As I continue to reflect upon this moment in time, when the world is experiencing a new racial awareness, I frequently hear the question: “What can I do?” It’s a great question, though not an easily answered one.

In my previous column, I wrote about why reading books on anti-racism and developing a sense of allyship is an important step but not a solution in and of itself. We of course should absolutely continue to read, grow, and expand our thinking—after all, we are never done learning. But at some point, as the question above suggests, we do need to turn all this new knowledge into action.

Recently, I encountered a social media post by a Black woman who, in a touching and candid way, detailed what it is like to endure the implicit and explicit discrimination that comes with being a person of color in America, especially during this unprecedented pandemic. In her post, she specifically asked for her white friends and followers to “stand in the gap” between her and the microaggressions, online hate, and bullying that she and many other people of color experience.

In effect, she was asking people to act. She was asking for her white supporters and allies to be willing to put their own privilege and comfort on the line to act as buffers—to stand in the gap—between her and the racial and appearance-based abuse she has been experiencing. And, she was asking her followers not only to stand in the gap for her but for all marginalized communities.

Standing up

As it turns out, the phrase has roots in theology. In religion, “standing in the gap” refers to the idea of praying for others as a means of interceding on their behalf. But the idea of interceding on behalf of others need not be thought of only in terms of prayer. Standing in the gap is what we ask allies to do. And in the context of our current racial justice movement, the phrase has taken on new relevance as more and more people every day are choosing to stand in the gap so important social issues can be addressed and diverse voices can be amplified.

To be clear, there is no one right way to stand in the gap for a Black person, a person of color, or someone who belongs to a marginalized community. Standing in the gap is an awareness and acknowledgment of inequality and a commitment to address it. It is not a prescriptive list of ally-like actions. Standing in the gap will vary from place to place, from situation to situation, person to person.

For example, standing in the gap occurred when the “Wall of Moms” literally stood between protesters in Portland, Ore., and advancing armed police forces. Standing in the gap may be preventing a Muslim woman from being harassed and called a terrorist in public: step in, talk to her, distract the abusers, call for help.

But standing in the gap isn’t always so intense. It is speaking up when a woman of color is being constantly interrupted or undermined during a presentation. “Please, let her speak.”

Standing in the gap is keeping banned and challenged books on the shelves. Standing in the gap is hanging a Black Lives Matter banner in your library and standing your ground when someone demands it be taken down or shouts “all lives matter.”

Standing in the gap is making sure that your company’s job advertisement is widely circulated and intentionally posted in groups and spaces that can reach communities of color. It is ensuring that the hiring team has had implicit bias training. And standing in the gap is not asking any of your colleagues to “Americanize” their name.

Standing in the gap is having hard conversations with friends and family who use racial slurs, or who may be sharing racist memes on social media. Standing in the gap is not sharing videos of brutality—for example, the shocking police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha last month. And then, it is reporting these videos or asking for them to be taken down when they continue to traumatize others or exploit a community’s pain.

We also need to stand in the gap in our libraries. Libraries promote information access for all, but it is also the library’s job to offer equitable and safe spaces for everyone in the community. This comes in the form of having collections and programs for all diverse groups in the community—and not just during particular months of the year. This means having a physically accessible building, and Wi-Fi hotspots for loan to community members who do not have access at home, among other things.

And there will be times when the stakes are higher. Standing in the gap is keeping banned and challenged books on the shelves. Standing in the gap is hanging a Black Lives Matter banner in your library and standing your ground when someone demands it be taken down or shouts “all lives matter.”

Standing in the gap is ensuring that library staff is as diverse as the community it serves, and trained in facilitation techniques so they are equipped to lead important community-wide conversations about race and equity. Library staff are about more than providing access to information, they are the hearts of their communities. As such, they stand in the gap to serve, amplify, and advocate for those communities.

Standing in the gap is making a concerted effort to be a better and active listener, believing marginalized people when they tell you about the abuse they are enduring, and asking how you can help. As author Brené Brown writes: “In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.”

Are you ready?

Standing in the gap is not easy. It requires pushing through your own discomfort and putting another’s needs in front of your own.

As an ally, such actions and the mindset from which they derive should become second nature. If you find that you still have to agonize over helping someone else, lamenting what you might lose by doing so or worrying about how you will be perceived by others, keep working, because you are not quite ready to stand in the gap.

But you will be. And as you continue to learn and grow you will find the best ways to be an ally, ways that work for you and ways that allow you to remain true to yourself. Along the way, you will figure out what your gaps in knowledge and ability are and how to address them. You will figure out your strengths. And you will use your strengths and knowledge to grow into a trustworthy and confident ally who is effective, compassionate, and capable of acting to ensure that everyone’s voices and experiences are heard and respected.

You don’t have to do this all on your own. Seek out training on developing cultural competence, or on how to create anti-racist classrooms and workplaces. Consider participating in some of the many webinars and online courses currently being offered (often for free). Take a class or a training session that specializes in ally development, such as those offered by The Safe Zone Project or Hollaback!. These organizations specialize in helping people realize and actualize their power as allies, and they offer solid strategies for action.

Pursuing training opportunities will go a long way toward demonstrating that you are ready to stand in the gap. And if you’re not quite there yet, don’t be discouraged. Remember, there are many ways to do this. It’s a different process for everyone, but there is a common theme: your desire to be a better human being, and to stand up for what’s right.

Nicole A. Cooke is the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, at the University of South Carolina. Her research and teaching interests include equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in librarianship, critical cultural information studies, human information behavior, and fake news consumption and resistance.