Image courtesy of Dave McClinton.


Open Letters Written by Allies in Progress

The non-Black women on the founding team of I AM took pen to paper (rather, fingers to keyboard) to share thoughts on allyship. The definition of allyship is ever-evolving, deeply personal, and takes shape in many ways. At its core is an unwavering commitment to stand with and for those facing injustice. As you read these letters, we welcome your feedback. Further, challenge yourself to imagine the words you’d include in your own letter.

Thoughts on Allyship, in Brief

By Sara Leeds
Image courtesy of Dave McClinton.

Crafting the right opening to this letter involved a lot of half typed words and many more deletions. I realized that this pressure to start with complete certainty was self-imposed, recognizing the gravity of this moment [crisis] in time. Further, my hesitancy was a broader metaphor for the journey of an ally; it’s not about starting perfectly, it’s about starting. Period.

To those who also strive to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement: My hope is that as you read this, whomever and wherever you are, you realize that regardless of where you’re starting from, you’ve made the right decision. But also realize that you have much to learn, and perhaps even more to unlearn as you embark on the journey that is allyship.

To me being an ally also means knowing our work never ends, even if the news cycles do.

I recall an early memory of understanding the importance of discussing pervasive racism in our society. On occasions I would visit my dad at work, a K-12 private school in New York. I’d be driven through a largely white neighborhood of perfectly maintained lawns and tudor mansions that culminated in a gated campus. Yet turning into the parking lot behind campus featured a different picture of what was predominantly Black and lower income residences. Why would a community be literally constructed to turn its back on its neighbors? The glaring division was often discussed in my home, as well as efforts to bridge the communities together (although this is best explained outside the brief letter I write to you today). While I’m so thankful to my parents for creating space for conversations like this at a young age, I know that this shouldn’t lead to praise and doesn’t excuse me from action, learning and overall doing much better today. Being anti-racist shouldn’t be provoked. It is an uncomfortable truth for me to write that I’ve most clearly understood the distinction between being “not racist” and being “actively anti-racist” following the murder of George Floyd.

Striving to be an ally does not simply mean a social media display. Can it be part of the equation? If done responsibly with attention to the voices of those you wish to support, absolutely. But really, active allyship means taking non-performative actions. It means putting our money behind organizations that move the needle and behind Black-owned businesses. It means recognizing our biases, calling out friends and family for racist micro-aggressions, learned behaviors and beliefs, signing petitions, showing up at protests, challenging ourselves to (un)learn by reading literature and watching films.

Allyship means knowing your work never ends, even if the news cycles do. It means carving space in your day-to-day habits to support those you wish to stand with. I encourage you to reflect on your routines and your passions. You may find that some are already tied to anti-racist work. I recently launched a sustainable fashion business. In growing this brand and educating myself on the industry, I’ve uncovered that being anti-fast fashion and anti-racist are inextricably linked.

Striving to be an ally means change happens at the individual level, and that sitting around waiting for leaders to act isn’t an option. It means holding companies and academic institutions accountable when your Black colleagues and classmates don’t have the same opportunities as white people. It means making sure that a Black artist whose dance you’re memorizing for your next TikTok video gets the credit they deserve for their work. It means looking at your inner circle and admitting if it doesn’t include Black people, and thinking about why that is. It means not forcing Black people to put their trauma on display so you can learn. It means being uncomfortable and holding ourselves accountable daily.

Striving to be an ally means I’ll forever seek more ways I can continue striving to be an ally.

I believe that Black Lives Matter, and that all lives cannot matter until ALL Black lives matter.

The Perfect Ally Does Not Exist

By Jo Cheng
Image courtesy of Dave McClinton.

In all honesty, it’s taken me a moment to write this. I struggled to find the right words to articulate how I felt about our nation’s most recent uprising against systemic racism and police brutality. Not because I had nothing to say, but because I was truly afraid of saying the wrong thing during these critically sensitive times. I wanted to be the “perfect ally.”

But with time to process and researching calls to action, I am learning that being an ally is a lifelong journey. The “perfect ally” does not exist because perfection suggests that there is no need for further improvement. I firmly believe that we must constantly educate ourselves. No one is inherently “woke.” We must accept the opportunity for growth when we are corrected or presented with new information. I am and always will be an “Ally in Progress.”

The “Perfect Ally” does not exist because perfection suggests that there is no need for further improvement.

The concept of racism towards BIPOC is not foreign to me, as my family and I immigrated to the US from Hong Kong when I was 11. The “Asian American” identity was one with growing pains, as many immigrants can agree. I grew up listening to debates regarding race and privilege. From those discussions, I was empowered in my stance as a foreign-born American to call out people for microaggressions, ignorance and stereotypes towards my race. With that all said, I knew from a young age that the racism my family and I experienced was vastly different from what the Black community experiences every day. We as non-Black POC do not know what it’s like to be Black in an anti-Black world. Additionally, our non-Black POC communities do perpetuate and often comply with anti-Blackness and anti-Black racism.

Many non-Black POC I speak with about discrimination and systemic racism against the Black community insert their own experience in the conversation. I get why one might have that urge. But let’s stop making this about us. Acknowledging and fighting against anti-Blackness and injustices specifically faced by the Black community does not make our experiences less valid. It’s about a system of oppression, a basis of social stratification that benefits groups in power. Look at our government and leaders in business – what do they look like? THEY benefit from the current system in place, not us.

So I ask that we all reflect on our privilege and how active our roles are in our generation’s civil rights movement. Let’s work toward, have open discussions about, and expand our network of allyship. Let’s rally our diverse communities in support of Black lives. Let’s commit to fighting for inclusivity and against anti-Blackness within our communities.

As a non-Black POC, I’m listening and will always keep learning and unlearning. Let’s be on the right side of history here. While we can never be the perfect ally, we can damn well try.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel


Dave McClinton creates vibrant, provocative artwork featuring culturally based imagery and landscapes. Regarding his culturally based imagery of Black life he notes, “I want to illustrate the life-cycle of the inner life of a Black person. From innocent to informed. From recklessly defiant to determined. How the weight of American history can either crush you or harden you. And, how either result often has to be hidden from view just to get through the day.” Regarding his landscapes he notes, “I create free standing crumpled paper still lifes, then photograph them and manipulate the images until I’ve created something that straddles reality and fantasy. I want to show you something familiar and then alter your perspective. These shapes and ‘views’ are familiar but I want you to conjure up places you have been and seen. Not simply reproduce a vista for its own sake.” Check out more of his work at