When historians one day look at 2020, it will likely be as defined by a long-needed reckoning around racial and social justice as it is by the coronavirus pandemic. The highly publicized murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sparked a global conversation about race relations and criminal justice reform.
In the months since, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests demanding systemic reform that addresses the countless ways Black men and women are demeaned, diminished and put in danger every day. The reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement has since translated into millions of dollars in donations to social justice groups, major cities pledging to change how they fund police departments, and a record number of Black, justice-oriented candidates running for political office in the fall election cycle.
Months ago, any sort of silver lining result seemed painfully far away for Noel Abdur Rahim, an assurance partner at PwC’s Atlanta office. In the days following Floyd’s murder, Rahim continued to log into her Zoom calls and answer her emails, but she felt distant from her coworkers and increasingly unseen in her virtual workplace.
"I was feeling somewhat alone, even though I was talking to colleagues every day on video chat,” Rahim remembers. “I felt like I was hiding my true feelings.”
In response, the six-year PwC veteran penned an email to her colleagues, praising the supportive work environment she enjoyed during her tenure but wondering why — unlike other times when something good or bad happened to someone on the team — no one was checking in on their Black colleagues or offering support. She linked to a viral article by Refinery29 managing editor Danielle Cadet entitled Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay — Chances Are They’re Not.
“The premise of the note was that it may look like your Black colleagues are okay, but deep down inside, they’re not — and you shouldn’t be either,” Rahim tells TriplePundit. She went on to talk about the love she felt for her son, Ibby, who one day would go from being “a sweet Black boy to a feared Black man.”
“I wanted to make sure people understood in a relatable way, and that’s why I brought up Ibby and the fear I have of raising him as a Black boy, who one day would be a man, in America,” she explains.
"The email wasn’t meant to shame anyone,” she’s quick to note, “but as a general reminder that we all can be doing something to help the people around us feel comfortable, feel supported and feel welcomed.”
The note struck a chord with a number of colleagues, particularly Tim Whitson, a self-described “old white guy” and a partner in the audits department at the Atlanta office. “I never really had a concern for my son and my daughter when they leave the house. When she said that, it hit home for me,” Whitson says. “I realized I have to stop being a passive supporter of my Black friends and colleagues, and I spent a little time thinking about: What could I do? What could be an idea that would take away the excuses from white people?”
Whitson approached Rahim, and the two devised a plan to launch a fundraiser for social justice organizations and communities in need. The fittingly named campaign, “Ibby’s World,” collected donations from PwC colleagues for two Atlanta-based organizations — the Future Foundation and the Southern Center for Human Rights — as well as the Community Building Initiative in Charlotte.
Established in 2001, the Future Foundation seeks to be a “second family” for low-income kids by providing an after-school program and other enrichment opportunities. As involuntary remote learning became the new reality amidst the coronavirus pandemic, threatening to expand the gap between wealthier and poorer students, the Foundation created a fund to ensure low-income communities have access to technology and learning resources.
The Southern Center for Human Rights is an advocacy group for social justice in the South that fights for social and criminal justice reform. The Community Building Initiative is out to fight bias, remove barriers to opportunity, and build equity and justice in the Charlotte area.
“They have similar missions but go about it in different ways,” Rahim says. “I’m really passionate about the proceeds going directly to communities in need.”
As they called on their colleagues for donations, Rahim and Whiston also distributed wristbands bearing the name Ibby’s World as a reminder of what’s at stake for communities across the country if social justice conversations fizzle out.
“I was visiting a fellow partner who is very passionate about Ibby’s World, and he started distributing the wristbands to all of his family and friends,” Rahim says. "As soon as I walked into the house, his sister raised up her arm to show off her band and said, ‘I’ve been telling everybody about the idea, and it’s really generated some conversations.’ To me, that’s exactly what this is all about.”
"The fundraising is phenomenal,” she goes on, "but it’s more important to couple that with conversations and to understand that we all — as a community, as a country — can do more in everything we do to make the world a better place.”
Ibby’s World has since garnered more than $31,000 in donations. It’s a testament to what can happen when colleagues are seen, heard and supported in their workplaces — and when teams band together in support of a common cause. “I would say the firm is better for the impact that Noel had,” Whitson says. “She’s woken some of us up.”
Image credits: Clay Banks and James Eades via Unsplash
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.