Corporate America, we need to talk about activism

January 15, 2021, 10:35 PM UTC

Here’s the honest truth, we need to talk about a lot of things. Matthew McCarthy, Ben & Jerry’s CEO, has a message for CEOs who are worried about walking the talk: Don’t let fear hold you back.

But first, here’s your Bob Marley- inspired week in review, in Haiku.

Don’t worry, ‘bout a
thing, cause every little thing’s
gonna be alright!

Rose up this mornin’
smiled with the risin’ sun, with
three little birds pitch

on my heart and mind,
singin’ sweet songs, melodies 
pure and true, and now

they have a message 
for you (and me): One bird called
Justice, another

called Sweet Equity
the third bird was you! Making
everything alright.

We appreciate how hard you are working. Keep singing your song.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

My inbox has been running over this week with responses from my last two columns. Many of you have shared your thoughts on the January 6 riots, and a few took issue with mine. (Only one angry unsubscriber, so far.) Some senior leaders shared their plan to denounce the violence and affirm the election results, and some are now having uncomfortable conversations with Trump-supporting executives who hold a much different view. "Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, nothing compares to the anger now," one CEO said, via e-mail. "It's the worst I've experienced."

So, I put out the raceAhead version of a bat signal.

Today, we're turning this space over to Matthew McCarthy, the CEO of Ben & Jerry's, a company that has collectively learned a thing or two about taking important stands. Here, via email, is what he wants you to know:

Activism at a corporate level comes down to a unified walk and talk. Businesses must make transparent their values and take actions to address real social and/or environmental ills. If you're not willing to act, there's no sense in getting involved in the game because the people you serve are too smart, too savvy, and will call B.S.

We believe in using the power of our business to support progressive change and call out injustice. It's what this business was founded on. In 1979, our co-founders spoke clearly: "Business has the responsibility to give back to the community from which it draws its support." It set in motion our Social Mission, which actually required another decade to formalize for Ben & Jerry's.

What's possibly most important for CEOs to hear is that they should not try to be Ben & Jerry's. Ben & Jerry should not try to be Patagonia. Patagonia should not try to be Lush. Given that each organization is unique, leaders must decide what issues are right for them. Fear of negative impact to the bottom line holds leaders back. There is a reason why no NFL team has picked up Colin Kaepernick. All consumers—especially Millennials and Gen Z—are increasingly demanding that businesses get involved and make a difference. So, by not taking action, you put your brand and future revenue base at risk.

And, regarding backlash: expect it. Equally important, support your teams through the criticism when you stand up for your values and take action. Few things are worse than failing to live your values out of fear of criticism. Get over trying to please all people. Businesses should never try to be all things to all people. By the same truth, we should never expect all people or consumers to agree with all of our values. When people or consumers see you strive and sometimes fail in the pursuit of your values, they often become your most loyal fans and advocates.

If you're not doing the work, then you shouldn't be talking about it externally. That's authenticity. And it's not about perfection. It's about intent, effort, and actions taken in combination. This year, many businesses tried to gently wade into the waters of racial justice without having done any of the work. That resulted in external statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that rang hollow. It's better to focus on one issue than talking about several.

Finally, be honest. Ben & Jerry's still has a lot of work to do to dismantle structural racism, both internally and externally. We're hiring a new Head of Racial Equity; we'll increase the number of Black-owned franchises and Black-owned (and led) suppliers because what we've done to date falls far short of our vision. The work we've done over the past five years on racial justice has provided us with good experience and learning to fuel our next steps. We'll continue supporting our activism with a new Non-Dairy flavor partnering with Colin Kaepernick, who, as an activist, has inspired us in the way he highlights the systemic oppression of Black and brown people. We will learn from him, as we do with all of our other partners, and together we'll invite others to join along our activism journey.

Next week, Great Place To Work CEO Michael Bush weighs in on what's different about this moment, and how each of us can co-imagine a better future.

On Point

We need to talk about the “astonishing” rate of COVID deaths in the Latinx population of Los Angeles This story from the Los Angeles Times sounds the alarm. Across the U.S., people living in the poorest neighborhoods average about 36 deaths a day per 100,000 residents, while those living in the wealthiest zip codes are seeing about 10 deaths a day per 100,000 residents. Latinx residents of Los Angeles county are now dying at a rate of 28 per day per 100,000 residents, up from 3.5 deaths in early November. “This is a staggering increase of over 800% in a very short amount of time,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the paper. Can you guess why?
Los Angeles Times

We need to talk about the heartbreaking loss of Indigenous culture due to COVID The stories are heartbreaking; tribal elders, the keeper of the language, the stories and tradition, are being lost in staggering numbers. “It takes your breath away,” Ira Taken Alive, told the New York Times about the loss of four of his family’s elders, including his grandmother, Delores. “The amount of knowledge they held, and connection to our past.”
New York Times

We need to talk about the racist roots of COVID-related health outcomes Researchers from St George’s, University of London have published new research that finds that racism is a "root cause" and "major driver" of poor COVID health outcomes and poorer health in general. The paper, a collaboration of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Manchester and Imperial College London, explore the bias and barriers in the health care system and call for underrepresented ethnic minorities to be prioritized in vaccine planning. “Any meaningful risk assessments should take ethnicity into account… and where it has been assessed that their risk is high, ethnic minority groups should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccination," said Dr. Mohammad Razai, the first author on the paper.
ITV News

We need to talk about radicalized police officers This isn’t a conversation about implicit bias or the occasional bad apple. Police departments around the country are investigating whether officers or retired military members attended the Capitol riots as participants, or were publicly supporting the efforts from afar. But Michael German, a former FBI agent who went undercover with white supremacists and now studies white supremacist infiltration of police departments, says nobody should be surprised. "It’s important to understand that the United States was founded as a white supremacist nation, so our laws enforced white supremacy, so those who were sworn to enforce the law were enforcing white supremacy,” he says. “To imagine there was somehow a miraculous event that cured the police of that problem is foolish.”
Mother Jones

On background

We need to talk about white identity I was recently reminded of Eric Levitz’s fascinating analysis of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which at the time was under siege for historical inaccuracies that didn’t match the vitriol it was receiving. “The Times’s narrative does not delegitimize the U.S. nation-state, or American patriotism. But it very much does challenge the legitimacy of white American identity – and the secular saints and potted histories that lend that identity its substance,” he writes. “And for many white conservatives in the U.S., the idea of surrendering that identity is quite painful.” So, many of them decided not to surrender.
New York Magazine

We need to talk about belonging It has become the ultimate quest for anyone looking to build an inclusive culture and yet, its very nature is elusive. But, reminds author, researcher and powerhouse Brené Brown, it does have a simple starting point. “The opposite of belonging, from the research, is fitting in,” she says. “Fitting in is assessing and acclimating…Belonging is belonging to yourself, first. Speaking your truth, telling your story.” If you don’t have time for her Netflix special or TED talk, start with this short interview with CBS This Morning, to get you thinking. For majority culture folks, here’s a question: Of all those high performing, blended-right-in “diverse” employees you are so proud of, whose truth have you not yet heard?
CBS This Morning

raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

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