Beyond Allyship


Over the past months, the concept of “allyship” has risen to the forefront of (some/not enough) of our public discourse. How can people in systematically advantaged positions provide meaningful support to systematically oppressed populations?

The current conversation around “allyship” importantly centers on systemic racism. As I consider my own participation in that system – and the deep intersection of that system with the climate crisis – I’ve also reflected on what meaningful support looks like in other instances where certain voices are elevated above others and where certain people have power at the expense of others. 

In 2018, young climate activists took the world by storm. As they did so, many adults working on climate change lined up to offer praise for their efforts, myself included. But praise is different from meaningful support. What might it look like to really support young climate activists?

Youth and power in climate decisions

Young voices are systematically marginalized and excluded, particularly in the places and spaces where the very decisions are made that determine the parameters of those young people’s future. This is true when it comes to climate change and it is true when it comes to pretty much every other significant aspect of the world and human society: education, health, finances, social policy and more. 

At the same time, adults continuously look to younger generations for hope. “Young people will save the world,” is a constant refrain. While I also find tremendous hope in the insight and action of young generations, I worry that it is a short step from “Young people will save the world,” to “Older people need to get out of the way – there is nothing we can do.”

Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature perfectly captured my unease in a recent interview with Krista Tippett. He said:

I’ve heard people say, we got to get out the way. Here’s the thing. I think that they don’t want us out the way. Despite what you may hear, it’s not that they want us out the way, I think what they want for us to do is to listen to them, because what I’ve learned over the years is that when we talk about entitlement, what we do is, we say that young people are so entitled, yet I don’t know a group of people more entitled than adults and older people. We really believe that we deserve their respect, simply because we have years on them, and the truth is that respect must be earned. And I think what they’re saying is, please, make a seat for me at the table. You can’t talk about my life and not include me. You have to make a seat for me at the table.

What does it mean to make a seat at the table and to truly and deeply listen to young people? And is it enough to make a seat, if the seat is merely symbolic, a gesture – performative rather than substantive? Or, as Tippett frames the issue in the same interview, what does it mean to “accompany” young people in the work of changing the world?

Motivational check-in

First, it is essential that we check our motivation for supporting the work of young people as changemakers. I have witnessed time and again adults getting very excited when young people express interest in the same issues that they, themselves, are interested in. This is natural – we gravitate towards like-minded people and it is exciting to think that young generations are aware of similar issues that we have been working on for years. These connections provide a sense that a torch will be carried forward, even if we do not fully accomplish our goals before we die. 

And yet, if we are going to truly “accompany” these young people in their work, the nature of our motivation is essential. If we seek to amplify young voices to push our own agenda, are we still going to offer support when the details of their vision or their path of action differs from our own? 

Young people don’t want our support as long as we agree with them. They want our unconditional support, our desire to seek out their opinions and ideas and truly consider what they have to say both because it is the right thing to do and because we believe those opinions and ideas are of deep, important value, even if they differ from our own. 

What if we began with the recognition that young people experience and see the world in a way we cannot, and that their worldview and the ideas and creativity that come with it are wise and valuable and should be heard? And let’s come back to that recognition again and again, especially when the going gets challenging and we find ourselves pushed beyond what is comfortable and familiar. 

Beyond allyship – getting closer

Second, we must engage in the work of pushing beyond allyship to a closer, fuller relationship. 

Allyship can be a powerful invitation to move in closer and provide meaningful support. But it can also be used – as a concept – to maintain distance, whether intentionally or not. When allyship becomes a conceptual line between me and you, it is problematic. While it is important to never assume understanding of another’s experience, it is equally essential to press close and learn. Without this learning, true support is not possible. 

In her recent book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Jacqueline Novogratz beautifully explores the importance of opening up to and learning about the experience of those we wish to support. She writes of what she calls “moral imagination”: 

Moral imagination starts with empathy, but it does not content itself simply to feel another’s pain. Empathy without action risks reinforcing the status quo. Rather, moral imagination is muscular, built from the bottom up and grounded through immersion in the lives of others. It involves connecting on a human level, analysing the systemic issues at play, and only then envisioning how to go beyond applying a Band-Aid to making a long-term difference. 

Allyship without this type of moral imagination risks existing at the surface only – surface-level relationships and surface-level impact. We know we are moving beyond a “safely” distanced allyship when we feel ourselves – our understanding, our emotions, our ideas and possibly (hopefully) even our priorities – changing due to the relationship with another. Because change can be uncomfortable, moving beyond allyship is often uncomfortable. And yet, it is an essential process to building true support. 

How often do older generations take the time to really get to know young changemakers, even if they are actively attempting to support the work of those individuals? So often, this intergenerational relationship is instead defined by assumptions buoyed by a comfortable distance. How might we build a closer relationship, through immersing ourselves in each other’s lives? We cannot step back into high school, nor would it be appropriate to do so, but we can ensure we are showing up more fully, asking questions, opening our minds, learning more about each others experiences (ideally beyond the issue we are working to address) and more about the source of each others ideas and hopes.

Listening

This type of meaningful relationship can only occur when we practice active, deep listening. 

Consider this: before we present or speak to a group, we often spend a significant amount of time preparing what we are going to say. On the flip side of the equation, however, studies on listening show that less than 5% of those surveyed have ever focused on developing their listening skills. 

The thought of preparing to listen might seem strange. We often don’t think of listening as something that requires specific skill. And yet, with the central role listening plays in learning and building meaningful connection, we might want to think again. 

To build real connection, we must learn to listen in a way that goes beyond simply trying to catch what is being said. We must listen in a way that fosters genuine understanding and trust, that encourages authenticity and courage – on the part of both the speaker and the listener. 

How do we practice this deeper form of listening? The answer to this question could – and will – fill a future post. Fortunately, many articles and even workshops exist on the art of listening. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

  • First, start with self-awareness. Continuously check in to ensure you are giving the speaker your full attention. With many factors competing for our attention in any given moment, this takes consistent mindfulness. We all know when we are being given full vs. partial attention and it significantly impacts our sense of trust in the listener. Seth S. Horowitz distinguishes between hearing and listening in his NY Times Article, The Science and Art of Listening. We are always hearing. Our ears consistently take in sound. When we add full attention, we are listening. 
  • Second, don’t listen to correct, fix, or as a way of planning your response. This is hard. So often, as we hear someone else speak, we are simultaneously charting our reply. This is especially true when we disagree with the speaker. And yet, in those moments it is all the more important to fully listen if we are to develop understanding. 
  • Finally, show up willing to be changed by what you hear. This is perhaps the hardest piece of all. And it requires that we embody this next point fully.

Showing up messy

It is time for us to set down our need to know, our need to be right and our fear of being imperfect around younger generations. They don’t need a professional, polished performance. In my experience, young people of all ages are very, very good at seeing through any illusion we try to cast. They crave honesty and authenticity, a more intimate, true version of who we are and how we interact with the mess that is life. 

We do young people a great disservice by thinking we constantly need to have answers or hold it all together in their presence. We fail to model the truth of what it is to be alive – that in every moment, there is much we need to learn and much we do not know and that we are often confused or in the process of figuring things out. Young people today already trend towards perfectionism and the accompanying stress. By allowing ourselves to show our imperfections, we support young people in charting a different way. 

Vulnerability plays a central role in true connection between people. If we believe we cannot be vulnerable in the presence of young people, an automatic gate is established, blocking intimacy and meaningful relationship.

What if, instead of only showing our polished, performative selves, we modeled what it looks like to show up fully, without all the answers, ready to learn with openness and grace? What if we demonstrated that vulnerability is more synonymous with courage than “falling to pieces”? What if we owned our mistakes and missteps and apologized sincerely? What if we related deliberately and consciously, rather than from a focus on efficiency and power? 

Act on it

This final piece is perhaps the most important component of supporting young activists and changemakers. We need to move beyond vocal and symbolic gestures of support. We need to move beyond even providing platforms that amplify young voices. We need to not just give young people a seat at the table where decisions are made and fully listen to what they have to say – we must act on what we learn. 

This means changing the status quo. This means working for change that will likely feel and seem radical to those looking on. Remember, young people speak and share ideas from a different perspective than our own. While older generations are often more entrenched in the system as we know it and trained for efficiency, young people are often situated at a more creative, visionary place on the generational spectrum. They can see over mountains that might seem impossible to surpass. They can conceive of a different way.

(And, importantly, this is not true for all members of older generations or all members of younger generations. It is a helpful tool for understanding each other and illuminating the importance of intergenerational collaboration, but it is also important to not hold all older individuals or all younger individuals to this distinction. There are wildly creative and visionary older people and there are deeply efficient young people. Even though this distinction is based in research, like all distinctions, it has many exceptions.) 

Categories: What You Can Do

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