Finding Clarity This Independence Day

You can already feel it. The fever pitch of outrage that followed George Floyd’s death, despite being stoked by more galling incidents since, is slowly cooling.

Don’t get me wrong. The Black Lives Matter movement marches on, companies are making unprecedented commitments, and activist yard signs are popping up all over predominantly White neighborhoods. It does feel different this time. But any student of American history, or even the news cycle, is entitled to be skeptical.

My biggest fear since watching Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks die (and they were the only ones that I watched with my own eyes) is that the “dust will settle” and life’s demands and distractions will pull us back into inertia. That the deep roots of racism on which this country was founded will remain untouched, operating silently under our feet.

In many recent conversations about race and racial injustice, with Black and White friends alike, a common theme emerges: what do we do about it?

This is where I really start to worry. In the absence of clarity, momentum always stalls. Racism operates in so many interconnected ways, influencing such a diverse array of outcomes, that it seems a Gordian Knot, impossible to untangle. Where to start?

Complexity kills. We need clarity and concrete focus. Or at least I do. I need a plan.

I was overjoyed when JS decided to apply the “three levels of leadership” model (Self/Others/Community) to prompt concrete thinking on what we – as individuals and an organization – can do to combat racism and become more inclusive. It was just the kind of simple framework my mind needed to get down to brass tacks.

  • Leader of self – What am I doing to understand a reality I have not been fully aware of until now? How am I arming myself with the knowledge I need to effect change?
  • Leader of others – How am I helping my family, friends and colleagues gain a better understanding and appreciation of the reality and what to do about it?
  • Leader of community – How am I influencing my broader community, beyond home and work, to be part of the change?

But this framework still doesn’t tell us where to focus. It doesn’t fully answer the nagging question, “What do we do about it?” After much reading, watching, listening and reflection, I believe three things will have to change to engender a permanent shift, and are where we should focus our leadership efforts.

  • Understand the injustices – First, as always, is changing hearts and minds. If we as people don’t understand the racial injustices and their roots (mind), and don’t feel outraged (heart), we will not act. We definitely won’t sustain action over the long haul.
  • Dismantle the systems – As long as racism operates in our laws, policies, institutions and systems, this is all for nothing. We have to systematically identify how and where racism is operating, because it always is, and intentionally dismantle rules that disadvantage Black people. There are almost too many to count.
  • Embrace the Black community – This is the big one. Because even if we gain a deep understanding of the injustices and their causes, and even if we untangle all the thorny ways racism is operating in our systems (an enormous task), we still will not move forward as one people – as Americans in the most visionary sense. It is not about “accepting” other cultures. White America has to embrace other cultures and communities, the Black community in particular, with love and respect. We must relish diverse communities as an essential part of what it means to be American. If White America and Black America are not holding hands into the future, the roots of racism on which this nation was founded will eventually grow back.

I see these two frameworks working together, and my personal goal is to be actively doing something specific in every tile on a board that looks like this:

Take a few minutes this long weekend, which celebrates an independence that only freed some of us, and see if you can pencil in one specific thing you could do in each of these squares, and commit to acting on it. (And by all means, think beyond “the Black community” to other cultures and communities, but I am pretty adamant that the Black community needs and deserves our disproportionate attention right now.)

I truly believe that if we all were working on even one thing in each of these squares, our world could change faster than we realize. With clarity of focus, we will act. This is how I’m finding that clarity. I hope it helps you find it, too.