Start by Showing Up: What Being an Ally Means to Me

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Last June, we hosted a conversation on Philanthropy and the #MeToo Movement in our member community. Andrew Kolbenschlag, Public Affairs Associate at the Blue Shield of California Foundation offers his take on the event, the #MeToo movement, and what it means for him to be an ally. Read below:


By Andrew Kolbenschlag, Public Affairs Associate, Blue Shield of California Foundation

Earlier this summer, I attended a discussion on how philanthropy could respond to the #MeToo movement — in this field, we’re all trying to make a difference for our communities, so why not start with our own organizations?

The discussion was great — honest, positive, and constructive. None of us expected to solve such a deep-seated problem over the course of an afternoon, but at least we started a meaningful dialogue. But personally, I kept returning to something that happened when I first sat down: a few attendees seated near me, all women, thanked me for coming — just for showing up.

I have no doubt they were coming from a genuinely good place; they wanted to make me feel welcome. And I didn’t feel offended… not quite. But it stuck with me. Was I out of place? Was my presence helpful? How did others see me? Should that matter?

This feeling elicited in me a specific type of Déjà vu: being one of just a few men in the room; the novelty of my very being there — over the past few years, as I’ve worked to support the Foundation’s partners to break the cycle of domestic violence, I’ve been in a lot of rooms like that. In some cases, as in convenings of the Culturally Responsive Domestic Violence Network, I’ve felt even more self-conscious — the only white man in a room full of women of color working to overcome the systemic oppression that I must, on some level, represent.

It’s important to say that this feeling came from within. I’m confident that no one tried to make me feel like an other. And yet, that’s exactly how I’ve felt.

That theme has been a constant for me: how can I be an ally in this work? Beyond the obvious — living according to my values, not making the problem worse, and calling out harmful behavior from others — what else can I do to help?

I don’t have the answers. But I do know that there are a few things I’ve learned that feel like a good place to start:

  • Acknowledge the obvious. I am a straight, white man. I’m not ashamed of that, but I am aware that it might make some people uncomfortable. Among a diverse group of advocates and survivors, the only way to navigate that uncertainty is to name it.
  • Respect the lived experience of the people I’m speaking to. I know I’m showing up for the right reasons, but if someone isn’t comfortable engaging with me, I don’t get offended. I try to approach these interactions with an open mind, but no expectations. Sometimes, the best way to help is to just stay out of the way.
  • Acknowledge my privilege. I didn’t choose it, but I’ve benefitted from a lot of the systems and structures that have oppressed other people. The first step is owning that — then it’s up to me to use it to help end injustice instead of perpetuating it. Both white privilege and male privilege are shorthand for those systems and structures; to acknowledge them doesn’t make me self-loathing. It makes me want to use them to change the world for the better. I can use that privilege in other parts of my life — using this platform, for example — to amplify the voices of others.
  • Lead by example. I’ve found my male friends and family to be incredibly receptive to some of the lessons I’ve shared from my work. And this goes beyond calling out bad behavior when I witness it. I think there’s great opportunity in nuance here. None of my friends or family would engage in the “locker room talk” that entered our societal consciousness a few years ago, but I have had productive conversations about more subtle gender norms — and while they seem relatively benign in isolation, they can add up to reinforce harmful ideas about masculinity.
  • Listen. I will always speak up when I feel like I need to, but in some situations, my instinct is to sit back and listen, which is new for me. I have learned that being an ally means understanding how I can be helpful, and to do that, I need to listen.

At the Foundation, we believe that ending domestic violence is up to all of us; it is a societal issue. We’re not going to break the cycle of domestic violence without the full partnership of husbands, partners, fathers, sons, brothers, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. These are just a few lessons I’ve learned to make my own interactions in this field feel positive and productive. But the truth is we are each at different points in our own journey — of healing, of helping, of advocacy, and activism. We need to find the path forward together. And maybe the first step, after all, really is to show up.

So how can you be an ally?

  • Get involved. Contact your local domestic violence organization. Whether it’s through financial support or volunteering your time, you can help in your community. And you’ll know where to refer someone if you ever need to. 
  • Advocate. Learn the warning signs, and if someone you know needs help, refer them to a local organization. Remember, not all survivors will need the same type of support — whether they are ready to leave the relationship or not, let them know that they’re not alone.
  • Lead. Talk with your friends and family about gender-based violence. Be an example for the young men and boys in your life — as men, we have the opportunity to define masculinity in a healthy and positive way. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind and have difficult conversations.
  • Get informed. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 every day of the year at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or online at www.thehotline.org. Remember that the hotline isn’t only for those in crisis — you can call to get resources or information about domestic violence, or just to talk with someone if you’re questioning unhealthy aspects of a relationship — whether it’s yours or a loved one’s. 

I know that men all across California want to end domestic violence — to prevent it in future generations and to help heal those who are already experiencing it. For some of us, finding the right way to help can be difficult. But I also know that this movement needs allies. The "right" way to help might be different for all of us, but we can start by showing up. Together, we can help break the cycle of domestic violence.