Beyond Traditional Approaches to Ally Development by robbie routenberg-wilhelm and Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg

Could it be that in our attempts to encourage inclusivity and equity through ally development we inadvertently perpetuate the same injustices we seek to work against?

While facilitating conversations on allyhood and action is critical to the integration of social justice into one’s daily life, the ways in which ally development trainings and dialogues occur can constrain our efforts. Critically reflective practice and a willingness to go beyond traditional approaches to allyhood allow us to identify limitations and envision means to create allyhood development frameworks that meet the needs of all. Through lived experience, ongoing reflection, and invaluable discussions with fellow practitioners and participants we have come to identify limitations and opportunities to advance ally development work. It is our goal that through sharing such reflections, you consider their outcomes as you continue to refine your own approach.

Common vernacular invites us to think of ‘allyhood’ and ‘ally’ identity in inumerous ways, yet the traditional ally development model is derived from an academic perspective. A review of the literature defines an ally as someone from a privileged identity group whose behaviors, actions and attitudes align with the pursuit of liberation of an oppressed group. While it is true that members of privileged identity groups have played important roles in civil rights movements and interpersonal bias responding, defining allyhood as being a label only ascribed to those with identity privilege is limiting and inaccurate. Recognizing that people have multiple intersecting identities, it becomes increasingly impossible to define oppression in single-identity ways. Allyhood, newly defined, is built from a self-awareness of the impact of one’s own identities, intentions for social change (large and small), and the congruence between these intentions and the actual impact of one’s actions. Greater detail on why allyhood should be defined as any individual acting in support of an identity group’s liberation can be found in this earlier blog post, Re-Conceptualizing Allyhood: Adapting our Definitions to Match the Growing Complexity of Identity.

As social justice educators, we can work to uncouple the historical definitions of allyhood with those of privileged identity status. Beyond this, we can begin to reconsider the mediums used to discuss ally development in programming and facilitation environments. Our involvement in ally work has allowed us to begin to recognize opportunities to reinvent what allyhood looks like and suggest ways that educators can use a multipartial approach to ally development.

Avoid Getting Caught Up the Terminology: Terminology is important for clarifying concepts related to privilege, oppression and social justice. Without this clarity, it can be difficult to articulate the nuances in how identity manifests in oppressive dynamics. While a useful tool, terminology can hinder the transformative power of ally education.  When too much focus is placed on teaching, learning or using the right terminology, we can easily over-intellectualize oppression, de-personalizing it and its impact, therefore further marginalizing those targeted by the oppression. As facilitators, we aim to introduce terminology where useful and ask participants to clarify its meaning when used (in order to avoid creating an ingroup/outgroup dynamic with experienced participants involved and novice participants excluded), while simultaneously finding balance with realness and lived experience to avoid intellectualizing something very bodily and emotional.

Too Focused on Interpersonal and Reactionary Allyhood: Many times, allyhood workshops are requested because individuals feel they don’t know how to respond to bias situations when they happen. This is a symptom of the general myopic view on ally development; it is often framed as interpersonal and reactionary.  Focusing exclusively on developing interpersonal allyhood skills inhibits budding allies from learning how to organize campaigns, be effective advocates in political positions, or change the behaviors and cultures of institutions from the inside.  When programs and workshops approach allyhood from a reactionary angle, opportunities for individuals who wish to embody such values are suppressed and the collective power of the ally community is stunted. Certainly there are instances in which a reactionary approach is most appropriate and yet we must challenge ourselves to move beyond a pedagogy that subscribes to this model alone. Adopting training modules that introduce intrapersonal, interpersonal, and collectivist methods for cultivating inclusive and supportive environments is necessary.

It’s Not Just about that Instance: It can be tempting, and sometimes effective, to reference specific instances of bias in which allyhood could have changed the course of events. Unfortunately this strategy can perpetuate the idea that oppression is solely a series of singular biased incidents. It is our belief that in deconstructing such oppressive moments, a facilitator should acknowledge the systemic and historical underpinnings that perpetuate singular events. We encourage educators and social justice advocates to remember that biased incidents cannot be reduced to the specifics of that moment alone. While narrowing into the details of that experience can be useful to identify actions and behaviors that can create change, portraying ally behavior in such simplistic and absolutist ways can be belittling to the generations of oppressions that exist.

Trying Not to Credentialize It:  Many ally development workshops and seminars suggest to participants that they are opportunities to learn how to be allies. Whether through marketing, curriculum, facilitation or other mediums, this message is a common take-away. It may present participants with the false impression that allyhood is a credential to be earned in a short training and that in such time they will be equipped to handle any instance of injustice. They may believe themselves ‘worthy’ of the ‘ally’ title and entrust that others should recognize such ‘preparedness’ as well. We assert that credentializing allyhood (either through a certification object – sticker, pin, etc. – or merely discussing allyhood as a state that is quickly attainable) can be demoralizing to those who have worked for generations to dismantle injustice and oppression. Moreover, it can give participants undue social capital and power within the community. Developing one’s allyhood is a lifelong process and is not a state that can be fully claimed. In opposition to the static noun: ‘ally’, we are inspired by the active nature of ‘ally’ as a verb. As a noun, ‘ally’ gives too much attention to the individual and produces a false notion of attainability; when considering it a verb, there is the suggestion of constant work and attention to behavior and action. As facilitators, we find that modeling vulnerability and sharing examples of perpetuating oppression can be helpful in demystifying allyhood as well as appropriately refocusing the conversation on actions and not an ally identity.

Careful about Adopting Individualistic Attitudes: The United States of America has, in general, a highly individualistic culture. As facilitators who have been socialized through personal experience to identify with an individualistic perspective, we have come to understand that such a lens can lead participants to think of allyhood as something they strive to do alone. The Cycle of Liberation (Harro, 2000) suggests that community is pivotal to being sustainable as a change agent.  Feelings of isolation in biased settings is a key reason that people do not act out against injustice; ironically, this same feeling of aloneness is one frequently perpetuated in ally development trainings. As poignantly articulated by the indigenous Australian artist, Lilla Watson “if you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together”. True and sustainable allyhood is rooted in collectivist models and should be addressed in such terms in ally development programming.

Beyond Just US-Centric Examples: Drawing on a breadth of examples of oppression helps give range and scope to the variety of ways oppressions manifest in lives around the world. By solely focusing on U.S. examples of oppression, we assign privilege to the U.S. context and further marginalize other areas across the globe. It can’t be expected, or required, that facilitators know about all forms of oppression globally. Anecdotally, we have found that an acknowledgement of what is U.S.-Centric and the introduction of even one non-U.S. example can have a significant impact on the translatability and expandability of one’s skill development.

Social Justice Educators have a responsibility to continuously reflect on and reconsider our practice. By its very nature, active and participatory education is a verb; and so too is critical analysis. Over the years, we’ve benefited immensely from participants and other facilitators helping us to realize when an element of our practice was limited or even oppressive. As a group of educators pushing to dismantle a history of oppression and rewrite a future history of liberation and justice, examining what assumptions may be behind our philosophies and strategies of facilitation is important. We hope such reflections and opportunities for learning may contribute to the broader knowledge community aiming to cultivate new generations of change agents and offer opportunities for others to identify their role in working for justice.


About the authors:
A commitment to social justice and interculturalism grounds robbie and Heather’s personal and professional involvements. For 25 combined years, robbie and Heather have been serving as social justice educators, aiming to illuminate the many ways that systems of inequity affect us as individuals and groups. Through highly interactive and reflective pedagogy, they facilitates the development of awareness, knowledge and skills in students and practitioners, and assists them in applying this knowledge to multiple roles and contexts.

robbie routenberg-wilhelm: (M.A.- University of Michigan, B.A.- State University of New York, Geneseo) robbie currently serves as the Associate Director of the Global Scholars Program at the University of Michigan. Hir professional portfolio includes appointments as the Program Manager of the Program on Intergroup Relations and as a lecturer and consultant for the Center for Global and Intercultural Studies, roles held at the University of Michigan. Former Coordinator of ACPA’s Institute on Social Justice in 2010 and 2012 and having served on the directorate body for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators for many years, robbie’s service to the student affairs profession has contributed to a body of social justice scholarship. As a frequent consultant, presenter and author, robbie has helped individuals and organizations achieve their goals related to intercultural communication, reflective practice and engaging across identity differences. Contact robbie at:

Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg: (M.A.- University of Connecticut, B.A.- State University of New York, Geneseo). Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg is the Executive Director at InciteChange! Consulting, a speaking and training group that provides organizations with tools to fulfill their commitment to equity and inclusive environments through daily practice and policy. Prior to her work with InciteChange!, she held professional appointments at Erie Community College, the University of Hartford and the University of Michigan. Her professional expertise centers on service-learning curriculum development, intersections of social justice and learning theory, workshop design and facilitation, cross-cultural communication, and in training students to be social justice peer-educators. Her current research interest centers on the relationship between integrative learning and intercultural maturity models. Consider sending her an email at:

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