To say that 2020 has been a challenging year would be an understatement for many. While every corner of the world is being affected by COVID-19, Americans are facing another pandemic. It’s one that plagued us for hundreds of years and continues to disproportionately affect marginalized groups: racism and racial injustice.
The concept of a pandemic, coupled with national unrest happening at the same time, is unprecedented, and was the focal point of our very emotional – yet inspiring – ARA virtual event, “Allyship in Action,” held on June 9.
For this powerful event, we asked four visionary leaders who have committed their lives to education, opportunity, and equity for Black Americans to have an open discussion with the ARA community. Among many other things, they shared their experiences with racial injustice in our nation, both recent and historical, and what we can do to increase empathy, deepen our understanding, and take action.
All of us at ARA firmly believe that never has the need for change had the ear of this nation quite like now, and if good is going to come out of this, we must seize this moment. For ideas, inspiration, and resources, see our top takeaways from our Allyship event below.
First to speak was Tiara Wheatley, Chicago Tech Academy’s Senior Director of Corporate Engagement and Philanthropy. Chicago Tech Academy is a high school on Chicago’s Near West Side, whose mission is to educate, empower, and connect the next generation of diverse leaders and help them discover their passions, succeed in college, and thrive in a digital world.
As part of their curriculum, Chicago Tech Academy introduces its students to a variety of careers that exist in the tech industry through a number of partnerships. Unfortunately, even with some partners, they have seen prejudice against their students, leaving teachers and staff to shield them from hate, judgment, and racism.
About 97% of Chicago Tech Academy’s student body identifies as people of color, and 92% are low-income. Tiara passionately shared that these children are trying to navigate systems that were “never built for them,” and that she too faced the same challenges as she was growing up. She explained how these students will continue to face systems of oppression as they mature and head to college. But these inequities in our systems are not new.
Along with processing her own thoughts and feelings, Tiara is seeing the crushing weight of a health crisis and community unrest through the eyes of her students. The Chicago Tech Academy Staff held advisory grade-level town halls the week following the first protests. They didn’t have time to prepare the team for these difficult conversations, but they all agreed that they needed to be there for their students.
Their feelings only amplified by the isolation of quarantine, students are trying to process what is happening and trying to find the right words to express themselves. They are facing adult situations and, “despite the adultification of Black teens, they are still children.” They are torn between feeling the pain of seeing the destruction of their communities during protests and riots, while also supporting the cause behind it. They are scared and confused, but they aren’t just thinking of themselves.
“In a moment, when you have all the permission in the world to be as selfish as you want to be and only be concerned about yourself, my students were worried about their teachers, who are primarily white.”
Instead of thinking about how they could be directly impacted by these injustices, Tiara’s students are worried that their teachers would be met with backlash if they spoke up for their students. This speaks to the character and hearts of the students at Chicago Tech Academy.
So what can be done? Tiara had two clear answers. First, invest in the education of diverse and low-income students. Vocalizing your support is great, she said, but not enough. She said, “We have to give black students a chance at equitable education, just as we do their white counterparts.” Investing in programs and schools like Chicago Tech Academy can help these children reach their highest potential.
Second, individuals and businesses need to educate themselves about their own privileges and bias. And, as a society, we need to get “comfortable being uncomfortable” and have difficult conversations about racism and bias.
“This is really uncomfortable…I believe change is uncomfortable, and that is how we know it’s working,” shared Sandee Kastrul, President and Co-Founder of i.c.stars, as she began her introduction.
i.c.stars is a workforce development and leadership training program for underserved adults and connects them with career opportunities through partnerships. Sandee explained that one of the main problems i.c.stars faces is going into the primarily white male-dominated technology industry. Their alums are competing for jobs against college-educated white men who often have much more experience. These individuals haven’t necessarily had to learn “the unwritten rules of the majority dominant culture” like the participants in her program. They have had the privilege of focusing 100% on their technical skills.
“Equity is about where the line starts for different people. The line starts for all of us as learners when we step up to the plate ready to learn, but some of us have a whole lot of things to do before we are even able to step up to the plate.”
Many of us get to hit the ground running, ready to learn. For many people of color, they have to catch up before they can even get started. Why is this? Systemized oppression and racism. None of this is new, but Sandee thinks what is new is that we are willing to be uncomfortable in order to make change happen.
How can we start to make change in businesses? Hire people of color, then invest the time and money to develop these employees in order to help them advance. Sandee believes that it’s “not until our board rooms and leadership teams are diverse will we really have success.” Attract, Retain, and Advance people of color. At ARA, we know that doing these three things can make a huge impact.
Sandee left us with this. Instead of focusing on an external statement about current events, i.c.stars decided to focus on their community. Like Tiara with her students, i.c.stars had their own town hall. What she shared was heartbreaking. Messages of feeling exhausted, unsure of what’s next, fear, and wishing they could escape these feelings. But what really hit Sandee was this message: “We lack hope.” And then came “You are we. And the hope needs you.” It’s such a powerful statement, and many of us continue to share it with our friends, colleagues, and communities as we process what’s going on around us.
Next up was Leslie McKinney, Chicago Director of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE). BWISE works to build community and provide support and professional development for black women in STEM fields. While people think that going into STEM automatically leads to job security and opportunities for advancing your career, that isn’t the case for everyone. Leslie shared how many Black women get stuck in middle management roles and can’t move up the ladder.
Leslie explained how many of their BWISE members have worked hard to earn degrees, some even have multiple degrees, but they are still not able to advance as their white peers, and are reluctant to speak up.
Leslie said that in order to make a change, we shouldn’t strive for just allyship but be true advocates. It needs to be an action word. She shared, “You can’t be an ally and continue doing the exact same things as before. Allies need to speak up, speak out, and do more. One thing allies can do is become a mentor. Mentorship is powerful and helpful at every stage of life.”
Leslie reiterated what Sandee shared earlier: Businesses not only need to diversify their job candidate pool, but they need to actually hire, retain, and advance people of color. There needs to be more black men and women in leadership and on boards if we ever want to see a change in the workplace. As our co-founder Leslie Vickrey often says, “You have to see it to be it,” and Leslie McKinney offered the same insight, “If you can’t see someone who looks like you in these roles, it’s hard to believe that you can achieve that goal.”
Our last speaker for the day was Corey Flournoy, Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity, Groupon. In his two years in this role, his focus has shifted from internal programming (including training and mentorship programs to retain and promote diverse talent), to better supporting minority-owned businesses and connecting to a diverse customer base.
While reflecting on not only recent events, but a lifetime of experiences, Corey is astonished these injustices keep happening. Even catching this behavior on camera doesn’t seem to be enough to show there is a deep problem in this country. The recent murder of George Floyd hit Corey on a personal level.
“I turned 46 years of age. I’m 6’2’’. I’m a dark complected black man. For all intents and purposes, I am George Floyd. At least visually. And regardless of my education, title, money I have in my bank account, all those things are irrelevant because that very well could happen to me.”
This is not the first time Corey has felt this way. This reminds him that we ALL need to do better. And that’s not just putting out messaging around Black Lives Matter. While support for BLM is coming from a well-meaning place, businesses need to remember, “it’s not a theme or a tagline, it’s a movement.” If you want to be a part of this movement, you need to be an ally, and more importantly, it needs to be authentic.
Corey then compared true allyship to being in a relationship:
- You need to know the person you’re dating – Just like you need to take the time to get to know your significant other, allies need to get to know Black individuals, learn their experiences, and be their friend.
- You need to let other people know you’re in a relationship – You need to be willing to talk about your allyship and have difficult conversations.
- You need to have a personal investment – You really can’t be in a relationship with someone and not occasionally take them out or pay for a few things. There needs to be some sort of financial commitment. Companies need to have dollars that back up their commitment to diversity in and outside of their company.
It’s the question on all of our minds, but the short answer is: we need to do more. We need to get used to being uncomfortable and have difficult conversations while leaving the door open for further discussion. We need to connect and build relationships in the black community. We need to invest not only time but money into organizations that are working to better the lives of people of color. And we need to keep listening, just like our speakers listened to their community. Pause, listen, learn, connect, then act. That’s allyship.
Stay tuned for future events in our Allyship series to continue the conversation, take action, and inspire change. If you or your company is interested in getting more involved with this upcoming series, please email email@example.com.
- Here’s Where You Can Donate to Help Protests Against Police Brutality/Claire Shaffer, Rolling Stone/June 1, 2020
- BWISE (Black Women in Science & Engineering)
- Chicago Tech Academy
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Eric Dyson
- The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
- Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
- Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson
- The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
- The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
- How to Be an Anti-Racist – Ibram X. Kendi
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
- So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo’
- Brenee Brown podcast that just came out today with Ibram Kendi, who wrote “How to Be An Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning”
- Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge/Kareem Abdul Jabbar/May 30, 2020
- The Minneapolis Uprising in Context/Elizabeth Hinton/May 29, 2020
- How To Be An Ally If You Are a Person With Privilege/Frances E. Kendall, Ph.D./2003
- White People: This Is How To Check Your Privilege When Asking People Of Color For Their Labor/Sophia Stephens/July 30, 2018
- How Not To Be An Ally/Dr. Kim Case/April 19, 2019
Resources shared in Chat