By Ellen McGirt
September 23, 2016

Acts of kindness were the highlights of the continuing protests last night in Charlotte, NC, with protestors creating little drama for the television media to capture. Instead, hugs, songs and dialog with police were on display.

It was a stark difference from the day before, when thousands of Charlotte employees were told to stay home in the wake of violence in the business district that left one man dead.

“We have to be the ones out there who set the tone. People did that 60 years ago. We have to continue it,” a local black radio personality called Chewy Torres told the Charlotte Observer. “We showed the world what we represented today. We showed them that we’ve got peace, we showed them that we’ve got unity, we showed them we are Charlotte and we showed them we want change in our system.”

But serious questions remain about the fatal shooting of Keith L. Scott, a 43-year old black man. A video of the shooting, viewed by the family, has been called inconclusive. And the protests have revealed a much deeper divide in Charlotte, a city that has prided itself as being a beacon of the New South. One example: A University of North Carolina study found that blacks, particularly young black men, were far more likely to be stopped by police in Charlotte. That racial disparity in traffic stops has been growing.

I reached out to my growing slate of experts, looking for ways that the business community might play a role in helping people like Torres set the tone while helping bring badly needed change to where they live and work.

Tolanda Tolbert, PhD, Director of the Inclusive Leadership Initiative of the Catalyst Group, responded with a fascinating idea. She points to Employee Resource Groups, (ERGs) the voluntary, employee-led organizations that typically work to smooth the way for their members, but which have been increasingly tackling the thornier issues of race, inclusion and justice in their companies and communities.

“We would suggest that the work that most ERGs do could be leveraged to create a space where the targeted communities and the authorities could meet and have a dialog,” she says, referring to the police and aggrieved activists in Charlotte. “We could also see ERGs functioning as advisors to either side of this conversation—working as a bridge to communication,” she says.

Tolbert, who studies and consults with ERGs as part of her job, thinks they can grow into a management force for change. “For example, imagine that situation with Arizona passing discriminatory laws,” she says. “We could see an ERG telling their leadership not to have their annual conference in a location, or to stop sponsorship of an event.”

To her knowledge, she says, an ERG has not yet established itself as an ambassador in this way.

Who will be the first? Let us know: raceAhead@newsletters.fortune.com

 


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