Privilege: At Building Allies, we understand that privilege isn’t connected to just one part of our identity: It is multi-dimensional. We believe everyone can create change by putting their privileges to work.
This is the first in a four-part blog series. The series is meant to serve as a starter-kit for the three phases of active-allyship. We will introduce our active-allyship framework and build on ways everyday people can join, and even lead, this work in their own communities. Be sure to check out the helpful resources we mention throughout the blog for further reading.
The Big Picture of Privilege
At Building Allies, our vision is to work with those who are willing to turn their privilege into change. It’s not enough to just be aware of privilege—we have a responsibility to do something about it. You may be someone or know someone who considers themselves to be an ally to one group or another. You may accept that you benefit from the oppression of others, regardless of your intention.
At Building Allies, we understand that privilege exists, whether we want it to or not, and recognize this is the first step, not the destination. Privilege is something that exists because we live in a society that values binaries, or a very dualistic way of seeing the world: black/white, win/lose, rich/poor. When life is much more nuanced than just one or the other. And as history can attest this dividing has put certain groups of people in, what some might call, a hierarchy above others. What makes this oppressive is that the people on top are no better, stronger, smarter, or inherently more valuable than anyone else—they just get treated that way. And over generations of time, this has great impact.
Barriers to Allyship
Many allies face barriers of which we may not be aware. A lack of confidence and disbelief in our ability to say or do something can freeze us from action. As can the assumption that acts of oppression and marginalization are blatant every time they occur. One of the most pervasive barriers to becoming an ally is the disbelief that we are part of the problem. Sometimes when we believe that we are doing our best and that we are now part of the solution, we drop our title and deny our identity as a perpetrator of enabling prejudice. However, just because we can be part of a solution does not mean we are immune from also being part of the problem. Active-allyship creates, offers, and encourages room for both to be true. It asks us to remain aware of the ways in which we are and can be part of the problem.
Whether through language, choice of neighborhood, hiring practices, staying quiet around certain family or friends, or countless other “harmless” decisions, many allies find it difficult to see the ways our actions can, and do, target the very communities we want to serve. Often, what can happen as we step into allyship or claim the identity of “ally,” we start trying to separate ourselves from have any affiliation or similarity with “the oppressors.” Ironically, once we become aware of our privilege, we may start to feel powerless to do anything about it. But there are many things we can do.
Building Allies believes that everyone can become an active-ally: in relation to our work, our education, and within our overall way of being in the world. Whether you’re a friend, parent, professional therapist, educator, intern, caring community member, or otherwise, we believe that being an active-ally requires resources to reference, and clear tools to practice. We envision a society that nurtures and supports the growth of those most often silenced and oppressed. We understand that allyship is not and cannot be a one-off learning experience. Which is why we believe in building active-allies.
What is Active-Allyship?
Active-allyship works through and within three phases:
For Building Allies, the word “active” refers to how we respond to all acts of injustice, from subtle to obvious. This reaction may apply to those injustices we witness and those in which we engage. We use the term active-ally to distinguish it from the sometimes-performative term “ally,” which some believe has lost its definition over time. In other words, there are folks who may want to be an ally, but when it comes down to it they have no actionable tools or resources.
Moreover, many believe that erasing or ignoring our differences is allyship. Sonya Renee Taylor says in her book, The Body is Not an Apology, “Ignoring difference does not change society; nor does it change the experiences non-normative bodies must navigate to survive. Rendering difference invisible validates the notion that there are parts of us that should be ignored, hidden, or minimized, leaving in place the unspoken idea that difference is the problem and not our approach to dealing with difference.” This is why we preface ally, with the word active.
“An active-ally is someone who witnesses injustice and responds to it in any situation with actionable awareness.”
Active-Allyship invites us to question and challenge ourselves. It is a commitment to remaining aware and willing: aware of the unintentional ways we cause injustice, and willing to challenge our beliefs and actions. Active-allyship is a daily practice—an ongoing and ever-changing process of growth that allows us to see our differences and celebrate them without apology. It requires an unwavering openness to listen and learn.
Part of active-allyship is education: teaching ourselves and teaching others. It’s reading articles such as, Accomplices Not Allies, Ally or Co-Conspirator, and How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’ and applying the tools and insights to our own way of being and how we show-up as active-allies. It is learning to embrace the moments of feeling challenged and learning to listen when we feel triggered or angered. It’s questioning our active-ally practice to ensure integrity and honesty.
Active-Allyship requires an understanding that we might be wrong. It asks us to challenge many of things we “know” and have been taught to be true. Active-allyship asks us to be aware of the microaggressions and experiences we’ve never had to consider. It requires opening head and heart space for new ways of listening, learning, and being.
The three phases, while each different and important on its own, must be in communication with each other to continue the life-long process of becoming an active-ally. Without awareness, our actions can be (and will often be) misguided. Without action, we risk remaining or becoming part of the oppressive group. And without integration we are unable to grow and become aware in new ways to continue the cycle of becoming an active-ally and turning privilege into change.
We will unpack each of the phases in the next three blog posts.
Kyle Sawyer (he/they) is an anti-oppression facilitator and educator specializing in working with individuals and organizations on how to turn privilege into change. He is a trans, queer, mixed-race, white-passing individual. With over a decade of experience Kyle founded Building Allies in 2013 and developed the term Active-Ally, someone who witnesses injustice and responds to it in any situation. Kyle has worked with teachers, nonprofit organizations, students, therapists, social workers, community members, family members, and many others on learning how to be Active-Allies through an intersectional lens. He has received over 400 hours of training in the experiential cycle and has worked throughout the United States and abroad. Recently Kyle was invited to the ULEX Centre in Catalonia as an international facilitator to train transgender identified individuals on collaboration and teamwork. Through their work Kyle has facilitated workshops for: The Los Angeles Probation Department, Department of Mental Health, Department of Children and Family Services, The Museum of Tolerance, Capistrano Unified School District, National Center for Trans Equality, Lambda Literary Writers Retreat, UCLA, USC, Harvey Mudd University, Antioch University Los Angeles, multiple national conferences, and many more. Kyle has also worked as a facilitator for Training for Change, TransCanWork, and The Transgender Law Center. Kyle’s organization, Building Allies, is approved by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists to sponsor continuing education for mental health service providers. certified Continuing Education Provider through the CAMFT organization. Building Allies maintains responsibility for this program/course and its content.