One year ago this week, people across the world stared in horror at the video of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died. For some of us, horror at this murder on video was paired with shock. For others, including many people of color I know, the video was far from shocking or surprising. It was terribly sad, but it was also far too familiar.
As the leader of an organization committed to racial equity, I have long sought to be an ally on the path to racial justice in our city and our country. But this last year has taught me that allyship isn’t enough. The word “ally” can mean a lot of things, but I have learned that it doesn’t immediately suggest action and sacrifice. I’ve heard from BIPOC friends and colleagues that how white people like myself can really help is to become accomplices — by taking substantive action, and making real sacrifices, in the pursuit of racial equity.
My journey toward action on racial justice started late in life — I grew up in a very white community, largely unaware of the privilege that accompanied just about every breath I took — my home, my school, my vacations, and access to adults who had the time and capacity to invest in my future. In college, I started to awaken to my privilege and to the ways that the systems of power in our country upheld and exacerbated centuries-old oppression. Relationships with people of color, and my work at Camp Harbor View over the last 14 years have played a central role in my deepening understanding of systemic racism. I’ll never feel even a sliver of the pain and generational trauma that people of color feel, but I’ll also never go back to a place of ignorance.
These days, I’m doing my best to listen and learn from BIPOC individuals of all ages. I’m deeply indebted to friends and mentors — especially Black women — who are helping me understand more about lived experience in our city and our country for people of color and other folks whose voices have been marginalized for generations.
But I’m also committed to go beyond listening and learning. If we read the work of Dr. Ibram Kendi and Isabel Wilkerson and go back to our lives without making significant changes, we can’t call ourselves allies or accomplices. We have to act.
So I’m committing myself to focus on five key actions for racial justice. I may never fully arrive at the destination, but I’ll work at getting better and doing more every day, and every year. And I’m calling on white people — especially those who lead organizations, teams, and companies — to join me.
Five ways white leaders can take action for racial justice:
- Listen — The first step to good listening is showing up. Be present for everyone in your life, and especially people whose voices have traditionally been marginalized. If you build trust and invest in relationships, people will tell you what they’re feeling and you can start to find places where you might be able to partner.
- Know when to speak up and when to step back — Most white leaders, myself included, would probably do well to talk less. Center the voices of Black women and other BIPOC folks in the rooms where decisions get made. But I’m not giving you a pass to stay quiet, either. You have power, use it by speaking up and using your platform to advance systemic changes that bring about equity. Finding the balance isn’t easy. I’m sure I often get it wrong, but I’m committed to keep trying. (And I’m lucky to have at least a few relationships where BIPOC folks tell me when they need me to lead, when they need me to follow, and when I should step aside).
- Hire, promote, and trust people of color — For the white folks out there who run organizations, I urge you to hire more people of color. Boston is 53% people of color. Is your leadership team more than half people of color? We’re not there yet at Camp Harbor View, but we’re committed to working on it. If you’re thinking the problem is a pipeline of talent, you’re either not recruiting in the right places or you haven’t built the trust for people to want to work for you.
- Give something up — If we are truly invested in pursuing racial equity, we must be willing to give up some of the power we have. Think of it this way, do you want your legacy to be that you held power throughout your career and life or that you made a significant (and selfless) contribution to a more equitable Boston?
- Commit to accountability — Make a plan for what you’d like to accomplish and share it with someone. It might be a friend or colleague. Or — even better — maybe you’ll publish the plan for your organization on your website. For me, writing this post is a step on that path. I’m committed to moving forward on these steps every week, and I’m putting this out there so you’ll hold me accountable.
Are you ready to join me in this work?
Committing to true learning and action means being vulnerable. I have put my foot in my mouth more than once in conversations about racial justice — it doesn’t feel great, but in retrospect I’m usually proud that I tried, that I spoke up and used my platform. (Sometimes I look back and wish I had just shut up and let BIPOC folks speak)
I’m writing today not to pat myself on the back for trying to be “woke” or for being “on a journey.” I’m doing it because if white leaders like me don’t make a commitment to take real action, we’ll fail to move the needle on racial justice — even a little bit — in our lifetimes. We have a real opportunity right now. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were the largest demonstrations in American history. Cities, states, and the federal government are passing significant reforms to protect Black lives and create more equity for BIPOC folks. Some corporations and nonprofits are making real systemic changes that will impact thousands of lives (others are getting better at window dressing).
I’m ready to keep working on this. It’s a matter of life and death for my friends, my community, and for me. Are you with me?