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Allyship in the Workplace: Tips From Khalilah Gates, MD

At Northwestern Medicine, we deliver world-class, culturally responsive care regardless of race, age, gender, sexuality, ability to pay or any other social factor, in the communities where our patients live and work. This type of care accounts for and adapts to an individual’s experiences and unique needs.

We also encourage cultural responsiveness among our workforce, so we can achieve inclusion and equity in our teams. A key component of this approach to work is allyship.

“Being an ally means that you have moved beyond just being aware of issues,” explains Khalilah Gates, MD, a pulmonologist at Northwestern Medicine. “As an ally, you are proactive about changing and improving the experiences of those marginalized groups. Allyship is an action.”

Dr. Gates, who is also the assistant dean of Medical Education and an associate professor of Medicine (Pulmonary and Critical Care) and Medical Education at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is a leader in developing strategies for creating inclusive educational and clinical environments at Northwestern Medicine. She says that to understand what allyship is, you must know why allyship is necessary.

Setting the Foundation

People in the United States do not always have the same privileges. For example, people of color and LGBTQ people are often referred to as “marginalized,” or pushed to the margins of society, explains Dr. Gates, because they often do not have the same resources and freedoms as others.

The work to improve the lives of people who are marginalized cannot be done by them alone, says Dr. Gates. This is where allyship comes in.

“To make changes, we need all hands on deck,” she says. “It needs to be a collective effort to make progress and get meaningful change.”

Practicing Allyship

Dr. Gates describes three powerful ways to be an ally.

  • Recognize your own privilege. To see where others are struggling in life, you might have to examine the areas in which you are not struggling. What are the contributing factors leading to this imbalance?
  • Reflect on the areas in your life where you can make a difference. Take a step back and think about the systems and communities you are involved with. What can you do to make them better?
  • Hold others accountable. Being a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion means having difficult conversations. When you experience or witness discrimination, microaggressions or other negative behaviors, be clear that they are not acceptable.

Additionally, use reporting and mediation systems to help your organization document and learn from these instances. Northwestern Medicine has systems like this in place.

Studies overwhelmingly show that people from minority groups tend to have worse health outcomes compared to those not in minority groups. Dr. Gates says that allyship can improve health equity by addressing disparities to close the gaps in medical care.

“Everybody can be an ally,” she explains. “You might hear the word and get intimidated by it, but everyone in their own individual places in both work and their lives can be an ally. We all require allyship, from our staff to our patients.”

At Northwestern Medicine, you have an opportunity to serve as an ally for colleagues and patients in order to help improve their health and their lives. Learn more about our efforts to build stronger communities by supporting those who have been marginalized, and explore opportunities to support our mission of providing advanced and equitable health care.