that you can get into or access that you have that somebody else doesn’t, because someone is comfortable with you. Whether it’s how you look or where you were educated or that you like a certain sport. It can be many things way beyond race and gender that give you privilege. To me, privilege can be just defined as the ability to access somebody or something that another person cannot.

At level two, you have awareness. And with that awareness, then you can commit to say, “Someday, I want to be considered an ally by communities that are marginalized.” It’s funny because I’m in some of those marginalized communities.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m a woman in business, I’m an LGBTQ person. I’m somewhat familiar with what that feels like, but even those experiences and identities, I have not experienced those in a terribly harsh way because of my other privilege that has shielded me from the experience.

When you look at the LGBTQ community, it’s not a monolith. There is privilege within our community that is broad, really broad. Everything from being a white, cis man who happens to be gay, but has all the other levels of privilege, all the way to people of color in the LGBTQ community, we have queer people, we have gender nonconforming or fluid members of the LGBTQ community. Being a gay woman versus a gay man has a privilege differently I think because of the gender issue. This is classic intersectionality. When people hear that word, it’s a mouthful, but intersectionality is the way that multiple identities intersect and impact each other, and in some cases, compound.

And this is a nuanced point and a little sophisticated to understand, but once you start to think about it, it’s all you can think about. Right?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s this level of understanding of the fact that some folks are managing the intersection of multiple stigmatized identities. It’s not as easy as saying, “I’m a woman and I’m a feminist.” Well, are you a woman of color? Do you identify primarily as a person of color? That’s the source of the most meaningful experiences, and perhaps the biggest challenges.

So you’ll see people align themselves with one aspect of their identity because that might be the one that looms the largest for them and has the most impact on them, both positive and challenging. It’s a really interesting dynamic. But back to level two—

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. Go ahead.

JENNIFER BROWN: This is the stuff we uncover with the awareness. And then what happens next is so important. You’ve been through your unconscious bias training, you know enough to be dangerous about diversity and inclusion, you know the basic definitions, perhaps. You can maybe understand intersectionality and different communities and why we’re still dealing with such representation challenges when it comes to certain people in the workplace and who’s getting promoted and who we see in leadership and all those things.

Then, the next step, level three is “activate.” What good is knowledge if you don’t activate around it? Activation can be private, it can be public, it can be one to one, it can be one to none, it can be personal work that you’re activating around, and it can be one to many. You can a very visible leader and you can begin to use your platform differently. You can start to speak about your awareness. You can speak about the new knowledge that you have. You can start to elaborate on your own intersectionality. You can make sure that you’re armed with statistics about inequitable practices and realities in organizations of all kinds.

I would recommend, when you activate, that you need to remember people are persuaded for a lot of different reasons around diversity and inclusion. I always think of myself as having a quiver with a lot of arrows in it. I need a lot of tools because different things are going to resonate with different people. Statistics, numbers, and data may really win somebody over that I need to win over, others are moved by a personal story. You need to have a broad array of ways to use your knowledge to persuade and shine a light. That enables you to activate around your knowledge to be most persuasive.

There is a commitment to activating. Some might argue, “Why do people need a checklist? Shouldn’t they just know what to do?” I have found that most people don’t know what to do, and they don’t know how to activate around the knowledge.

The challenge with unconscious bias training is—and Harvard Business Review and others have researched this—diversity training can actually create, sometimes, more harm than good. Doug, I know we’ve talked about that.

DOUG FORESTA: We have talked about that, yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Raising awareness without a plan for how you can activate around that knowledge can leave you feeling really frustrated, but it also can make you feel hopeless around your own bias, which is one feeling people have. Another feeling they have is defensiveness. They feel, “Well, I’m not that way. I resent being told that I don’t create equal opportunity around me. I do prioritize this.” It can create some defensiveness, anger, a little bit of avoidance or it motivates you. I hope we can take that energy of anger or righteous indignation or wanting to prove people wrong—whatever it is, I don’t care. I just want to see people activated.

I want to say that sometimes the biggest resisters to this process and this journey become the biggest champions. Like anything in life, people can really change.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: The continuum also invites you along the journey with no judgments. I try to speak about it without judgment. That would go a long way. I think a lot of people feel really judged and really confused about, “What am I expected to do now that I’ve been, quote/unquote, trained? What’s next?”

Activation, level three, private or public, one on one, one to many. You’re going to make mistakes in activation, you’re going to use knowledge in the wrong way probably. You’re going to stumble and you’re going to need to ask for forgiveness, and there’s a real art to sticking with it.

We talked to Seth, the football player, on our podcast, right, Doug?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: He’s the only straight player on a gay football league. I remember his beautiful story of saying, “I want to be on this league, I want to play with these guys. They’re good, and I want to play.” And he put himself in their midst and started playing with them. He remembers, clearly, being challenged by the gay men on the team who said, “Why are you here? What are you trying to prove? Who are you? What is your intention?” He had to earn trust by coming day in and day out and putting himself there, being patient, and knowing that he was entering a space where, perhaps, he wasn’t expected. I wouldn’t say he wasn’t welcome, because I’m sure he was welcome to be there, but when you are trying to exhibit ally behaviors, you’re going to find some pushback. Perhaps not because of what you are doing personally, but what you remind people of or what you trigger in them based on having felt like people who look like you typically don’t understand people that look like me, right?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: There is that dynamic going on. I loved it. He said, “Regardless of what anybody said to me, my biggest gift that I could give was withstanding that, staying there, and saying ‘I’m here, and I’m’ not going away.'” I really liked that. I’d like to see more of that in the corporate space, “I’m here, I’m not going away, I’m going to be here. You can call on me anytime, I’m going to show up for you. We may have hard conversations, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good conversations, and I’m not going to get scared away. I’m here, and I’m committed.”

I think that’s huge. There’s some messy stuff we’ve all got to get through together. Patience is needed.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. We’ve talked a little bit about this in previous episodes, but you can’t just expect that people are going to jump up and down because you decided to be an ally.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true. There are no cookies, right? You don’t get a little reward. There is a little bit of that, and do you know why? It comes from a little bit of a good place, maybe a lazy place, but the good place it comes from is our want to achieve. It’s our type-A personality, many of us relate to that. It’s our people pleasing, it’s wanting to be viewed as an inclusive leader. You’ve got to earn that over time through repeated actions and consistent showing up and building of trust. Going back to the awareness in level two, making sure your knowledge is constantly refreshed. I teach myself about other communities by consuming media from those other communities, making sure that I’m a guest listener to podcasts and TV shows. I’m a bystander. Whatever I’m privy to, I’m listening to, I’m thinking mental notes and trying to acquaint myself to issues that others are facing and experiencing that I’m not.

Not that I can steal those and go shout it from the rooftops, but I’m taking it I’m. I’m thinking, “Okay, if this is true for this community that I’m not a part of, that I’m trying to be an ally to, how can I represent this so that I can bring that with me into the rooms that I can get into because of who I am?”

It feels to me very much like I’m being trusted with the inside experience of certain people. What do I do with what I know now? And if it just sits in me and I don’t use it to change hearts and minds, I’m not really activating enough.

Doug, just to take it to level four, it’s what we call “advocate.” One distinction, of many, is that you don’t wait to be asked. Some of us who are really good allies who try to practice this, we’re still waiting to be asked. We’re still waiting to be approached for help or assistance or backup. We might be waiting to be directly invited to go to an event, for example. There is merit in that, because you do need to be respectful in terms of not pushing your way in, but at the same time, if you are on a team of men or a senior C-suite meeting where there are no women in the room, are you bringing up issues around gender? It must be habitual for you to notice who’s not in the room and to point that out to your colleagues who look like you.

That’s an advanced application of this. Nobody’s asking you to do that, but you are proactively and publicly becoming much more of a public leader around this conversation, you start the conversation, you initiate it, and you’re taking ownership and responsibility for bringing voices into that room or experiences into rooms that you’re in and you’re not responding to somebody’s request for assistance. It’s subtle, but it’s a really big shift in our mindset.

Just to tack on yet another—

DOUG FORESTA: Yes, you said a possible fifth, right? A fifth?

JENNIFER BROWN: We’re still building out the model. I’m calling it “accomplice work.” Some people have maybe heard about this in our other podcasts, but to me, accomplices are tackling the institutionalized, systemic, or structural challenges that need to be tackled in order to level that playing field.

That work can be privately done. If you’re a CEO or someone who says, “I can’t live with the pay gap at this company. I now know that it exists, we need to fix it, and we need to fix it right away. I’m going to start by writing check and grossing-up everybody’s pay to get us all on the same page, and then I’m going to tackle the systemic issues for why it happened in the first place.”

That’s accomplice work. That person can be working at that level, but also be an ally for certain individuals behind the scenes. It’s the individual intervention, and then it’s the systems intervention.

I’m exploring what “accomplice” means. By all means, if anybody is listening to this and you want to tweet examples of this to me, I’d love to hear how you differentiate these words. It’s powerful because we need to be tackling the systems that create the inequality and inequity in the first place. There are only some of us who can do that. It takes power and it takes somebody who holds the levers of that power to suggest and drive through change to the system. That’s a whole different level of sophistication. You have to have true access to shift some of those things and to make those changes stick.

I’d love to hear from our audience how you all look at these words and whether they resonate with you, and maybe some examples of all of these stages so that we can populate our thought leadership with more and more examples.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, Jennifer, thank you so much. This has been a really great episode. Very powerful in terms of how to think about this without judgment, but also the fact that it’s a continuum implies that we can change and we can move along that continuum.

Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing. Thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.