Allyship as a loving exchange

This blog post is an excerpt from the rough draft of The Selfish Activist’s Guide to Allyship

Why allyship?

Like many of you, I came into the world of activism with rose-coloured glasses. Unfortunately I left it, emotionally exhausted from the culture of reactivity that surrounded me. In my own immersion in social justice culture, I quickly noticed how much hurt there was everywhere. We felt triggered, burnt out, exploited, gaslit, violated, and more.

Friends felt awful about wanting to remove themselves from relationships with people who were struggling with mental health issues while being abusive to them. Lovers felt unheard as their partners continued to commit micro-aggressions. Co-workers felt burnt out and frustrated from being called-out repeatedly but not knowing what to do.

As a community, we felt heartbroken that our identities as social justice advocates – earned through many hours of learning and doing good – was somehow dooming our lives.

A good friend of mine, andi grace, once pointed out that many of us come to social justice communities hoping to find safe havens from the violent world around us. But soon enough reality sets in. We become exhausted from the constant fear of being hurt by people in our community, as well as being called-out for hurting others.

This book has come out of this sadness. It was written for the broken-hearted.

All your emotions are welcome here, especially the ones that you have had to stuff away because you didn’t feel like you had the right to feel them.

There is no one here calling you out for not being good enough.

In writing this book, starting with scribbles on notes books and rough blog posts I never ended up publishing, I kept asking myself: “How can we harmoniously exist with each other as neighbours, friends, and lovers – given the pain we all carry?”

As the book began to take shape, about a year in of writing it in different sections, bouncing around different topics from decolonization to energy medicine, my core idea became clear.

Social justice, lived on the daily, is relationship work. It is a labour of love. The problem is that most of us haven’t been taught how to love ourselves or others in a healthy way.

This is why I decided this book should be about building healthier relationships, or rather allyships, between those who experience less and more privilege.

What is allyship?

I have to admit that I do feel a bit uncomfortable about the word ‘ally’. It has the connotation of someone with more socioeconomic privilege who is obligated to care for someone with less power. Allyship that is defined this way is lacking in enthusiastic consent for the ally and ultimately disempowering for the allied. It is co-dependent.

I believe this co-dependency is at the heart of what is tearing apart social justice communities. We have created an environment in which authentic loving kindness cannot grow. We have reinforced a punitive culture amongst ourselves and thereby replaced compassion with care-taking: an unhealthy behaviour that comes from a need to avoid harm by controlling the emotions of others.

In this book, we will be approaching allyship from a radically different place.

I believe we can work towards an understanding that is much more whole – allyship as a partnership of mutual care. Both roles matter. To me, the art of allyship is just as much about how to ally, as it is about how to be allied.

And in both positions it is important to understand that allyship to self is the foundation of the entire relationship.

Allyship starts with an allyship to self

For many of us, allyship means becoming sensitized to the reality of oppression in our world. The problem is, our nervous systems get exhausted when we are always looking for what is wrong. Staying in a state of high-sensitivity can quickly become hyper-vigilance, creating unnecessary pain for ourselves and others.

The truth is, there is no way for us to control our environment completely, including the actions of others. This is simply a condition of life.

I ask, as a community, that we listen to our burnout from being with each other. It is our bodies asking us to turn inwards, to see the hurts making us live in fear, and to learn to manage our emotional energies in the face of adversity.

If we are to heal our culture of reactivity and co-dependent care-taking, we must start with an allyship to self. Once we start to do this: everything changes.

When we attend to ourselves with loving kindness, we begin to understand the paradoxical way the universe works: true change happens when we let go of our control over it and focus on ourselves. Compassion for others comes first from seeing ourselves compassionately, without judgment, for better or worse.

What we have been taught about love is that it is something that is given and received. And we have been fooled into using this myth propagated by a Euro-centric capitalist paradigm, which sees life as transactions of finite resources, to define allyship.

Yes, of course the redistribution of resources through giving and receiving is an important part of loving social justice work. But when we define these transactions as love itself, we trap ourselves into hopelessness and exhaustion.

On the other hand, when we understand love as the transmission of truth and compassionate non-judgment, we open ourselves up to hope. Compassion is not a finite thing. It is a way of understanding the world, naturally growing in the self and spreading to others through our presence.

Seeing this truth changes everything. Allyship becomes an exchange of the truth between ally and allied.

When we welcome the mystery and beauty of compassion, allyship transforms into a nourishing self-practice from which these four qualities blossom.

Self-care: To be gentle towards ourselves in each moment we can be. Learning that we can consciously choose a path of less suffering when we understand the truth.

Self-acceptance: To hold ourselves in unconditional positive regard. Giving ourselves the courage to live fully and accept our fallibility.

Self-inquiry: To dedicate ourselves to understanding ourselves. Seeing ourselves without judgment and learning about ourselves deeply.

Self-responsibility: To be responsible for our own feelings. Bringing us to a spiritual acceptance of our lives and the lives of others.