June 8, 2020

With the pandemic and the uprisings profoundly affecting minority communities across the country, people go to work everyday and may have no idea that their colleagues of color are undergoing traumatic experiences and even losses.

Now is the time to act and reach out proactively to minority colleagues and see if you can become an ally. This is may not be your first instinct. There may be uncertainty, fear and even doubt about whether this is something you should do or how long it will take or even if it will be successful.

Time for team building

Most work meetings are focused on tasks. For a lot of people talking with colleagues about how they’re doing or current events is an activity that’s happening around the water cooler or in the hallway. But in “Zoomland” there are no hallways or water coolers …so you as a leader or ally have to consciously build in meetings that are not focused on a task but on the affective work of team building.

Developing a sense of belonging and of being cared for are likely to engender motivation and accountability to others—two strong hallmarks of high performance teams. They also make coming to work more pleasant and fun.

So incorporate fun events like Trivia nights, happy hours or yoga classes or empathy or humor into your team relationships But don’t forget there’s a pandemic and social unrest that’s affecting your teammates and you probably don’t know how much.

Focus on how people are doing

Build in time focus on how you and your colleagues experience working remotely during these periods of pandemic and social unrest. Are there things teammates or the company can do to enhance people’s well-being? To reduce stress? To increase productivity?

Make time for one-on-one meetings if you’re manager or have some team meetings where you focus on how people are doing and what support they need to be effective at work while they juggle many different roles and experiences in their personal lives. As a peer ally just check in with colleagues, express interest, ask how your colleague is doing, and listen.

Go slow to go faster

Diversity of perspectives, life experiences, and training can help propel organizations to greater success. But where there is a history of discrimination, prejudice or other painful stereotyping of such diversity in the workplace, and where all too often those underlying tensions have not been addressed openly or effectively, deserves special attention.

Being an ally in such situations can be a challenging experience. While many of us want to move forward to action based on where we are right now, real progress often requires that people in organizations process what has happened historically.

You need to go slow to go faster, long-term. It’s important to hold space for people’s emotional processing–that may be one of the ways you can be a constructive ally. Using a skilled facilitator and devoting sufficient but not excessive time to such emotional processing can build trust while navigating admittedly perilous waters.

Be authentic and listen

Look for opportunities where you can have authentic, respectful dialogue. I recently attended a meeting of ecosystem builders from the nonprofit, entrepreneurial, and philanthropic communities One of my big “takeaways” as a potential ally (yes, allies are not always Caucasian or men) was the success of the effort required not just training the “one down” group to be better heard, but training people in positions of power to better hear and understand people of all backgrounds.

Learn to speak new languages

As a woman of color, who grew up working poor and a native speaker of Spanish, I studied language, interpersonal dynamics and cultures as a sociologist or anthropologist might. Deciphering how to navigate and speak to those in power in their preferred language at a level of cultural and class fluency that might be characterized as “native level” was a key to my career success. Now, I often assist others to navigate the minefield of venture capital, finance and business metrics by teaching them the jargon, culture, cadence, and inflection of “venture speak”.

Carry on communication

If you are motivated as an ally you will learn to “speak new languages”, navigate cultures and hold space for the experience of others who have been carrying the burden of communication alone. I’m not talking about attending unconscious bias and sexual harassment training, although that can be useful. Rather, this is a concept more closely akin to Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset.

We potential allies must believe that we are capable of learning to navigate diversity and that we get better with effort even though it’s not easy. When it is painful, we persevere; we learn new ways to communicate and carry on the effort.

Hopes for this new generation

While the images of what is happening in this nation are horrific and painful, I have hope that this generation of ecosystem builders will succeed where mine failed. That skills of diverse people will be embraced instead of banned. While I may never embrace social media to the extent this generation has, I understand what a burden I carried being unable to be authentic about my life experiences in mixed groups until I was in my forties.

These ecosystem builders value openness and authenticity and expect to be met half-way. They make the effort to hear one another; to be respectful and listen empathetically to the painful experiences of others in the room, many of whom had embarked on similar efforts in other diverse groups only to grow disillusioned. It’s not uncommon in such situations to hear people say “it’s always been this way and we’re not going to change that”.

 Change is created because this courageous risk taking is “what’s been missing”. When people feel they have been heard and their experience honored instead of denied, they will move forward with you and show you how you can support them, address shared concerns, and become an ally.

Network and understand their goals

If you’re trying to figure out how to support diversity, including of women and people of color in your organization, seek first to understand their goals within the organization and the industry.

If you don’t have diverse people in your organization, then get started by networking with, becoming involved in, or funding organizations whose mission it is to achieve those goals. Investing your time and energy in such organizations automatically breeds empathy. Why? Because you’ll be much more aware of how diverse people experience a productivity tax in their work.

Building professional bridges

If diverse people are to find mentorship, role models and learn strategies for advancement and success, they often find it essential to be involved in diverse professional associations within their field. As a JD/MBA, women of color, working in the tech sector, I might build bridges to more than a half dozen state or national organizations to accomplish what members of majority groups may be able to do through one large national association. Your participation and support may help to reduce the many demands that are placed on a relatively small group of people serving as mentors and coaches. It may also help your organization because your “ambassadorship” may provide new perspectives and access to resources.

Can you move the diversity needle?

As you embark on diversity efforts in your organization, people are going to wonder, “Are you serious? Is this activity going to move the needle or is it going to be a waste of my time?”

Strategic efforts in corporations are usually characterized as “real work” not “volunteer work” and rewarded because they contribute to the bottom line. Diversity efforts should be no different. An ally lifts up the community and earns trust by doing a fair share of the heavy lifting.

Recognize that such efforts may give rise to strong feelings triggered by past experiences. Regardless of intention, you like me, may be acting out time-worn scripts that are no longer helpful.

Set clear expectations about treating people well. Question your own assumptions and give people the benefit of the doubt. Show up, strive to be authentic and kind, give reasoned feedback, be emotionally present to yourself and others, and create space for learning.

(For original version of this piece you can read or listen on the Ulu Ventures website here.

About the Author: Miriam Rivera

, How to be an Ally in a Diverse Community (part 2)
Miriam Rivera is co-founder and managing director of Ulu Ventures