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Being Humble: The Importance of Humility in Ally Development

By: Ian Crookshank
July 08, 2016
Green leaf curls on a black background, supporting drops of water on its back.

Humility is an important skill in being an ally for unique individuals from diverse populations. Humility can be defined as the quality or state of being humble or having modest opinion of one’s own importance. Humility, or lack thereof, can impact your ability to support others in several ways, including:

  1. Developing self-advocacy and capacity building skills
  2. Empowering others to be agents of change
  3. Supporting others empathetically
  4. Inserting one’s own values or experiences into the problem
  5. Creating opportunities for self-authored stories and self-constructed solutions

Humility leads to curiosity and empathy.

Humility allows you to be truly curious and open to learning—even in situations where you may feel uncomfortable with what you are learning. It is also the ability to recognize your own assumptions and come to terms with your own ignorance. Ignorance is often a term used to put down or demean those who do not approach situations and individuals openly. I would argue that ignorance itself is not necessarily the most pressing issue when it comes to ally development or the pursuit of a more socially just world. In fact, ignorance is a natural part of life as there is simply too much information and too much to know for every person not to have a degree of ignorance. It is often our own arrogance, however, that taints our views of what we know, which not only prevents us from acquiring new knowledge but also from becoming strong allies.

Arrogance is a barrier.

Arrogance, as the opposite of humility, often manifests in the shutting down of ideas; fear of anything outside of the parameters laid out by one’s past experiences, judgement of anything different, and, worst of all, anger and hatred. Arrogance can also manifest itself more subtly. For example, when we attempt to use our own experience to lessen what another person is feeling. Even highly skilled helpers and allies can suffer from a degree of arrogance. As someone who identifies as an ally and helper within student affairs, I often get a warm feeling when supporting students in many different capacities. I try to be extremely conscious of that warm feeling and how it impacts the kind of support that I provide. I have to ensure that I am providing each student with the opportunity to create their own solution and empowering them to create change. I am cautious about allowing my own views and values to enter into the equation, as my role is to help the student develop a solution to their issue so that they are better prepared to work through it on their own next time.

Humility allows me…

I certainly don’t think I have mastered the art of ally-ship or that I adequately exercise enough humility in all situations (the more emotionally tied I am to an outcome, the harder it is to practice humility and remain objective), however, I recognize that being conscious of and making a best effort to practice humility is integral to my development. Humility forces me to listen, support, and guide rather than speak, lead, and own the solution. Humility allows me to work outside of and beyond the apparent barriers or limitations inherent to an issue, and challenge some of the power dynamics within a given helping situation. Humility creates a moment of learning that helps the people I work with understand the context of their situation, as well as feel the power of the knowledge they already possess. Humility leads me to be vulnerable, uncomfortable, and defer to the experience of others while making meaning out of any given situation.

In a world where we often expect fast solutions to immediate problems, taking time to value and curiously seek out broader and deeper understandings of the challenges facing the people whose transformations we are here to facilitate is something that we should all learn and practice.