How to be an anti-racist not just in the summer of 2020, but next year and beyond

As I reflect on an enormously painful and exhausting year, I find myself in a hopeful place. And yes, I am surprised by that.

Part of the hope stems from the many conversations I didn’t expect to have. Some have been with chief executives who have committed to address issues of race and inequity with humility, determination, and grace. (Check out this year-in-review episode of Leadership Next, my podcast with Fortune CEO Alan Murray, for more.) Some have been with mid-career executives on the Fortune Connect platform—now our largest executive community—who represent the cohort who will be responsible for leading and implementing the radical reimagining of work and society going forward. They give me life. (More on Fortune Connect here.)

For the better part of a year, I’ve also been Zooming into conferences and other private meetings to share what I’m learning from my 2020 reporting, and to learn what’s top of the mind for decision-makers. When it comes to race and inequity, so many leaders are—miraculously—on the same page, but not always clear about what comes next. I did my best to represent all of you. Looking back, I’ve come to see that my responses can be condensed to one simple prompt: It is up to each of us to notice who is not in the room, and to ask why.

In the “why” is the work.

The act of noticing is a powerful one. It’s the first step to inclusion and puts you on the road to understanding, allyship, and the elimination of the kinds of barriers whose roots lie far beyond your workplace. It takes twenty years to grow an entry level employee, and a lot goes wrong for them along the way: Unequal access to health careeducation, clean water and food leads to unequal life outcomes. Living in communities that offer little promise of safety or civic life, leads to deep despair. Not an insignificant pipeline problem.

“Room,” then, becomes a metaphor for wherever history, power, and commerce operate: To stand for inclusion in the workforce is to notice who isn’t on your board, executive suite, high potential pool, store shelves, professional service value chain, customer base, teams, and professional membership groups. Take a look at your LinkedIn connections. Your social feeds. Look around the neighborhood where you live. Where you worship. The zip codes where your (mostly empty) corporate headquarters are. Who’s not there? Why? 

Pull the threads, and narratives begin to emerge that will help you better understand how outside forces—like a historic lack of access to capital markets—have created the seemingly intractable gaps in wealth and agency that plague so many in the U.S. and beyond. New questions will emerge about how those forces have worked their way inside your firms. Whose family was decimated by COVID-19? Why was our new accommodation for working from a distance not the pre-pandemic norm for disabled employees? How could it possibly be that working women have lost so much traction in the last nine months? Why do so few employees of color make it past their first leadership assignment? What specific benefits and services do the extraordinary people we are frantically trying to hire our way into a better diversity report really need to thrive in their jobs? 

Once you see exclusion you can’t unsee it. And that’s a good thing.

Despite the good vaccine news, we are facing many months of uncertainty, pain, and darkness before the light shines once more. Plenty of families and communities will emerge more scarred than others.

Are we prepared to ask why and act on what we learn?

Currently, it feels pretty unlikely. Global inequality is on the rise at a time when people are literally stabbing each other in the streets at political rallies. And yet, most of us are just trying to get through this thing called life.

I get it.

So, my best advice is to do as much of your looking and listening as close to home as possible. One soul at a time.

To help with that, I’m moved to repeat this simple advice from David Kyuman Kim, a professor of religious studies, and a philosopher and scholar of radical love and inclusive democracy. He is currently the founding director for the Center for Values, Ethics, & Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. His advice: Open your mind, and then listen. When you give genuine attention to other people, they find the courage to talk about their lives. The simplicity masks the power.

“We have a responsibility to draw our attention to co-workers, to community members, and ask a simple question: ‘How are you doing?’” he says. “And then listen, really listen, as if you don’t already know the answer.”

Not knowing. What’s the worst that could happen?

Ellen McGirt

On point

Pinterest settles gender discrimination lawsuit The suit was brought by former COO Françoise Brougher in August. In it, Brougher alleged that she had been paid less than her colleagues, left out of important meetings and was given gendered feedback. The settlement of $22.5 million, includes a provision where Brougher and the company will jointly contribute $2.5 million to philanthropies supporting women and underrepresented minorities in the tech. In the not so good news, two Black public policy officials, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, came forward with their own stories of racist and disparaging treatment. Both said they were underpaid and both left the company with less than a year’s severance.
The Verge

Black farmers took back the land in Detroit There is a vibrant and surprisingly diverse community of small farmers in Detroit and environs. That said, much of the farmed land is owned by white people and real estate speculators. The disparity caught the eye of the non-profit Keep Growing Detroit (KGD), which teamed up with other farming and food insecurity-focused organizations to launch a GoFundMe designed to help Black farming families buy any available farmland. “We noticed that more white farmers were getting the land than Black farmers,” says KGD co-director Tepirah Rushdan. The organization tracks the number of gardens and farms in Detroit. “Maybe it was because they had the money and the extra time to go through the hoops to buy the land. I didn’t like that. I had a lot of Black farmer friends who were rocking it, but they didn’t own the land.” In 20 minutes, the fund blew past their $5,000 goal to collect more than $50,000. Read it and eat.
Civil Eats

Root, root, root for the Cleveland team  After a long, protracted battle, Cleveland’s baseball franchise is retiring its racist team name, following the slow elimination of their even more racist logo and mascot. It’s a victory. The team plans to disclose more plans later this week, but for now, enjoy the news.
New York Times

On background

The whitewashed way we study music Hannah Marie Robbins, the Frederick Loewe Research associate at the University of Sheffield, was well into secondary school before she noticed the perpetual whiteness of arts education in Britain. It was in profound contrast to the children in the classroom, who hailed from a wide variety of countries and heritages. As a music student working with a mostly Western canon, “diversity” mostly focused on “black suffering” narratives and not on the rich cultural offerings of non-Western modes. Things must improve, she says. “Shockingly, it remains possible and, according to considerable anecdotal evidence, normal to deliver introductions to Popular Music without covering any work by creatives of colour,” she says.
Media Diversified

A public policy class in a women’s prison helped spark a unique post-incarceration re-entry program Vanessa Thompson was a long-time inmate in Indiana Women’s Prison. Once troubled, she was later redeemed by a public policy class that gave her the skills to lobby for reforms to legislation that touched the lives of vulnerable women—issues of drug addiction, domestic violence and sexual assault, chiefly among them. But when a local politician promised to address the scourge of abandoned homes due to the mortgage crisis, she had an idea. What if people re-entering society could help renovate the homes, and then live in them? “It’s a double restoration—not just of the house but of the person,” Thompson told The Marshall Project. The public policy class got to work, holding video meetings with experts from Habitat for Humanity and Yale Law School. They even lobbied lawmakers directly, via video. And that’s when things started getting interesting.
The Marshall Project

Does it matter that architecture is so white? Well, the architects of color (who could be found) uniformly say yes, and make their individual and collective cases in this Curbed story from way back in 2017. “I have an undergraduate education in architecture as well, and I never saw anything about work by black architects or architecture about black people unless it was traditional African architecture or the pyramids in Egypt,” says Mabel O. Wilson, founder & principal of Studio &. “That's as far as it went.” Eurocentricity defined every aspect of architecture, she says, and the absence of her own narrative became a source of real concern. “If we don't change the body of knowledge, then people will always have that same reaction.” Solutions, they’ve got ‘em.

raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

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