How to Be an Ally: Seven Steps to Stand Up for Marginalized Communities

I witnessed a local organization fail to be an ally to the queer community this winter–and then fail to take responsibility for the fallout for several months. I thought I’d write it, then I just didn’t want to relive the drama…and then, last month in Portland, I saw an organization totally take ownership for their actions and publicly commit to doing better, and it was so inspiring, both personally but as an LGBTQ travel writer, where I often feel like the only one in the room (even if statistically, that’s unlikely).

So I’m drawing from these example, good AND bad, with seven suggestions of how to be an ally. While these tips are drawn from allyship examples involving BIPOC and LGBTQs, you can use them the next time you see or hear something that’s not right.

1. Hear Criticism With an Open Mind and Heart

This is the most important step, because until you can listen to someone’s criticism with an open mind and heart, you won’t take in their message.

As a queer person, I know how difficult it can be to stand up and let someone know they offended you, then educate then on why their remark was insensitive. It’s much easier to just bottle it all up and write off that person as being a bigot or a homophone. So the fact that someone decided to come to you and let them know you hurt them means they care and they believe you can do better. The want to help you do better next time. So the least you can do is listen!

When things blew up locally, the organization was not able to listen to criticism because it came at an inconvenient time. They wanted to brush it under the rug and focus on a milestone event that was happening the following week. As a result of their inattention, the original insult–a stupid homophobic comment–blew WAY out of hand. Had they listened and addressed the issue in real time, the impact would have been miniscule.

2. Sit With It

So often, the temptation is to react. The urgent reaction, more often than not, is to reassure the hurt person that the other party didn’t mean it. Remarks like “They didn’t know better” or “I’m sure you’re overreacting” or “Come on, they didn’t mean it like that” backfire because they reinforce the dominant power structures and paint the hurt person as overly sensitive.

Don’t say those things. Let the person talk. Hear them out. You might feel that it wasn’t a big deal, but who are you to tell someone else how to feel about a slight? You can’t know their history, which plays into how they’re taking the incident.

3. Acknowledge That You Heard Them

When someone goes to you with a complaint, they want to be heard. They also want to know how things will change, but being heard comes first. So let them know you heard them. This can be as simple as thanking them for bringing the incident to your attention. You can say, “I hear you. Thanks for letting me know.”

If they are angry, hurt, or wanting an immediate reaction from you, resist the urge to promise something. You can say, “I hear you, and I’d like to sit with this further before I address it publicly” or “I hear you, and I’m going to bring this up with my team during our weekly meeting.”

If you don’t act like you heard them, they’ll keep telling the story until they feel they’ve been heard. They might tell all their friends, they might tweet about it, or they might tell higher-ups in your organization. By listening and telling them you heard them, you demonstrate care and compassion. This alone can help someone start to heal.

4. Think About How to Be a Better Ally Next Time

Try to find a lesson learned. Assuming there’s some validity in the comments, how can you do it differently next time? Visit Portland provided a great example at the Women in Travel Summit, which is an annual conference for bloggers and travel writers.

In the conference opening session, someone from the organization acknowledged that their videos and images showed exclusively white people. New England is a fairly white region with low diversity and inclusion rates (which is part of the reason I left Boston)–and while places like Portland have become more diverse, there’s still a reputation of majority whiteness that their marketing materials reinforced by showing only white travelers.

The Visit Portland representative thanked the diverse audience at WITS for raising awareness of their lack of inclusivity, then showed a new video they made that featured a black couple touring Portland. They expressed gratitude to all the people who spoke up and let them know that they didn’t feel welcome to visit Portland, and then they put together marketing materials that welcomed people of color. They listened to the criticism, heard the message, and decided on a course of action that would show they welcomed people of color.

And they didn’t get defensive about it! It was really a feel-good moment watching the new marketing video and hearing the reaction of the crowd.

As the phrase goes, when you know better you can do better. So now that you know how you missed the mark for someone, what can you do the next time to ensure a better experience all around? In some cases, right action now can salvage the relationship. Other times, you may not be able to make amends to the person who was hurt–but you can ensure someone else isn’t hurt by correcting things.

5. Make a Change

It’s much better when you can do something impactful, even if it means a delay. Here, the Visit Portland example is great. They put time and money into creating an inclusive travel marketing campaign. They didn’t just tweet out an empty apology and wash their hands of it.

The local organization recently took ownership of the LGBTQ bullying incident that happened this winter by sending out an email to everyone on their list explaining what happened, naming it as homophobia, and outlining how they were taking steps to prevent something similar from happening again. It was not acceptable to me that they waited three full months to say, hey this thing that happened was homophobic, and here’s why. But they didn’t shy away from taking responsibility for getting it wrong, and they clarified their path moving forward.

6. Show Your Work

It’s important to learn how to be an ally. But once you understand what the work of allyship really means, demonstrate that you get it. Show how you’ve changed. This is often scary, because it means opening yourself up to criticism. It means raising your hand and saying that you got it wrong the first time around and you’re sorry. It means saying you know how to be an ally and here’s how you are doing things better now.

It’s helpful to remember that the person who told you that your words or actions hurt them made themselves vulnerable to you in the interest of promoting change.

Ultimately, if you really listened, identified a positive change to make, and did the work to promote change, then this can be a moment of reconciliation and healing for all parties.

7. Share the Story

Now that you learned how to be an ally to a marginalized community, share the story and amplify the impact. When you share your story, you can bring closure to the issue and generate goodwill in your community. You might even inspire positive change somewhere else.

I’d love to build this out with other suggestions of how to be an ally, so share your strategies in the comments. Together we can be the change we wish to see.


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