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What it means to be an ally

For years I thought of myself as an ally, a good ally. Someone who went to bat for the little guy. It’s just that a little while ago, when I started to curate and create my leadership program curriculum, I realized I didn’t actually know what it meant to be a true ally. It is so much more than I originally thought.

To be an ally, you need to know what the other person really needs, because the act or work you are doing may in fact be causing more harm than good.

Really?! How could my help be hurting anyone? It’s help after all.

I want to share a story about an innocent act that was not so helpful. Did it cause harm? I can’t tell you that, since I never asked anyone about what I was doing.

Pronouns are being used more frequently now, and for some the intent is to help normalize the confusion that might exist for those who identify as transgendered. I personally started using them several years ago, and one of my students told me it was really great, and that I made them feel more comfortable sharing their own pronouns. I didn’t ask anyone, I just did it.

I identify as a female, as I was assigned at birth. So I added (she/her) to my name and my emails.

About a year ago, I saw another person use (she/they) next to their name, and I asked why - they told me that it helped normalize the they/them pronoun that many struggle with (especially in terms of grammar). ‘“It’s plural - how can an individual be a they?”

They can - see what I did there?

The problem came when I chose to also take on those pronouns - she/they. I do not identify as gender neutral, but I thought I was normalizing the they pronoun, like the other person I met. I didn’t, however, ask anyone who identified as gender neutral if I was being an ally or not.

It wasn’t until I asked someone that I found out that this choice of mine (the privilege of choice also now not escaping me) could potentially cause confusion - especially since I do NOT identify as gender neutral. I thought it was helpful, but it wasn't. I, again, don’t know if it was causing harm, but it definitely caused confusion.

My lesson serves to remind me, and maybe you, that our acts are not in isolation, they have effects, even when the act is done with positive intentions.

In the future, I need to remember to ask what is really needed, and the only person who can answer is the person I want to be an ally for. Even if the answer is “nothing” - you can do nothing to be my ally, because if I truly want to be an ally I need to remember it’s not about me.

I am excited to share the activity and ally continuum I created with you! Click here if you would like to investigate this more!

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