Who Owns This Conversation?
In 2020, in addition to a global pandemic, the United States saw horrific examples of the racism that's endemic in our culture. In addition to George Floyd, I also watched Ahmaud Arbery get murdered on video which impacted me even more. Because it wasn't until the video surfaced that any kind of justice was served. There are countless (literally) other examples (like Breonna Taylor) that I won't try to capture here because they're well captured in other places and that's not my point here. What, you may ask, is my point then? I'm glad you asked.
I currently work in customer service a large US-based corporation. In my career I've been a leader in a public utility, in a software company, in a telecom company, in a learning services company, and a youth services agency. In each of these roles I was (I am) also white, male, cisgender, and (increasingly) middle-aged. I learned early on that it was important to leave my personal life at home, and I've tried to do that. In the days following my father's death from cancer, I went to work, wanting something to occupy my mind. I was proud of my ability to work as if nothing had happened and I realize now that pride was misplaced.
I wanted to be a better leader. I still do.
There are no hard boundaries between my personal life and my professional life and believing there are has prevented me from being the best leader I could be. I never hesitated to bring my work stress home, why was I fooling myself that I could leave my home stress out of work? And of course, I wasn't. Feeling proud that I was able to carry on normally at work after my father's passing said a lot about how much I was paying attention to my ability to carry on during the day. And of course, mental energy spent assessing my state of stress took energy away from my work. Of course my work was impacted by my father's passing. Of course it was.
So cut to summer 2020, when I watched George Floyd get murdered and watched the Black Lives Matter protests around the country including some large protests in my own city of Seattle. I did what lots of white people get to do: I was appalled at the state of our country, then I went to work (well, it was the pandemic, so "going" to work meant turning on my computer at home) figuring this was just another horrible thing to get past.
Then a smart, brave Black man in my organization sent a broad email to leaders challenging us (frankly more gently than he should have had to) to DO something or at the very least to SAY something
I thought about what I knew about leaving personal life at home (that it's not possible) and I started to think about the lived experience of Black people in the United States, especially during that time, and that these were my friends and colleagues and they were showing up in meetings and trying to talk about project deadlines, and training, and customer service. And I thought about how ridiculous that was.
OK so to recap so far: 1) I had learned years ago that personal life intrudes on professional life, 2) I had watched blatant and deadly racism on television, 3) I had Black friends and colleagues who had watched blatant and deadly racism through their entire lives, and 4) I had concluded (as I had before) that there was nothing I could do.
Update on #4 above: that conclusion only lasted a few moments because what I COULD do is call out what I saw. Now I'll say that I love where I work for lots of reasons. One of those reasons is that about this time, leaders way above my pay grade began sending emails to their broad organizations talking about how this was abhorrent.
I started talking about it.
So I did what I do all the time: I scheduled a meeting. I invited a lot of people and made it optional but at least for my own team, strongly encouraged. A Black colleague asked if she could co-facilitate with me. We played a wonderful video about white privilege. I said out loud that I believed this was a conversation that was mostly needed between white people in America because this is our problem to solve. Being treated equally isn't something an American citizen should have to fight for. As a white person, I believe I and other white people should own this conversation.
Since mid-2020, my co-facilitator and I have held 11 of these meetings. In 2021 we're going to train more people to facilitate difficult conversations in hopes that more conversations happen.
Literally the least I could do.
Now as I say at the top, having a conversation was literally the least I could do, but it was something and it was a beginning. I don't know what you have bandwidth for, or tolerance for, or the energy for. I don't know what else I can do, but I'm going to find out.