Active allyship at every level

Reflections from across the LBS community on how allies of all kinds can support their Black colleagues in a meaningful way

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Black History Month might be over for another year, but the fight for equality continues. How can we take forward our learnings from last month and continue supporting our Black friends and colleagues to flourish? To understand more about how anyone at any level of their career can become a better ally, Think spoke to members of the LBS community. Here’s what they had to say:


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Cole Agbede MBA2021, Senior Associate at Pollen Street Capital And Co-founder of the Black in Business Club

When Tabria Lenard and I were in the process of founding the Black in Business Club (BIB), the role for allies was always part of our conversations. There simply aren’t that many Black students at LBS, so we knew we’d have to get the whole School community involved if we wanted to make a real impact. More importantly, we both knew from previous experiences that conversations about racism go nowhere if they’re only happening between minorities. Why would we isolate ourselves when we know we need to get the majority on board to drive real change? There’s also of evidence that suggests minorities who call out unfair treatment are systematically penalised for doing so, in the same way they’re penalised for being from a minority background in the first place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t the case for allies. They’re able to stand up for Black friends and colleagues at a much lower social and professional ‘cost’ than we are.

I hope that we’re arriving at a place where people are realising it’s not enough to not be racist; allies need to be truly anti-racist. That means being willing to combat racism by actively calling out aggressions and micro-aggressions, or by facilitating open conversations with Black people and other minorities. Being willing to instigate discussions around racism and inviting people to share their experience is so simple, but it can make a big difference. One of the best things allies can do is make sure the onus isn’t always on Black people to bring up these issues.

“The only person responsible for your understanding of these issues is you”

Some people are understandably nervous about calling out racism at work, but it doesn’t need to be a big deal. There’s no need to go in all guns blazing. Active allyship can be as simple as asking someone who’s said something inappropriate to explain what they meant, or why they thought it was funny. Again, it’s about removing some of the mental load from Black people, by ensuring that we’re not the only people pointing out negative behaviours.

Similarly, it’s important for allies to be proactive about educating themselves. Yes, having conversations with Black people in your life about racism is important, but they might be tired of educating other people. After all, they’re already having to experience it first-hand. So, respect people’s boundaries and understand that the only person responsible for your understanding of these issues is you. Luckily, there are so many ways to ‘do the reading’, from listening to podcasts to watching videos.

The main thing is to just get started. As a society, we still have such a long way to go in terms of achieving racial equality and there’s no more time for excuses.

Hannah Millard, Associate Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, LBS

As part of my role, I’m currently working on a three-year diversity, inclusion and belonging strategy for the School. This is going to guide our thinking on how we can bring our beliefs to life. We’ll be focusing on education, awareness, policies and process. Across everything, there is a huge role for allies to play in terms of creating and nurturing an environment where everyone is respected for who they are and can be their true and authentic selves.

Since last year, we’ve been running active bystander training webinars and holding other workshops for staff and faculty around the School. We made it very clear that these sessions are for allies, especially people who are only just starting to think of themselves that way. We’re always trying to engage with people who still aren’t sure what they can do to offer support and allyship to their Black peers. Our message is ‘if you’re not sure what these sessions are about, then they’re definitely for you’.

“There needs to be a shift towards seeing ourselves as active bystanders, who can challenge racism when we see it”

A good start is asking yourself if you’re in a position to be an active ally, or if you need to take on a more passive role. Passive allyship means taking the time to educate yourself and build up your own knowledge of the issues Black people are still facing. Active allyship means showing action, either by directly calling out racism, or getting involved in fighting against it.

One of the objectives of our webinars was helping people to understand how prevalent the bystander effect is when it comes to witnessing racism, and why it’s so easy for people to do nothing, or not do enough. There needs to be a shift towards seeing ourselves as active bystanders, who can overcome those barriers and challenge racism when we see it. The more people who are trained in how to do this, the better. 

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Arnold Longboy, Executive Director, Recruitment & Admissions, LBS

We’re setting ambitious goals for getting a diverse pool of future alumni through the doors. We say ‘future alumni’, not ‘students’, because it helps us to think more broadly about the community we’re building and the responsibilities that come with that. It’s a lifelong relationship with the School built on more than just a great GMAT score and superior grades. We want more than that; we need community builders (or role models) and real ambassadors for the School. Of course, this community needs to include a much higher representation of Black students than we’re currently seeing.

“We need to commit to a lifetime of educating ourselves and being open to being corrected”

Conversations with groups like BiB and allies around the School have been key in shaping our targets. LBS has always been very international but that doesn’t always translate into the equal representation of different ethnic groups. BiB did a presentation on the percentage of Black students at various business schools and I think the highest was only around 10%. We knew we wanted to set our admissions goal higher than that, but this isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about setting an example of how all parts of an organisation can work together to create an environment where Black students can look around and feel they belong. 

In so many ways, being an ally is about accepting that you’ll always be learning. We need to commit to a lifetime of educating ourselves and being open to being corrected. These conversations can start at home – my wife and I have a constant dialogue with our adult children about current events. We must hope that all these small shifts in our thinking will one day amount to huge change.

Jane Gibbon, Chief People Officer, LBS

Conversations about race and racism can make people extremely uncomfortable, especially people who have never had to live through it. But the more you talk about it, the easier it gets. The key is active listening. Really take the time to listen to people’s experiences and reflect on the differences. Privilege is so often invisible to those who have it, so start by considering your own. It’s important to remember that, however much discomfort you feel having these discussions, it pales in comparison to the discomfort of actually experiencing racism.  

“We’re all familiar with the idea of white privilege, but how many people really know what it means?”

On the topic of privilege, that’s another issue that people can have a very strong emotional reaction to. We’re all familiar with the idea of white privilege now, but how many people really know what it means? It’s certainly not about trying to say all white people are born rich or that white people never suffer or struggle. But it is about understanding that the challenges in your life aren’t because of the colour of your skin.

I remember talking with a Black friend of mine after George Floyd was killed. He was explaining to me how traumatising and exhausting that summer was for Black people in America. Think about it – stories of Black people suffering awful violence were everywhere. White people could switch off the TV if it all got too much. But Black people are living through that every day – there is no changing the channel. When you really think about that, do those ‘uncomfortable’ conversations still seem so bad? 

Allyship doesn’t have to be about grand gestures. It doesn’t have to mean painting banners or marching in protests. Active allyship will be different for everyone. But it starts with asking ourselves what contribution we can make – and getting out there and creating the space for it.

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Michelle Weise-Henry, Contracts Manager and co-founder of the LBS Black Employee Network

I co-founded the Black Employee Network (BEN@LBS) in spring 2021, after an internal safe space discussion following the murder of George Floyd. Sharon and I were also inspired by Cole and Tabria’s work with BiB and positive conversations with our Inclusion and Diversity Team. Since then, we’ve had all kinds of wonderful responses from the School community. However, we still get questions that remind me why we need a network like this. Some people still ask why we need to focus so much on race in 2021. What those people don’t understand is that Black people have no choice but to think about race as it still impacts so much of our daily lives.

“Perhaps there’s someone you could suggest is invited to more meetings or given an opportunity to shine on an upcoming project”

Today, we have three allies on the BEN@LBS executive committee. It’s important for us to make sure people understand that what we’re doing is about inclusion and that everyone feels like they belong and can thrive at LBS.  Allies, as a part of our network, understand their privilege and are instrumental in using this to support the challenges faced by Black colleagues.

Being an ally can be as simple as adding a note to your email signature to say you support groups like BEN@LBS.  In a team environment, perhaps there’s someone you could suggest is given additional opportunities to shine. Sometimes, even just publicly endorsing something a Black colleague has said can stop Black colleagues feeling that they have been overlooked in meetings or group discussions.  On the flip side, if you notice your Black peers are quiet in meetings, ask yourself if you are fostering an environment where everyone feels able to contribute. It’s easy to bring someone into the conversation by asking them what they think, or if they have anything to add.  Even better, next time your organisation needs a speaker for an event, think about people who may not necessarily have been given opportunities before.

Thankfully, it’s increasingly rare to see outright displays of racism in the workplace today. Most people understand that’s not acceptable. But what remains is covert racism, which is still commonplace in some organisations and can be harder to pin down to specific exchanges or actions. It could mean microaggressions – like asking someone where they’re ‘really’ from – or passing them over for promotions and other opportunities. Being aware of these ever-evolving dynamics is key for allies in 2021.

Lydia Wakefield-Yeung, Associate Director, External Partnerships and Scholarships at LBS

I sit on the LBS Inclusion and Diversity Committee, so I often find myself thinking about what good allyship looks like. One thing I’ve realised is important is being open to being corrected. It’s so easy to give up when you get something wrong but being an ally means being open to making mistakes and being ready to learn. Which is fine – it’s not your job to be right, it’s your job to listen.

It’s also important to understand the nuances in people’s experiences. You can’t simply listen to one Black person talking about their life and think you understand the entire Black experience. Allies need to listen to as many different perspectives as possible and remember that people have vastly different experiences based on things like socioeconomic background or where they grew up.

“Remember, being an ally means lifting other people up”

Thinking about how to be an active ally is especially important after Black History Month. In October, so many brands and organisations will just stick something on their logo and consider the anti-racism box ticked. It’s the same with LGBTQ+ issues and Pride month. If all an organisation does is change their logo, who are they really helping? Nobody, it’s just performative. We need to think beyond tokenistic gestures and start looking at how we can genuinely improve Black people’s experiences – whether that’s in education or the workplace.

Remember, being an ally means lifting other people up. You don’t want to be acting or speaking on behalf of someone else, you want to be amplifying their voice and making sure they’re really being heard.