How to be an ally in a diverse community

Group of diverse faces

Listen and go slowly

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

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 respectful

Look for opportunities where you can have authentic, respectful dialogue. I recently attended several meetings of ecosystem builders from the nonprofit, entrepreneurial, and philanthropic communities in geographic areas far outside Silicon Valley, including the Kauffman Foundations ESHIP Summit, the Puerto Rico Impact Experience, and the Kauffman Fellows Israel Summit. 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.

My parents migrated from Puerto Rico and I was raised on the US mainland at a time when speaking a language other than, or in addition to, English was considered a bad thing. I was publicly shamed in elementary school for helping a new immigrant student understand what was happening in the classroom. I went to college at a time when states were voting on English-only laws. Recently, in the restroom of a movie theater in Silicon Valley an English-speaking Caucasian woman railed against two Chinese young women for holding a private conversation in their native tongue to them. She turned to the lavatory attendant and me, two bystanders, as if seeking support. The attendant and I, both Latinas, looked at each other stunned by her invective.

The resurgence in efforts at enforced monolingualism is an example of how much we have lost as a country in terms of embracing diversity. English has become the de facto language of business in the EU but Europeans still master multiple languages because in addition to being good for business, it enables deeper human understanding.

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”.

However, participants in this new-to-me ecosystem, members of a younger generation, saw me as being “one-up” by virtue of my age, education, upward mobility and “Silicon Valley” background. They railed against the paradigm I’d come to accept as “normal”: that the effort to build bridges was necessarily up to the “one-down”, and one-sided. They urged me to see I had learned the skills to build bridges because I was motivated. And those in power who want to be allies must and are fully capable of doing the same. They argued inclusion requires mutual effort and motivation. I am thankful for how respectfully they helped me see through their eyes. I vowed to be an ally to and learn from this community who didn’t want my “help” (a concept they argued convincingly was imbued with one-up, one-down thinking). They wanted to build a relationship of equals where joys are doubled and burdens halved because shared, where we receive as much as we give.

Learn new ways to communicate

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. Even the word communication indicates that two people must do something, not one. 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. We don’t expect the other to carry most of the burden for us or make themselves into us to be heard or valued. I’ve also heard it described this way: a relationship is never 50–50%, it’s each person taking 100% responsibility for the relationship.

This encounter in a new ecosystem gave me hope that this generation will succeed where mine failed and 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. Many of my best friends from high school didn’t hear me speak of my personal journey until decades later when I had more fully integrated my educational, career and personal achievements with my sense of self.

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”.

Risk Taking

Indeed, if you as a part of the ecosystem, don’t believe there’s a possibility for change, the status quo will be maintained because you don’t or won’t do what you can to effect change. Often that’s as simple — and as hard — as people taking significant personal risk to be authentic by respectfully sharing their experiences, fears and vulnerable hopes. 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. In the context of my encounter, there was frustration at times because many of us wanted to get to next steps and productive action. However, this particular session proved to be a real step forward — even when it sometimes felt the gathering would combust or go nowhere.

How do you help your organization navigate diversity?

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.

Like most of us, they are involved in industry and professional associations. However, 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 technology 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.

The need to create databases

As companies learned diverse boards tend to help companies financially outperform their competition, we saw data being collected on prospective board members with much more varied backgrounds and diverse recruiting teams developed to help organizations access talent not in their existing networks. There is documented strategic value in creating teams and companies with a broader representation of cultures, genders and ethnic backgrounds. Oftentimes, diverse members of organizations volunteer or are drafted to create databases to facilitate such efforts. Organizations should also use mainstream corporate resources as opposed to imposing a productivity tax on diverse people by expecting them to “volunteer” their time to such efforts. 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.

Showing up

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?” 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.

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Miriam Rivera
Miriam Rivera is co-founder and managing director of Ulu Ventures
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