We Bend the Arc Toward Justice with Clarity, Consistency, and Accountability
Around this time of year, publications and social media are flooded with images of MLK Jr. along with his seminal quote: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Many of us cite this adage without pausing for the deeper analysis it deserves due to repeated exposure when it actually warrants pause for deeper analysis: What does it mean to actualize MLK’s abstract sentiment in today’s world? Modern day interpretations whitewash MLK’s words to be more palatable inferring that somehow, perhaps by forces unbeknownst to us, humanity will naturally move toward a better world. But, in order for his statement to be true, we — not some ambiguous entity — need to work for justice, equity, and inclusion with clarity and consistency.
In 2020, we experienced that moment of clarity. As a global community, we wrestled with COVD-19. Nationally, we experienced an eruption of persistent political unrest that had been brewing for years. Everywhere, individuals faced economic uncertainty as companies shut down and the service industry suffered major job loss. Then, video after video surfaced of Black people murdered while simply living their lives. Though not the first time our nation had to reckon with these modern lynchings, this was the first time in the last 50 years that so many people were outraged enough to be mobilized into action. Perhaps, this is because everyone — regardless of race or ethnicity — felt viscerally under physical threat in some way due to the pandemic and sociopolitical unrest, including many who might have otherwise dismissed the murders as unremarkable displayed a greater sense of responsibility and empathy. So, as a society, we acted. We worked to set the moral universe back on track. People protested and stood in solidarity with activists. In turn, company leaders prioritized counseling and resources for impacted employees, offered education for allies, and made robust public statements about their plans to change. It was clear that, for all the horror 2020 brought us, it provided a unique moment of collective focus. All of a sudden, Corporate America was at the forefront of the fight against systemic racism.
Now, with the exhausting 2 years that we’ve lived through, the urgency of that period has died down. In the macro-climate, the President has changed to a less obviously incendiary one, and the pandemic is less mysterious as vaccines become more available. And let’s face it, people are tired of bad news. The imminent threats that brought us all together are less salient, and people’s willingness to commit to “the cause” has wavered. Without the urgency of daily protests, leaders — even those of companies that boldly stated that they did not want your business if you supported racism — have lost sight of why they made those robust statements and commitments to begin with. I see leaders questioning whether “now is the time” for the very efforts they championed 18 months ago. Let’s remember: employees see this too. I join calls with people who are all asking the same question in hushed tones, “Are we the only ones worried their companies think the DEI work is done?” In short, Corporate America of 2022 is falling back from the front lines because the situation does not feel acute anymore. So now is the time to refocus:
- First, organizations and their employees need clarity: What is the problem at hand? In plain language, racism is still in the DNA of America. It is deeply embedded in systems that pervade workplaces nationally, like how people are hired, how performance is evaluated, and how promotion decisions are made. If you haven’t already, now is the time to communicate your organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion beliefs. Perhaps it comes in the form of a DEI statement, or an update to your values or working principles. Then, dig into your data to understand the impact your company practices are having and ask whether that impact aligns with or undermines your DEI philosophy. If the latter, get clear about the change you want to see and your plan for achieving that vision.
- Second, consistency is paramount. While we had great momentum around racial justice in the workplace in 2020 and into 2021, organizations need to continually prioritize DEI initiatives in a sincere, integrated way. Systemic problems take long-term, systems-based commitments to see meaningful change. Employees will see through check-the-box initiatives that are designed to appease. Invest in an ongoing conversation about everyone’s role in building a more inclusive and equitable organization. Iterate, and survey your workforce along the way to understand the impact of each change you make. Then, use those data to inform the next iteration in your efforts.
- Finally, build processes for accountability. Every leader should be able to explain how their strategic plan is informed by your company’s DEI goals. Every individual contributor needs to understand how they contribute to your company’s DEI philosophy. And everyone, regardless of level, should know where to go, and what will happen, when something happens that does not align with DEI values. No matter what, it’s imperative that all your people see themselves as integral to the company culture you are building.
In order to bend the arc towards justice, it requires clarity on the problem, the solution, and our roles. While I think it’s right to be optimistic about the change that can occur, that change is generated from us, and us alone.
January 14, 2022