Active-Ally Leadership

Active-Ally Leadership

I recall an incident a few years ago at a gas station where this irate customer had pumped his gas and was unable to pay at the pump. The interac payment service was down at all pumps and everyone had to pay inside the store. It was quite cold and crispy that day and I happened to be waiting in line when this man walked into the store and the first thing he said, “..of course it had to be two [racial slur], nothing seems to work in this country nowadays with you people around..”. There were two clerks at the till, both of South Asian descent, who were both caught by surprise and shocked at what was happening and stood in silence. Two other people in line and I swiftly intervened by letting this man know that it was not okay to say what he had said. This swift response seemed to have caught him in surprise while he remained reluctant to take any words back and had the nerve to let everyone know that it was a free country, and he was entitled to say whatever he wanted. In this commotion, one of the clerks gathered the courage to speak up and asked him to leave the store or he would call the police. This man then pulled a fifty-dollar bill out of his wallet, threw it onto the floor and left.

A few conversations ensued following this incident. There were several people in line and many of them had remained silent while this went on. What caught my attention was the woman in line ahead of me. She had remained silent right through the commotion. She turned around and thanked me for my courage in speaking up. She then went ahead to condemn the behaviour and described how she couldn’t understand why people behaved like that and emphasized that there shouldn’t be any room for such hate in the world. Then the moment came like I have experienced countless times in the past where she delved into ‘the Black niece’ in her life and her experiences. She explained all the hate she has seen over the years and hoped that the world would be a better place. She even went further to share some of the charities she was involved with in helping poor kids in both Africa and Asia. Just like in my previous experiences, this ‘supposed ally profile or resume’ did not bring any comfort to this conversation. It was very awkward, and I simply had nothing to say in response.

This phenomenon where people feel a need to showcase their allyship is one that I believe warrants some unpacking. At a time where allyship is crucial in enhancing marginalized voices, it would be important to discuss what allyship isn’t.

Allyship is not

Silent: Allyship requires one to step into their discomfort and challenge injustices in the moment where it’s most effective. Silence has been a vehicle for perpetuating social injustices since they manifested.

Measured by a degree of affiliation: Being aware of an experience or having that ‘Black niece, Trans nephew, Indigenous partner etc are not qualifiers. As much as some may feel that showcasing an ‘ally resume’ helps strike a conversation, it may not. Our efforts would be better utilized in action.

About public statements of principle: Allyship is less about what you say and more about what you actually do. It gets even better when those two are in sync.

Convenience: One cannot pick and choose what is convenient for them as an ally. Social injustices are complex and will require us to step into those inconveniences sometimes that will require giving up something for the greater good.  

Allyship is not the above and much more. So, what is Active-Ally Leadership?

Active-Ally Leadership

The Anti-Oppressive Network defines allyship as “an active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group. It’s not an identity but rather a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability.”

Michelle Kim, Co-Founder & CEO of Awaken describes allyship as “an active and consistent practice of using power and privilege to achieve equity and inclusion while holding ourselves accountable to marginalized people’s needs.” Her article on Allyship & Accomplice is a must read.

Active-Ally Leadership is a lifelong journey in which one (individual or organization) recognizes their position of privilege and takes on the practice of learning through active un-learning, where they seek to establish and maintain relationships with marginalized voices while holding themselves accountable to their learning in order to achieve a more just, equitable and inclusive environment.

Important Considerations in Active-Ally Leadership

Unlearning will require hearing those lived experiences from marginalized voices. This however is difficult and draining for a marginalized person to continuously re-live those experiences. One should never rely on just listening to those experiences. Don’t just wait on the next diversity course, or the next speaker or wait for guidelines from your equity office. Active-Ally Leadership is about taking responsibility for your own learning and recognizing the various avenues for learning that limit the harm on those we seek to learn from.

There may be resentment at times by those we seek to learn from or about. Please remember that this is not personal. This resentment is not necessarily directed to you as an individual or entity. Social inequities are complex. Active-Ally Leadership is about de-centering yourself in an effort to dissect complex systems. I discuss de-centering at length in a previous article, Deconstructing your Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Journey.

Learning through unlearning takes a lot of courage. There may be feelings of betrayal by your family, household, education, organization, places of worship, country etc. Things are never as they seem especially when it comes to social inequities. There will be some large pills to swallow. It can be pretty difficult to unlearn things you have been fed to believe over your lifetime especially when they have re-played themselves over and over again as true (confirmation bias). Active-Ally Leadership is about recognizing the power of active unlearning where learning is renewed with each act of allyship.

Feelings of betrayal can lead to guilt, shame, embarrassment etc. While this is part of learning through un-learning, it is important to ensure that these do not become the drivers that feed your learning. Active-Ally Leadership is about recognizing the discomfort that one needs to face in order to learn while appreciating the needs of those we need to ally with.

Inequities are complex and as such, there is a lot to learn. Sometimes, the information may be overwhelming. The moment you think you know something is always met by how much more there is to learn. Pace yourself and be patient. Active-Ally Leadership is about recognizing the privilege in learning something without necessarily having to live through the experience.

How can we demonstrate Active-Ally Leadership?


Recognize allyship is a lifelong journey: It’s always exciting when we first experience our first `light bulb moment’. Many other moments follow and are generally inspirational moments and it’s important to acknowledge our learning journeys. The danger becomes the moment we turn these experiences into expert, woke, ally, etc identities. These have the potential to cause more harm than good. Privilege is intersectional where I had the great opportunity to explore this in two previous articles, Dissecting Intersectionality and What are you doing with your privilege. As we discussed earlier, this is not about an identity. It’s a lifelong journey where every learning moment is turned into a renewed commitment to the vast opportunity that lies ahead.

Listen, reflect and provide ongoing support: Active-Ally Leadership is about active listening and reflecting on those experiences we are to learn from. As discussed earlier, we must de-center ourselves as we’re learning and reflect on the lessons. We are all different and marginalized people experience inequities differently and to that effect, we must listen to an array of voices to have a breadth of context. Take time to sit with yourself and reflet on what you learn, and most importantly, show your humility and support to those you learn from and learn with.

Sponsorship: Active-Ally Leadership is about recognizing the inequities in society that place presumptions on those marginalized voices and then centering those whom we seek to advocate for. Sponsorship is actively championing someone’s career progression by providing them a platform in recognition of (not their inability to voice themselves), but the presumptions placed by society on them. Leverage your privilege and champion their work, introduce them to your networks, speak about their accomplishments, lend their voice in the most important decisions in a work setting by inviting them into the decision-making and most importantly, follow through always.

Amplify (not replace) underrepresented voices: It can be a daunting task for underrepresented people to speak up. It’s important to lend your voice as an ally however, one must recognize when they are at the peripheral of replacing underrepresented voices. The balancing act here is recognizing that our needs are always secondary to those whom we seek to amplify for. For example, If I’m in a work setting where I decide to amplify Trans voices as a heterosexual man, and in turn I receive more credit for amplifying those voices than the Trans voices I seek to amplify, then I’m replacing voices. Active-Ally Leadership is about lending your voice only to the extent where it benefits those voices we seek to amplify.

Calling in and calling out bad behaviour: There are social injustices everywhere. The introductory story on this article sheds an important light in recognizing when to call in or out inappropriate behaviours. How one chooses to address inappropriate behaviour is entirely up to them, however, doing nothing is problematic. Saying something two weeks after an injustice has occurred it too little, too late. By no means am I suggesting that anyone confronts behaviour where they put themselves or their lives at risk. There are many ways of addressing inappropriate behaviour that does not involve direct contact with the aggressor. Marginalized people face microaggressions on an ongoing basis and we must all do our part in calling in or calling out inappropriate behaviour. I discuss microaggressions at length in a previous article, Unpacking Microaggressions.

Cultivate Allyship: Active-Ally Leadership is about challenging our perspectives including in those spaces we operate in. I encourage everyone to challenge perspectives within their circles as everyone has a dominant group they identify with that provides them a privilege. As discussed earlier, privilege is intersectional. From a race perspective, as a Black person, I’m part of a non-dominant group in my society. Nevertheless, I also recognize that as a Black Heterosexual Male, my perspectives are overrepresented over other Black voices such as Black Women, Black Trans etc. We must also consider how we can transform exclusive spaces that we’re part of which I discuss in detail in a previous article, Transforming Exclusive Spaces. Active-Ally Leadership is about recognizing the power of our privilege in enhancing those marginalized voices we seek to enhance.


Sponsorship: Organizations have tremendous ability to bring about transformative change. Active-Ally Leadership is about providing and championing a platform so that those who are most marginalized are able to benefit. Create platforms that celebrate the success of those who are most marginalized, center their voices by allowing them to speak for themselves, allow them to hear, share and celebrate their stories. Elevate their accomplishments with the same intensity you have done with those who aren’t marginalized. Recognize the power of your platform or brand and allow them to leverage and benefit from the same exposure others have received in the past. Endorse innovation, creation, excellence etc from marginalized communities and elevate them to build their communities and enhance their voices.

Invest in marginalized voices: Organizations must recognize that a commitment to allyship goes beyond changing our hiring practices. Farmers invest an incredible amount of time to ensure that their farms are well prepped to yield the crop. This preparation is what sets them apart. I recently read an article where this organization had done some tremendous work hiring Black candidates into the organization. This is an organization that has multiple branches across North America however, they were surprised that they couldn’t seem to keep any of their Black employees at this one specific location. When they took a dive into the reasons why the Black employees were leaving this one location, they quickly realized that the community was not quite welcoming to the Black employees. I discuss some considerations about representation in a previous article, Why Representation Matters. Organizations need to pay attention to their surroundings and leverage their position of power and privilege to influence those inclusive communities they desire as this by extension is a win for their employees. It could be supporting or funding certain activities such as sport, art, schools etc that help build that community. It could also be supporting certain events, causes etc in a way that helps elevate those voices you seek to build an allyship with.

Leverage your lobby power to influence structural change: Organizations have immense power when it comes to influencing structural change. Jim Burress at the NPR provides a great example of this influence. Back in 1964, social conservatives in Atlanta refused to support an integrated dinner honoring Martin Luther King Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize. The Mayor at the time was concerned as they weren’t able to sell any tickets and reached out to Robert Woodruff, an influential person in town and former Coca Cola CEO who in turn reached out to J. Paul Austin, the Coca Cola CEO at the time who had spent many years in South Africa and had witnessed the damaging effects of apartheid. J. Paul threatened to pull Coca Cola out of Atlanta if the city’s elites did not honor Martin Luther King Jr for his Nobel prize. The ultimatum worked and the dinner was sold out. Organizations have the power to leverage their influence in bringing about the necessary changes.

Help weed out the system: Supplier diversity is one extension where Organizations could spread their Active-Ally Leadership. Most organizations have incredible leverage over their suppliers in bringing about the necessary changes in our communities. If your supplier is undermining your newly adopted values that seek to establish and maintain a relationship with those whom you hope to ally with, then necessary action must be taken for them to either comply or simply be left behind. Everyone respects the hand that feeds them. An organization cannot exclude their suppliers in their lifelong journey and must consider those they choose to continue working with.

Active-Ally Leadership is about active listening, stepping into our discomfort and learning through unlearning, adapting our thinking, reflecting on the lessons, engaging through support and doing it all over again with a commitment to a renewed sense of the vast opportunity that lies ahead of every step of our lifelong journey.

Author: Kevin Kamau, is the Founder and President of Kamau Consulting Group, a Management Consulting Firm focused on creating opportunities for inclusive participation through Inclusive Leadership

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