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Allyship: What It Means to Be an Ally

November 18, 2019

The word “ally” has become an important identifier for those who want to challenge the status quo. From ally programs on college campuses to ally training in corporate offices, more people are becoming allies to the underrepresented and underserved. But, what does allyship really mean? How does someone become an ally? How can professionals use allyship skills to fight for social justice?

Understanding Allyship: Past and Present

As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “No one is free until we are all free.” An ally supports and advocates for marginalized groups. Versions of it have been around for decades. First popularized during the suffrage movement and civil rights era, allyship centered on anti-sexist and anti-racist activism. Male allies fought for women’s rights, and white allies advocated for equal rights for African Americans.

The role has changed since the 1960s. Today, allyship is complex and multidimensional. Allies support LGBTQ rights, fight to normalize mental illness, advocate for the elderly, and promote accessibility people with disabilities.

While many ways to be an ally exist, they all share common threads.

The Ally Model

The ally model of social justice is a framework for understanding someone’s complex social identity. It is a philosophical approach that emphasizes social justice, inclusion, and human rights by recognizing the experiences of privileged and oppressed groups and acknowledging that an individual can be in multiple groups simultaneously.

Those who practice allyship reject discrimination and take action to eliminate the marginalization of others. Often, allies come from dominant or majority groups, but that isn’t always the case. Many allies come from other oppressed groups and still use their sphere of influence to effect positive change for others. Regardless of background or motivation, all allies are united by the common belief that everyone deserves equal treatment.

The Characteristics of Allyship

Many skills, actions, and responsibilities are associated with allyship. Allies engage in self-examination to uncover their own bias and privilege, seek information to increase their awareness about the experiences of others, and find ways to make a positive impact.

Self-Examination and Critical Thinking

Uncovering unconscious bias is a critical first step toward allyship. Unconscious bias can crop up in subtle ways. Examples of this include finding someone who looks like you more trustworthy than someone of a different race or attributing substance abuse relapse to lack of motivation or effort. To become a successful ally, you first need to understand your existing beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. Examine your motivations and behaviors with an open mind and critical lens. What do you believe? Why do you believe what you believe? While challenging, these questions are important to answer. You have to dig into your own oppression and privilege to understand the oppression and privilege of others.

Seeking outside guidance can be helpful during the self-examination process. Attend a diversity and inclusion seminar to help gain insight. Sign up for a workshop to engage with others who are going through the same process. Talk with trusted friends and see if your ideas hold up when others challenge them. In doing so, you can begin to define what allyship means to you and how you can be a better ally.

Self-examination can be uncomfortable, but the ability to think critically and objectively about your own attitudes gets easier with practice.

Awareness and Education

The next key stage of allyship is becoming informed about the issues oppressed groups face, such as sexism in the workplace, race-based police violence, or a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Allies have a responsibility not only to gain foundational awareness of the daily challenges oppressed groups experience but also to develop a deeper understanding of the impact and hardship these challenges create. Educate yourself about the histories, cultures, and concerns of oppressed groups, and learn about the laws and policies that affect them.

Countless resources are available to facilitate the learning process. You can read books that share personal narratives or historical accounts of oppression. You can research current events through news coverage on topics related to discrimination and oppression. Some podcasts focus on relevant topics that provide valuable insight through personal stories and expert critiques of systemic discrimination. But, the best educational resources you have are the people around you.

Talking with people from oppressed groups and listening to what they have to say is a key practice of successful allyship. Be open-minded and understand that what you hear might be incompatible with your assumptions. Many marginalized people are accustomed to not being believed. Challenge yourself to listen, learn, and trust what they have to say, even when that means confronting your own bias.


Self-exploration, critical thinking, and education all build a foundation for future change. To effect meaningful change, however, allies need to participate in the fight for social justice.

Every ally can work within their sphere of influence to create change. For many, this means being an ally at a personal level, listening to a friend talk about their depression or helping a relative with autism. Some participate in allyship through activism, campaigning for change through protests and spreading the word about social justice causes. Others focus their efforts on advocacy, circulating petitions and volunteering in election campaigns with the goal of implementing change at a policy level. But, all allies have a responsibility to talk about injustice.

In fact, an ally’s ability to speak up when they witness oppression is one of the most valuable actions they have to offer. Push back against offensive jokes by challenging the joke teller to explain why they found the punchline funny. You can leverage common ground to broach a contentious topic with your family. This may apply when explaining why immigration reform is important by appealing to your mom as a loving parent who would do anything for her children.

You will encounter many avenues for action in allyship. Look for ways to make positive change in your circles, big or small. If you are willing to feel uncomfortable and take risks, small actions can make a big impact.

Allyship in Social Work

Cultivating allyship skills is important for all social workers, but social work and allyship are not distinct roles. In fact, the characteristics of allies lie at the heart of social work, informing how social workers engage with the people they serve.

All social workers need to combat their personal biases to become aware of how their experiences with privilege and oppression impact the way they see the world and, in turn, the communities with which they work. In addition, this practice allows social workers to identify and leverage the strengths of others from all cultures, calling upon the self-examination, critical thinking, and cultural awareness skills that form the foundation upon which all social work stands.

Education and awareness are also vital to successful social work. Rather than just reading about oppression in a textbook, social workers need to root their practice in informed, direct interaction with their communities.

Finally, social workers are dedicated to taking action against social injustice, so social work as a field is, by definition, action-oriented. On an individual level, social workers can advocate for their clients or specific communities. At a broader systems level, social workers can promote policy and social justice reform to alleviate suffering for entire groups of oppressed people.

Develop Your Allyship Skills

By informing their practice with allyship, social workers can better serve diverse communities. They can even transform the social work field, helping foster a culture that is ethical, informed, and empathetic.

The skills central to allyship are also key components of Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work. The curriculum pushes students to engage in self-examination and critical thinking. Students hone these skills through meaningful collaborative projects, both in and out of class, gaining exposure to culturally relevant social work practice. In this program, students spend a minimum of 900 hours in the field working with diverse communities firsthand.

Learn more about how Tulane’s Online Master of Social Work can help you cultivate your allyship skills and empower communities.