How to be a good Ally

How to be a good Ally

If you are a non-Indigenous worker reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re keen to build on your skills and knowledge in working effectively with First Nations people, as clients, and as colleagues. You may even be interested in becoming or strengthening your effectiveness as an ally, as I am. For some this may seem particularly important as Reconciliation week approaches, but being an ally is about showing up every day, not just at certain times of the year.

The WellMob website, managed by eMHPrac, has resources to support you in this and other ways to support the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

My name is Mim Weber, and I work with the WellMob team. I am a non-Indigenous woman having worked in health and mental health previously for many years. I love my ongoing journey of learning, although it is sometimes uncomfortable remembering some of the things I have said in the past. It really shows my lack of understanding then, and recognising this, I can be different now and into the future. I hope this blog invites you to continue your learning journey too.

Educate yourself:

This is a lifelong endeavour and educating ourselves must include understanding the impact of colonisation. You won’t be adding to the cultural load (more on that later in this blog) of your Indigenous colleagues if you check out our Resource Sheets for workers, which are short cuts to the best resources on WellMob on this important topic. These include some fantastic short, animated videos which are powerful as well as being concise.

Understanding  what is meant by social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) is also crucial if we are working with First Nations people as clients. SEWB is a holistic model of wellbeing that includes cultural domains for First Nations wellbeing including connection to country, spirituality, community, and kin. These elements are what sets First Nations SEWB apart from non-Indigenous perspectives around physical and mental health.

Take a look at Angela Law’s interview with Dr Clinton Shulz where they recommend several podcasts, books, videos and the websites of organisations that can contribute to our learning about being a good ally (a personal favourite is the ABC’s ‘Speaking Out’ podcasts with  Larissa Behrendt). The take home message from Dr Shultz, a Gamilaroi/Gomeroi man, registered psychologist and Director of First Nations Partnership and Strategy at the Black Dog Institute, is to step back, listen, educate yourself and support First Nations self-determined initiatives every day and in every way: “It’s all good for people to want to turn up during NAIDOC Week or at Reconciliation Day events, [but] true allies want to be there and walk this hard walk with us, every day” says Dr Schultz.

One of my more recent favourite resources is Share Our Pride, a beautifully presented, interactive website which takes us on a journey of learning on culture, myths and stereotypes, and the impact of colonisation historically and into the present day. It also has a wealth of suggestions on how to build working partnerships and relationships with First Nations people, so important if we are genuine about wanting to be a good ally.

However, we will not get it ‘right’ the whole time, we will make mistakes, and it is good to acknowledge these, an apology means a lot. Everyone can learn from these mistakes, and I find my Indigenous colleagues are incredibly generous and forgiving. A word of caution, don’t say you understand how they feel, because we never can. We can say, I hear you, or I hear your distress or anger or whatever.

Take up an attitude of ‘cultural humility’:

This term was first coined in 1998 by two African American women academics and educators, Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia. It means reflecting on our privileges and unconscious biases in our work and personal interactions. Check out Nathan Frank Riley’s explanation of cultural humility and lifelong learning, and Simon Moss from Charles Darwin University, who explains how ‘cultural humility’ is preferrable to the term ‘cultural competence’.

Listen deeply:

The Racism. It Stops with Me campaign explains how being a good ally means really listening, listening to the truth telling and the storytelling without being defensive or judgemental, although truth-telling can be hard to hear. The ‘Take Action’ part of this website also has a wealth of excellent information and suggestions regarding racism and how to respond to it. Do check it out.

Tilly Langford, in Outback Tom’s interviews with First Nations people about allyship, says it’s all about listening, actively listening, and not just waiting for a chance to speak.

Rona Glynn-McDonald from Common Ground sees allyship as ‘listening deeply, standing in solidarity, doing the work’. She warns against ‘performative allyship’ which is more about our own visibility. She encourages us to ‘do the work’, ‘the work behind the scenes, having those hard conversations’.

There’s a beautiful video on deep listening, Dadirri, presented by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr. I think it’s worth a look and gives an insight to the Aboriginal practice of Dadirri, a practice and word from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region (NT).

Take action against racism:

Alice Currie asks us to speak up when we hear something inappropriate, something that reinforces negative racial stereotypes or is dismissive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture.

In their book, Practical Reconciliation (Ultimate World Publishing, 2020), Munya Andrews and Carla Rogers refer to ‘interrupting racism’, and cautions us to ‘speak up but not over’. They remind us that it is not our intention that is important, but the impact of our action or words. We may not intend to be offensive, racist, or demeaning, but if that’s the effect of our actions or words, we need to reflect on that.

Understand what cultural load is and take steps not to contribute to it:

Phoebe McIlwraith explains what cultural load is, also referred to as ‘colonial load’, and its impact on her as a First Nations woman. I understand that cultural load is often more intense and challenging when there is only one First Nations person in a team who is expected to be the rep on every committee or have the solution to every challenging situation. This is a common situation for many of our First Nations colleagues in health and wellbeing organisations. She gives suggestions on how we, as non-Indigenous colleagues, can share the load.

There are many ways to be an ally:

It’s important to reflect on the type of ally we may be and the one we want to be. There are many ways of being a good ally. Have a look at these resources for further ideas:

In summary, I refer to an insightful article by Summer May Finlay originally published by NITV. It presents seven-points on how to be a good ally :

  1. Preference our [Indigenous] voices.
  2. Be OK with not always being part of the conversation.
  3. Be there for the good times and the bad.
  4. Say something when you hear someone say inappropriate things about Aboriginal people.
  5. Don’t take it personally when we don’t agree with you.
  6. Don’t go it alone.
  7. Understand that Aboriginal people are *not* all the same.

I hope this blog and these resources inspire you to expand your skills, knowledge and understanding, and reflect on how you too, can be a better ally to First Nations Australians. And if you know of any other excellent resources on allyship that would be good to put on WellMob, please let us know.

PS. A Resource Sheet for Workers, featuring the best resources on allyship, is being developed and will be uploaded soon. Check it out here: Resource Sheets For Workers – WellMob