‘Allyship Is About Elevating Others’ — The Importance of Listening, Learning, and Making Room

Sponsored by Renaissance Learning

Chastity McFarlan. Photo courtesy of Chastity McFarlan.

Chastity McFarlan. Photo courtesy of Chastity McFarlan.

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July 24, 2024 at 12:37PM UTC

“We all have some privilege.” That’s one key piece of knowledge that Chastity McFarlan — PhD and Director of Content Quality and DEI at Renaissance Learning — learned during her allyship journey. This privilege “can be your gender identity, race, income level, educational attainment, sexual orientation, religion, or ability status,” she explains. 

For instance, “I spent most of my career advocating for high-quality education for Black and Latino students and students from urban neighborhoods — categories that I fit in when I was a student myself,” McFarlan continues. “A learning moment in my journey to becoming an ally was acknowledging the privileges I do have and using them to advocate for a high-quality education for other marginalized groups, as well. Everyone can be an ally and, perhaps, those who have faced inequities themselves are best positioned to be allies to others because they understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of injustice.”

At its core, being an ally comes down to acting as “a partner who offers support in a battle that may not be theirs,” explains McFarlan. And “allyship can take on many forms — it can look like sponsorship, sharing the spotlight, educating yourself on matters of injustice and inequality, advocacy, or speaking up for others.” As allyship examples, McFarlan shares that a male employee can use his voice to ensure that a female colleague is heard or a white woman can advocate for race to be examined as a contributing factor to closing the gender pay gap. 

In short, McFarlan shares that she “sees allyship as using one’s influence — and privilege — to support another’s fair treatment and advancement.” Here, McFarlan reveals her best advice for people seeking to do just that, as well as how Renaissance Learning fosters a culture of equality, fairness, and allyship.

To start, what is your best advice for other people who want to be better allies?

Remember that allyship is about elevating others. Before inserting yourself, seek to understand where (and whether) you’re truly needed. Educate yourself on matters that impact the people to whom you wish to be an ally. (I must stress that it is not the job of the marginalized to educate you on matters impacting them. Do your own research and learning rather than expecting them to teach you.) 

Listen more than you speak. Don’t assume that you have the solutions or know what’s best. And, when you spot an opportunity to support, elevate, sponsor, or advocate for them, do it. And don’t do it for recognition. Allyship is not about you, but about those you seek to support. If you are “supporting a cause” and expect recognition, that’s a good sign that the act is performative. Allyship that is not performative calls for work, effort, and maybe even a little discomfort.

In fact, allyship that is not performative can sometimes lead to more tension than gratitude. For example, when engaging in informal conversations with others and an insensitive remark is made, allyship in this instance means calling out what was inappropriate and why it was harmful, even if it changes the tone of the conversation.

Do you have any suggestions for books, podcasts, or other forms of media that share advice on being a better ally?

I would recommend focusing on learning about people from other subgroups. By learning about different people, the challenges they’ve faced, and the systems that have worked against them, you will be better equipped to provide support. Books like Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum do an amazing job at exploring identity development in historically marginalized communities. For those looking for resources that offer guidance and practice, I would point to books like Courageous Conversations About Race. Educating yourself on these matters rather than acting on misconceptions and faulty assumptions should be the first step.

What do you do in your day-to-day work life (and beyond) to serve as an ally?

I try to always make room at the table for others. At Renaissance, I support our product teams in building inclusive products with content that is diverse and representative of the students we serve. In this role, I have pushed for decisions to not be made unilaterally but, instead, with the guidance of those who have more lived experience than me. 

For example, I recently met with the Renbow Alliance, Renaissance’s employee resource group (ERG) for LGBTQ+ employees, to understand appropriate ways to capture gender identity and sexual orientation in a diversity audit that I’m leading. Although this is a small example, soliciting and considering their input before making company-wide decisions has a significant impact on ensuring the final product is appropriate, accurate, and respectful to their community. I’ve also done this with our ERG for employees with disabilities or who are neurodivergent, as well as with colleagues of diverse backgrounds in instances where there was no ERG. In sum, I try to use my position to ensure diverse groups have an opportunity to provide input on decisions made.

Moving on, can you tell us about the ally-related programs at Renaissance Learning?

We have ERGs that offer safe spaces for members belonging to historically marginalized communities. These ERGs often put on events or share newsletters to the broader community to allow members outside of that group to learn, engage, and support their colleagues. 

Separately, we also have an Inclusion Council that is open to all employees (you do have to apply since there are only around 20 slots on the Council). The Inclusion Council meets monthly to discuss topics like the inclusiveness of our products, hiring practices, event planning, company culture, and more. This is a great opportunity for employees seeking to be allies to learn more about company initiatives and volunteer their time and efforts.

More broadly, how does Renaissance Learning foster a culture of equality and fairness?

What matters gets measured. We collect, analyze, and make decisions based on data. Whether it’s collecting data on our annual culture survey or monitoring promotion and hiring stats, Renaissance uses data to evaluate our progress toward DEI goals. This extends to our products as well. I work on the product team, leading the work for diversity and inclusion in our student-facing material. We monitor the diversity in our products and set goals to continually improve not just the quantity, but also the quality of representation. We also have a psychometrics team ensuring content in our assessments is fair and does not bias one group over another. We lean into the data to show us where we are and where we should head next.

It also helps that leadership has bought in as well. They champion and internalize this work, providing DEI updates during company-wide town halls. That support and buy-in trickles down to the rest of the company.

What do you think other companies can learn from how Renaissance Learning handles allyship?

Through initiatives like the Inclusion Council, our annual culture survey, ad hoc listening sessions, and more, Renaissance is intentional about listening before acting. If there is a problem, a suggestion, or a concern, it is critical that companies provide a safe space for employees to share their grievances, remain open to feedback, and be ready to act based on what they hear.

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