What is allyship?
An ally is a person or group that shows active support for the cause and struggles of another.
Building allyship is integral to building stronger movements - in fact you could say a movement IS allyship; different groups, interconnected and pulling in the same direction, supporting each other, sharing resources, and building trust. Sometimes we build alliances because we can see the value of doing so for our own work, but we might also do so because we support the cause of another group but can’t act on this ourselves.
Allyship is an active relationship, sometimes built around the specific shared strategic goals, and sometimes out of a more principled position (e.g. supporting a more marginalised group). Allies might agree particular positions when negotiating with power-holders, use their own platforms to support the actions or messaging of other groups, support each other when criticised or attacked, and a whole host of other actions.
Allyship might also be recognised by the things you don’t do. For example, allies might avoid criticising each other (or keep disagreements private), strategically avoiding competing over resources (e.g. in funding applications), or ensuring that their events or meetings don’t clash.
Another feature of allyship is the difference between groups: allies won’t necessarily look, sound or behave the same as each other - they are allies because, despite their differences, they have recognised they have enough common cause to work together. Groups with more power can use their power to support those with less.
Having recognised the importance of allyship, we also need to recognise the role of adversaries - people, groups or institutions that oppose our aims, and may even actively work against them. We might find adversaries in other political or community groups, the media, developers or business owners, academia, or a whole range of other spaces. Sometimes adversaries will be actively working against our goals, or pursuing goals that are contrary to what we want to achieve. These active adversaries will draw on the support of others who may not actively engage in activities contrary to your own goals, but provide social capital to those who do. We can call these inactive adversaries.
Identifying those that could be your strategic allies - or effective adversaries - can be key to winning campaigns or building stronger movements. Once we’ve identified them, we can consider pathways to build stronger relationships with our potential allies, or mitigate the impact of our adversaries. This can, in turn, have a big impact on our strategies, from movement building to communications.
One tool to help us do this is called the spectrum of allies. The spectrum looks like this:
The spectrum runs from those who are already our active allies, to potential (or inactive) allies and “neutral” groups, through to inactive adversaries, and finally active adversaries.
Everyone’s experiences of what these words mean will be different, but a rough description of each might be:
Active allies: People or groups you can rely on for support when needed, and who can rely on you (e.g. a group that you would organise an activity or event alongside).
Inactive allies: People or groups who you share values or general goals with, but you don’t have a direct relationship with (e.g. a group that sits within the same movement as you). We could also think of them as “potential allies”.
Neutral: People or groups who are unaware or show little interest in your cause or issue, or actively choose not to engage in either “side” of a debate (e.g. a single issue organisation that doesn’t specifically work, comment, or otherwise engage on your issue).
Inactive adversaries: People who have beliefs or values that differ to your own and may object to your goals, but don’t actively do anything (e.g. someone who reads a newspaper opposed to your goals).
Active adversaries: People or groups who take specific action against your goals, in word or action (e.g. a politician who makes statements against your campaign).
How to use this tool
The first step in using the spectrum of allies is to name groups, people, or institutions who fit into each of these categories. As a group, label the spectrum with these groups. For the most significant groups, consider naming what it is that makes them an ally, or an adversary. How are they using the power and influence they have to support your aims, or to hinder them? Over a longer period of time you could use pictures, articles, or other materials that illustrate why you have positioned them on the spectrum in this way. Revisiting the analysis you have done means you can make amendments and changes as the context you are working in changes, could provide vital insight into how you might build stronger relationships and build power.
Shifting the balance
The next step focuses on the potential/inactive allies, the neutral groups, and possibly the inactive adversaries. We can ask ourselves: what can we do to move one or more of those groups one position to the left (e.g. inactive allies becoming active allies, or inactive adversaries to a more “neutral” position)? In some circumstances it may even be possible to shift active adversaries into becoming “inactive”. However, considering the people and groups in this category are putting energy into stopping you reaching your goals, it may not be the best use of time or energy, because you can probably assume they are the most committed and difficult to shift.
Inactive to active ally
Here we are thinking about how to strengthen relationships with groups you already “know”, but aren’t particularly close to. An inactive ally might be a group that you have had a relationship with in the past, but haven’t managed to maintain. Here are some ways you could shift the balance:
If they are planning an action or event, make sure you attend, publicise it on your own channels, or request a speaker slot/stall (as appropriate).
If you have something in the pipeline that would make sense for them to collaborate on, what role (try to be specific and concrete) could you ask for help from them?
Have a deliberate conversation about how you want to build a stronger relationship.
Active and inactive adversaries
An example of an inactive adversary might be a conservative grouping within a political or faith group. They could be moved to a more “neutral” position as social norms change over the medium/long term, or by encouraging the leadership of that group to organise workshops on relevant themes. The goal here is less to build your own movement (inactive adversaries probably aren’t going to become active allies, at least in the short term). A more realistic goal might be to draw support away from your active adversaries by making your inactive adversaries more “neutral”. who are likely drawing on the tacit support and acceptance of your inactive adversaries to push against your goals.
An interesting example of this in terms of climate justice work is the push by some politicians, media outlets, and organisations against net zero targets, 15 minute neighbourhoods, and traffic reduction schemes. Those actively pushing against these probably aren’t going to change their mind, but some ways you could work to change the position of inactive adversaries, or draw neutral groups closer to you include:
Approaching community leaders (councillors, faith leaders, community organisers, etc) in the relevant area to discuss their position and explain the benefits, and discuss with them how they could communicate this to their constituencies
Organising information and “no stupid questions” sessions for members of the community
Hold stalls at community events with clear, accessible information - can you find spaces that would bring you into contact with those you wouldn’t normally encounter?
This work - both the analysis, and the actual social change work - can take time and significant energy, but has the benefit of guiding your thinking in how you can strategically frame your actions and messaging, becoming more focused and deliberate in how you use your time, energy, and resources.
Spectrum of Allies (with detailed examples) on Beautiful Trouble: https://beautifultrouble.org/toolbox/tool/spectrum-of-allies
“Bayard Rustin knew that winning required a team”, Waging Nonviolence, https://wagingnonviolence.org/2023/11/netflix-biopic-bayard-rustin-knew-that-winning-required-a-team/