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Cody Harrison, Lincoln Memorial University

Cody Harrison.jpgThe Anti-Oppression Network says being an ally is not an identity but “a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people” and “must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with” (Allyship, n.d.). Patton and Bondi (2015) stated, “engaging in ally work is ongoing, requiring continual reflection and perseverance. It involves moving beyond words toward actions that disrupt oppressive structures [emphasis added] and understanding one’s positionality in oppression.” Until the oppressed and marginalized recognize and name the systemic disruption someone is bringing, they cannot call themselves an ally.

Why does this matter? An internet search reveals many incidents of marginalization faced by students and educators across the county. As I was preparing a presentation on being an LGBTQ+ ally for the 2019 Region 3 conference, I easily and quickly found 11 pictures of attacks against the LGBTQ+ population on campuses across the United States within the past 9 years. This search did not include the many incidents of black face, vandalism of mosques, or other hate-related occurrences appearing on campuses across the country. The need for support from those with power: the cis, straight, white, male, Christian, educated, socio-economically advantaged, and/or able-bodied is clear.

What does that mean for advisors? As members of NACADA, advisors work toward promoting “the role of effective academic advising in student success” and fostering “inclusive practices within the Association that respect the principle of equity and the diversity of advising professionals across the vast array of intersections of identity” (NACADA, 2018). The charge to utilize advising as a tool for student success while focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion means advisors need to be aware of how they are supporting and fighting for marginalized students and colleagues. Gaffney’s (2016) reminders help form a good action-based framework:

Do listen and ask how you can help. Don’t expect another person to educate you about their identity. Do accept criticism thoughtfully. Don’t broadcast your qualifications for being an ally. Do speak up when you hear biased language. Don’t apologize for the actions of your identity group. Do seek support from experienced allies within your identity group. Don’t expect credit for being an ally. Do acknowledge intersectionality. Don’t selectively support one group over another.

Listening is the only way to hear what people have to say. As an ally, the best way to learn to use one’s power and privilege is by listening to those who want/need support. Allies ask how to help instead of assuming they know how to help.

As advisors meet with students to discuss class schedules and the current term, they recognize that they are not the student in this situation. Similarly, an ally is not a member of the community they are fighting for; therefore, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made along the way. When misspeaking, misgendering, or other mistakes happen, those who were slighted or offended might offer criticism, suggestions, or even a hurtful response. Take their response and turn it into a learning opportunity. When a mistake is made, it may seem helpful to apologize on behalf of an entire identity group, but that does not leave room for others to learn from their own mistakes. Allies are responsible for themselves and apologize when they do wrong, but they do not try to apologize for the wrongdoings of an entire demographic they align with.

How many times have advisors heard “who is the easiest professor?” or “what is an easy elective?” from their students? Do answers sound something like “everyone learns differently, so the classes and professors that work for some students do not work as well for others”? How about questions or statements like “what professor is from America?,” “I only failed because my professor could not speak English,” “this assignment is gay,” or “I can barely make it up the hill and I can walk, I do not see how handicapped people do it!” How do advisors respond to these? When allies hear someone say something derogatory and down-putting to another group or individual, they use their power to let them know, “hey, that is disrespectful, and here is why . . . ” This may be an uncomfortable position, but being an ally can be uncomfortable at times.

Who do advisors turn to when they have a new situation or get an unexpected question from a student? A supervisor, a seasoned advisor, or a faculty advisor in their department? Even if the situation or question is about a student concern, rarely will they ask students or people with no advising experience or education for the answer. Allies need to do the same. Look around and name those from the same identity group that are disrupting society for those who cannot always do it for or by themselves. Seek those people out and be intentional about watching and listening to what is going on in work circles, the field of higher education, and beyond.

Allies asking for support and learning from people of their own identity group is important. Expecting a [insert any marginalized group member here] to educate an ally about their identity and the history behind their exclusion is like asking a professor if this will be on the exam. Maybe it will, maybe it will not; either way allies should be doing their own research, studying what they have access to, and educating themselves on the subject. Invisible labor and “cultural taxation” (Padilla, 1994), expecting someone who is already burdened by pressures of society to add more to their plate, is inconsiderate and can be harmful. Think of this: the gay advisor in the department becomes the go-to referral for all gay students because “they can relate and connect” or the same eight staff members of color serve on search committees across campus because “they add diversity.” While the gay advisor can relate and the staff do add a diverse perspective, an ally can be educated and versed in the history and struggle students may come to them with. Those outside of their identity group can be additional resources for students to connect with, but they cannot be replacements for education or work.

Students are more than just biology majors. They are a combination of majors, organizations, siblings, spouses, parents, and more. The same applies across sections of diversity: every person is a mix of multiple identities. An advisor might, for instance, work with a student or colleague who identifies as a lesbian, Black, Muslim, woman, and the first person in her family to attend college. Listen to what she is going through, and be aware and acknowledge that the identities she presents intersect and interact. Advisors are not expected to be expert allies for all of someone’s identities, but can be constantly educating themselves on all forms of identity. Many times it is hard to know where the most self-education is needed. Advisors can actively support their LGBTQ+ students while unknowingly (or sometimes knowingly) not learn ways to support their other marginalized students. Learning about personal bias is a great way to learn where more education may be needed. (Take a look at Project Implicit for more information.)

Constant education is one of the easiest forms of action an ally can take. Use the resources provided by NACADA such as Advising Communities, the Emerging Leaders Program, and the resource page. Take full advantage of employer-provided access to peer-reviewed journals to stay up-to-date on research across the diversity spectrum (LGBTQ+, race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, ability, first-generation students, transfer students, etc.). Talk to co-workers and colleagues doing the work. Find new books by diverse authors, fiction and non-fiction, to listen to on daily commutes. Show up to programs and presentations put on by underrepresented student groups. There are endless ways to continue learning and growing.

Allies support those who are marginalized, seek to make changes so that others can get the credit they are due, and are constantly learning. The work is hard, but if an advisor is committed to growth and change, it is work they will want to do. Now, go out and earn the title of ally!

Cody Harrison (he/him/his)
Director of Academic Support
Admissions and Student Services Department
DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine
[email protected]


Allyship. (n.d.). https://theantioppressionnetwork.wordpress.com/allyship/  

Gaffney, C. (2016, Summer). Anatomy of an ally. Teaching Tolerance, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2016/anatomy-of-an-ally

NACADA. (2018, March 17). Strategic goals. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/About-Us/Vision-and-Mission.aspx 

Padilla, A. M. (1994, May). Ethnic minority scholars, research, and mentoring: Current and future issues. Educational Researcher, 23(4): 24–27. doi: 10.2307/1176259

Patton, L. D., & Bondi, S. (2015). Nice white men or social justice allies?: Using critical race theory to examine how white male faculty and administrators engage in ally work. Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(4), 488–514. doi:10.1080/13613324.2014.1000289

Cite this article using APA style as: Harrison, C. (2019, December). Why allyship matters in advising. Academic Advising Today, 42(4). [insert url here] 


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