Author, Melinda Briana Epler, was interviewed on the Centre for Inclusive Design’s podcast, With, Not For, on 11 October 2021. I listened to the episode on 12 March 2022. I mention this to get in a plug for the podcast. I am a little annoyed with myself that I left it so long. So, please do subscribe and catch up on the 8 shows posted so far.
I downloaded Melinda’s book from Audible.com.au soon after the conversation began. The title drew me in – How to Be an Ally. Now, at 18:00 on 13 March, as I begin this draft, I am halfway through the book. (the great thing about audiobooks for me is I can listen to a book while I slowly prepare a meal or clean the kitchen)
Melinda runs a business called Change Catalyst, which she set up to further her goal of making as many people as possible allies in the broad field of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
This isn’t a review of the book. The fact that I spent a good deal of today immersed in it says it all – buy it, read it, or listen to it. I want to reflect on the idea of being an ally, as I understood it previously, and how Melinda has expanded it.
In The Beginning
Back in May 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability (AND) annual conference at Darling Harbour Sydney. I was with a crew from our Disability Employee Network (DEN), and this was our first AND conference. I was Chair of the DEN at the time.
The keynote speaker was Kate Nash from the UK based PurpleSpace. I’d not heard of Kate, or her organisation, before. Kate laid out the essentials of an effective Employee Resource Group (ERG) – most of which I wasn’t doing. She laid out a 3-sided model – the ERG (DEN), the organisation’s executive, and its D&I team. We were okay in that regard. That was a strong bond. But then she spoke of Allies and Champions in a way that was new to me. The idea of an Ally was completely novel.
Post conference, I figured that as well as enticing staff with disability to join the DEN, I should also open up membership to supporters – allies. Up to this point the DEN had never considered including them. A month before my term as DEN Chair ended, the membership looked like this – Staff with Disability, 53%, Champions 30%, and Allies 17%. For the most part Champions were executives, with a few exceptions – Executive Officers in the Districts. It meant that 47% of the membership were not staff with any declared disability.
As I was to learn, being an Ally also gave cover to Staff with Disability who did not want to disclose their disability. By ignoring Allies for so long, we had excluded a critical component of our colleagues – those who, perhaps, most needed the changes we were trying make happen.
Allies were also people who had direct personal experience of disability. I had a particularly moving interaction with a DEN Ally whose husband had suffered a stroke. She had not only deep personal experience with the day-to-day challenges a person with disability may encounter, but also the discrimination built into the physical environment and baked into people’s attitudes.
By the time I twigged to the power of Allies, the DEN had been around 8 years – 8 years of lost opportunity. The struggle for Disability Inclusion is not a solitary affair. Everybody can be involved – when we allow that to happen.
What the Book Adds
Melinda is concerned with people on the DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion) spectrum – all of us, really, in some respects – but attends to those on the most problematic end of the spectrum – those most vulnerable to exclusion, discrimination and inequity.
The idea that being an Ally is a principled act in general, rather in support of a particular group, was, for me, startling and a bit challenging at first. This was especially so when Melinda identified ‘micro-aggressions’ – those small and subtle acts of rejection and isolation that are built into our cultural discourse, and our behaviours. It is normal to ‘other’ those who have been isolated, or rejected, by our culture. So, even when we do not intend to injure an individual or group, we have the legacy of doing so in the habit of casual language.
Melinda also asserts a principle of ‘Do no harm.’ There’s a lot on this theme you can Google. I came across the idea many years ago and wrestled with the issue of knowing whether you did, or did not, cause harm – in the context of a community of thought I was involved in. Back then, actions asserted to be in line with the ideal of ‘harm none’ turned out to be harmful – because we did not understand the impact of our acts and thoughts. Then it dropped off my radar as something to think about.
The book is a handy reminder for me to revive consideration of that principle. An Ally should aspire to do no harm. There’s a certain moral mindfulness in the proposition that I find appealing, and challenging.
Of course, the big ‘flip’ for me is the notion that Allyship is omni-directional and not just targeted at a particular group of concern. A member of a ‘group of concern’ can be also an Ally – and not just a ‘victim’. This thought was implicit in the DEN’s adoption of the Universal Design principle – Solve for One, Extend to Many. But that was disability focused. Melinda has encouraged me to see that sense of universality in a wider context. The sense of moral alliance that arises from an intent to do no harm – by action or inaction – is especially powerful and transformative.
But How Long Must It Take?
As I noted in my last essay, I was struck by Melinda’s comment on the podcast that “We are getting better, but not very fast.” My sense, developed in recent times, is that this is because what we are aspiring to do isn’t at all easy – and we don’t have an established methodology for driving the kind of change we are eager to see.
As I have noted elsewhere, inclusion is a relatively novel (in evolutionary terms) adaptive mechanism. We haven’t yet developed it into it being a thing we can expect without resistance and difficulty. It has been a growing part of our social discourse for the past 50 or so years – which isn’t long. This is important. Not being inclusive isn’t a bug. It’s a feature – but one we must now surrender as no longer being useful or desirable.
Melinda’s approach to being an Ally is a model for intentional personal change. If adapted and applied, it will add energy to that evolutionary imperative. But there’s a deeper perspective here. Beyond the personal, there is an organizational and cultural potential to adopt and support the idea of being an Ally. This requires leaders to be open and responsive to the idea, and the ideal. And here we seem to have a sticking point I’d like to explore with her at some point.
How to Be an Ally has instantly become a ‘must read’ book for anybody open to stretching their ability to be an effective agent in ‘making a difference.’ I am very mindful that not everybody has the opportunity and the means to be a leader in ‘making a difference’; and we must not be explicitly, or implicitly, critical of those who are not as energised as others.
So, I will speak here to those who are so energised; and say that the ideas and principles in How to Be an Ally are powerful tools for stimulating change at individual, workplace, and organisational levels. That they are also personally demanding speaks directly to that challenge of intentionally driving the evolution of our attitudes and values.
Link to How to Be an Ally on Amazon – for ebook and audiobook versions.