Leadership Lessons From the VMAs: raceAhead

August 27, 2019, 8:01 PM UTC

The 2019 MTV Video Music Awards aired last night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. And while there was a wonderful and long overdue tribute to the talent the city has produced, one presumes the stars brought their own bottled water.

That said, here are three moments that are worth revisiting in the light of day.

Ten years after Kanye West stepped on her moment during her first VMA acceptance speech, Taylor Swift was not interrupted this year. She opened the show with a performance that included her LGBTQ+ ally-themed song, “You Need To Calm Down,” which also won video of the year. 

Surrounded by a diverse squad of dancers and collaborators, she used the win to make a political call to action.

“In this video, several points were made,” Swift said in her acceptance speech. “You voting for this video means that you want a world where we’re all treated equally under the law, regardless of who you love, regardless of how we identify.” The video ends with a link to a petition to sign the Equality Act which now has more than half a million signatures, “more than five times the amount it would need to warrant a response from the White House.” She looked at her watch, in mock exasperation. 

Missy Elliott, who, in a more just world would have grand buildings and stadiums named after her, received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for her extraordinary work as an avantgarde visionary. Her performance medley is a reminder that she’s always been inclusive and a trailblazer

If you’re looking for a role model for risk-taking, you can’t do better. For more, check out this Fortune interview on her brainstorm and creative process with Dave Meyers, her longtime video director.

But I’ll end my dispatch with the woman who fully brought the leadership power.

Lizzo nailed her live performance last night, a beautifully produced, choir-backed version of her two hit songs, “Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell.” It was a joyously unapologetic celebration of curvy bodies, natural hair, dark skin, and radical self-acceptance, all performed behind a big and bouncy balloon booty. 

Lest you think you’ve seen this spectacle before, this was no mere upgrade from Sir MixAlot’s own butt-themed tribute. Instead, it was a full-throated defense of the inalienable right to feel good in one’s own skin, unburdened by the need to damage yourself by catering to society’s withering gaze and expectations.

“Let me talk to y’all for a second,” she said mid-performance as she stepped onto a riser to deliver some wisdom. “I’m tired of the bullshit. And I don’t have to know your story to know that you’re tired of the bullshit, too. It’s so hard to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back.” 

Then, she gave everyone permission to one hundred percent be themselves. 

“Feel good as hell because you deserve to feel good as hell.”


On Point

The problem with ‘gender binary’ body scanners When a TSA body scanner flagged Olivia, a transgender woman, for a manual search (really, searches), the result was an experience that "traumatize[d]" her. It’s indicative of what many transgender people go through when it comes to TSA screening: Of 298 complaints, ProPublica says, 5% of those filed were by a transgender personAnd that might not even be the full picture. About 15% of “civil rights complaints,” are filed under “ a catchall classification called “sex/gender/gender identity—not transgender.” And many people don’t even file complaints, according to the responses ProPublica obtained. Out of 174 responses, only 14 did. It’s created dread for many transgender people who travel, like Terra Fox, who often flies for work. “Every time I travel, I have to cry and feel humiliated,” she says. Read this report on how the TSA’s "flawed system" is disproportionately affecting transgender travelers. ProPublica

Latinx representation still lags in entertainment The latest study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative finds that contrary to other underrepresented groups, screen roles not increasing for Latinx actors. Worse, when they do work, their experiences are rarely explored in meaningful ways. Among 1,200 popular films released between 2007 and 2018, just 4.5% of more than 47,000 speaking or named roles went to Latinx actors. Only 3% were lead or co-leads. This number vastly underrepresents the Latinx population in the U.S. "At a time where Latinos in our country are facing intense concerns over their safety, we urgently need to see the Latino community authentically and accurately represented throughout entertainment," said Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and co-author of the report. Los Angeles Times

Blocked from starting freshman year at Harvard University Ismail B. Ajjawi, a Palestinian student, was forced to leave after his visa was canceled. He was stopped for questioning by immigration officials after arriving at the Boston Logan International Airport, along with other international students, according to the Harvard Crimson. He was kept longer, he says, and was questioned for eight hours, including about his religion. His laptop and phone were also searched, and his social media activity scrutinized before he was eventually deemed "inadmissible." He’s now waiting back home in Lebanon, while Harvard officials work to resolve the issue in time for the start of the semester. It’s not the first time incoming international students have faced visa problems as a result of recent immigration policies. Harvard Crimson

Adversity score will not be assigned to students taking the SAT Responding to criticism from parents and educators, the College Board is dropping a plan to assign a "diversity" score to every student who takes the SAT. Instead, they will be assessing a student’s social and economic background through a variety of data points in a tool called Landscape. The information will not be combined into a single score. "We listened to thoughtful criticism and made Landscape better and more transparent," said David Coleman, CEO of the College Board in a statement. "Landscape provides admissions officers more consistent background information so they can fairly consider every student, no matter where they live and learn." Wall Street Journal

On Background

SoCap launches a video series on racial inequity in the social impact sector The impact investing conference organizer and media outlet has done the world a service by putting these videos in one easily accessible place. They are wide-ranging, and you’ll be sure to find an expert or a perspective that will help you better assess your own social investments and initiatives. There are no wrong places to wade in, but for general purposes, you might want to start with Cynthia Muller from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as she breaks down the concept of a racial equity lens. "When confronted with how to engage with racial equity, it’s around definitions, around approach. But it’s also around guilt," she says. Racial equity work doesn’t mean you have to feel pressure to do more than you can do. Think of it instead as a helpful viewfinder. "Racial lens is about understanding who is benefiting and who isn’t from this system." Social Capital Markets

We don’t know whether our charitable efforts are effective And that’s a big problem, considering Americans gave some $410 billion to good causes in 2017. But without a more organized effort to measure the impacts of this work, and to focus efforts more on underserved communities, it’s hard to prove that philanthropy is anything more than self-serving. Click through for a fascinating interview with Aaron Dorfman, the president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which does research to make sure that interventions actually help the people they attempt to serve. "In our last analysis, 90% of the 1,000 biggest foundations in the country direct less than half of their dollars to benefit underserved communities. It’s shocking," he says. "People will sometimes be upset by our work, but we’re trying to move philanthropy forward." Yale Insights

Diversity training does work after all Four researchers offer hope to those diversity trainers who have been told by a skeptical audience that their programs don’t work, or worse, annoy white people. A recent analysis looking at 40 years of training showed that diversity training can work, with a couple of caveats. First, it needs to target awareness (via techniques like perspective-taking) and skill development. But most of all, it needs to be personalized to your organization. "Diversity training effectiveness depends on the specific training method used, the personality characteristics of those who are trained, and the specific outcomes that are measured after training concludes." Harvard Business Review

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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“So here we are… At this tiny, tiny little ass desk. This desk is so damn small. My thigh barely fit underneath it.”

—Lizzo, during her appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series

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