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Real allyship is slow-quick-quick-slow

Transform Drugs and Blacksox

Transform Drugs and Blaksox

Transform Drugs and Blacksox

Transform Drugs and Blaksox

Author: Viv Ahmun, Blaksox

In 2021 we funded a partnership between Transform Drug Policy Foundation and Blaksox, a social action network. The aim of this allyship is to ensure that as we move towards drug law reform in the UK, Black people and communities take centre stage. Here, Blaksox's Viv Ahmun provides his reflections on allyship and what it means to be a good ally.

Summary of findings

  • Allyship is a perpetual process of building intimate relationships based on consistency and accountability to those who are looking to you to get them in the room, and prepare them to function effectively once in the room.
  • The entitled cannot define what needs to be done. The work and direction of travel must be defined by those you seek as an ally. Co-production and mobilisation time is a requisite before meaningful progress can be made.
  • Ongoing self-reflection is key. Through journaling, independently guided listening sessions and/or the use of technology. The colour of power is one great example, and other tools can be used to facilitate self-reflection and identify growth opportunities.
  • Words should be in service to actions. To be effective allies, words and actions must be in lockstep. Words without actions are detrimental and work against systems change.
  • Believe underrepresented people when they speak of their experiences, and, most importantly, listen, support, self-reflect and change.
  • Small Actions, Big Impact. Allyship is a continual sharing of privilege, and I like to think of that privilege in terms of capital; access to finance, access to the rooms where the decisions are made, and access to the expertise and intelligence. Show us how to do it, and then we will do for self.
Image of four people in a New York Cafe
Viv Ahmun with Transform Drug Policy Foundation on a trip to New York.

Our year of allyship

Our allyship year with Transform has been successful in many often understated ways. In the early stages, the Allyship aspect of our work has been more below the surface and very much in preparation for the impending drugs reform step change in the UK. It has been a process and not an intervention.

If we're to make real progress concerning the disparities that were spotlighted and further compounded by the pandemic, and address the hyper abuse of Black people in every space - not just policing and the criminal justice system - then we must get a grip of allyship working within an anti-racist framework.

Actions from the top

Accepting that equity and inclusion require the genuine sharing of power and inclusion at every level in an organisation is critical to the success of an allyship, and it requires commitment and bravery from the CEO and the board. Many organisations make all the right noises and shepherd in Black advisory individuals and boards, but this serves as little more than Black cladding. You only have to look at the majority of Boards and senior management teams in the Not For Profit sector to see that their commitment to race equity is performative at best - even after all the pledges that were made in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd.

In social policy and community arenas, we talk a lot about concepts, tools and models. Still, after all the pretty words are written and all the excitingly named approaches have been presented, allyship and tangible equity and inclusion come down to genuinely intentional personalities/allies in positions of real influence working in co-production to achieve a shared outcome. The willingness to relinquish and share power juxtaposed with the determination (both conscious and unconscious) to remain in control creates the volatility and discomfort that, if understood and embraced, typifies a progressive allyship. Change must be destructive and painful for good to come from it.

The progressive nature of Trust For London's funding afforded us the latitude to adopt a much more organic and process-driven approach. The Trust for London made it clear that they wanted to "learn" from our process and understood that the work would evolve and find its direction as things progressed. We discuss some of these below. People do not understand how challenging it is for Black organisations to build trust with mainstream organisations. Even when their intentions are honourable, the ignorance and in-built racism are a constant challenge, and we are constantly triggered by the failures that we witness both in our professional and personal lives every day (Grenfell, Windrush and the ongoing exploitation of Black people with mental ill health challenges to name a few).

Our allyship process


I often describe the Blaksox approach to longitudinal partnership development as 'slow-quick-quick-slow'. The first ‘slow’ phase is our getting to know one another phase. We took the time to agree on the rules of engagement and understand how we function culturally. We then tested our partnership through small collaborations to develop shared approaches needed to manage and deliver on the partnership over the long term. It is taking time to build resilience in the relationship. In 2021 we held an event which lent itself well to doing this - a hackathon in central London for Black entrepreneurs and social impact influencers. It was a resounding success, but we also learned much about our partnership from the exercise.

For 'mainstream organisations', when considering a partnership with a group focused heavily on the support and advancement of a group of individuals with protected characteristics (most commonly race and/or gender), this initial phase in the process of allyship is mission-critical. Establishing an understanding and respect for organisational culture and ways of working, as well as how individual cultural traits pour into this, is integral for building and maintaining trust. Without trust and a sharing of power, the allyship is confined to failure.

Transform Drugs and Blacksox


In the second phase, there has been a more dynamic mode of communication, project management and the voicing of dissatisfaction because the foundations were established early on. We moved from cautious learning and painfully negotiated actions to spontaneity and confidence that comes from understanding your partner's motivations, which was liberating. Our Barbershop Talks with Black men of all ages and from all walks of life, have come out of the increased unity in our allyship. Creativity, confidence, and excitement can come through when the paranoia subsides. We spent a fraction of the time that was spent fashioning the hackathon coming to a shared understanding of what makes the Barbershop Talks right.

Barber Shop Talks is one of many great things to flourish thanks to this well-forged allyship. In September 2023, we will host our first flagship UK conference led by the Black community, and that could not have happened without the Transform-Blaksox allyship.While it has been far from plain sailing - the joint management of staff has been complex, from recruitment to managing personnel, we have worked through it because of the resilience built early on in our relationship.

Slow (again)

The last slow phase is a time for review and reflection. At the end of the summer (2022), we began the process of reflecting on the distance travelled, lessons learnt, and our aspirations for the future. We have the second of two half-day review events in the first weeks of 2023 to ensure we continue to be in intimate alignment as we move forward. This willingness to stop and reflect, to do the deep work, will ensure we keep the allyship healthy and on track to realise its potential.

We are making significant progress towards our shared goal to increase the voice and agency of Black African and Caribbean Heritage communities around drug policy reform and even more immediately in relation to the legalisation and regulation of Cannabis in the UK. In my next update, I will address that exciting part of the Transform-Blaksox relationship.

Strong relationships

Keeping the main opening points in mind, it is essential to say that the Transform-Blaksox relationship was built on the Jane Slater and Viv Ahmun relationship. It is this relationship, with its shared values and steady evolution over five years, that prepared the ground for the green shoots of progress in a drugs and alcohol treatment and policy sector that remains almost completely white in regards to leadership, aside from a few notable exceptions (Lord Victor Adebwale, Lord Simon Woolly, and rising stars like Katrina Ffrench).

For the first four years, we often spoke about possible partnerships, but nothing took hold. We would keep coming back to half-baked intentions. It was Jane who was disciplined enough in those early years to keep coming back to add more substance to our musings. In doing so, she demonstrated that her interest in joint working was more than a cynical exercise in 'Black Washing'.

Out of that informal dance, the potential for a deeper, broader relationship emerged. Others from our respective organisations began to join the conversation and become part of that relationship.

It is important to note that you will find strong relationships at the root of any strong allyship. However, these relationships can only drive change within a system if the individuals who make up those allyships have power. So as co-founders of Blaksox, Lee Jasper and I determine what happens within our network. Because our allies are the Deputy CEO and CEO, respectively, of Transform, they can do likewise. Consequently, we have been able to drive the embeddedness of the allyship within a relatively short period.

Read more about the aims of this project in Jane Slater's blog 'the social justice potential of cannabis legalisation'.