Being a Better Ally: First, Believe

Posted On Jul 20 2017 by

Sewn images of diverse people holding hands across a globe

Warning: I might make you uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable. But it comes from an earnest place.

DeEtta Jonse AssociatesI was recently lucky enough to participate with my OCLC Membership & Research Division colleagues in DeEtta Jones & Associates’ Cultural Competency Training. This day-long session has a firm spot in the top 5 of my professional development experiences. (Not coincidentally, one of the others in that top 5 was DeEtta’s management training I took part in when she was with the Association of Research Libraries). A week later, I’m still processing this incredible experience. And I’m very grateful to OCLC for sponsoring the workshop!

Cultural competence, equity, diversity, and inclusion are uncomfortable topics for me because I carry my straight, married, able-bodied, white, male privilege with me everywhere I go. And in library-land, despite a female majority, men still dominate leadership positions; despite our bully pulpits on inclusion and diversity, our profession has too few people of color; despite our progressive stances on sexual orientation and gender identity, we struggle with our support for those constituents in our public spaces and workplaces.

DeEtta taught me that I must unlearn so many of the things that we’ve been taught for decades—like denying cultural differences, or not talking about race. She taught me that if being marginalized at work doesn’t feel good, then I should imagine being a diverse workforce member on top of that feeling. And she taught me that culture, by its very nature, seeks to discriminate, so I need to be more aware of de-biasing systems, and purposefully embark on a journey that takes me from a place of tolerance and sensitivity to a place of true cross-cultural competence.

DeEtta taught me some very new things, too. For example, research has shown that multicultural teams perform more effectively when there’s a leader leveraging the team’s diversity. And that the leader does not have to be from a diverse demographic. That is, stepping back from opportunities to lead or manage diverse teams doesn’t necessarily make them more effective. Put even better, stepping up as a culturaly competent leader will make diverse teams more effective.

But most importantly, I learned one of the first steps in being an ally when carrying around all that privilege. First, believe. I must believe the stories that people tell. And I must be mindful of the marginalized position from which they sometimes come. Vital to being an ally, I can believe you when you tell a story even when it isn’t grounded in my own experience. As a good ally, I should believe your story especially under such circumstances.

Silhouette of globally diverse people

My cultural mosaic might not look very diverse, but I can gain and develop the skills necessary to be a better ally—mindfulness, integrity, humility, hardiness, and listening with cultural intelligence. I can turn off my liberal cruise control and activate the lenses through which I consciously and unconsciously view diversity issues and acknowledge the layers (both obvious and not so obvious) that make me who I am. And I can express these values at every turn. That is the only way to change culture.

Finally, I learned that “doing diversity” means that we all do it. And we do it all the time. One of the most important parts about being an ally means not only doing so when everyone is watching. It’s something I must do all the time. As I move forward in this process of gaining cultural competence and practicing equity, diversity, and inclusion, I will need a lot of help, especially from those further along in this journey than I am. I promise to be more discerning of the parts of my life in which I have privilege. I will even tap into them to become a better ally. But most importantly, I will start with believing.

Last Updated on: January 19th, 2024 at 12:22 am, by Andrew K. Pace

Written by Andrew K. Pace