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Nyeema Watson, a first-generation college student, didn't know what to expect when she enrolled at Rutgers University-Camden.

One thing she certainly didn't predict: that she'd find an ally in an older white psychology professor. 

Daniel Hart supported Watson before "ally" became a popular buzzword seen on signs at Black Lives Matter protests, in rainbow letters on Pride festival T-shirts or trending as a Twitter hashtag.

“I just felt a trusting relationship with [the professor],” Watson said. “He reached out to me; I reached out to him. He certainly had never walked in my shoes, but he connected me to resources and was someone who could help me navigate the system."

More: Look the other way: The reason for persistent sexual harassment is a support system

Now, as the vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion and civic engagement, Watson is in a position to connect other Rutgers-Camden students to allies of their own.

Allyship is about action, said Jasmine Shells, the co-founder and CEO of Five to Nine, which works with leadership teams to improve employee engagement through services including diversity and inclusion trainings.

"The concept of allyship must move from a feeling [or] emotion to some sort of action to not be performative," Shells said. "It is one thing to generally say, for instance, 'I support Black Lives Matter.' It is another thing to attend a Black Lives Matter action or donate to a cause that supports the movement."

Allyship starts with education

People who want to be allies "have to put the work in," Watson said.

That work may come in the form of allyship training, but it can also come from people educating themselves about what women, LGBTQ people, people of color or others who have historically been under-represented experience. 

“You have to kind of learn … what’s the appropriate way, and ask, ‘How can I do this work?’" Watson said. "Once you’ve come to a full understanding, and in asking, certainly prefacing it with ‘I understand my privilege, I understand I may not be welcome but if you feel like I can be of service to this cause or something that you’re working on, I’m here to learn, I’m here to listen and I’m here to support.'"

People should educate themselves about the history of their privilege to become allies, Watson said.

For instance, white people hoping to be allies for people of color need to understand how privilege may have played a role in allowing opportunities that colleagues haven’t had and “what you can do to stand up and push back against injustice that you see, whether it’s something that may seem relatively small," she said.

A key way to practice allyship involves stepping in when one notices discrimination. Workplace discrimination should be reported and addressed, and companies should ensure equitable policies and protections in place for employees, Shells said.

People can bring visibility to discrimination by calling out microaggressions when they notice colleagues slighting others with subtle indignities or put-downs "that people who are marginalized face in their daily lives," said Jen Jamula, a co-founder of GoldJam Creative, which coaches organizations on communication, allyship, sexual harassment prevention and more.

"While well-meaning individuals recognize that bias and unfair treatment occurs in workplaces, it's much less likely they will observe it in their own workplace," Jamula said. "We need allies stepping up to shoulder the burdens marginalized communities face, validate their experiences to those who can't see them, and to drive the message home that we can do better."

But people should allow their colleagues at the brunt of these slights "to speak for themselves first," Jamula added.

More: Microaggressions in the workplace, intentional or unintentional, are common, impactful

Listening is a powerful tool

Allies need to make sure they aren't dominating conversations and are listening to their marginalized colleagues, Jamula said. She suggests allies constantly ask themselves "am I listening, or just giving a performance of listening?"

To show active listening, allies can rephrase key points and acknowledge others' feelings, Jamula said. 

"Listening is a powerful example of a positive bid, or turning to another person for the purposes of giving attention, accolades, or any other form of affirmative connection," Jamula said. "Everyday positive bids that allies can make are not interrupting those they are supporting, asking how they are doing and proactively considering their needs, helping them problem solve, or showing interest or excitement in their accomplishments."

Jamula provided a three-part formula to normalize everyday allyship: Create a culture in which people own up to mistakes, apologize and commit to doing better.

She also recommended companies positively recognize employees who spearhead conversations about bias, as well as allot budget funds for diversity and inclusion-focused employee resource groups.

Whether it’s institutions of higher learning, corporate America or elsewhere, Watson feels spaces should be created where people feel they can bring their “whole selves to work or school" and have people they feel they can go to address issues “in a way that does not need you specifically to have an ally because everyone should be there to ensure that people feel that they’re being supported." 

“You never know who’s watching your actions,” Watson said. “That’s why it’s important for all of us when we see wrong to say it and speak up about it because somebody else may be in that room that needs your support. I think if someone is seeking someone to speak with, they’re looking for someone they can trust. Someone who can understand the experiences that they’ve had or someone, even if they can’t fully understand, that can listen and point them to support.”

Watson says she'll never forget the ally she had in Hart. He still works at Camden, now as vice chancellor as well as a distinguished professor of psychology.

“His mentorship ultimately led me to seek and obtain my doctorate in childhood studies and sat on my dissertation committee,” she added.

Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 737-6895 or sgibbons@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibbons or Facebook at facebook.com/ReporterSammyGibbons.

Celeste E. Whittaker is a features reporter for the Courier Post, Daily Journal and Burlington County Times. The South Jersey native has worked at the Courier Post since 1998 and has covered the Philadelphia 76ers, college and high school sports and has won numerous awards for her work. Reach her at 856.486.2437 or cwhittaker@gannettnj.com.

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