Allyship in the workplace can be a powerful tool to promote inclusion and diversity among underserved groups. In this episode, Dr. Aikyna Finch discusses the positive impact an ally can have for someone who is disadvantaged and the opportunities that connection can generate.
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Linda Ashar: Hello everyone. I am Linda Ashar. Welcome to my podcast. Today, I am privileged to be exploring allyship in the workplace with my guest and colleague, Dr. Aikyna Finch. Dr. Finch is a noted podcaster, social media coach, and speaker. She coaches in empowerment, life and social media at the individual and group levels both, with her company Finch and Associates LLC. Dr. Finch hosts podcasts on the topics of business and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging here at American Public University. And she’s a faculty training developer and curriculum subcommittee lead for the DEIB Task Force at APUS. Dr. Finch, thank you for joining us today.
Aikyna Finch: It is my honor. Thank you so much for having me.
Linda Ashar: About today’s topic, it’s been said that allyship is the key to unlocking the power of diversity. So, Dr. Finch, what is allyship?
Aikyna Finch: Well, that’s a very good question. And you know when I was getting ready for this podcast, I went and found the definition. We always love to research as educators, right? So according to Dictionary.com, the definition of allyship is the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of marginalized or politicized groups in all areas of society, not as a member of that group, but in solidarity of its struggle and point of view and under its leadership. And so, if I was to put it in terms, as far as me personally, I would say, it is when you have privilege in an area and you reach out to someone who may not have that privilege and you ally for them, you rally for them, you stand instead with them, so that they could have the opportunities that they deserve.
Linda Ashar: Now, you just mentioned several really powerful words, advocates, inclusion, solidarity, privilege. If we bring this concept into what we do in the workplace as employees or as employers, that’s what I’d like to develop with us today in our podcast discussion. So, let’s talk about the individual. How does being “an ally,” thinking of those words, be an “ally” in the workplace?
Aikyna Finch: Very good question. I have been an ally and I have had allies. From the standpoint of being rally for or having an ally, it was very important because you may have different strengths and gifts, but others are not willing to see it unless someone else says something about it, or if someone puts you out there in the front, or someone gives you an opportunity to let your light shine. And I’ve had many of those people do that for me in my career in education, especially. And it is so meaningful because we never know what we miss out on until we give the person an opportunity. And whatever the situation is for that person for the reason why they’re not getting an opportunity is sometimes a need for us to stand up and be that one to give that opportunity.
And as far as being an ally, sometimes we just have to stand up. We see it happening, but we look away. We see it happening. We wish we could do something, but, “oh, well.” But there’s a point in time when we see it happening and we have to be an ally and stand up and say, “This is not right. This person deserves that opportunity. This person deserves to be given a shot.” And sometimes we may be the lonely one, but at the end, we are the great one because we were the one that gave them that shot to shine.
Linda Ashar: How about an example? Can you think of an example of what that looks like where someone did exactly that, stood up for someone?
Aikyna Finch: Oh, certainly. I would go back to an example of myself. When I was 32, I became a dean for a university and I was put on the team and I had all these ideas and things and they just were like, “Oh yeah, whatever, you’re too young. You’re too this. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve only been here two weeks, whatever, whatnot.” And so, I started to get discouraged, but my boss, he said, “Look, if you think it’s going to work, do it. And all this could happen is that it doesn’t work, but you’ll never know if you don’t try, and you have my permission to do whatever you need to do to make this thing work.” And from there, I started rallying for my faculty. I started rallying for my students. I started putting the different innovative things in place. And within six months, I had broken records for that campus that had been three years in the making.
Linda Ashar: Wow, that’s an excellent, marvelous story. In that case, it was your boss who was the ally.
Aikyna Finch: Yes.
Linda Ashar: And we all know that isn’t always the case in the workplace.
Aikyna Finch: Oh, agree. I’ve had bosses that have sat on me plenty of times, but then someone, the star employee would come in and say, “Listen to what she has to say. It might be a good idea.” And once that person rallied for me and they heard the idea, they actually ran the idea, it actually worked. And then they had to come back and say, “I’m sorry for not listening to you the first time.”
Linda Ashar: So, what I’m hearing here is sometimes it could be something as simple as lending a voice to someone else’s effort.
Aikyna Finch: Agree. Agree. Sometimes we just have to be that standing block. You know, if we see an obstacle, we know this person might be great beyond belief, but they’re just not getting that opportunity. Sometimes we could say, “I believe in them. I’m standing with them. Let me help you. Let me work with you.” And all these things happen at the end that would’ve never happened if you just wouldn’t have lent your voice.
Linda Ashar: Well, you’ve shared an example where an ally assisted you. Let’s take a step back and broaden the field out. In terms of unlocking the power of diversity, to use that term I mentioned at the beginning, how does that work for allyship in the work? Let’s keep it in the workplace, who are people that need allies?
Aikyna Finch: Very good question. I would say everybody needs an ally. At this point in juncture, I mean, I can just use myself as an example. I am an African-American female and I’m in tech. I have a technical background. So, I am definitely the minority in that situation. And there’s been plenty of times when I needed an ally. I needed an ally from the female standpoint because there’s not a lot. I needed an ally from the African-American standpoint because it may not have been a lot. Now, I am not LGBT or what have you, but I’ve had friends who have been in that same situation, in that same arena that needed allies as well. We also have ageism. Sometimes employers try to start cutting you off once you get a certain age. Industry start cutting you off at a certain age and you need an ally to say, “Hey, this person is brilliant.”
Just because they’re a certain age, doesn’t discount their knowledge and their experience. Culture, sometimes they don’t understand your culture, and so, they’ll try to block you. Been there, done that, but at the end of the day, just because I am a certain culture doesn’t mean that I’m not brilliant, doesn’t mean that I don’t have nothing to say, doesn’t mean that I don’t have anything to contribute. Diversity is so important because you never know when you’re thinking in one mindset, having different minds, diverse minds will really bring people to the forefront, different ideas to the forefront, different movements to the forefront. We should never discount diversity because we never know what we’re going to miss when we sit up there and put a block on greatness.
Linda Ashar: Or how to solve problems. And you touched on a very important point because I actually hear people say, occasionally, it only needs to be said once to annoy me, I must confess: “why do we need diversity? Why does it matter?” And you just spoke to that very well. We forget that diversity built this country. It didn’t get where it is because of only one mindset. So, diversity matters. And I like what you just said about, we cut off opportunities, we cut off solutions by not recognizing it and promoting it.
So, let’s go back to being an individual in the workplace. A person can be going to work and embrace the idea of being an ally, but we all know that embracing an idea and putting it into action are not necessarily both easy. So how do I be an ally? I mean, I can’t go around and ask people, well, I could, but I wouldn’t advise it. Do you need an ally? Dr. Finch, do you need an ally today? That seems kind of off-putting and many people may not even think about needing an ally. So how do we put this wonderful concept into action?
Aikyna Finch: Once again, a marvelous question. In my history, being an ally and having allies, it happened naturally. You watch the situation unfold. You see the gap and you close the gap. Now, is it easy all the time? Absolutely not. Sometimes you can get ridiculed or different pressures for standing up and using your voice. And sometimes you don’t want to feel that way. Sometimes you don’t want to go through it; so we sit. Does that happen? Absolutely. But then there’s sometimes when there’s that strong tug where you feel that regardless of what they’re getting ready to put you through, you know that it’s the right thing and you will stand up for the right thing because sometimes you just get tired of watching the wrong thing.
Sometimes you get tired of being part of the wrong thing. So how do you become an ally? By standing up and using the voice. And sometimes it’s not you talking, sometimes it’s a letter. Sometimes it’s just giving somebody credit where their credit is due on a paper. Sometimes it’s saying, “Well, actually that wasn’t my idea, it was her idea. Actually, it wasn’t my idea, it was his idea.” Simple things like that make you an ally. A lot of times people think it’s this big grand gesture; not all the time.
Linda Ashar: Right. Exactly.
Aikyna Finch: Sometimes it’s the small things, given the credit, moving somebody, promoting the person that should be promoted regardless of how others feel, things like that. It doesn’t have to be grand all the time. Sometimes even the small things are impactful and will make a difference in someone’s life for the better.
Linda Ashar: Just occurred to me too, that the kinds of things you’re mentioning would work well in team building. And a lot of workplaces are doing more with teams approach. A team leader or a supervisor with all best intentions can have a tendency to choose a particular person to lead a project or to do what’s perceived to be the best aspect of a project either because the person could be a friend of the leader, it could be somebody who usually does the work all the time, or it’s just someone that the leader is more comfortable with to the disadvantage of, again, unconscious bias maybe to a minority on the team or just someone who is undervalued on the team for whatever reason. Let’s not even put a label on it. The person who is being singled out to do the better thing could simply say, “Hey, I think so and so over here would be really perfect to do this particular project,” which gives then that person an opportunity to shine. Isn’t that an example of being an ally?
Aikyna Finch: Yes, ma’am. It is. Yes, ma’am. It’s a lot of times when we think that, “Oh, that was just something that I would do.” That’s just the right thing. And people are so shocked that you would do this, and people need to realize that sometimes they don’t give their selves enough credit. They’re like, “Oh, I don’t do anything.” And it was just the right thing. But no, you were an ally. You did help that person out. You did show that you see them, many people that are minority, it’s a big thing to be seen. When you’re the majority, you see yourself all the time, you see examples of yourself all the time, and as a minority, I know what it’s like to be the first, I know what it’s like to be the only, and it makes a big difference when someone who is in the majority is an ally. It makes a big difference.
And I applaud each and every person who is an ally on the daily basis, whether they know it or not, because you saw that person, you saw them for who they were and not what you see on the outside, but you saw them for the person they were, you saw them for their skillset, you saw them for what they could do. And that’s always an amazing trade in allyship.
Linda Ashar: And it works out so well with just even what is seemingly taken by itself, a small gesture, but it’s not a small gesture because what you have just explained, it’s a human interaction being seen and being included is fundamentally huge, I think.
Aikyna Finch: And I agree.
Linda Ashar: Dr. Finch, we’ve been speaking about allyship and being allies from an individual focus. I’d like to turn to a more employer view of promoting allyship. And I know you do a lot of consulting and work with groups. So, how do you recommend whether it’s training or other ways of group help to promote allyship? What are your recommendations for an employer to help people be better allies in their workplace?
Aikyna Finch: Great question. So, when I’m thinking about being ally from an employer perspective, because I have been on the employer side as well, first thing we should do is look and make sure that we have an inclusive community. Meaning, do we have a lot of cliques? Do we have different areas where people would not feel comfortable if they came to a meeting? Do we have different spaces where everybody wouldn’t be able to have things accessible to them? All of these different things are included in being an ally. The next question is, once we fix that up, I would always do a survey of my employees, what would you like to see in the workplace? What would make you feel comfortable? What would make you feel included? What would make you feel seen? I would make sure that that was anonymous. I would have the different demographics or what have you.
But I know that sometimes people don’t feel comfortable when they put their name on a thing, so I would have what I needed to make the decisions, but it could be anonymous. And once that is said, collecting data is important because as an employee, when I take these different surveys, “Okay. I answer honestly, because I know that this data could be used to better the community, to better the experience for the next person that looks like me, that has my demographic, that has my skillset.” Then several different trainings that you could take. I personally have taken things from my employer on microaggression, ageism, a lot of accessibility training, things in this area because we want everybody to be included. We do have 508. From those who don’t know about 508, it’s basically that if you have a platform or class, etc., that everybody should be able to have the exact same experience in the class, accessibility, things of that nature.
And that has been huge to me ever since I found out about it because sometimes because we have it or we can do it, it doesn’t mean that somebody else can do it. And it makes us think outside the box. What if this? And what if that? Because we don’t naturally want to let anybody feel un-included, we don’t want that. What we want is for everybody to feel included, to feel like they have access to everything that they’re supposed to have access to. And so, putting that accessibility thought into your mind space, putting that diversity thought into your mind space, putting that equity thought into your mind space can really shift the dynamic of the culture.
Having meetings, where they talk about their culture, talk about different things that’s different about them to educate others so that others know. Sometimes we just don’t know. And once we have the education and the information, then we can make better decisions. So, I believe the training is important. I believe that the mindset shift is important. I believe that the openness is important, and I believe that an equal playing field is important. That’s the advice I would give to an employer.
Linda Ashar: Oh, excellent. And you mentioned a term microaggression, what is that?
Aikyna Finch: Basically, it is different statements like, “I don’t see color.” And I’m going to just use a term that’s been said to me, “You’re amazing for a Black girl.”
Linda Ashar: Oh, my goodness.
Aikyna Finch: Things like that.
Linda Ashar: You’ve heard that, I take it.
Aikyna Finch: Oh, yes.
Linda Ashar: Okay. It’s a great example. Thank you for sharing it.
Aikyna Finch: Yes. And people are like, “Wow. People would actually say that to you.” Yes, because they don’t understand that that’s a problem.
Linda Ashar: They think they’re giving you a compliment.
Aikyna Finch: Right. But that comes with not having the knowledge. Now, if they said it and they hadn’t received the education, but if they say it and they’ve already received the education, then there’s a big problem.
Linda Ashar: Yes, exactly.
Aikyna Finch: And those different things need to be addressed. This is happening in the workplace every day. Believe it or not. Well, I mean, of course we all believe it. We know it is happening. But sometimes they just don’t know. And it’s nothing wrong with educating them. When people would say those types of things to me, anything from, “Ooh, how do you make your hair stay like that?” Or “Ooh, can I touch your hair?” And they’re just fascinated, but they don’t understand that they could be offensive to me. I don’t go around asking you if I could touch your hair. So those are different types of microaggressions. We just need to tend to think, how would I feel if that question was asked to me before you asked?
Linda Ashar: Well, thank you for explaining that because I felt it was something that it was important for people to understand. And then the last few minutes we have, I’d like to go into one other field of exploring allyship and that is another area that you have an expert hat to wear. And that’s in social media and in remote situations like our classrooms for remote teaching and remote learning. How can we apply allyship there where our observation opportunities are more limited than if we’re in a workplace we’re engaging in real time with people one-on-one and in groups where we can see everybody that’s different in electronic online environments?
Aikyna Finch: Oh my. In the education field, I’ve heard many different ideas and examples of this. Some that really touched my heart was one faculty member had a student that spoke a different language. And so, they went and learned how to give their feedback, just a small snippet of greetings, how are you, you did an amazing job on your paper, learned how to say it in their language. And the student was elated because they said that nobody had ever took the time to learn how to communicate with them in their first language. Another one was a faculty member had a non-binary student and the students were picking on them. And the faculty member said, “No, you have to go because everybody has the right to have a safe environment in this classroom.” Another one would be discussion boards, giving a space for them to talk about their different feelings from their perspectives.
It’s always a good way to learn and grow. Announcements, putting out different announcements in different ways to show the different types of diversity, making sure all your videos have your captions in it, make sure that all texts are there for the people with the screen readers, all of these things are important to inclusivity because everyone should be able to have a safe environment where they feel like they can learn and grow. And they know that they have access to all the material, and that their faculty member is in the fight with them and is going to make sure that they have the inclusive environment.
Yes, sometimes we don’t have control over the curriculum, we don’t have control over the videos. If the video doesn’t have captions, then you drop in a transcript for them. If the discussion may be one-sided, you add a sentence where you say, “Hey, I would love to hear your approach to this. Feel free to share.” There are ways for us to make everyone feel included. And it’s not about color, it’s not about all these things. Sometimes people think, “Oh, I’m just going to stick a couple of pictures of other different races, and that’s my inclusivity.” No, it goes deeper than that. It goes deeper than that. It’s the start, but it goes deeper.
Linda Ashar: And we see so much nastiness on social media, too.
Aikyna Finch: Yes. Yes.
Linda Ashar: There are many challenges there, I think, to step up and be an ally. Sometimes I see it in places where I would not have any opportunity and it’s not a place where I can post, but I see it. And I find it troubling. It seems as if it ratchets up negativity the opposite of allyship in its best meaning. So, when I see people speak up positively, I am very responsive to that. It’s called positive reinforcement, I guess. Do you run into issues with social media?
Aikyna Finch: I run into it all the time. I started an event for women in STEM and people of color in social media in 2008, and I was advertising the round in the social media circles and things of that nature. And someone asked me, “Why does it matter if they’re of color?” And my answer was, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter when you see yourself all the time, but it does matter when you don’t.” And sometimes whether it be just a post, sometimes I’ll see things and I’ll make a post in my community. I won’t reference the particular thing; I’ll reference the feeling or the blanket situation. But at the end of the day, I’ll post something that educates around that.
Linda Ashar: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a good way to do it as opposed to getting into a one-on-one argument.
Aikyna Finch: Yeah, exactly.
Linda Ashar: But I think speaking up in some way that opposes the inappropriate comments is what’s important. Do you think I’m right on that?
Aikyna Finch: Oh yes. Most definitely.
Linda Ashar: Because I think it’s a concern many people have, and I thought we would use our last few minutes here to at least touch on that as an awareness point that allyship, this whole notion of allyship does carry over into many aspects of what we do. We focused on workplace, although social media is part of workplace anymore as well.
Aikyna Finch: Oh yes, definitely.Linda Ashar: I think our time is coming to a close, Dr. Finch. I can’t thank you enough for doing this with us today. It’s been a privilege. I appreciate your insights. It’s an important topic. It’s something that we should all embrace and think about. There’s so much that individuals and employers can do to foster an inclusive work environment. And I think this whole concept of allyship, just the awareness of being an ally can help everybody be more productive and comfortable together, and that’s what really it’s all about. Instead of being divisive and focused on differences, biases, and misconceptions, be focused on how we can work together peacefully. Dear audience this is Linda Ashar, thanking you for listening. Please come back for more podcasts. Don’t be a strange