Denise Hamilton is a nationally recognized inclusion strategist, specializing in ally training, and the founder and CEO of WatchHerWork, a digital platform for professional women. Denise has been called “The Secret Weapon of CEOs” because her unique super power is the ability to have the most challenging discussions and come out the other side with solutions and a positive direction. She uses this gift to lead workshops, design education programs and coach senior leaders. The goal is to empower individuals and teams to mine and close the gender gap, understand differences, resolve conflict and become better allies.
An awakening has swept throughout the world. Exposed to concrete evidence of the harm that is done to marginalized groups, many are horrified to realize all they did not know or understand. They want to learn what they can do to help, and soon realize that books, podcasts and documentaries are not enough to catalyze the change they desperately desire to see in both the world and themselves.
After the research — the looking outward to understand the world — the next step to becoming an ally is to look inward and be willing to start the change with yourself first.
Here are a few ways to get started.
Manage Your Feelings of Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt can be debilitating and, quite frankly, useless. They trigger feelings of helplessness, or even worse, defensiveness. Beating yourself up does not help anyone. Harnessing that energy towards advocacy and support of members of marginalized groups is much more productive. When you know better, you do better.
Conquer Your Fear
Let’s face it, it can be scary to step into conflict. Many of us have been raised to believe that conflict is negative. We are uncomfortable with disagreement and strong emotions. We are afraid to say or do the wrong thing. We cannot allow that fear to paralyze us. If you are afraid to speak up against harm, imagine how afraid or hurt the recipient of that harm feels. It is critical that each of us finds the courage to advocate for what is right.
Let Yourself Be a Beginner
If you are doing anything worthwhile, you will make mistakes. It is not a possibility, but guaranteed. As adults, most of us have identified our areas of giftedness and focus our time and energy in those spaces. We really like to be an expert, proficient in the things we do. We very rarely do things we don’t think we will be good at, especially when those things are high stakes. That hesitancy is equally present when we think about the practice of inclusion. If this is truly “new” to you, it is essential that you allow yourself the training wheels, pushing past the feelings of inadequacy or incompetence. Let yourself go from a D to a C+ to a B- working your way to an A. Nothing worth having comes without effort and commitment. You have to start and you have to keep going even if you’re wobbly. You will get better.
Don’t Center Yourself
New awareness of the deep challenges experienced by marginalized groups can trigger many emotions. All those emotions are valid and deserve exploration, but you must resist the temptation to center yourself in your analysis. Feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and inadequacy have one thing in common: They are all about you. Too many people spend their energy figuring out how these harmful systems impact themselves rather than those actually harmed by those systems. For example, imagine being in a work meeting when a sexist or racist joke is told and that bad behavior is not addressed by the employees in the meeting. After the meeting, someone goes, with tears in her eyes, up to a member of the slandered marginalized group saying how sorry they are that the comment was made. This well-meaning do-gooder didn’t speak up in the meeting and they don’t have any intention of speaking to the person that did the harm. Instead, they bring their emotion to the member of the marginalized group, requiring them to provide them comfort and consolation instead of receiving the support they should get as the target of the harm. It is easy to process all of these issues through a selfish lens, seeing change as limiting your options instead of expanding opportunities for others. To effectively address issues of inequity, our energy must be focused on the marginalized groups.
Look at the Systems Around You
It is tempting to focus your energy on individual bad actors. Many people have hung up on Mom or yelled at Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving dinner in an effort to be an advocate for marginalized groups. While it is important to hold people accountable for their behavior, it is far more important — and sometimes effective — to address systems that limit opportunities for others. What is happening in the underperforming schools in your area? What is your company’s policy towards ethnic natural hair? Does your favorite restaurant have a dress code they apply selectively to people of color? Is your bank providing investment to minority businesses and potential homeowners? Looking around your everyday life for opportunities to make even a small dent in systems that are not inclusive can be incredibly helpful. You are not helpless. Your voice can be a powerful catalyst for change.
Believe Things Can Change
The only ones that can change the world are the ones that think they can. It is essential that each of us finds and cultivates optimism. This work is so much easier if we all take our small corner of it.
Together, we can do incredible things. We just have to start, and there’s no better day than today.