From the civil rights movement to the Women’s March, many of the most impactful social and political movements emerge from historically oppressed communities organizing themselves to combat systemic injustices. If showing up for a community that is not your own intimidates you, know that you are not alone and that you can make a difference if you know how to engage.
If the goal is to commit yourself to justice, open yourself up to learning and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The result will be uniting with others by being your best self—even if it’s a work in progress.
Here is a checklist of the seven habits of highly effective allies.
1. Own Your Privilege
Recognize your rewards. People are often given unearned advantages or benefits because of identities that are imbued with a higher value by society or normalized in the dominant culture. In the United States, such privilege is most often associated with whiteness, cisgender maleness, heterosexuality, physical and mental ability, documented citizenship, and material wealth.
Study systems of power and how you fit into them. There are long histories of homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism, sizeism, sexism, ageism, ableism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, economic injustice, and other injustices in our society. If you do not belong to one of these frequently targeted groups, you have the privilege of not experiencing such covert and overt aggressions.
Resist defensiveness and embrace compassion. Acknowledge that being born with privilege may have sheltered you from certain realities about discrimination and suffering. Transform your feelings of guilt into hard work to counter those injustices.
2. Be Vulnerable, Appropriately
Expect to be uncomfortable. Be willing to learn, even if it means that you could be called out for not knowing something. If your words or actions are challenged, and it makes you feel embarrassed or humiliated, consider it education or a rite of passage.
Humans make mistakes. Don’t let a misstep keep you from supporting causes you care about. After such an experience, journal about what you have learned and seek to do differently, and make a pledge to be a better listener and more thoughtful communicator.
Take responsibility. Prepare to apologize as necessary, and when you do, be sincere and don’t make it about you; don’t be defensive, and never work from the dreaded “I’m sorry you felt that way” nonapology playbook.
Get support and seek connection. If you have feelings of helplessness, confusion, or shame and reactions like outrage, fear, or sadness, ask for support from a therapist or other allies. Working out (or on) your guilt or anger with people who are dealing with oppression can hurt more than it helps.
3. Listen More Than You Talk
Listen and learn. When a person expresses frustration about oppression that you haven’t personally experienced, it’s a good time to listen. Even if your intentions are good, diminishing people’s stories does more to advance oppression than dismantle it.
Show up, don’t show off. When publicly supporting a movement, spend time sharing the voices of that movement and the communities it supports. For example, you can find, follow, and regularly retweet the Twitter feeds of activists leading the work on the ground. Highlight their work and insights more than promoting your own.
4. Face Your Fears
Shake hands with your fear. If you believe in something but are reluctant to speak out about it, ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Investigate your concerns. Are you afraid of hostility from family members and friends with different beliefs? Are you worried that you’re not well enough informed to take a firm stand? What are the concrete consequences if those fears come true?
Consider the cost of your silence. Are these potential consequences you’re imagining more important than being true to your values? Weigh the consequences of staying silent, then think about what steps you can take to feel supported by like-minded people if you speak out and do face backlash.
5. Don't Try to "Save" Anyone
Save yourself. There is a quote by Australian Indigenous activist Lilla Watson that has been used as a human rights motto around the world: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” In other words, being an ally is not about being a savior—it’s about understanding that your own freedom is inextricable from the freedom of oppressed communities.
6. Show Up
Be present and be active. This is an essential part of being a true ally. It means different things, depending on the cause, but if you’re offering support in a way that is meaningful and sensitive to the needs of the people directly affected, you’re showing up. Sometimes this involves volunteering, marching, signing petitions, sending supplies, documenting actions, offering rides, sending texts or making phone calls, or making donations.
Work with your gifts. If you’re a designer, design. If you’re a writer, write. There are many ways to show up and be an ally. The key is to do it when, where, and how you’re really needed and most potent—not just when it’s convenient.
How You Share on Social Media Matters. You’ve found some fantastic resources from within movements, and you want to amplify their voices. Be mindful that how you share their voices online matters. It is preferable to retweet an original source tweet rather than sharing someone’s share of a share of a share or taking someone’s wise words and tweeting them yourself (even if you give the original poster credit in your tweet). This kind of direct amplifying of activist voices allows more people to discover your sources for themselves, instead of placing you as the gatekeeper between those sources and your followers.
7. Respect Movement Builders
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t assume you know best, or are the first to think of a solution. Research tactics already in use and ask questions about the most helpful ways to support.
Do your homework. The more informed you are about a movement’s history, the more effective you’ll be as an ally. Educate yourself with the movement’s key articles, books, speeches, and films.
Seek out diverse and inclusive media sources to get up to date on current perspectives. Find and follow thought leaders on social media platforms.
Give credit where it’s due. Cite sources and note their contributions to the movement. Avoid cultural appropriation or Columbusing anyone’s work—or a movement itself.
Pass the mic. If you’re asked to speak on behalf of a movement, pass the mic to people who are directly affected. You will help their voices be heard. It’s a form of erasure to cut out the originators of ideas, and it’s especially harmful when it happens to people from already marginalized communities. The moral of the story: Always attribute words or ideas to the person or movement who created them (and if it’s online, link to or tag them).
Bonus: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Vote with your wallet. Gloria Steinem says, “We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs.” If you can financially contribute to support movements outside of your own identity group or community, then do so. If you don’t have access to cash, contribute transportation, online support, skills, translation expertise, access to other potential donors in your network, or other resources. Most organizations will happily tell you what they need.
Excerpt from Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All by Elisa Camahort Page, Carolyn Gerin, and Jamia Wilson, published by Ten Speed Press. This excerpt is adapted from the previously published “Allied Force: A guide to showing up without getting in the way” by Jamia Wilson, Rookie, 01/14/15. © Road Map for Revolutionaries, 2018.