Handshake

Developing a Workplace Ally: From Friendship to Social Justice

Krithika Malhotra, PhD
Margaret Smith, MD
University of Kansas Medical Center, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health

This is a story of allyship, friendship, and how collaborative relationships can change the systems in which we practice. It emphasizes the meaning of connection, being open to different perspectives and moving toward shared values and goals. This is a story of two women of color, from different cultures and generations, at different stages in their careers, coming together as allies to advocate for and bring about meaningful change in their work environment.

As an early career psychologist in a medical setting, I wondered about my power and ability to make systemic change in my workplace. As a woman of color, that doubt loomed even larger. However, my interests and training compelled me to want to make improvements in the system to which I belong. I decided to begin with small steps. The wellness of the people I work with felt like an important starting place. I began by casually checking in and connecting with my resident and attending physician colleagues. As specific racially charged events occurred in the country, the checking in became more intentional.

I am a Black woman physician at an academic medical center. I have been a part of this department for many years and as a woman of color, I understood the doubt and frustration my psychologist colleague was feeling. I have had similar feelings over the years. When she began “checking in”, I opened to the possibility of having a deeper relationship with her. Though she is much younger than I, from a different culture and discipline, I came to recognize our similarities and shared values. On the other hand, I appreciated her youth, energy and the skill set she brings to the department as a psychologist. I began seeing her as a friend and a person I could talk to about issues that were important to me. After the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent social unrest in our country, I realized that we could leverage our relationship and complementary skills to make significant and lasting change in our workplace. Something that has been difficult for me to do alone.

Through our collaboration emerged a mutually supportive relationship between two people of color, one at the beginning of her career and the other towards retirement. Developing a partnership with a successful provider of color in my organization, who is much further along in her career, bolstered my confidence in speaking out for meaningful change. Partnering with a younger colleague who has the energy, vision, and the bandwidth to implement the change we envisioned gave me the courage to use my experience and power to support her as we advocate for change. Our connection and having similar values has evolved into collaborative initiatives to improve the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts of our department.

The power of allyship in advocating for systemic change is well known. Being an ally is not just an identity; rather, it is a dynamic process emphasizing action and advocacy across systemic, institutional, interpersonal, and internal levels (Pickett & Tucker, 2020; Suyemoto, Hochman, Donovan, & Roemer, 2020). A critical component of successful allyship is the relational aspect and willingness to listen and negotiate with one another. This is especially true when your ally at the workplace is from a different discipline than you and there can be a clash of professional cultures. However, openness to and curiosity for differing perspectives can enrich the advocacy process for both parties. Learning from the other’s experiences and receptiveness to feedback are also essential to being effective allies.  

When it comes to identifying an ally, it is not only important to find shared values but also a mutually respectful relationship. We started as two individuals caring for one another who reached out to each other when examples of systemic racism were put on display in the news. We began holding virtual conversations together with anyone who wanted to discuss the protests of 2020 and the events that led up to them. We provided a safe space for people to discuss their feelings and talk about what we as individuals and a group could do to make our department more equitable. As we had these conversations, we found other voices and people who amplified our concerns.

Soon, this evolved into discussions of diversity in the workplace and need for more inclusive recruitment efforts. Given that we were both invested in residency education, we initially targeted resident recruitment as the area of improvement. Having shared language, from attending the same national webinar, allowed us to develop concrete strategies to pitch to our leadership. We determined together that having the more senior member of our team request the meeting and share the value of intentional recruiting of those underrepresented in medicine, would give us leverage in the conversation. Our approach and strategies were well received and motivated us to further our mission of diversity and inclusion in our department. Our next step was to expand our team and formalize the work through the creation of our department’s first Diversity Committee. As a result of our alliance, we now have a 22-person committee including physician and non-physician faculty, residents, nurses, and staff, who are dedicated to improving our department by emphasizing DEI values. We meet regularly to brainstorm actionable changes, with our most recent being to provide recommendations to leadership around faculty recruitment efforts. It is particularly fulfilling to think that it all started with two people coming together as friends and developing this strong allyship!    

If you are seeking a workplace ally or want to be one:

  • Identify an individual who is already doing something in an area you are interested in or has a shared value
  • Ask yourself if you would feel comfortable giving feedback and being vulnerable with the individual
  • Be equally willing to listen and negotiate in this two-way relationship
  • Identify common ground and develop mutual goals, both short- and long-term
  • Collaborate to develop shared language and strategies before approaching key stakeholders
  • Leverage privilege of each individual in the system to effect change, be that discipline, seniority in the organization, and/or leadership positions
  • Don’t be afraid to dream big and check in with each other

References

Pickett, J., & Tucker, C. (2020). Allyship: Standing with Chicago’s bisexual community. Journal      of Bisexuality. http://doi-org.kumc.edu/10.1080/15299716.2020.1764434

Suyemoto, K. L., Hochman, A. L., Donovan, R. A., & Roemer, L. (2020). Becoming and fostering allies and accomplices through authentic relationships: Choosing justice over comfort. Research in Human Development. http://doi-org.proxy.kumc.edu/10.1080/15427609.2020.1825905