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In the summer of 2020, George Floyd was murdered in my city.
Before this tragedy, I considered myself a pretty philanthropic person. I’d educated myself on systemic racism. I’d been the executive vice president of the board for a Black World Cup soccer player’s nonprofit (The Sanneh Foundation) for two years, working on mitigating race issues in my community. I’d also volunteered on the development and fundraising side of that charity for eight years. Additionally, I’d donated a lot of money to other nonprofits tackling the problem.
But suddenly, I felt like a hypocrite. A Black man had been killed by the police in my city—and unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one who’d suffered that fate, nor would he be the last. What had my money actually done?
As I watched my city, Minneapolis, burn in the aftermath of this injustice, I realized that there was a disconnect between philanthropy and change, and that, as a business leader, I needed to do more than donate money to end oppression. I’d been throwing money at the problem of systemic racism, but systemic racism won’t end with donations alone.
I started introspecting, something I recommend business leaders who want to end oppression in all forms do. To guide that introspection, ask yourself these five questions.
1. Does my business actually practice what it preaches?
From diversity to sustainability, it’s easy to advocate for these causes as a business leader. However, what are your actual business practices?
For example, you could talk about diversity all you like, but you’re not walking the talk if your workforce isn’t diverse. Consider this: Corporate America has plenty of diversity initiatives, but those diversity initiatives aren’t moving the needle for Black women. After reflecting on your business practices, if you determine that your words aren’t lining up with your actions, start taking the necessary steps to align the two. And if you realize that you need additional insight and guidance, turn to experts who can help (but be sure to compensate them for their time).
2. How do I treat people at work and outside of work?
The golden rule is to treat others how you’d like to be treated. Here’s a twist on it: Treat others in a way that lines up with the values you stand behind.
This applies to your customers, relatives, colleagues and more. If you stand for people having fair working conditions, make sure every employee of your company is getting that experience. If you advocate for women’s rights, treat the women in your life with dignity and respect. Making a difference starts with how we treat those around us.
3. How am I holding those in my life accountable?
Something uncomfortable that comes alongside treating people in accordance with our values is holding them accountable.
The best managers hold their direct reports accountable, so shouldn’t the best friends, daughters, fathers, brothers, etc., hold those close to them accountable as well? For example, if you have a misogynistic employee, pull them aside and make it clear that their behavior is not OK, and escalate your response if it continues. If you hear your child making insensitive comments about a group of people, talk to them and let them know it won’t be tolerated. Too often, we give the people who surround us an easy pass instead of challenging them to change their behavior.
4. How am I holding my elected officials accountable?
You might already be involved in local politics, donating your time and money to candidates who champion dismantling racist, patriarchal systems.
Getting those candidates elected is only one part of the equation. It’s also vital to hold elected officials—whether you voted for them or not—accountable. If you see a proposed law, for example, that would hurt your city’s low-income workers, speak up. As a business leader, your words have influence. In fact, staying silent as a business leader speaks volumes. In a 2021 survey by Edelman, approximately 80% of respondents said they think CEOs should stand behind voting rights legislation to combat systemic racism.
5. Who am I when no one is looking?
You can align your business practices with your values, treat those in your life with respect and hold those you know and your elected officials accountable.
However, the ultimate question is: Who are you when no one is looking? How you act when you’re alone is your character; it’s who you truly are.
Evaluate Your Answers
By no means will these five questions solve the oppression present in our nation and the world as a whole. However, they are a starting point. Donating money isn’t a bad thing, but writing checks doesn’t cut it if you don’t have good answers to these five questions. You can’t truly fight the causes of oppression without making inroads into who you are as a person.
Evaluate your answers to these questions honestly, even if it means facing difficult truths about yourself. Don’t like the answers? Start taking the steps toward positive change. Only then can you begin authentically advocating to end oppression.