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How To Be An Ally: Key Learnings

In Episode 88, Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst, shares key learnings in a book reading from a few chapters of her book, How to Be an Ally (McGraw-Hill). Drawing inspiration from her own story of experiencing biases and microaggressions in the workplace, Melinda explains how allyship can create positive change in workplaces and communities. She also presents a comprehensive list of tangible actions we can take to support people who experience microaggressions, systemic inequities, and other barriers to opportunity— specifically by learning to recognize and overcome verbal and nonverbal microaggressions and by counteracting the effects through microaffirmations.

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In the world today, we have a tendency to believe that technology can fix most problems in our workplaces. But there is no technology that magically fixes [lack of diversity, inequity, and exclusion] either. There are some technology solutions working on pieces of the diversity and inclusion puzzle; there is some training that can help people learn specific solutions to creating more equitable systems, processes, language, and structures. However, the real change happens when each of us becomes part of the solution. That’s where allyship comes in: you and me, leading with empathy, changing how we do what we do, how we make people feel, working together to recognize and correct deep imbalances in opportunity that began centuries ago and continue today. As we reach a critical mass of allies, we create stronger and happier workplaces, companies, and industries together.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. 

I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. 

All right. Let’s dive in. 

Hello, everyone. Welcome. Today we had a last minute reschedule with one of our guests. So instead, I thought I’d do a book reading. It’s something that people have requested or audience has requested in the past. So today I’m going to share a few different passages from my new book, How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace. It’s published by McGraw Hill, available at most booksellers, and you can learn more about it at MelindaBrianaEpler.com. 

I wanted to acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone people in Yelamu. I recognize their elders’ past, present, and future, and the need to redress the historical and current harm to indigenous communities. So if you work or live on indigenous lands, I encourage you to get to know the history and the current peoples that live on that land, and get involved in repairing past and current harm. 

As you all know, or most of you know, I’m Melinda Briana Epler. I’m the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, and the host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. I’m a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and author of How to Be an Ally. I also train and advise, and I coach leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and activists on how to build diverse, equitable, and inclusive companies. 

So today I will be sharing some passages from my book, How to Be an Ally. I will say that I spent about two and a half years researching and writing this book, and also, decades of experience as well went into it. I analyzed 300 books and articles. Then at Change Catalyst, we synthesized all we’ve learned over the many years of working with leaders to build empathy and allyship, and we developed a allyship report prior to releasing this book too, as well. So some of the research that went into that report is also weaved in throughout the book. Wayne, myself, and the Change Catalyst team have been working on allyship since 2015. We have facilitated conversations, workshops, and keynotes. 

Then in 2018, I was asked to do a TED talk. The TED curator asked me to do a talk on a different subject, but I really wanted to focus on allyship. I felt that having done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for some time, I’ve come to realize a couple of things. One is that it’s just not enough for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion folks to end at HR and people teams to create change. It really takes each of us working together: one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time. So the change really needs to come from all of us, we are cultures or workplace cultures. We are using and often creating systems within those workplaces, and they can be inequitable if we don’t actively work to build equity and inclusion. We also often harm each other without intending to, through biases and microaggressions, so sometimes we have to do that internal work as well. So it really does take all of us to create more fair workplaces and more just workplaces, where everyone has an opportunity to live, to love, to lead, and to thrive. 

The second is that I know so many people who want to do something. I’ve met so many people who want to do something around diversity, equity, inclusion, fairness, social justice. But they don’t know what to do. So I decided to write a book to really go step by step, walk you through what you can do to be a better ally, a better advocate, a better accomplice, a better leader, and a better human ultimately. 

So there are 10 chapters in the book. I go through what allyship is, why it matters, how it works within the workplace, why it’s important for diversity, equity, and inclusion and culture in general. Then seven steps for being a better ally: from learning, unlearning, and relearning ways that we need to unlearn our biases, for example. Unlearn what we thought we knew and relearn from different perspectives, as we grow our networks, and as we grow empathy and understanding for each other. Then doing no harm, understanding and correcting biases. 

The third is recognizing and overcoming microaggressions, other ways that we create harm. Then advocating for people, ways that we can really step up and step in, and sometimes also step back, and really be there in support for each other. Step five is standing up for what’s right, and that is specifically focused on interrupting microaggressions; the ways that you can interrupt microaggressions. There are scripts and different definitions, and I walk through a process to actually think about how you might want to intervene when you see a microaggression or experience a microaggression. Then leading the change. How each of us, no matter what our role is, we can lead the change and create a better world and a better workplace for everybody. Lastly, transforming our organizations, our industries, and society, of course; ways that we can go beyond our day to day jobs who really take action on behalf of each other. The last one is, allyship is a journey. 

There’s a lot of FAQs (frequently asked questions) that I’ve received over the years that are put into Chapter 10. Questions that come up for people, I go through and answer those. I also talk about the stages of allyship in that chapter as well. 

So lots there, I’m just going to go through a few brief pieces of chapters within the book today. You can learn more about the book, again, at MelindaBrianaEpler.com. Great!

So let’s get started with the first piece. This is in the Introduction: How I Hit the Glass Ceiling and Bounced Back. 

In 2013, I hit the glass ceiling hard, and still to this day I have shards from it embedded deep beneath my skin.

The glass ceiling exists for many people rising to the top of their fields and companies, where we hit the limit of what opportunities are open to us because of our identity (gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and/or other historically marginalized identities). It’s glass, so we might not see it right away, and the people around us usually can’t see it either.

All my life I’ve worked to make the world a better place. I began my career as a documentary filmmaker. After several years, my work evolved to creating movements of change by combining storytelling with behavioral science. I partnered with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), governments, and Fortune 500 companies to build social change using social marketing, branding, behavior change strategies, and storytelling. I also advised social entrepreneurs, became a popular sustainability blogger, and volunteered and served on the boards of multiple nonprofits and advocacy organizations.


While leading several global branding, marketing, and social impact campaigns with my clients, I was offered a job in-house as an executive at an international engineering firm in San Francisco. Like many companies, this organization was working to stay strong in an industry dominated by ever-enlarging global conglomerates. This company wanted to be the go-to firm for women in engineering and wanted me to help them get there. That sounded fantastic.

They told me my branding, storytelling, and marketing experience was exactly what they needed to shake up their brand positioning, storytelling, and marketing strategy. My experience in organizational and cultural change was exactly what they needed to build a healthier and more scalable culture, put human resources operations in place, and manage process and culture integration in a few upcoming mergers and acquisitions. And my social impact and behavioral science expertise was perfect for leading a new business service for our healthcare clients to help them improve sustainability metrics through behavior change initiatives.

The CEO had courted me for about a year before I finally said yes. Three times he asked me to work for him. I said no each time, because my business as a brand consultant was growing quickly and I liked working with multiple clients to make a positive impact in the world. But finally, I decided to take a leap. So I closed down my successful business and moved across the country to start changing the world in a new way.

I was Chief Experience Officer, leading marketing and culture, and also responsible for building a new service line for clients on sustainability behavior change in the healthcare industry. I worked with some of the nation’s largest healthcare systems, using technology and culture change to radically reduce their waste, energy, and water use, and improve their social impact. It was my dream job in many ways. I was creating real change in the world and making a significant positive impact on the company’s sales, marketing, and engagements.

But that job became the worst professional experience of my life. While I was doing meaningful work in the field, I was miserable as soon as I got back to the office. I was the only woman on the executive team. And while I was used to being the “only” in my life, I was not ready for the deep assault on my expertise, the lack of respect, and being undermined and belittled throughout my time there. While there were some bigger issues, most of what happened involved behavioral patterns and personal slights that slowly chipped away at my ability to do my work well. Here’s an example.

I’d spent the first few weeks in my role hitting the ground running on client delivery and listening, learning, and developing a plan to meet the marketing and culture goals I’d been hired to achieve. My first major presentation at the company was to share the strategy I developed with my 19 colleagues on the leadership team.

After being introduced by the CEO, I looked around the room at my fellow executives, eager to share and discuss my plan. And I watched, as they immediately picked up their phones and looked down at their computers. They’re not paying attention. As I start to speak, I’m thinking they will begin to pay attention out of respect and hopefully interest. But they don’t. Instead, they quickly jump in and interrupt me before they’ve even heard what I have to say. People talk over me, again and again. Some of my ideas are flat out dismissed, and then a few minutes later, they’re brought up by someone else and championed.

It was deflating, and as it turned out, it was not an isolated experience. I soon began to realize that only a few leaders in the company truly believed in that CEO’s vision of becoming the go-to firm for women. Many of my colleagues didn’t care to be led by a woman and—they told me directly—they felt that to actively hire more women would be “lowering the bar.” In my case, not only was I a woman executive, but I was also an outsider not directly from their industry. And it was clear I didn’t belong. 

Data shows, and my CEO believed, that diversity was exactly what they needed to stay strong in the market: someone to bring new perspectives from many different industries, with a different set of innovative skills, and who could challenge leaders to make their work better. As a consultant, I became good at quickly learning culture, language, and processes of new industries. I had already consulted with them for about a year so I knew their business, and I brought with me a lot of ideas and successes from other industries. But to many leaders at this firm, my being an outsider was another reason not to pay attention to my ideas. They absolutely were not going to give me an opportunity to succeed. From the start, they had made up their minds that as a woman and an outsider, I would fail.

Once on board, I learned the company did not have good experiences with other women executives they had hired in the past. Somehow, each of them turned out to be “not the right fit.” Yet I was an idealist. I believed the CEO when he told me about flaws these women had, and that by contrast, I was the perfect person for their company. And I know the CEO believed this too. Sadly, we both had a lot to learn about the company’s culture. 

Several years earlier, I’d worked in the film industry where sexual harassment was an everyday experience for me. I thought it would be better in corporate America, yet in some ways, it was worse. While I experienced sexual harassment, a lot of what I experienced was more subtle, and I didn’t understand it at first. I believe most of it was unintentional—my colleagues’ behaviors were rooted in the deep norms established by the company culture and in their individual biases, which were formed over their lifetimes and perhaps handed down over generations.

The little negative patterns and behaviors I experienced daily with my colleagues, they slowly chipped away at my confidence, they undermined my leadership, and reduced my capacity to innovate. Former White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith calls what I experienced “death by a thousand paper cuts.” In this case, I think I was feeling shards of the glass ceiling along with these paper cuts!

The quote here is: “It’s there, it’s insidious, and so many people, women of all races, men of color, experience what I call death by a thousand paper cuts” ~ Megan Smith. 

When people experience acts of exclusion, there is a physiological as well as emotional response. Reflecting back to that room where I gave my first presentation: despite my years of experience and expertise, I was negatively judged before I’d said anything. Sure, I was a bit nervous for my first big presentation in front of this group, but I was prepared. I had done this many times before, my plan was a good one, and like a good corporate executive and coalition-builder, I had talked with many of my colleagues individually to get their input beforehand

Yet I was knocked off my feet from a lack of people listening, the constant interruptions, and my ideas being taken as other people’s ideas. I lost energy and confidence because my expertise was being questioned. Then my fear and stress response kicked in, and I experienced what’s called the amygdala hijack. My brain was stuck in fight, freeze, or flight mode. In social situations, my brain often chooses flight, so my brain was focused on how to fly out of that room. I was no longer fully functioning as the innovative, confident, and challenging thinker that I am. I began to sound flustered and soon found I was saying a lot of ums and ahs in an attempt to keep people from talking over me. By the end, it had unraveled into a mediocre presentation at best.

When your voice and expertise are silenced, it’s nearly impossible to be an effective leader. If the people in that room had challenged my ideas, then we could have had a robust debate. But they never heard my ideas. Or perhaps worse, they heard my ideas in passing and suddenly claimed them as their own.

I was the only woman in that room, except for the CEO’s assistant, and I could have used an ally. An amygdala hijack can be interrupted at any time by someone who helps change the dynamics in the room. An ally could have recognized what was happening and helped stop the interruptions. They could have asked people to put down their phones, and they could have subtly pointed attention back to my ideas and strategy.

The disrespectful behaviors I experienced in that meeting room continued every single day I stayed at that company. Behaviors and patterns like this, when they happen over and over and over again, they wear you down. Pretty quickly, my energy was tapped, my confidence was shot, and I was miserable. 

All right, that’s the end of that section here. I’m going to skip to a second reading. This is in Chapter One: What Allyship Is and Why It Matters. 

The number one thing I have learned over years of doing this work with hundreds of companies is this: There’s no magic wand that creates diversity, equity, and inclusion. Change happens one person at a time, one act at a time, one word at a time. 

It’s human nature to want quick solutions. Often companies new to diversity, equity, and inclusion believe that one training will fix their problems, but that isn’t how change works. There is no training that on its own magically fixes lack of diversity, inequity, and exclusion.

In the world today, we have a tendency to believe that technology can fix most problems in our workplaces. But there is no technology that magically fixes this either. There are some technology solutions working on pieces of the diversity and inclusion puzzle; there is some training that can help people learn specific solutions to creating more equitable systems, processes, language, and structures. However, the real change happens when each of us becomes part of the solution.

That’s where allyship comes in: you and me, leading with empathy, changing how we do what we do, how we make people feel, working together to recognize and correct deep imbalances in opportunity that began centuries ago and continue today. As we reach a critical mass of allies, we create stronger and happier workplaces, companies, and industries together. 

Data shows that people on diverse and inclusive teams are happier at work, we’re more innovative and productive, and our companies are more profitable. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the just thing to do, plus it’s good for business and it makes us all happier. When we are there for each other and support one another, we thrive together.

Who is an ally? Everyone, from every background. Yes, all of us. As a White, cisgender woman who lives in the United States, there are some ways I’ve been very privileged and other ways I have not. I work every day to use my privilege to be an ally for other people. Plus, I still need allies too. 

All of us have more to learn, and we need each other. We need you. For those of us who have identities that are often underrepresented, this is an extra burden to bear on top of all the barriers we face. But I firmly believe that we will not fundamentally shift society without each of us working together, being there for each other, and especially for those who have less privilege than we do. No matter who you are, there is always someone who has less privilege than you who needs an ally. So take care of yourself, take time out if and when you need it, and then show up for someone when they could really use your support. I see you and I appreciate you. 

What is allyship? Allyship is empathy in action. It’s really seeing the person next to us—and the person missing who maybe should be next to us—and first understanding what they’re going through, then helping them succeed and thrive with us. We use our power and influence to create positive change for our colleagues, friends, and neighbors. We recognize when someone isn’t in the room who should be and work to get them in that room. And not just in the room but at the table, rebuilding that table together if it wasn’t made for them, and leading the conversations at that table.

Allyship is learning by reading, observing, listening, and hearing other people’s lived experiences. Allyship is stepping up and stepping in as an advocate—even sometimes stepping back—so that our colleagues can thrive. Allyship is also leading the change, taking action to correct unfairness and injustice. We remove barriers so everyone can rise and make sure no one is unfairly held down. 

There are many terms that go hand in hand with allyship. Some say we need to go beyond allyship to being comrades, collaborators, coconspirators, accomplices, and advocates. To me, these are all forms of allyship and each is important. The work of allyship is not passive, it is active. Allies are not bystanders; allies do the work.


An alliance is an agreement to cooperate, a merging of efforts, helping each other when in need, mutually working toward a common goal. Between countries, this is often sharing weapons and supplies, fighting side by side in war—think Allied Powers in World War II. By working together, these allies won the war. So between people, often this is sharing our power and influence, working together to correct systemic barriers. Allies advocate for and with each other, we collaborate and conspire with people who have been historically marginalized to rebuild systems that are more equitable. So we may start with small actions as allies, yet over a lifetime we grow into deeper actions.


What does an ally do? Good allies learn, show empathy, and take action: we learn to better understand each other, to become aware of unintentional harm we might be causing, to make corrections to our own beliefs and actions, and to grow as inclusive leaders. We also learn when we make mistakes (which we all do!). Good allies are always learning.


We show empathy for each other and recognize and value our unique experiences. We notice when people have been negatively impacted by marginalization or inequity, whether caused by ourselves, someone else, or an unfair system. Good allies are empathetic leaders, approaching people, ideas, and solutions with empathy.


We take action in ways that benefit people around us—especially people who have been oppressed and marginalized, and have faced inequity. This can be in little ways at first, then stepping into opportunities for bigger action.


This book is organized into seven steps for you to take action as an ally:


  1. Learn, unlearn, and relearn. Learn about and recognize historical harm and its intergenerational impact, unlearn biases from history and cultural marginalization, and relearn from new perspectives.


  1. Do no harm—understand and correct our biases. Work to change your behaviors and actions so that you don’t unintentionally harm people with biases.


  1. Recognize and overcome microaggressions. Develop your awareness and empathy skills to identify and eliminate microaggressions.


  1. Advocate for people. Step up and advocate for people in small, everyday ways that can make a big difference.


  1. Stand up for what’s right. Intervene to stop microaggressions and support people who have been harmed.


  1. Lead the change. When you’re ready, take action to lead the change in your work, on your teams, and in your workplace. 


  1. Transform your organization, industry, and society. Address biases and inequities in your company and in the broader world.


Allyship is not charity; allyship is being a good human. Allyship helps correct and repair centuries of people not being treated equally, create equal access and opportunity, build better companies, and establish healthier, happier workplaces and communities.


That’s the end of that passage. So I spoke about microaggressions, and I shared my own experience of biases and microaggressions in the beginning. So I wanted to share a bit more deeply about microaggressions here. So I’m going to do that. I will say as context here, the whole chapter is about microaggressions, I’m just going to share a brief piece of it. I did a tonne of primary and secondary research, compiled the most common microaggressions experienced by people across race, ethnicity, gender, disability, LGBTQIA+, religion, age, immigrants, and other people who are historically and systemically marginalized. So this is a section specifically about nonverbal microaggressions, which we often think less about. 


Avoidance. “When you are connecting with people with disabilities . . . you don’t have to have all of the answers. Just the confidence to start the conversation” ~ Victor Calise. Microaggressions can also be nonverbal and passive: when we fear saying or doing the wrong thing, we might avoid someone altogether. This avoidance can have long-term effects on someone’s life. The first time I learned about avoidance was in 2016, while talking with Victor Calise, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Earlier that year we held our Ability in Tech Summit to address DEI for people with disabilities in tech. I shared with him that for our career fair portion of the event, tech companies repeatedly said they “couldn’t” come because their teams had not been trained on how to talk to people with disabilities, or they didn’t know how to accommodate them. Victor told me avoidance is commonly experienced by people with disabilities—and since then I’ve recognized it happening with Black, LGBTQIA+, and Muslim colleagues and friends, as well as people with other marginalized identities.


So Avoidance can also occur as a result of microaggressions. Due to discrimination, microaggressions, and lack of accessibility or inclusion—or the anticipation of these—people with underrepresented identities often avoid social situations. A 2018 Australian study found 31 percent of disabled people engaged in avoidance behaviors because of their disability. There’s two different types of avoidance there. So who are you avoiding out of fear or lack of knowledge? And what can you do to change that? 


So I’m actually going to talk through a table here. I have, in the book, several different tables. There’s some tables in the bias chapter, different kinds of biases and ways to think about them differently, and the same in the microaggressions chapters; there’s two chapters on microaggressions This is Table 5.2: Recognizing and Overcoming Nonverbal Microaggressions. 


So avoid these microaggressions. Invisiblization and exclusion. Ignoring someone’s presence in the room, in a conversation, or in a public space. Not inviting someone to a meeting when they should be there because of their expertise and role. Having non-senior-level people or non-”VIPs” sitting against the wall versus sitting at the table. Seeing or treating two Black women as interchangeable. 


Consider this. Invisibilization is a form of othering: “I don’t see you or recognize you.” This could happen in meetings or events, where no one introduces themselves to a person with an underrepresented identity. Or walking past someone and pretending they don’t exist. This happens to me often in my own neighborhood in San Francisco, the heart of the tech industry: men will literally run into me because they don’t see me, or they expect me to move out of the way. Be mindful of inclusion in meetings—invite people to be in the room where decisions are made, with a powerful position at that table. Ensure everyone is introduced to one another. Pause, humanize, and empathize.


Avoid these microaggressions. Not paying attention. Looking at your laptop or cell phone or otherwise multitasking while someone is speaking. Talking aside to someone else when a

 person is sharing an idea or experience. Closing off your body or communicating disinterest when someone is speaking.


Consider this. Give people your full attention. Put down your phone, close your laptop, and pay | attention. Practice empathetic listening. Use open body language and facial expressions that connect with the speaker, show you are truly listening and care what they have to say. If someone is new to a group or company, or the only person like them in the room, or they’re just nervous, this can make a huge difference. And you may also find that you remember more about what they say.


Avoid these microaggressions. Touching without permission. Touching someone’s wheelchair, leaning against it, or pushing it. Patting the head of a little person and/or a woman. Touching a Black woman’s hair or a Muslim woman’s headscarf. Rubbing a pregnant woman’s belly. Putting your hand on someone to quiet them. 


Consider this. Each of these can be belittling and offensive; it’s not OK to touch someone without their permission. A wheelchair user often sees their wheelchair as an extension of their body—don’t lean on, push, or otherwise handle it without permission. (Same for canes and walkers.) As an ally, consider opening the door for them if it’s not automatic, and removing any obstacles from their path.


Avoid these microaggressions. Racist, sexist, or ableist nonverbal actions. Referring to sign language by waving your hands in a nonsensical way. Using an animal reference (e.g., monkey, ape, cougar) when referring to a person. Calling the police when you see a Black person in your neighborhood, or calling security when at your workplace. Crossing to the other side of the street when you see a Black man coming toward you on the sidewalk, locking the door when you see a Black man walking near your car, grabbing your purse when you see a Black person near you. Using cat or cougar gestures, or gestures about their body, when describing a woman.


Consider this. These are demeaning and derogatory actions that must be eliminated from our society-they are harmful to us all. Refrain from calling security or the police because someone looks suspicious-this is a bias that puts Black people in harm’s way far too often and needs to be unlearned. Recognize and reverse your biases when you assume someone is a criminal or doesn’t belong. If you tense up when a Black man walks down the street next to you at night, recognize yourself tensing up and change it, show warmth and kindness instead. Pause, humanize, and empathize.


Avoid these microaggressions. Visual storytelling. Featuring stories, pictures, or other examples that don’t show diversity; they tell inappropriate jokes, they reinforce stereotypes, or they are slights. This might be in slides, websites, presentations, social media, advertisements, etc.


Consider this. Filter all of your work with a DEI lens. Always consider the diversity, accessibility, and inclusion of written language, images, and other visual expressions. 


Avoid these microaggressions. Other facial expressions and body language. Rolling your eyes or otherwise dismissing or mocking someone. Giving a “knowing” side look to someone about someone else. Embodying dominant power positioning


Consider this. Become aware of how your body and facial expressions make someone feel. Is someone closing their own body language in relation to yours? Are you encroaching into their personal space? Once you begin to recognize this, you might also be able to see other people do this too, and interrupt it. I have two sections that I referenced here, one on facial expressions and one on body language. 


Lastly, avoid these microaggressions. Avoidance. Not interviewing or approaching someone because you don’t know how” or “don’t know how to accommodate.” Avoiding the seat next to a person with a marginalized identity, or sitting further away than normal in a conversation or an interview. Asking different questions in a job interview because you are afraid to ask them, or assume you know the response. Not giving someone proper feedback to grow.


Consider this. See the earlier Avoidance section. Don’t let fear be reason or excuse for exclusion. Do the work to learn how to speak with, interview, or accommodate someone. Make sure you are providing quality feedback to people who need it to grow in their work. I talk more about feedback in Step 5: Stand Up for What’s Right. 


All right, that’s the end of that section. Then just one more here. I also want to just share some things you can do that can help acknowledge and treat the impact of microaggressions. This is a whole chapter dedicated to micro-interventions, which are essential, and this section in particular focuses on microaffirmations. So I’ve been asked to speak about this a lot lately, TED actually published an excerpt from the book about microaffirmations. It’s got a lot of play, and as a result, I’ve been doing keynotes and workshops and fireside chats on deepening allyship actions through microaffirmations. So I wanted to share a little bit of that today. 


Microaffirmations. “I am in a position where I can be a voice for the disabled community, but I am not the only voice. My responsibility is to bring others alongside with me. To bring another voice that is a different perspective that I just can’t bring. I will never be able to bring a Black disability perspective. I will never be able to bring a trans disability perspective. I will bring other people along for that” ~ KR Liu. Actually, as a side here, we have an episode with her that you can check out, so we’ll put that in the show notes. We actually also have an episode with Victor Calise as well, who I quoted earlier, so check that out as well. 


Many trainings and articles about microaggressions focus on how to intervene in the moment. It’s crucial that we normalize calling people into conversations about microaggressions and how they can be harmful—and we’ll go into ways to do this in the next section. At the same time, there are several other important ways to support people who experience microaggressions, systemic inequities, and other barriers to opportunity.


In contrast to microaggressions, microaffirmations are little ways that you can affirm someone’s identity, recognize and validate their experience and expertise, build confidence, develop trust, foster belonging, and support someone in their career growth.3 These can help mitigate and disrupt the harmful effects of historical oppression, systemic inequity, cultural marginalization, and personal biases. The following section provides a number of microaffirmations you can practice.


Take a Moment Out of Your Day to Learn. Get to know people, and pay active attention to their words and ideas. Show genuine curiosity and compassion about the lives and work of your team members and colleagues. Build relationships with them so you can better collaborate together, and advocate for each other. When they are speaking, listen and be fully present. When they are sharing their ideas or experiences, make sure you show compassionate empathy.


Mirror the language someone uses to describe their own identity. Listen and learn how someone pronounces their name and describes their identity; recognize what pronouns they use. Then mirror the language they use to describe themselves—it shows them you’re paying attention and that you care about them. Thank you to Jeanne Gainsbourg for sharing this concept with me, and you can actually listen to the episode with her as well, where I learn about mirroring. 


Acknowledge important religious and cultural holidays and life milestones. Keep an eye out for key moments that might be important in someone’s life, and recognize them. You might send a quick note to wish someone a lovely Diwali if they celebrate it, or make a note on your workplace intranet—or a public statement—to share about Indigenous People’s Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, National Coming Out Day, Black History Month, Juneteenth, Ramadan, Lunar New Year, Disability Employment Awareness Day, Pride Month, Yom Kippur, Holocaust Remembrance Day, International Women’s Day, Hispanic Heritage Day, Deaf History Month, and so on. Also birthdays, births, graduations, congratulations, and weddings can each be nice moments to send a quick note. Make sure you are checking in during harder life moments, too, like deaths, illness, and other key life moments.


Provide Feedback. Provide regular, quality formal and informal feedback. Women, and especially women of color, tend to receive less quality feedback that can help them make any needed course corrections and develop as leaders. This can be due to stereotypes and/or avoidance, where managers are uncomfortable or fearful of how someone might receive feedback. When women do receive formal feedback, it is often about their communication styles (e.g., “too aggressive,” “not assertive enough,” “your speaking style can be off-putting”) rather than actionable developmental feedback about skills (“deepen your knowledge about this, which will help you in this way”). Lacking quality formal feedback can impact promotions, raises, and bonuses. Without quality informal feedback, someone doesn’t have an opportunity to improve performance between reviews, which can make a big difference in their career advancement and overall success.


Establish ahead of time what behaviors and skills demonstrate proficiency and leadership in a role, tie progress and feedback to team and business goals, use the same feedback criteria for everyone in that role, and develop a plan with each person to improve their skills and navigate career progression. Also give people quality feedback on presentations, projects, leadership moments, and other intermittent milestones. 


It’s important to provide both positive feedback and constructive criticism as well. When I was in film school working with actors, one of my directing teachers taught us to always give an actor two to three pieces of specific positive feedback before providing negative or constructive feedback. It can make a big difference in their next performance: you build their confidence, help them learn what does work, and then ask them to try something new.


I’m just going to kind of share with you some headlines throughout the rest of this chapter too, and then we can share in the show notes that TED.com article which has more information from the book here. The next section is: Actively Include People and Recognize Their Expertise. Work hard to ensure participation from everyone on your team. When somebody isn’t participating, take notice and support them. Acknowledge expertise and skill. Really important when people have not been acknowledged throughout their lives that we then recognize that and actively acknowledge their expertise and skill. Then also, recognize people’s achievements. Invite somebody to speak. Look for opportunities to bring them in and invite them to speak, and amplify their voice as well. So we’ll share the TED.com article where you can learn more about microaffirmations as well. The final question is section: what new microaffirmations will you incorporate into your workplace over the next couple of weeks? 


Okay, in closing, I just wanted to share a few things here. Again, you can learn more at MelindaBrianaEpler.com. You can learn more about the book. Do check out all of our episodes of this podcast at ally.cc, and please do share your learnings. We have a #AllyshipPodcast if you want to share your learnings on Twitter and other social media. We shared our findings in some of our allyship report and past sessions, and you can learn more about some of that data and research at ally.cc/report. 


Thank you. Thank you all for listening, for being there, for doing what you do to create change in the world and your workplaces. Please continue taking action as an ally. 


To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.


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