Being an Ally in Higher Ed: Beyond Heroes and Holidays


I love food as much as the next person.  I love to learn about holidays, heroes, people, and all the other surface stuff that starts us on the journey of learning more about a different culture.  I also think it is important to have events where we celebrate people, introduce students to new foods, holidays, and traditions.  There is a place for bringing in a traditional Chinese dancing troupe to demonstrate one component of one of the many Chinese cultures.  Yet, if this is all we are doing in higher education, we are not doing enough.  Organizing celebrations is not what makes us an ally to a group other than us.

Being an ally is about challenging oppression.  It is about understanding their values and issues as best we can and standing with them to achieve justice, equity, and fairness.  It is not about trying a new food. It is not about doing a folk dance.  Besides organizing celebratory events, there are a lot of things we can do to serve as allies for other people.  Usually when we discuss being an ally, we talk about awareness, building our knowledge about policies and issues, developing our skills to support others and challenge oppression, and taking action to make a difference. All four of these items are about self development but as we develop as allies we need to think critically about how we can bring about change.  While being an ally starts with oneself, we need to think about how we can contribute to change.  You are not doing ally work if you are not working for change.

The University of Michigan talks about the different levels where we can create change as an ally.  The three levels they examine are the individual, institutional, and societal/cultural levels.  These changes are not all discrete.  An individual change can also be part of an institutional change.  Below are a few things I think we can do in higher education to begin to make a difference and to serve as allies for others. These suggestions go beyond the usual self-awareness ideas of knowing your own culture, understanding your privilege, recognizing your power, etc.

1. Focus on who is at your school.  Do you know the research at your institution?  Is anyone doing the research?  This is not about knowing the demographic breakdown though that is one part of it.  It is knowing who is graduating, completing certificates, persisting from one quarter/semester to the next, dropping out, achieving high grades, being involved with student government and clubs, getting referred to a student code of conduct, and having their voice heard. These comments all relate to students but what about employees?  Who is being hired and who is staying? Where is there diversity?  Most colleges see a lot of diversity in their classified staff but faculty and administrators often are not. We cannot make change if we do not look for where the successes and challenges are otherwise we are developing interventions that might be wrong or targeting the wrong issues.  This is both an individual level (your knowledge) and an institutional level (demanding an annual diversity and equity report on institutional data, which many colleges do not do).

2. Know who is at your school because this can lead you to who you need to learn about.  It is impossible to know about every culture, group, and issue if we think about things on a global scale.  However, when we start to focus on where we work, it becomes much more plausible to connect to the people, values, and issues within your institution.  If you don’t know who people are at your institution (I mean real people and not just the numbers), you do not have much of a chance to be an ally.  You cannot speak or stand with people if you have not listened to or heard them.

3. Create opportunities for students and employees to learn about different issues and concerns.  There is a place for holiday celebrations and there is a place for going deeper.  I used to think holiday celebrations were a distraction but I have come to see their value.  Not all people understand there are different cultures.  The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity explains that some people are in a stage of denial that cultural differences exist.  Celebratory events mixed with an educational component can assist people in this stage with accepting there are differences and may help them be more open to other more complex ideas about culture. And this is the second part.  As higher education professionals, we need to be ready to provide the next step in someone’s education. We want to start those courageous conversations (Singelton and Linton) about race, power, privilege, values, oppression, justice, and similar topics.  We want to provide avenues for people to examine how different cultures and peoples are treated.  This is another area that I think hits all three levels mentioned above.  We are working on educating the individual and providing opportunities to examine institutional and cultural issues.

4. Advocate for change.  As we listen to the voices of others talk about their successes and challenges, we need to be willing to work with them to maintain those things that are working and change those things that are barriers to success for students and employees. To do this we need to understand what we have some control over and what may be a longer struggle.  For example, most procedures used by colleges are things that can be changed by an office or combination of offices.  If we find that a procedure is a barrier, we can examine it to determine how valid it is and how it can be changed so it is not a barrier.  If we are looking at policies, most of those are normally set by a Board of Trustees.  This will mean approaching the Board with an explanation for why a change is needed and what that change is.  They will want to know the impact of such a change on the institution.  The change will need to be couched in terms of student or employee success.  Finally, there are laws and regulations from city, state, and federal governments that guide some of what we do.  These are not as easily changed but that does not mean we cannot join the struggle.  We can write to our legislators asking for a change in a law or regulation.  We can work with students so they can organize a rally, march, or writing campaign to bring issues forward to government officials.  Here we are working for change at an institutional and societal level.

6. Find other allies and do self care.  Social justice work can be exhausting and time consuming.  Because many of us who are allies are passionate about our issues, we often burn the candle at both ends and believe that we must do it all so we can create change.  None of us can do it all and we will only ruin our own health trying to do it.  By having other allies, you have someone to talk with and with whom you can share your struggles and successes. This is one part of self care.  Do not work 12 hours a day every day and weekends.  You deserve time for yourself to regroup.  You need to keep your relationships that exist outside of work as healthy as possible.  Whatever it is that recharges you, make sure you do it.  Higher education will absorb all of your time if you allow it.  Set healthy boundaries and stick to them.

These are just a few of the things that we can do in a higher education environment when we serve as allies.  Yes, we can make a difference, even if it takes time.  Higher education changes at a glacial pace but that does not mean it won’t change.  We just need to keep coming back to the issues until the change happens.  There are so many other things that allies can do.  What can you do?


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