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  • Writer's pictureAhmmad Brown

Allyship Is A Starting Place, Not An End Goal

I knew we had arrived at a place where our DEI success could be sustainable when I realized that the leaders around me had my back.

-Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®

Now a mainstream word and familiar component of DEI, the concept of allyship has also been critiqued. In particular, DEI experts warn of performative allyship—easy actions that do not actually challenge the inequitable status quo, and may ultimately do more harm than good.

But I believe allyship—authentic allyship—is a key element of DEI success. So, what does that look like?

Here I profile two leaders who have embraced allyship in their organizations, with encouraging results. In October, I spoke with Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of REALTORS® (CAR), and Artesha Moore, President and CEO of the Association Forum, the “association of associations,” in the Chicagoland area.

Michelle and Artesha’s insights surfaced three tenets that can help catalyze allyship for sustained DEI impact in organizations, particularly organizations with long histories and entrenched cultures and ways of operating. These are to 1) support awareness, 2) lead authentically, and 3) engage deliberately.

Support Awareness

In her nearly six years as CEO of CAR, Michelle Mills Clement has led the 17,500-member organization to become a DEI model for associations nationwide. Notably, her accomplishments are within an industry that has historically deepened racial inequity, a fact not lost on Michelle. “I started as CEO near the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Fair Housing Act,” she said. “I’m the head of an organization that, just over 50 years ago, I couldn’t have been a member of. That’s in my parents’ lifetimes.”

In October 2018, early in Michelle’s tenure as CEO, CAR issued a formal apology acknowledging their role in the history of discrimination. This was the first formal apology issued by a REALTOR® association, setting an example for others to follow, including the National Association of REALTORS® in 2020.

Under Michelle’s leadership, CAR has rebuilt its Diversity Committee, named “the 77” for having a representative from each of Chicago’s 77 community areas. Additionally, CAR added an External Affairs Department to focus on building and managing relationships with entities outside the association that have traditionally been ignored or underinvested. “The 77” and External Affairs Department have served as a vehicle for allyship within CAR and among the Chicagoland community.

Michelle points to awareness and the celebration of diversity as a tool to that has helped catalyze allyship among CAR members. For example, to celebrate the former CAR President’s racial background, Michelle added a choir to perform the Black National Anthem at CAR’s annual Inaugural Gala. The Gala has also more recently included Bomba dancers to recognize their current president’s Puerto Rican heritage.

Approaches to DEI that highlight and celebrate traditionally marginalized identity groups—what are known as multicultural approaches in the DEI scholarly literature—can support positive DEI outcomes, provided that this approach is part of a larger strategy in which employees are valued beyond their racial or ethnic identities, the celebration of identity groups is not conflated with the absence of prejudice or discrimination, and identity threat among potential allies is minimized.

For Michelle and CAR, the addition of the Black National Anthem and Bomba dancers at the Inaugural Gala allowed for dialogue around DEI that eventually prompted her constituents to take greater ownership of CAR’s DEI efforts. Michelle noted: “What may seem like small gestures of allyship meant a lot to our members in not only feeling recognized and included but celebrated. These touches have been emotional for many of our members who have felt excluded for so long.”

Lead Authentically

As President and CEO of the Association Forum (the Forum), Artesha Moore leads an organization of over 3,000 members that represents over 300 associations. A self-described military kid with a non-traditional career path, Artesha, like Michelle, is part of a new wave of leadership that gives greater attention to the “E” and “I” of DEI.

Artesha explained, “Some of our member associations were focused on attracting younger people in their fields. And then 2020 happened, and there was a renewed interest in diversity. These two things go together. Young people are astute when it comes to DEI, and they will call you out if you only focus on diversity and don’t show commitment to equity and inclusion.”

To move DEI work forward at the Forum, Artesha looks for a specific kind of ally, one who holds power in organizations or has immediate proximity to power.

For Artesha, leading authentically means being honest when communicating areas for improvement on DEI to fellow leaders. Shortly upon arriving at the Forum, Artesha began identifying potential advocates and champions by planting the seeds to create DEI change: “I’ve been at the Forum for 18 months,” Artesha explained. “The Forum is the home of the Welcoming Environment®, a framework and resource to help associations create a sense of belonging. It was the work of the Welcoming Environment® that brought me to the Forum. But then I asked the question that I don’t think the leaders were prepared for me to ask: ‘If we’ve been doing this for eight years, has equity and inclusion within the association market improved?’”

The value of authenticity in leadership is well-researched, but showing up authentically may be more challenging for leaders with minoritized identities. This is why Michelle and Artesha stressed the importance of allyship through action and behavior that supports minoritized team members’ ability to show up and lead authentically.

Artesha further emphasized the importance of leadership in supporting efforts to move the status quo: “The only way to fix this is to get buy-in at the top.”

Engage Deliberately

Michelle’s approach to DEI change can be described as deliberate, strategic, and emotionally intelligent: “I have a large constituency that includes mindsets and representation across the board, and I never lose sight of that. I could think that there should be change, but I had to think about how that change might disrupt in an unhelpful way.”

The importance that Michelle places on approaching DEI work deliberately is not only about navigating differing perspectives, but also impact. Michelle explained, “If you do this work fast, it turns into performative work.”

This sentiment resonates with Artesha, who understands a fundamental reality in organizational change work: organizations, like people, have identities. As with individual identities, some aspects of organizational identities are more central and enduring than others. The older and more mature an organization or industry, the more likely its identity will be entrenched and resistant to change.

The association community fits the bill for maturity. Associations exist in some of the nation’s oldest professions to support member learning, networking, and volunteer opportunities. The Forum was founded 107 years ago and many of its member organizations have more than a century of history.

For Artesha, DEI change requires strategic urgency. “So many of us have been talking about DEI work forever without seeing change. And we’re tired of waiting. Slow and deliberate may feel correct due to the internal and external political climate. However, slow and deliberate only works if you have the commitment, foresight, leadership, and acumen that Michelle has. It’s an excuse to do the minimum if you don’t.”

Both Artesha and Michelle know that expressions of allyship are just one step in the much larger project of DEI change work. But it is a crucial step that leaders must take. No DEI effort will have impact or sustainability if organizational leaders are not, in Artesha’s words, advocates and champions for the work.

I asked Michelle how she knew that CAR had arrived at a place in which sustained DEI success was possible. Rather than point to a specific accomplishment, she answered: “The protection I received. When it was clear that the people around me wanted me to succeed in everything I was trying to do.”

Note: Ahmmad Brown is an assistant professor in the Northwestern Master's and Executive Learning and Organizational Change programs that collaborate with Association Forum, whose President and CEO is Artesha Moore, a subject in this piece.

This article originally appeared in Forbes on the posting date.

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