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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Challenge to Companies: Address Racism

By Mary Mazzoni

Racial equity and social justice took center stage at the 2016 Net Impact conference in Philadelphia last week. The event closed with Michael Smith of My Brother’s Keeper, President Barack Obama’s initiative to address opportunity gaps faced by young men of color. Two days earlier, it opened with Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A student attendee said some of her peers admitted they were confused by Net Impact's selection of Garza for the opening keynote. But when they heard her remarks, the student continued, it all became clear. As future corporate leaders, Net Impact's members have a responsibility to be proactive about issues of racial inequality. (In case you missed it, you can watch her remarks here.)

Garza founded Black Lives Matter with a post on Facebook in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder, for which shooter George Zimmerman was acquitted based on Florida's dubious "stand your ground" law. She called the post a "love letter"—a love letter "to people who look like me, reminding us that our lives actually do matter."

The movement evolved from a post to a hashtag to nearly 50 networks around the world. It has root in Garza's bold statement of encouragement and call to action, but she insisted the movement began far before her now famous words.

"We did not create this movement," she said before a packed hall in the Pennsylvania Convention Center. "This movement is a part of a long arc in the black freedom movement ... We are proud participants in the long arc of history ... Because any time you deny human beings their right to be human, there will be a response—a resistance. It’s in our blood."

While Black Lives Matter is a staple in today's headlines and cable news shows, many Americans are still confused about what this movement is and if they should participate. So, in the context of our ongoing conversation around the corporate role in Black Lives Matter and racial equity, we wanted to get at the question: What can you—as business leaders, as change-makers—do to respond? Read on for our best shot at an answer.

"Not just a movement for black people"

The Black Lives Matter movement was controversial from the start. Bringing up issues of racial injustice -- spanning from the introduction of chattel slavery, to the Jim Crow era, to the systemic issues that persist to this day -- is bound to make people uncomfortable. It can also make people feel excluded, particularly some white Americans who feel threatened by the movement. Garza addressed these challenges head-on and insisted Black Lives Matter—a movement she underscored as "nonpartisan"—is for everyone.

"This movement is not just a movement for black people," Garza insisted in Philadelphia last week. "It should mean something to each of you that there are people who are robbed of their fundamental humanity."

And despite media reports, Garza insisted police violence is only a small part of what the movement hopes to address. Racial equity issues extend to America's mass incarceration crisis, to the gender pay gap that's still far wider for women of color, to environmental injustices spanning from New Orleans to Standing Rock. And while some may have a knee-jerk reaction and feel excluded, it's important to push beyond that and envision a better world for all of us, Garza said.

"There’s this thing that people do when they say, 'All lives matter,'" Garza continued. "It’s actually bizarre. Of course all lives matter ... Black people, indigenous people have been saying that for a really long time. But we don’t live in a world where all lives matter.

" ... If we want to get to a world where all lives matter, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge that we don’t live in that world right now. We have to break the cycle of amnesia that this country was built on. We don’t live in a world where all lives matter. But we can—if we put our minds, our hearts, our action and our energy towards it. So yes, all lives matter. And for all lives to matter, black lives must matter, too."

What you can do (yes, you)

"I do think when people say 'all lives matter,' it’s really actually a question of, 'Where do I fit?,'” Garza explained. "And where you fit is to help chip away at this thing that we’ve been trying to chip away at for centuries."

So, what does that mean at the practical level, particularly for those who are seeking their place? For some, it's joining a local civic association or dedicating your career to a certain cause. But for others, it can be much simpler, Garza said.

"Talk to other white people about racism," she advised bluntly. "It’s totally uncomfortable, but do it ... As long as we don’t acknowledge this huge pink elephant in front of us, we have no chance of getting away from it."

Corporate leaders respond

In the spirit of engaging dialogue around these issues, four corporate leaders convened a workshop of post-graduate students to share their thoughts on Garza's speech, discuss the state of racial equity in 2016 and analyze how business should respond.

"One of the things [Garza] said was talk about it, have a conversation. I know, from a corporate perspective, that’s something we really struggle with," said Cecily Joseph, VP of corporate responsibility and chief diversity office for Symantec. "Companies are scared to talk about race ... [They] don’t want to come out and talk about anything where they feel they will be judged negatively or face backlash on something where they haven’t made a lot of progress."

Thankfully, this is beginning to change. Symantec came together with TriplePundit for an ongoing editorial series to foster this conversation. Business leaders from the likes of NextDoor, Paradigm and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation shared their thoughts with us. And they all underscored the benefits that come with having an open conversation about race and social justice both in and outside of your company.

Need proof? Just look at cult ice cream favorite Ben & Jerry's. No stranger to social activism, the company has long been open about race and made a multi-year commitment to support voting rights and racial equality. The company's decision came naturally, board chairman Jeffrey Furman said at Net Impact. "Ben and Jerry’s is irrelevant if we don’t have a strong social mission. It’s irrelevant if we don’t speak out about these issues ... It’s not enough that I speak up about it."

The panel of executives admitted it can be daunting to get started. Problems like racial injustice can seem insurmountable, and it can be uncomfortable to discuss these issues with co-workers, supervisors or clients. But the conversation gets easier once we find common ground, said Eric Ward, program officer for gender, racial and ethnic justice at the Ford Foundation.

"At the end of the day, most of us simply want to live, love and work," Ward said. "Those are the the three core values that define us across politics, across ethnicity, across religion. If you can spark the imagination around those three things, you will transform the world. You will be able to take on police brutality, you will be able to take on some of the broader challenges around gender discrimination and racism. But most of that starts with the first step."

Image credit: @chriskendigphotography, courtesy of Net Impact (press use only)

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni