July 20, 2020

Allyship – Growing From Mistakes in a Cancel Culture

Partner Sabrina Rose-Smith sat down for a frank discussion with Professor Kenji Yoshino on what it takes to be an ally in the current environment.

Goodwin’s recent Week of Inclusion was focused intimately on allyship, and discussions of how to support minorities, particularly our black community, during this time of civil unrest. We focused on the journey to becoming an ally: recognizing privilege; doing the homework to learn about others; speaking up, not over when we witness non-inclusive behavior; and actively committing to the work of being an ally.

The week-long celebration was held in May and included learning sessions and dialogues with firm leadership, culminating in a live-streamed conversation with partner and co-chair of CRED@Goodwin, Sabrina Rose-Smith, and Professor Kenji Yoshino, Director of NYU Law School’s Center for Diversity Inclusion and Belonging, illuminating the concept of allyship.

Professor Yoshino began by emphasizing that allyship for him, “like all academic projects that start with people’s passions, is at its heart, personal.” He became particularly fascinated by allyship because it has played such a central role in his own life, whether as a constitutional law professor, considering the role of straight allies in the passage of marriage equality, or the innumerable allies who helped him to build his career.

But as his interest in allyship grew, so did the realization that the concept is most familiar in an LGBTQ+ context, and must expand:

“We need to broaden the frame of allyship and the D&I context to think about being allies to really everyone. How I can be allies to cohorts that I don’t belong to, in the same way that others were an ally to me.”

Yoshino noted that while interest in allyship is found in multiple arenas, academia and big business are the principle drivers of expanding the need to inform and activate allies. Even those who are not actively engaged in the allyship process, or exhibiting non-inclusive behavior, must be included. Here Dr. Yoshino explains an allyship model, or “maturity curve,” a continuum that defines being an ally to one, to some, and to all:

If we are to be an ally to all – what is our obligation to both those affected by non-inclusive behaviors, and the sources of these behaviors? Why is it important for colleagues who aspire to be allies to engage with, for example, a person who might defend Amy Cooper, a woman who was recently filmed in Central Park while making a 911 call where she falsely accused a black man of threatening her safety? Here Dr. Yoshino explains why and how an effective ally might initiate a conversation with a colleague who defended Amy Cooper:

Allyship is a journey rather than a destination, and even the most conscious practitioners, such as Yoshino himself, can face challenges accepting mistakes publicly as opportunities to grow. Watch this clip where he relates an incident that occurred as he was teaching his Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion seminar, when the words coming out of his own mouth left him “mortified,” and how he handled being accountable and asking for forgiveness:

Much of Yoshino’s work involves encouraging reluctant people to engage in the allyship process by finding common ground through enlightened self-interest, when confrontation can seem stressful or difficult:

“Someday you will need an ally. I promise you that is true. When that is the case, when you need an ally, do you want to build a culture in which allyship is rich, in which you’re not going to be cancelled or condemned, but rather be given an opportunity, as a point of departure to grow?”

Goodwin extends its thanks to Professor Yoshino for his valuable insights into the importance of building empathy and motivating allyship within organizations, and for his counsel on how to approach the sometimes-difficult conversations that arise in the workplace.