Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 14
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

FinALLY: Moving from advocate to ally

When I entered the workforce fresh out of undergrad, my father gave me some advice: “Don’t talk about politics or religion at work!”

This adage is one that we have mostly adhered to for decades. I would also add race, sexual orientation, harassment, and disabilities to the list of topics that we don’t easily talk about in the workplace. We’ve been socialized to believe that it is best not to talk about these topics, for we know there are vastly different worldviews.


My father’s instructions suggested that I should not bring my whole self to work because there was a strong potential for my employer to treat me unfairly due to my unique attributes. He believed that the best course of action to ensure my future professional success was to blend in. However, I would contend that our current sociopolitical climate, coupled with our immediate access and consumption of news via social media, has made this widely held principle null and void. The polarization is so deep that it is almost impossible not to talk about politics, which also means we are talking about race, ethnicity, religion, class and gender because they are all so intertwined and intersectional.

Employees are bringing fears to work. Children are bringing these fears to school. As leaders in sports, we need to not only talk about these issues, but we also need the requisite skills to do so effectively. We must recognize that there are a different set of skills needed to have bold, inclusive conversations across difference, and then find ways to curate meaningful dialogue internally and in our communities.

Dec. 8, 2014, was my first day of work at the Atlanta Hawks organization, one that I will never forget. Our head of PR set up a series of media interviews for me to speak to disenfranchised fans and partners who demanded that I publicly address our shortcomings — including how we failed to operate well internally and externally, with race relations as a core issue. Our shortcomings were beyond a single email, a single person or a single event. At that moment, I knew that I could not do this work alone. I needed advocates and WE needed allies. The Atlanta Hawks’ leadership decided to take a hard look at ourselves and committed to build bridges to the community through basketball.

The most important lesson during this tumultuous time was that allyship is synonymous with action. It’s not enough to press the “like” or “sad” button, but allyship is about using our personal and professional platforms to enhance the lives of others.

The first step of becoming an ally is to know yourself and to recognize the unmerited privileges that you enjoy in society. The next steps are to educate yourself on the issues facing the group(s) of focus and to build relationships with people who identify themselves as part of the group(s). Finally, you should develop a personal definition of allyship and seek out the actions you can take to champion the lives of others. As this is not a static process and will require frequent evaluation, it is important to keep a few things in mind:

1. Accept the fact that you will make mistakes and learn from them by asking questions.

2. Embrace discomfort.

3. Remain astutely aware of your own privilege and find ways to mitigate its unjust impact on others.

At the Atlanta Hawks, we are doing all we can to make the transition from advocates to allies. In 2016, we hosted the inaugural MOSAIC symposium (Model of Shaping Atlanta through Inclusive Conversations) at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and focused the conversation on race and gender in sports. We put our learnings from this symposium into action and became the first professional sports team in Atlanta to march in the Pride parade in its 45-year history, proudly proclaiming our allyship of the LGBTQ community. We also formed a partnership with the 100 Black Men of Atlanta organization and hosted over 100 at-risk teens in our arena for mentoring, an oratorical contest, scholarship gifting and the culminating NBA basketball game experience, a first for many of these youth.

The third MOSAIC focused on disruption, the idea of unexpected, unsettling and often uncomfortable innovation. The Hawks’ action item was the implementation of an internal, monthly speaker series for employees in which we host thought leaders to educate our staff on the nuances of tough topics. We call this forum called Courageous Conversations and have openly discussed sexual violence, privilege, race relations, immigration and how to live your life exponentially. Courageous Conversations is our organization’s way of demonstrating our allyship of the many employees that we serve so that they can bring their full selves to work in a fear-free environment that cultivates growth and learning.

My initial experiences when I took on the role as chief diversity and inclusion officer were rife with uncertainty, nuance and complexity. Though many of these challenges persist today, we have made great strides and will continue to grow our commitment to allyship in the world of sports.

If my dad were still alive today, he would be proud to see that I am helping to shape a world very different from the realities he faced and what he believed to be possible: A world in which employees sharing differing perspectives are embraced and not shamed. Advocacy is defined as demonstrating support, but allyship takes us a step further by offering an opportunity for people of privilege to use their platform(s) to provide experiences for others who would not have been exposed to those opportunities otherwise.

Nzinga Shaw is chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena.