‘Allyship’ in a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE)…
19.11.2021: For this week’s PIE blog, I have the pleasure as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, to hand over this space to another voice from within the organisation. Adelle Berman is part of both the Skills Development (Training) team but also our PIE team, wherein she has been supporting the delivery of our range of PIE modules to frontline staff since she joined Centrepoint earlier this year. Adelle is a highly valued member of our team, with a background in social work and foster care, she bring a great deal of skills and knowledge to the training. The Skills Development team have been considering how to raise awareness and understanding of Allyship across Centrepoint, and it is in that context she has written this week’s PIE blog on the topic of ‘Allyship’.
Being a PIE argues that ‘for the moment, at least, the definitive marker of a PIE is simply that, if asked why the unit is run in such and such a way, the staff would give an answer couched in terms of the emotional and psychological needs of the service users … in that sense ‘psychology is an aspect of emotional intelligence and empathy’ (Keats et al, 2012; https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/340022/1/Good%2520practice%2520guide%2520-%2520%2520Psychologically%2520informed%2520services%2520for%2520homeless%2520people%2520.pdf: p.6). Therefore, ‘allyship’ can be considered an important part of creating a safe psychological space or PIE, for all those that are working within, or utilising a service. So over to Adelle, to reflect further on allyship…
‘When researching the concept of allyship, it was very easy to find a checklist of things to do such as this one found on https://guidetoallyship.com
1. Take on the struggle as your own.
2. Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it.
3. Amplify voices of the oppressed before your own.
4. Acknowledge that even though you feel pain, the conversation is not about you.
5. Stand up, even when you feel scared.
6. Own your mistakes and de-centre yourself.
7. Understand that your education is up to you and no one else.
Whilst this list is a useful starter, there is so much more to allyship than following a list, and it is important that we do not take the responsibility of being an ally lightly. Anyone can say they are an ally, being an ally is much harder and takes time, energy and a lot of self-exploration.
One of the more useable definitions of Allyship I found was written by Cathy Goddard (2021), who states that: ‘An ally is someone from a non-marginalized group who uses their privilege to advocate for a marginalized group. They transfer the benefits of their privilege to those who lack it’ (c.f. https://lighthousevisionary.com/move-beyond-performative-allyship/). I have been reflecting on the concept of privilege, and found a helpful explanation on https://treehozz.com/what-is-privilege-in-psychology, which states that “privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of group membership and not based on what a person or group has done or failed to do’ (Johnson, 2006). For those who routinely benefit from privilege, the challenge is to not quickly deny its existence. Once I recognise my privilege, I can be a powerful voice alongside oppressed voices. I spoke with a colleague who helped me to understand that my privilege can mean an absence of barriers. For example, an absence in barriers to health, education, or employment progression. I questioned myself: Do I fully understand what it is like to be oppressed? Can I take on others’ struggles as my own? Personally, I need to explore my evolution of consciousness, to know my own story, my own privilege, and to put myself in situations where I can grow.
True allyship starts with personal development and needs to be seen as much greater than a simple checklist. Without delving deeper into issues around allyship, my allyship would be superficial, meaningless. To be a true ally involves being committed and proactive. Lip service is not an option. Another learning point was that becoming an ally is not something that can be taught; there is no template as every person will need something different from me. In addition, it is not possible to be an ally in isolation; we need a diverse community to engage with and other activists to hold us accountable. Moreover, we must engage with people who share our identity in order to challenge their views. Another consideration is that allyship does not have to involve a big grand gesture; small actions are ok too, as long as I am not contributing only the bare minimum at any given opportunity. If I can serve as a mentor or a voice for someone who does not have a voice, that is a good start.
However, it is essential that I do not unconsciously fall in to the trap of performative allyship, which is comparable to being a ‘fake-ally’; when someone who professes their support and solidarity to a marginalised group, but their behaviour is actually unhelpful and even harmful. Often performative allyship involves a reward — being seen as an ally for example, by posting something on social media which gives them more ‘likes’ or kudos for being perceived as a ‘good person’. As a result, allyship has attracted some negative perspectives, and much of this appears to be linked to people who wish to call themselves allies, but not act as allies. In order to be a true ally, we need to ensure that our actions are in full alignment with our desire to be an ally; my actions must match my words and actions. Being an ally is not an identity or label that we can use for ourselves, but instead in reality it is the choice of those we are attempting to ally ourselves with as to whether they trust us enough to call us or accept us as an ally.
Allyship can also be seen as a continuum; there are different levels of allyship which range from being apathetic, to awareness, to active, and finally to advocating. Where do I see myself on this scale, and how to I progress to the next level? The legendary 19th century Native American leader Sitting Bull once said “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the tie. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most” (c.f. https://historicalsnaps.com/2018/03/03/quote-sitting-bull/). To me, this means that we have the potential to be the oppressor, the oppressed, and the ally. We are all guilty of imposing oppression on others, usually unintended, even when we think we are not prejudiced people. As a result, psychologist Leslie Ashburn-Nardo notes in 2018 that “most allies are not bias-free. Rather, allies are more likely to be aware of the gap between what they should do and what they actually do and work towards closing that gap” (c.f. https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-of-being-a-better-ally-in-the-office-and-beyond-140902).
In addition, psychologist Ulash Dunlap (2020) uses the metaphor of a table to explain the different aspects of allyship (c.f. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/speaking-the-heart/202012/the-four-legs-allyship). Specifically, noting that as per a table, that requires 4 legs to be stable, allyship requires four aspects if it is to be effective. The first of these is ‘Cultural Humility’ or the understanding that you are not better than the person you are hoping to help. The second is ‘Knowledge’, reflecting the importance of gathering knowledge from a variety of sources. The next is ‘Speaking Up’, which highlights the important of ensuring that your voice is heard, and the final ‘leg’ or aspect of allyship is ‘Action’, which may look different for each of us, but is an essential aspect of being an ally. I like the table analogy as it is a clear and simple way of explaining that I need to practice all of the 4 ‘legs’ to truly be an ally. The road to allyship is a long one — a journey, not a step, and I will no doubt mess up at times, but that’s ok, as long as I acknowledge, apologise, learn from my mistakes and continue to engage with the drive I have to help others.
Finally, whilst writing this blog, it became apparent to me that the concept of allyship fits in well with Centrepoint’s values, which are ‘integrity’, ‘energy’, ‘accountability’, ‘humility’, ‘focused’ and ‘entrepreneurial’. It is positive that our organisation’s values reflect the psychological ideas around allyship and this gives me a sense of hope that as individuals, and as an organisation, we can grow in our journey towards allyship. As part of my role in the Skills Development Team, I am very excited about the plans we have in store to explore allyship further, including, a 10-day allyship challenge and an allyship event where we can ask questions that we may have on the subject. If you work for Centrepoint, do look out for more information coming soon to find out more. If you are an external reader of this blog, perhaps you can reflect on what your organisation (or indeed you personally) can do to be an ally in the future. I hope wherever you are, you will join us on this journey to be more psychologically informed allies in the future in order to #changethestory…’