The word ‘ally’ has floated around social media for the last few weeks as non-Black people learn what they can do to fight racial injustice. I’m not the best person to explain the importance of anti-racist allies since I don’t personally experience racism, but I encourage you to check out the video posted below for more perspective. What I can share, however, is a lesson on allyship I learned while volunteering at Mercado el Colegio last week.

Mercado el Colegio is a donation-based pop-up grocery store at El Colegio High School, a charter school that serves Latinx students and other students of color. My Spanish Studies professor emailed our former class that the market needed Spanish-speaking volunteers, and I immediately signed up. I’m not fluent, but there were so many blank spots on the sign-up sheet at the time that I figured my conversational Spanish would still be helpful. 

At the end of the day, one of the young Latinx organizers made an announcement asking white allies to not sign up for roles they aren’t prepared to handle. “This isn’t a place to practice your Spanish,” she said, explaining that when community members are trying to get their essential needs met, they shouldn’t also have to play the role of language teachers. Other Latinx volunteers in the room responded to her comment with empathic shouts of “yes!” and “thank you!” I was in a “Spanish-speaking preferred” slot, but regardless of whether she was referring to me, it was food for thought.

Her comment helped me realize I had centered myself as a volunteer by signing up early, thinking they needed my limited Spanish. I didn’t consider that people within the community deserve priority over volunteers from outside the community, especially when it involves a language barrier. I wasn’t the best person for the job, and I think allies are responsible for considering this before they sign up to help. The most important question to ask is if the work benefits the community or just fulfills our own desires to help. Obviously that doesn’t mean I should never volunteer, but I should be aware of where I’m really needed. Since then, I’ve returned to volunteer at Mercado el Colegio, but this time I waited to make sure I didn’t take the spot of someone who could better serve the community members.

There is a nuance to allyship that I’m continuing to learn each day. Allies follow the lead of people of color rather than doing what they think is best. They recognize when their assistance is needed and when it’s better to let the community heal within itself. I’m sure I’ll make plenty more mistakes as an ally, but I plan to keep learning.

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