HOW TO BE A GOOD ALLY: Thoughts from the Chicago Theater Community
Good allies. We all need them. We don't all know how to be them. But now is the time to learn. We asked a few eloquent Chicago artists who graciously offered their definition and thoughts. These words come from people who are angry, terrified, sad, frustrated and who want change. Please consider these words with an open heart - our community will benefit tremendously from it.
For most of 2016, I was producing a series of shows in a D.I.Y space in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The series showcased an extremely diverse group of artists and curators. When I started that series, I would have considered anyone a good ally if they used the right language, did some passive advocacy work, and shared a few, conscious social media posts. What I learned from that year is that allyship requires a lot of work if you want to be good at it. It also requires a lot of humility and patience. Therefore, I would rather use the term “effective” instead of “good” when describing the best practice. I think if any person did all three of these things, I would consider them an “effective” ally. Effective allyship is an active, conscious choice to advocate for a marginalized person or group of people. As Black and Gay, I have needed many allies to be seen and heard, both personally and professionally. Many people have used my race and sexual orientation as an excuse to dismiss my value, work, or to treat me poorly. There have been times when an effective ally went to those people and made it clear that I was competent, talented, and uniquely qualified to do the tasks set before me. Allies have helped me be seen and heard in circumstances where I could have been easily dismissed.
An effective ally also extends their platform. This is one of the most powerful tools allies have. Unfortunately, it is rarely done well. Many people believe they are being allies, but instead they use their platform to talk on behalf of marginalized people. It is possible they believe they're being advocates or sharing much-needed information. However, this approach steals focus from marginalized people and only serves as an advertisement for the ally’s newly-minted ‘consciousness’. There was a video trending last year that showed a best practice. During a White House press conference, Gloria Steinem is asked how to “empower the voiceless". Instead of answering the question, she silently passes the mic to Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. I highly suggest watching the video, as Amani says what I’m trying to say much more eloquently.
Effective allies understand that they need to exist in the spaces and places of marginalized people. In my experience, this is very difficult for many White allies. I have experienced so many one-sided friendships that I simply don’t participate in them anymore. Over the years, I’ve received so many excuses as to why people couldn’t come to my house, my neighborhood, my family gatherings, my… anything. However, I was expected to know their children’s names, parents names, go to housewarming parties, parents’ funerals, eat their food, and celebrate their milestones. My most effective allies have made a conscious effort to leave their comfort zone and be a part of my life. I am sure it is uncomfortable being the only White person in a room on the other side of town, but an effective ally recognizes that their friend is most likely equally as uncomfortable being in the ally's spaces and places. An effective ally also recognizes that their friend probably experiences that discomfort daily; every time they walk out the door, clock in to work, warms up for rehearsal, eats hummus at a potluck, or drinks that latte with artsy-foam. An effective ally empathizes with this daily burden, by making a conscious effort to regularly exist in non-majority spaces and places. Erick Deshaun Dorris is an Artist and Educator. Dorris is Co-Founder and Administrator for United In Excellence, an education advocacy and community arts program in his hometown of Joliet, IL. He also produces a series of live performances and recordings called "WERKSHOP," featuring nationally renowned musicians and vocalists. Erick has developed arts education and mentorship programs at Steppenwolf Theater, Lookingglass Theater, Fort Knox Studios, and Chicago Public Schools. He is currently a Research Associate for the Health Humanities Program at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and sits on the Board of Inspectors for Joliet Public Schools, District #86. Erick holds a Bachelor's in Theatre Arts from Millikin University and a Master's of Performing Arts Administration from Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts.