How to be an Ally for Change

Guest post by Marguerite Matthews, PhD, a Program Director in the NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Office of Programs to Enhance Neuroscience Workforce Diversity, and Maryam Zaringhalam, PhD, a Data Science and Open Science Officer in the NLM Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Almost a year ago, the NIH UNITE initiative launched in response to resounding calls for racial equity across the country and within the NIH community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released a statement signifying that racism “negatively affects the mental and physical health of millions of people, preventing them from attaining their highest level of health, and consequently, affecting the health of our nation.” Taking to heart the urgent need for change, our colleagues across UNITE’s five committees have spent the last year developing recommendations, programs, and infrastructure for NIH to advance its commitments towards racial equity.

Still, we recognize that there are staff across NIH who have yet to engage in NIH’s efforts to combat structural racism, which centers on policies, practices, and culture that perpetuate inequities based on the social construction of race. We cannot passively wish away those structures for, as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” Instead, we must actively engage in dismantling those policies, practices, and cultures.

Structural racism is distinct from interpersonal racism between individuals, which often comes to mind when we hear the word “racism.” Structures that perpetuate racial inequities continue to exist whether individuals are interpersonally racist or not. For an example of structural racism’s effects, look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease’s disproportionate impact among racial and ethnic minority groups has cast a light on long-standing health disparities.

Figuring out how to reshape long-standing structures can be intimidating, but if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we have a profound capacity for transformational change. Whether or not we are in formal supervisory or leadership positions, we all have the power to influence those around us — and that influence ripples out.

How We can Act as Allies and Champions for Change  
  • Act as a force multiplier in conversations around structural racism to build consensus that it is a real and pressing problem, and we all have a role to play in uprooting it. Research has demonstrated that when members of marginalized groups discuss unfair treatment in the workplace, they are penalized with worse performance ratings for doing so.
  • Be intentional about creating a workplace where everyone is valued, their roles appreciated, and their perspectives recognized. Actively taking steps to foster a more inclusive environment where staff are afforded equitable access to opportunities will ensure we are retaining talent, while also attracting new staff and setting them up for success.
    • Acknowledge and amplify your colleagues’ contributions. This action can also help elevate their visibility in the workplace, which is particularly important given research that shows, for example, statements made by Black women in group discussions are less likely to be correctly remembered or attributed to them.
    • Create channels for communication for you and your colleagues to share ideas, feedback, or needs. A report from the Catalyst found 60 percent of Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and multiracial professionals surveyed feel on guard and mentally prepared to protect themselves against bias. This emotional tax can interfere with a strong drive to contribute, so intentionally designed communication strategies can lower barriers for staff to feel comfortable engaging.
    • Work with your colleagues to create spaces for people to express themselves, co-creating expectations for how to engage, practicing civility, and extending grace. Doing so is an opportunity to ask your colleagues what they need to fully participate in workplace discussions and recognizing everyone is experiencing unique circumstances and challenges.
  • Practice being an upstander and promoting positive and civil behaviors among colleagues. Research shows that in the presence of others, an individual may be discouraged from intervening in an emergency situation (such as harassment or bullying), known as the bystander effect. Silence is complicity. Therefore, when you see micro– or macro-aggressions, discrimination, or the perpetuation of stereotypical beliefs, make the choice to intervene and hold your colleagues accountable for their actions. NIH provides bystander intervention training to help employees to create a culture in the workplace and beyond where harassment and bias incidents are less likely to occur.
  • Move towards a culture of harm prevention. Show respect for your colleague’s racial and cultural differences and refuse to participate in or condone discrimination and harassment. When colleagues exhibit harmful behaviors – whether intentionally or unintentionally – explain why their behavior is unacceptable and consider helping them develop strategies to prevent them moving forward.
  • Evaluate the working groups, committees, and councils of which you are a member. Ask what experiences and expertise are missing and advocate for new membership or guest experts to fill these gaps. Diversity enhances creativity and problem-solving. Furthermore, engaging and centering the experiences of staff from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups can embed equity and justice in the programs, policies, and research we support.

These suggestions are just a starting point and can serve as the basis for creating an anti-racist community of practice with both your colleagues and acquaintances beyond the workplace, sharing constructive actions to address racial inequities in our daily lives. For more ideas on how to join this work, visit UNITE and 8 Changes for Racial Equity at the NIH (8CRE).

Dr. Matthews earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in behavioral neuroscience at the Oregon Health & Science University before coming to the NIH as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow. She serves on the UNITE “I” Committee, which is focused on improving NIH’s internal culture, and is a member of 8CRE.

Dr. Zaringhalam is responsible for monitoring and coordinating data science, and open science activities and development across NLM, NIH, and beyond. She completed her PhD in molecular biology at Rockefeller University before joining NLM as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. She serves on the UNITE “E” Committee, which is focused on the extramural research environment.

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