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Ally Model of Social Justice in Social Work

Abstract and Keywords

The ally model of social justice is a philosophical approach that is congruent with social work’s values and emphasis on social justice and human rights. Using concepts from multiple identities and social justice, it directs those with privilege to act on behalf of those without privilege who belong to a different social group. It is developmental in nature and contains an extensive list of specific ally characteristics that inform social workers at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and system levels. Despites its limitations, the ally model of social justice is instructive for all social workers regardless of setting as they continue the profession’s mission to eliminate social injustice.

Keywords: advocacy, ally characteristics, developmental, diversity, multiple social identities, social justice, social identity, oppression, privilege

Introduction and Definitions

The ally model of social justice is a philosophical and action-oriented approach adopted by those with privilege to conceptualize, advocate, and work for and with those who experience oppression and marginalization. Washington and Evans (1991) define an ally as “a member of the ‘majority’ group or dominant group who works to end oppression in his or her professional and personal life. Allies accomplish this through advocacy with and for the oppressed populations” (p. 195). This work is described as proactive (Bishop, 2002; Griffin, 1997) and is congruent with social work’s values regarding (a) reflection, (b) life-long learning, (c) critical thinking, and (d) ethical decision-making (Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, 2015).

Social identity in oppressed and oppressor groups is the underlying theoretical foundation of the ally model (Hardiman & Jackson, 1997). Using concepts from social identity and social justice, the ally model categorizes those having memberships in oppressed groups, as “targets” and those who have memberships in oppressor groups as “agents” (Hardiman & Jackson, 1997, p. 20). These terms have also been incorporated in social work to describe an anti-oppressive perspectives (AOPs) (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). The ally model provides a description of one’s status as either oppressed or oppressor in each of the eight traditionally oppressed groups according to age, gender, disability, race/ethnicity, religion, gender identity/expression/orientation, and immigration status. It also stresses that one has multiple social identities in more than one oppressed and oppressor groups. For example, a person who identifies as Asian, female, heterosexual, under the age of 35 with a physical disabling condition, Muslim, and professor has memberships in four oppressed/target groups (race, gender, ability, and religion) and memberships in three oppressor/agent groups (sexual orientation/gender identity, social class, and age). Having multiple social identities in both agent/oppressor and target/oppressed groups, this previously described individual can select to become a social justice ally to those belonging to oppressed groups. Oppressed groups or those who lack power accorded to dominant groups have been labeled as ethnicities—African Americans, Latino/a, Native Indian/Americans, as self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, questioning (GLBT), those in poverty, and older adults. It is important to note that advocating for other females would not fit the status of social justice ally. Therefore, being a social justice ally must meet two criteria: (a) allying with or for a person or groups who are traditionally oppressed or a target and (b) having no social identity or memberships in those oppressed groups. Sakamoto and Pitner (2005) note the significance of acknowledging memberships in oppressed/target and oppressor/agent groups as seeing power differences at the structural level and identifying mutual goal of eliminating oppression across both groups.

The following article on the ally model of social justice addresses the (a) historical roots of allies, (b) conceptual underpinnings of allies, (c) ally characteristics, (d) process of ally identity development, (e) CSWE and NASW influences on ally development, (f) international perspective on the ally model, (g) barriers encountered by allies, (h) limitations of the ally model, and (i) contributions.

Historical Roots of Allies

The adoption of the very word “ally” has a positive connection to others who are not only different but also have less power than oneself. Words have powerful influences in our lives and on our behaviors (Miley, O’Melia, & Dubois, 1998). Historically, members of dominant groups have used their power to help members of oppressed groups (Bell, 1997). The term “ally” continues to evolve to describe various aspects of supportive actions for and with others. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.) traces its usage to 1598 when it originally appeared in biology to describe species belonging to the same biological family. In the area of military service, allies fought beside other countries who shared similar values (Allied Forces Taking Action During World War II, n.d.). There is also literature on being an ally to a person with privilege (Kendall, 2003). In social work, the term “social justice ally” has been associated with social justice, oppression, and privilege (Gibson, 2014; Reisch & Andrews, 2001; Spencer, 2008). In addition, many areas that are of interest to social work have incorporated the ally model. These include general social justice issues (Mock, 2011; Liddle, 2011; Edwards, 2006; Griffin, 1997), student services (Munin & Speight, 2010; Reason, Millar & Scales, 2005), domestic violence (Casey, 2010; Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, Linkenback, & Stark, 2003), sexual minorities (Asta & Vacha-Haase, 2012; Duhigg, 2007; Duhigg, Rostosky, Gray, & Wimsatt, 2010; Ji, 2007), disabilities (Evans, Assadi, & Herriott, 2005), anti-bullying (Anti-Defamation League, 2013), elementary and secondary education (Gibson, Wilson, Haight, Kayama, & Marshall, 2015; Suyemoto & Tree, 2006; Vasquez, Myhand, & Creoghton, 2003), women’s rights (Utt, 2013), and consumer activism (Haydu, 2014). Describing the work of radical social workers, Reisch and Andrews (2001) use the term “ally” and “alliances” to discuss partnerships formed by social workers to support common issues across differences. In social work education, it has been discussed as professional self-reflection and awareness of social identity (Spencer, 2008) and pedagogical approaches to teach social justice issues (Gibson, 2014; Mullaly, 2009). In social work practice, private kinship care is viewed as a natural ally to foster care (Private Kinship Care, 2011), and Sakamoto (2007) provides implications to becoming an ally for immigrants.

Conceptual Underpinning of the Ally Model of Social Justice

The ally model of social justice consists of concepts that are interrelated and associated with social work’s promotion of social justice and cultural competency. These are social identity, multiple social identities, intersectionality and standpoint, social construction, and advocacy.

Social Identity

Social identity is influenced by how oppression is experienced (Spencer, 2008). The term “social identity” is used interchangeably with the term “social location.” It is vital to self-concept (Appleby, 2001). Social identity involves the twin processes of (a) self-labeling, self-ascribed descriptions, and (b) socially imposed labeling, other-ascribed descriptions (Appleby, 2001). Some social identities are ascribed by social convention because of social group memberships (Sonn & Fisher, 2003). Social identity is affiliation with others or social group membership based on social class, race, age, religion, ability, sexual identity, and gender (Van Soest & Garcia, 2008). Content on cultural competence acknowledges that a certain dynamic emerges during interactions when social identities differ between clients and their social workers (Lu, Lum, & Chen, 2001). A similar process occurs in the social work classrooms when the majority of the students’ racial identities differ from that of their professors (Van Soest & Garcia, 2008).

Social identity has two important functions in the ally model. First, the ally model distinguishes between social identity in oppressed or oppressor social groups (Bishop, 2002; Griffin, 1997). The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and National Association of Social Workers (NASW) concur with the ally model’s list of oppressive conditions such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, religious intolerance, ageism, and ableism (Chavis & Hill, 2008). In addition, identity in an oppressed group can be deconstructed into factors that have varying levels of visibility or invisibility. Bishop (2002) notes that society uses a binary framework in which the treatment of oppressed groups is determined by visible and invisible social identity factors. In explaining this dynamic, Bishop provides an example of intergroup conflicts for the distinction of which group is most oppressed due to visible and invisible identities. Prioritizing hierarchy of oppression is incongruent with the ally model and social work values that emphasize a view that all forms of oppression, while different, are equally important (Mizrahi & Mayden, 2001). To move beyond these divisions, it is vital to point out that having identities that are not culturally normative may result in exclusion and discrimination for all groups (Lieberman & Lester, 2003).

Multiple Social Identities

Second, most people have multiple memberships in oppressed and oppressor groups. In fact, Appleby (2001) states that everyone has multiple identities. However, when discussing oppression, social identity often translates into being either/or, a binary view that some has seen as outdated (Ortiz & Jani, 2010). Another word for binary is dichotomous (Sonn & Fisher, 2003). To fully understand social identities as they function in the ally model, Crenshaw (1991) recommends going beyond a single social identity. It is important to note that despite the limitations of the dichotomous (Sonn & Fisher, 2003) and binary (Spencer, 2008) frameworks, they continue to be incorporated in social justice content. Actually, viewing identities as dichotomous means labeling as either in the oppressed or oppressor group. For example, with ability status, one is either classified as having a disability or not. Using the characteristics of ally model of social justice in social work practice requires an understanding of the experiences of social identity in both groups who are oppressed and those who have privilege (Gibson, 2014). In fact, Foster (2011) stresses that being aware of oppressive experiences is as essential to understanding cultural competency as being aware of experiences of privilege. Specifically, becoming an ally means working toward ending oppression through a provocative and transforming experience of self-examination and critical thinking about one’s social identities as they relate to multiple memberships (Bishop, 2002).

Intersectionality and Standpoint

A third related concept is intersectionality. Intersectionality “is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Originally articulated on behalf of Black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them. Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to Black women.” (Crenshaw, 2015). Intersectionality is the dynamic interplay of identities (Hulko, 2009). It can be used as a theory, perspective, or framework. It is also a method of studying relationships among multiple dimensions (Brewer, 1989; Hulko, 2009). The ally model supports learning about the intersectionality by self-reflection, self-awareness and acting on behalf of others, which are essential component of social work practice. Standpoint is related to intersectionality and has a strong focus on common experiences of an affinity group. It can be used as a lens to assess the power relationship by an oppressed group to determine future action (Collins, 1998). Similar to the ally model of social justice, it situates the experience of oppressed groups at the center (Bishop, 2002). Standpoint can also operate on an individual level when there are within group differences in the standpoint. Identity politics is used to describe a stance that is taken and based on self-labeled identities (Collins, 1998). Understanding one’s own cultural reference points (Deal & Hyde, 2004) is part of standpoint theory. It involves talking from a self-focus that takes into account one’s experience (Deal & Hyde, 2004).

Social Construction

Fourth, despite social justice issues being a perennial topic in social work education and practice, it is subjected to the process of social construction. The foundational premise of social construction theory is that interpretations of complex human behavior are socially and culturally constructed (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; de Lamater & Hyde, 1998). In other words, our sociocultural-historical contexts fundamentally shape our perceptions and understandings of the social world. Social construction theory recognizes that there may be multiple legitimate interpretations for complex social behaviors, and the interpretations of various cultural majority and minority groups may differ. Allies are aware of the concept of social construction and utilize it in a critical manner (Evans, Assadi, & Herriott, 2005). This manner involves viewing the self and others in terms of how accompanying multiple social identities influence their experiences. They work toward social justice for others regardless of the simultaneously being oppressed (Foster, 2011). Some may argue that working to end oppression or assuming ally behaviors to help others while also being oppressed, places such allies in the position of being doubly oppressed.


Fifth, allies, regardless of their social identities, stand up for others (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007) because it is congruent with the social justice framework and mandates of the social work. The social justice framework promotes social action and alliance with community groups in a manner that directs participation in meaningful cultural experiences that benefit all through case advocacy and cause advocacy (Prigoff, 2003). NASW “proudly” supports social advocacy for social justice (Clark, 2007). Advocacy is defined as acting on behalf of others (Barker, 2003). In social work, advocacy is usually done on behalf of clients or consumers. There are two kinds, cause advocacy and case advocacy. Both cause and case advocacy are interrelated (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2010) and interwoven in the ally model. Case advocacy is a form of intervention when available services are not relevant to the needs or when an organization is not responsive to those needs. Case advocacy is on the micro practice level and includes work with individuals and groups to assist with, for example, the negative consequences of ageism. Allies participate in case and cause advocacy regardless of their own experiences of social injustice but go beyond being an advocate to participate in ally behaviors that are detailed under ally characteristics.

Cause advocacy is performed to advance the cause of a group in order to establish a right or entitlement to a resource or opportunity. Cause advocacy is defined as supporting a topic, subject, issue, or cause. It is advocacy on the macro practice level and includes anti-oppression work typically on the systems level. Facilitating difficult conversations to increase communication about strategies to dismantle heterosexism is an example. McLaughlin (2009) found that three types of case advocacy were performed by clinical practitioners in their practice. All of them have characteristics of ally behaviors:

  1. 1. Instrumental advocacy: working for those who are oppressed on the macro level or systems level to keep it or those in it liable.

  2. 2. Educational advocacy: informing and teaching others about the lived-experience of oppressed groups including the challenges they encounter.

  3. 3. Practical advocacy: participating in activities on behalf of oppressed groups. Working on behalf of an individual who is experiencing oppression is case advocacy.

Ally Characteristics

An ally has certain characteristics or distinct behaviors that have been identified by numerous authors across disciplines. Gibson (2014) categorized those characteristics under each of Deal and Hyde’s (2004) three domains on oppression and social justice: (a) awareness/knowledge, (b) attitude/beliefs/feelings, and (c) action/skills. A different categorization is incorporated here to illustrate the application of ally characteristics at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and systems levels.

Ally Characteristics on the Intrapersonal Level

The intrapersonal level is viewed as within the individual. It has been described as making meaning and making life (Pooler, Wolfer, & Freeman, 2014). It is the relationship with the self, and as Hennessey (2011) states, it requires the use of the self-reflection and self-awareness. The following ally characteristics are at this level:

  • Exhibits reflection, perspective-taking, and empathy to grow into a racial justice ally (Reason et al., 2005)

  • Shows moral courage, energy level, good health, optimism, and persistence (Stokes Brown, 2002)

  • Presents self as learners and engages clients and constituencies as experts of their own experiences

  • Applies self-awareness and self-regulation to manage the influence of personal biases and values in working with diverse clients and constituencies

  • Takes risks (Hernandez-Wolfe & McDowell, 2012)

  • Appreciates differentness (Jordan, 2012)

  • Acknowledges the privilege received as member of culturally dominant group (Griffin, 1997)

  • Is humble, does not act as an expert toward the marginalized group cultural (Griffin, 1997)

  • Is willing to be confronted about own behavior and attitude and consider change (Diller, 2011)

  • Understands that one is never completely culturally competent (Spencer, 2008)

  • Feels good about own social group membership (Griffin, 1997)

  • Is comfortable and proud of own identity (Griffin, 1997)

  • Listens to and respects the perspectives and experiences of target group members (Griffin, 1997)

  • Believes he or she can make a difference by acting and speaking out against social injustice (Griffin, 1997)

  • Is compassionate (Edge, 2002; Mock, 2011)

  • Is courageous and practices to exercise this courage in discussions on issues of social justice (Liddle, 2011)

  • Recognizes statuses that convey privileges (MacPhee, 2011)

  • Works to understand his or her own privilege and does not burden the marginalized group to provide continual education (Diller, 2011)

  • Is willing to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again (Griffin, 1997)

  • Is committed to taking action against social injustice in own sphere of influence (Griffin, 1997)

  • Takes care of self to avoid burnout (Griffin, 1997)

  • Takes responsibility for learning about one’s own and target groups’ heritage, culture, and experiences and how oppression works in everyday life (Griffin, 1997)

  • Is privilege-cognizant (Bailey, 1998)

  • Has experiences as a numerical minority (Reason et al., 2005)

  • Shows an ability to learn from direct confrontational style of professor on issues of social justice (Reason et al., 2005)

  • Is willing to take risks, try new behaviors, acts in spite of own fear and resistance from other agents (Griffin, 1997)

  • Acts against social injustice out of a belief that it is in her/his own self-interest to do so (Griffin, 1997)

  • Refuses to be silenced when supporting social justice issues due to lack of direct experience with or memberships in oppressed group (Gormley, 2011)

Ally Characteristics on the Interpersonal Level

The interpersonal level constitutes interactions with others. It involves making connections and making a difference (Pooler et al., 2014). It is the relationship that social workers develop with clients (Hennessey, 2011). The following are ally characteristics that involves working with others:

  • Knows how to cultivate support from other allies (Griffin, 1997)

  • Provides social support (Stokes Brown, 2002)

  • Provides parental support for learning and critical thinking that prompt curiosity (Reason et al,. 2005)

  • Takes time to help others (Mock, 2011)

  • Takes a stand against oppression even when no marginalized group persons are present (Diller, 2011)

  • Resists being silenced by accusations that you are benefiting from the oppressive issue being discussed because of your social identities (Griffin, 1997)

Ally Characteristics on the Systems Level

The systems level is used here to denote forces in the environment that have an impact on the lives of others. It is often referred to as the macro level. The ally characteristics at the system levels are below:

  • Shows willingness to help end systems of oppression (Edwards, 2006; Jordan, 2012)

  • Applies and communicates understanding of the importance of diversity and difference in shaping life experiences in practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels

  • Acknowledges unearned privileges received as a result of agent status and works to eliminate or change privileges into rights that target group members also enjoy (Griffin, 1997)

Process of Ally Identity Development

Ally development has mainly focused on white people becoming racial justice allies, especially students (O’Brian, 2001; Stokes Brown, 2002) and, to a lesser extent, on heterosexual individuals being allies to those who identify as GLBTQ (Duhigg et al., 2010; Ji, 2007). Furthermore, three essential factors about ally development are prominent. First, individuals are not born as allies. While there is the belief that ally is not an identity (Thaler, 2013), others consider that an ally identity is best viewed as a socially constructed identity (Edwards, 2006; Reason & Davis, 2005; Waters, 2010), which is self-ascribed. Waters (2010) notes that it is a developmental process, which is constructed across cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal stages across initial, intermediate, and mature development. The process of this construction requires three components: (a) having a structurally diverse environment or a proportion of diverse individuals in that environment (Gurin, 1999), (b) being multicultural or interacting effectively across social groups (Tablot, 1996), and (c) possessing awareness of personal unearned privilege as it relates to the dynamics of oppression. Multiculturalism cannot exist without diversity. Second, rarely is ally development self-initiated (Reason, Millar, & Scales, 2005), rather it usually results from a critical incident or is a response to strong encouragement from others. This has also been called a “lucky event” (Broido, 2000, p. 13). Third, ally development inherently involves change (Waters, 2010) not only in attitude but in behavior, which can be seen as a redefinition (Bailey, 1998) or reevaluation of worldview (Reason & Davis, 2005).

Developing an ally identity may lead to conflicting interactions for many reasons. Being an ally may be viewed as dichotomous, or that one is either an ally or not an ally. This view advocated that one is either an ally or an adversary (Stybel & Peabody, 2005.). It is also consistent with the philosophy that one either works toward social justice by being proactive or works against social justice by being inactive (Reason & Davis, 2005). Usually the concept of ally development is very complex, with people assuming an identity somewhere in between those two aforementioned extremes.

In addition to the aforementioned developmental processes, there are other nondevelopmental components of becoming an ally (Broido, 2000; Johnson, 2012). One is associated with the level or capacity that increases through typical human development. The choices about action toward social justice issues are made according to the human stage of development (Johnson, 2012). As an individual develops cognitive abilities to do critical thinking, one can become more discerning in the decision-making process. Social workers are required to use critical thinking at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels (EPAS, 2015). Another relevant factor pertains to those who have had a college experience. There are three college experiences that promote ally development: (a) obtaining information about social justice issues, (b) having the capacity to understand the information obtained, and (c) being heavily recruited to be an ally or having an unexpected but critical incident that initiates involvement with social justice. Allies can also develop by either a top-down or bottom-up process. In a top-down process, a social identity is formed by group members through shared features (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). An example is when someone who does not self-ascribe to an ally identity is influenced by a group of allies to an extent that he or she then becomes an ally. The bottom-up process occurs when someone who is a self-ascribed ally influences a newly joined group to an extent that the group members also ascribe to being allies (Jans, Postmes, & der Zee, 2012).

There are other conceptualizations of ally development that are not derived from research. One conceptual framework lists the following six sequential steps an individual goes through in the process (Bishop, 2002): (a) increasing knowledge about all aspects of oppression including how to dismantle it, (b) understanding commonalities and difference among the forms of oppression, (c) being consciously awareness and working toward healing, (d) becoming a worker for your own liberation, (e) becoming an ally, and (f) maintaining hope.

Thus, becoming an ally is not static but can be a continual growth process. Edwards (2006) applies findings from research to create three ally positions that are influenced by underlying personal motivation. One motivational factor is self-interest, which refers to the internal motivation to protect those one cares about. An example is standing up for people who are new Americans only because of being married to a person who recently migrated to this country or a new American. There is no investment in nonrelated New Americans. A second motivational factor is altruism, which is described as feelings of guilt about unearned privilege. An example is wealthy individuals who donate money to benefit those in poverty due to a realization of the vast amount of privilege that their wealth confers. The third motivational factor is social justice, in which individuals are motivated by a strong passion to eliminate oppression. An example is the person who not only stands up for women but also works on their behalf to eliminate salary inequities because of an interest in gender equality. Waters (2010) focuses on understanding the actions of those in their development to allyhood. This author uses the term “allyhood” to describe a developmental process the one goes through in working against oppression and helping those who are oppressed. Using the context of student development, there are three stages with cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal components in each stage (Waters, 2010).

CSWE and NASW: Influences on Developing Allies

The profession’s values are what drive its ethical standards, which are rooted in the historical commitment to social justice (Clark, 2007) and, thus, becoming an ally. Social work education is the vehicle in which students learn about the social work profession’s ethics and values. The twin organizations of social work—the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)—have distinct responsibilities and roles. Yet both strongly concur on the importance of educating and preparing future social workers for effective practice with difference, diversity, and oppression. The ethics and values of the social work profession have been infused into the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS, 2015) for competencies in social work education. CSWE focuses on preparing future social workers to work with diversity and difference, human rights, and social and economic justice. NASW stresses social work practice that is inclusive of social justice and cultural competence. Building on these, four factors have been influential in the adoption of these practices (Simmons et al., 2012): (a) history of organization, (b) Code of Ethics, (c) increase in diversity, and (d) significance to social work practice.

Becoming a trained social worker requires not only standing up for social justice but also advocating for a just society. Regardless of the mandates from CSWE and NASW pertaining to the vital importance of culturally sensitive or relevant social work practice with oppressed groups, there is a continued need to teach and train this content using a variety of practice strategies. Social work education’s political ideology on diversity is viewed as liberal rather than conservative (Rosenwald, Wiener, Smith-Osborne, & Smith, 2012), which means that it is concerned with the plight of those who are disadvantaged or forming alliance to help those in need of social services. EPAS requires students not only to be self-aware but also to communicate their understanding of social identity factors such as age, class, color, disability, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, immigration status, political ideology, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation (CSWE, 2010)—factors that are the basis of negative differential treatment. In addition, NASW (2001) has 10 standards of cultural competence that encourage students to be mindful of their personal values and social identities and the role they play in cross-cultural practice.

International Perspective on the Ally Model

An international perspective on allies describes how allies are involved with and advocated for human rights transnationally. The term “human rights” is defined as inherent rights available to all without discrimination and regardless of social identities (United Nations Human Rights, n.d.), moral claim rights that people possess due to their status as human being (Jones, 2013), and legal and moral rights accorded human beings (Mathiesen, 2014). Amnesty International USA (n.d.), which labels itself as an activist resource community, lists a host of human rights issues: prisoners; poverty; death penalty; torture; women’s rights; children’s rights; LGBT rights; refugee and migrant; those whose rights are abused in the name of national security, by military, police and arms; and abuses due to censorship and lack of free speech.

Examples of ally behaviors with issues of human rights are numerous and varied. The United Nations has used the new media as an ally to bring attention to human rights violations (Kirby, 2014). The European Union (EU) has applied sanctions to countries who have violated human rights (Del Biondo, 2015). Alliances have been formed by developing economies to conduct research with emerging economics exploring the cultural and legal experiences of oppressed groups, such as LGBT (Nicol, Gates-Gasse, & Mule, 2014. In addition, research on environmental manipulation such as fracking found that it results in resource depletion and other risks to key human rights (Short, Elliot, Norder, Lloyd, & Morley, 2015).

Barriers Encountered by Allies

These barriers can be internal, or with the self, and external, or with others. There are many complexities inherent in becoming an ally (Reason & Davis, 2005). Developing into an ally is a process that some have also described as a journey (Reason & Davis, 2005). The awareness that is required for being an ally is intensely emotional. When one becomes truly aware of not only the existence of oppression but the detrimental effects of it as compared to the effects of privilege in the lives of those who are oppressed, emotional reactions can range from being uncomfortable to painful (Reason et al., 2005). Ascribing to the values and characteristics of being an ally may result in adversarial relationships with others, especially if values are in conflict. There may be resistance to social justice education (Reason & Davis, 2005) or to the very notion of being an ally.

Research reveals that some allies have encountered hostility from those whom they were trying to support (Reason et al., 2005). For instance, black people without disabilities working for social justice to benefit those who have disabilities may be harshly questioned not only by those with disabilities but also by other black people. What behaviors would be in keeping with an ally identity when you are confronted or your support is unwelcomed? It is suggested that you state your intention and continue being an ally. What if you realized that your action has been offensive and you agree that you have made a mistake? Three suggestions are offered (Thaler, 2013):

  1. 1. Fix the mistake (problem) by admitting your error and work at not repeating it.

  2. 2. Thank the person for bring the mistake to your attention.

  3. 3. Move forward by continuing reflecting on your error, why it occurred, and how and if you can repair the relationship.

Allies in Service Delivery

Social workers can be allies during the provision of services to clients. Garcia and McDowell (2010) list three strategies: (a) developing webs of allies to support client’s functioning and access to resources, (b) selecting the more beneficial forms of resistance, with therapists acting as allies or advocates, and (c) developing a web of allies who can protect and enhance the client’s future and obtaining additional allies. These authors suggest seeking allies in immediate and extended families, the community, social service agencies, schools, and courts. All of these strategies work to raise awareness to the plight of the client and promote social justice on their behalf.

Limitations of the Ally Model

Similar to all other conceptual approaches, the ally model has limitations. First, while it is congruent with social work’s values and competencies, it has little research evidence. Studies are needed to explore the development of allies beyond the use of qualitative research methods and with population groups other than students. Second, being an ally works best for those who are willing to engage in self-reflection and work at being self-aware in both their professional and personal lives. It may be problematic for those who want a strict separation between their professional life and their personal life. Authors have acknowledged the difficulties faced when participating in self-awareness and social justice–oriented activities (Deal & Hyde, 2004; Van Soest & Garcia, 2008). In addition, the ally model emphasizes memberships in privileged and oppressed groups, which may be seen as too personal for some, especially students learning about the profession. Sakamoto warns against using an acculturation model of allying with immigrants, in which “assimilationist views are somehow lurking behind these [governmental social services] services and policies, consciously or unconsciously, those assumptions need to be actively addressed in order to effect change at the front line of service” (2007, p. 527). Being an ally is essentially supporting others, which some may think ought to occur regardless of having a privileged status (Kendall, 2003).


The ally model of social justice is incorporated into all aspect of the social work profession. It contains an extensive list of characteristics—concrete attitudes and actions—that provide social workers with direct guidance on being an ally in their professional and personal lives. It espouses that all individuals, despite their memberships in oppressed and oppressor groups, have a role in working for social justice. Although it needs more attention from systemic research, the ally model of social justice invites social workers to become more self-aware of the multiple influences of their social identities in their own lives and the lives of those they have been trained to assist. It provides them with various ways to adhere to profession’s mandate to work toward a just society.

Further Reading

Boutte, G. S., & Jackson, T. O. (2014). Advice to white allies: Insights from faculty of color. Race Ethnicity and Education, 17(5), 623–642.Find this resource:

    Ford, K. A., & Orlandella, J. (2015). The “not-so-final remark”: The journey to becoming white allies. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1(2), 287–301.Find this resource:

      Hodge, S. R. (2014). Ideological repositioning: Race, social justice, and promise. Quest, 66(2), 169–180.Find this resource:

        Kravitz, D. A. (2002). Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Personnel Psychology, 55(2), 507–511.Find this resource:

          Patton, L. D., & Bondi, S. (2015). Nice white men or social justice allies? Using critical race theory to examine how white male faculty and administrators engage in ally work. Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(4), 488–514.Find this resource:

            Shiner, T. R., & Spiegel, S. (2015). Ally immersion: A new look at anti-racist work. The Vermont Connection, 24(1), 7.Find this resource:


              Abram, L., & Gibson, P. A. (2007). Reframing multicultural education: Teaching white privilege in social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 43, 147–160.Find this resource:

                ACA Code of Ethics. (2014). American Counseling Association. Retrieved from

                Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                  Allied Forces Taking Action during World War II. (n.d.). Retrieved from

                  Ally. (n.d.). Retrieved from http:///

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