What will it take for corporate leaders to address gun violence? Levi’s CEO says to demand action, now

June 3, 2022, 9:13 PM UTC

Will this be the time that corporate leaders take on gun violence? Levi’s CEO, Chip Bergh weighs in. An uptick in gun violence outside of mass shooting events calls criminal justice reform into question and threatens the safety of communities of color. Segregation, turns out, is a design problem. All that and we reluctantly say goodbye to Fortune’s Jonathan Vanian, who is moving on, taking his enormous talent (and heart) with him. He wraps up his time with raceAhead with his big takeaways on corporate diversity efforts. We will miss him.

It’s Gun Violence Awareness Day, a day we should all be working diligently to retire. I plan to devote some time to taking that on.

I turned to Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi’s, for his insights. Bergh has been an outlier in speaking out on gun safety and violence. In November 2016, he wrote an open letter asking that gun owners not bring firearms into Levi’s stores or facilities, after a customer accidentally discharged their weapon in the store. It was a practical measure, that triggered a serious backlash.

But the deadly shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 felt like a turning point, Bergh tells raceAhead. It turned gun violence prevention into a necessary calling.

“This is one of the issues that young people today are most concerned about here in this country,” he says. “We decided that we were going to really engage on a much deeper level, and that’s when we decided that we were going to speak out on ending the gun violence epidemic in this country.” The company launched the Safer Tomorrow Fund, a multi-year, grant-making program that has directed $1 million in philanthropic grants to organizations and youth activists with meaningful connections to communities of color, who are often disproportionately affected by gun violence. And Bergh began encouraging other CEOs to join Everytown Business Leaders for Gun Safety, a coalition dedicated to ending gun violence in the U.S., whose supporters include Airbnb, Bain Capital, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Pinterest, Slack, and Twilio.

“We also identified Giffords as one of the lead organizations to partner with,” says Bergh, citing the national organization helmed by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which is taking on the gun lobby by mobilizing voters, supporting pro-reform political candidates, and drafting gun safety legislation. He and Giffords, who survived a mass shooting incident in 2011, have also become friends.

He sees it as a broad and urgent portfolio. “It’s great to have that mix of big national programs, working legislation at the national, local, and state levels, combined with organizations that have on-the-ground working programs.”

Bergh and his team introduced me to Giffords and her team, and I’ll share that extraordinary conversation in a subsequent column in this series, along with more about the on-the-ground programs that are addressing community needs.

But with partisan gridlock the defining characteristic of the gun legislation debate, I asked Bergh to help frame the state of CEO action, or inaction, on the issue. He says to expect more momentum and more courage from senior leaders, as they catch on to the demand from the public—preference for stronger gun laws has been clear for some 30 years of responsible polling.

He said it started in 2019. “There was a bill called H.R. 8, which was affectionately known as the Gabby Giffords bill, which effectively called for national background checks,” he recalled. While it was in the House, a full-page support ad was published in the New York Times, signed by four CEOs. After it passed the House, it ended up on then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk. “After the summer recess, we did another full-page ad and it had 150 CEO signatures,” he said. While the bill didn’t pass, it does show that leaders can take a public stand and handle whatever comes next. “They’re hearing this [about gun control] from their employees, they’re hearing from me and other CEOs, who are willing to take a stand on this,” says Bergh. “I’ve survived and my business continues to thrive.”

But in a follow-up email, Bergh said enough was enough.

“We were all shocked and outraged by the killings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, the equally horrifying events at the Tops market in Buffalo – and the 14 additional mass shootings that took place in the ten days between the two,” he wrote. “We cannot let ourselves become numb to this. We cannot let despair take hold. We have to keep making our voices heard and fighting to make our communities safer. Demand action from your elected officials and hold them accountable if they fail to act.”

More from Levi’s on their commitments here.

What’s happening in your organizations? What reporting would you like to see? Let me know, subject line: Gun safety.

Wishing you a safe and peaceful weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

It’s one thing reading about the often-depressing intersection of race and business, and another talking to the people working in the trenches.

A little over a year ago, I asked Ellen McGirt if I could help contribute to raceAhead, a newsletter that I’ve admired for years. While I’ve tangentially written about race and the technology industry as a business reporter over the years, I wanted to dive deeper into the issues I would occasionally cover, such as the often-dismal corporate diversity reports that many tech companies typically churn out.

And dive deeper I did, getting the opportunity to chat with leading diversity experts, lawyers, managers, and industry leaders on a number of topics dear to my heart. Some of the highlights include Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian sharing his thoughts about president Joe Biden formally acknowledging the Armenian Genocide; Chinese tech executives Buck Gee and Wes Hom discussing the harsh realities facing Asian workers who are trying to climb the corporate ladder; Just Capital director of corporate equity Ashley Marchand Orme talking about the necessity of collecting and being transparent around high-quality diversity and inclusion data; and Evelyn Carter, president of DEI firm Paradigm Strategy, sharing her feelings of optimism around business and race despite the struggles people of color continue to face in corporate America and the rest of the world.

These are just a handful of some of the incredible people I’ve gotten to know over the past year, and I’ll treasure their wisdom and dedication to ensuring that corporate life for people of color doesn’t have to feel like a constant struggle to be seen and heard. 

One of the major takeaways I’ve learned from over a year of contributing to raceAhead is that corporate change involving racial equity won’t happen until companies break down the silos that have formed within their institutions, essentially sequestering one group from another. I’ve talked to so many diversity experts who privately shared with me some of the common struggles that can occur because of these silos.

For instance, if a diversity lead at a company is segregated from the company’s chief human resources officer, their overall power and influence over corporate equity policies can be greatly diminished. In other words, if a corporate diversity lead doesn’t have true power at a company to institute change, all the talk about racial equity in the workplace becomes meaningless.

One prominent DEI expert told me that it’s often that corporate diversity leads have profound emotional meetings with high-up executives, in which the business leaders experience powerful feelings of empathy for their workers of color, some for the first time in their lives. But after those sentimental meetings, nothing actually happens in the workplace to instigate change because those diversity leads were never given the power they needed to create and implement policies.

I’ve also learned that despite so much media coverage around artificial intelligence and bias, not many diversity leads or people tasked with corporate managerial and hiring duties actually interact that much with the business technology units at their companies. Over the years, companies have publicized the idea that they need to build diverse tech teams, including A.I. researchers who are women and people of color, in order to create A.I. systems that don’t inadvertently amplify systemic discrimination. But over and over again, I’ve learned through my conversations with both A.I. team members and corporate HR and diversity staff that these groups often don’t interact with one another. They essentially function in their own worlds inside of their respective companies.

I realize that it can be difficult for companies to alter their corporate culture in ways that ensure more groups and teams can interact with each other. These business units have likely been segregated from each other for a reason, so that they can focus on the job at hand without so much bureaucracy slowing things down. But successful DEI policies need buy-in from every business unit and those tasked with the responsibility to create those strategies need to have the encouragement and ability from management to execute them.

There’s likely a fear that all these policies could lead to a feeling that there’s too much bureaucracy in the workplace and too many distractions. But as the tragic death of George Floyd and so many others showed corporate America, the constant deluge of horrifying racist attacks in our country can be an enormous, emotional distraction for every worker. The psychological toll of these attacks is real for every person of color. The depression and related mental illness is real.

At least by breaking down corporate silos in the workplace, executives can give their workers the chance to connect with more of their colleagues than ever before. They can be given more opportunities to connect with the people at work who look like them to and to be inspired by one another. DEI work doesn’t have to be perceived as burdensome; it can be inspirational and needed to help every worker find a way to navigate a troubled society, plagued by systemic racism.

With that said, I want to thank raceAhead readers for welcoming me into your inbox. Please know that I’ve treasured every moment working on this newsletter. Although I’m moving on from Fortune and will be starting a new role sometime soon, I never want to leave the raceAhead family.

Thank you and be kind to one another.

Jonathan Vanian 

On point

President Biden calls on Congress to pass gun legislation “My God. The fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals, even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable. We can’t fail the American people again.”
New York Times

Black communities are disproportionately impacted by gun violence, as homicides increase in the U.S. by 30% The reasons are complex, but behind the headlines of rising gun violence is the fact that Black and Latino men are typically the primary victims. There’s also a significant empathy gap. “We don’t, as a group, harken a lot of sympathy,” Henrika McCoy, a social worker and associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work in Chicago tells the Guardian. McCoy researches victimization among Black men and boys. Of Black Americans, she says, “So more often than not, people think that if something happened to us, we deserved it.”
The Guardian

The impulse to increase incarceration will further erode communities of color and it will be counterproductive, argue two experts from the Brookings Institute. Tough-on-crime rhetoric is one the rise—like the “broken window” styles of policing, which include harsh sentencing guidelines, strongarm tactics like stop-and-frisk—are likely to derail meaningful debates on criminal justice reform. But, they argue, things are not as bad as they seem. “The last 20 years have seen a remarkable decline in both rates of violent crime and homicides as well as incarceration rates,” they write.

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On Background

Segregation was a design victory Mark Lopez, an award-winning director of motion design films, has created an outstanding animated short based on The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, an award-winning book by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is not new to this conversation; he is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, a senior fellow, emeritus, at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a senior fellow of the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. The film explores in an easy-to-understand way how explicit federal, state, and local policies intentionally segregated metropolitan communities across the country throughout the 20th century. His argument, that these provisions were unconstitutional and must be remedied, makes sense but so does the moral argument that hangs in the air: The conditions that made Ferguson’s Michael Brown’s short life so tragic were preventable.
Segregated By Design film

Low-income housing programs are keeping cities segregated This analysis from The New York Times has found that in the country’s largest urban areas, low-income housing projects that rely on federal credits are disproportionately being used to build in majority non-white communities. “What this means, fair-housing advocates say, is that the government is essentially helping to maintain entrenched racial divides, even though federal law requires government agencies to promote integration.” People from more affluent communities, with better schools, services, and amenities, tend to turn out in droves to turn away low-income projects proposed in their zip codes. In one protest letter aiming to stop an affordable home initiative in a more upscale section of Houston, one resident wrote to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that the approval affordable units would draw an “unwelcome resident who, due to poverty and lack of education, will bring the threat of crime, drugs and prostitution to the neighborhood.”
New York Times

When groups are more diverse, people are less likely to “go along with the crowd” It’s bigger than just group-think, or letting the one bad idea to come out of a meeting get a budget and a timeline attached to it. While the original research isn’t new, it feels more vital in the modern age–individuals within a group tend to “agree” with the majority position, even when the conclusion is clearly wrong. But this version of the research found that racially diverse groups reduced homogeneity, specifically, “white participants in racially diverse groups were significantly less likely to conform to a clearly inferior decision compared to white participants in all-white groups.”

Parting words

"I am an invisible man.

No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me."

— Ralph Ellison, prologue, Invisible Man

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