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SoHE Insights: Fostering Real Corporate Commitment to Black Lives Matter

Graduate student Troy Williams

SoHE Insights is a series featuring guest posts from students and faculty. Below, Civil Society and Community Research PhD student Troy Malcolm Williams shares his research-based recommendations for corporate entities seeking to honor anti-racist values statements.

As a practitioner and scholar, I have spent years studying Black civil society’s and community-based tactics that directly address the oppression of Black people throughout the United States. The year 2020 has highlighted the need for improved social infrastructure in Black communities. This year has also highlighted the fragile social and economic foundation of the United States, especially in Black communities.

Skyrocketing Black unemployment rates, health disparities, and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, among others, have revealed the volatility of a system that fails to acknowledge Black suffering. In the wake of these murders and the international uprisings that followed, many companies have begun addressing Black oppression in their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. Corporate Social Responsibility is a commitment to improving community well-being through a voluntary commitment to business practices and organizational resources contributions (Kotler & Lee, 2005).

Given the current climate, many Corporate Social Responsibility professionals have turned to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to publicly acknowledge and denounce anti-Black racism demonstrated by the nation’s criminal justice system; they’ve designed actions like pledges to donate to organizations who have been identified as having a history of working in Black communities; Corporate Social Responsibility units have also publicized their companies’ plans to implement diversity training for their staff. While these statements, donations, and trainings are worthy of acknowledgment, acknowledgment of these organizations’ role in the exploitation of Black people and their labor, of which they are newly critical, is also essential.

In these extreme times, Black people need more than performative allyship.

As a Human Ecologist, I study the interconnectedness of environmental, cultural, individual, familial, communal, and political systems. Therefore, I recognize the importance of connecting large macrosystemic issues, such as wealth disparities between Black and white communities, to microsystemic problems, such as the absence of Black corporate executives. While Corporate Social Responsibility units continue their efforts focused on Black communities, it is equally important that the companies they are part of take a critical look inward. This introspection is necessary in order to evaluate current practices and policies to ensure that they are creating healthy environments for employees and community partners. In these extreme times, Black people need more than performative allyship.

As our world is ever evolving, Black communities need impactful responses and strategies that center specific needs and organizations that are invested in dismantling systemic inequalities. Listed below are some recommendations that organizations, departments, and businesses can take to address anti-Black systemic racism within their organization and in the communities where their organizations are based.

1. Hire Black employees

Your organization should have a written strategic plan for increasing the number of entry, mid, and executive level Black employees. Within this strategic plan, there should be well thought out steps that include retention efforts. This could consist of giving Black employees control of projects, implementing strategies for employees to address racialized microaggressions, and providing cultural humility training once a quarter. It is also imperative to understand the difference between cultural humility and cultural competence. Cultural humility is a philosophy that requires a lifelong commitment to critical self-reflection, mutually beneficial partnerships, and institutional accountability. Whereas, cultural competence is an approach that provides individuals with a set of values, behaviors, attitudes, and practices that they can apply to their work (Denboba, 1993).

2. Utilize Black vendors for events and services

Work with local Black-owned businesses to get them on the approved vendor list. This can include catering services, construction contracts, t-shirt companies, and technology consultants. Contact these organizations and walk them through the steps to get them on the approved vendor’s list. These types of efforts are what have made cities like Atlanta home to a thriving Black middle class. In the 1970s, when Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, was elected into office, he intentionally hired Black-owned businesses for city contracts. Black-owned businesses went from 1% of these contracts to 35% by the end of his second term (Alder, 2001). These types of efforts directly address Black employment and wealth disparities.

3. Provide professional development opportunities to Black employees

Create spaces where Black employees can engage in critical dialogue, networking, professional development, and mentoring while they are on the clock. Dedicating work time to these types of opportunities shows employees that the company is very interested in creating spaces and opportunities that will move them forward professionally while creating safe spaces for them to socialize. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg found that creating spaces and opportunities for individuals to socialize and interact with one another is an important step in addressing structural inequality (Klinenberg, 2018).

4. Partner with Black student and staff associations at local high schools and colleges to provide resources (internships, SAT/ACT tutoring)

Meet with schools with high numbers of Black students and discuss how your organization can be a resource to them. Many of these schools are located in districts that have been negatively impacted by deindustrialization, which has severely impacted job opportunities available in their communities. Sociologist William Julius Wilson contends that the disappearance of the blue-collar workforce and the middle class is central to most problems in Black communities. Wilson believes that the revamping of the job market and labor force will improve the issues that negatively impact the conditions in Black communities (Wilson, 1996).

5. Hire Black organizational psychologists to facilitate quarterly listening sessions between senior and junior staff

Creating all of these changes within your organization will require investments of time, money, and resources. Black and non-Black employees will possibly push back against the shift in organizational ideas; therefore, it is imperative that your organization hire experienced professionals who can manage the tension and facilitate this transition. Management consultant William Bridges writes about facilitating these types of organizational transitions. He states that it is very important for everyone who is a part of this transition to understand why the current systems, values, and practices are no longer viable ideologies for the organization (Bridges, 1991).

Corporate Social Responsibility can play a vital role in addressing the long and complex history of anti-Black racism in the United States. Organizations can utilize a Human Ecological perspective when addressing these issues, as it will allow organizations to address how they may also be contributors to systems of oppression. Using a Human Ecological perspective in Corporate Social Responsibility efforts, creates opportunities for responses to be flexible and informed by the fact that there are no easy answers. Harvard leadership scholars Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz define an adaptive challenge as a problem that is difficult to identify and requires a solution that involves a change in values, roles, and approaches in order to be effective. Solutions to adaptive challenges require trial and error and can take a long time to implement.

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others have inspired many of the nation’s largest and favorite brands to release public statements on social media claiming that Black Lives Matter. At the same time, however, their board rooms and offices remain predominately non-Black, and Corporate Social Responsibility efforts fail to acknowledge the roles they play in Black unemployment, the depleting social safety net, and health disparities. It is time for Corporate Social Responsibility efforts to address what role these organizations play in systems of oppression.

Most importantly, note that it is not the responsibility of Black employees to lead, participate, or evaluate these efforts without the support of the entire organization. A more authentic demonstration of allyship is for everyone from the CEO to first-year interns, regardless of race or ethnicity, consistently demonstrating their investment in dismantling oppressive structures.

Troy Malcolm Williams is a Human Ecologist and a program evaluator. He brings a wealth of experience in entrepreneurship, community engagement, and program evaluation, and his passion for serving Black communities is evident in his previous and continuing work with these populations. He is earning his PhD in SoHE’s Civil Society & Community Research program. Follow him on Twitter at @T_M_Williams.