Where Have You Been?

Where Have You Been?

Sometimes the fluff needs to be backed-up.

It’s been more than one year since George Floyd’s murder, at the hands of a police officer, ignited a torrent of righteous social unrest. The brave souls who peacefully protested Floyd’s murder drew attention to the systems of oppression that have persisted for so many years. Why is it, though, that nothing seems to change? Are we making progress, or are we stuck, hamstrung by one major social, environmental and economic justice problem after another? Why do problems seem to “flare-up” and then seemingly to disappear, replaced by the next menacing issue? Are we having a problem focusing, or are we missing the bigger picture?

One of the things that struck me about George Floyd’s murder is the way in which industry leaders suddenly found it necessary to make bold statements about their commitment to racial equity. With the murder of one Black man at the hands of a police office – a murder that would have gone unnoticed, like all the rest, had someone not recorded it and posted the video on social media – industry leaders found it important to bloviate about how they value diversity, equity and inclusion. There were press releases, social media posts, evening news interviews, op-ed pieces and late-night television appearances made by these corporate executives and their public relations wonks, all of which gave us warm and fuzzies about how industry seemed to “feel the pain” of those oppressed by this system. Yet, where were these enlightened leaders one day before Floyd’s murder? One week? How ‘bout twenty or thirty years? Seriously, it’s been almost sixty years since Rev. King marched with the righteous in Selma. Are those with MBAs not required to study history?

So, here we are and more than one year has passed: To what extent has anything been done to advance diversity, equity and inclusion among the titans of industry, those large corporate entities that employ so many of us?

The results, as one would expect, are mixed, and point much more so to obfuscation, rather than real progress. In a recent CNBC piece that includes interviews with CEOs and nonprofit activists, Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart and chair of the Business Roundtable, had this to say:

“It’s not that we’re necessarily falling short but, rather, we have to keep going. Change to complex systems takes a breadth of actions over time, and a systems-based approach requires working on explicit structural change (i.e., policies, practices, resource flows), semi-explicit structural change (i.e., relationships, connections, power dynamics) and transformative change (i.e., mental models). Companies should take a shared-value approach, not only investing in the broader community, but also looking to change the way in which we operate as a business.”

I haven’t a clue what all of that means, but it’s the sort of gobbledygook one may expect from a person who chairs an organization that took until 2019 to admit that businesses are supposed to do more than simply “maximize shareholder value.” That the corporate conformists at CNBC hadn’t the guts to even ask what it means is telling in and of itself.

In a recent MarketWatch piece on the same topic, how far have we come, another dimension of the problem emerges: measuring impact. How do we measure the extent to which large, publicly traded corporations improve DEI?

This is another quandary in which we seem to find ourselves: We’re always looking for measurables, statistics that show we’re making progress. And for those who’ve been formed to run businesses, the “best and brightest” among us who were educated at only the best business schools, working with measurables is their bread and butter. For these leaders, it’s creating beautiful charts of statistics and then spinning tails about what they mean that puts food on the table. Never mind asking those who work for the business what they think about the extent to which leadership actually cares about their work or the meaning it has in their lives. The most recent Gallup poll of employee engagement indicates that fully 64% of employees in US companies are either not engaged, or actively disengaged in their work. Is it any wonder DEI seems to get lost with all of the other numbers?

It’s not as if those who run large corporations are evil. They’re human, just like all of us: They love their families, walk the dog, enjoy watching their kids play soccer, and most of them come to work every day desiring to do their best. The problem has to do with conformity to the system we’ve inherited, the thing that emerges from what preceded it and enculturates all of us. This is a reality that has been faced by every human being since the dawn of human history. It’s what Plato called The Cave. Yet, what’s different today is that time is running out. If we do not radically change the way we behave, our survival as a species – at least in appreciable numbers – is at stake. It’s what we’re doing to each other and to the very thing that gives us life that needs to change and “time is wasting.”

We need to become acutely aware and leery of solutions that seem vaguely familiar, especially the ones that rely on those in power to become enlightened and “do the right thing.” And we need to forget about “market solutions” that rely on individuals, most of whom are simply too poor – the overwhelming majority of us – to “vote with their dollars.” We’ve been preaching that mantra for years and have simply become much closer to social chaos and environmental ruin. What we see going on around us is the result of the human inclination to stay inside the cave, continue to do what’s always been done and then expect a different result. It feels comfortable, but comfort is the enemy of change, and we desperately need change.

We need to first recognize the road we’re on, admit the time has come to make radical change, and then get together, in our neighborhoods, and talk with each other. The first thing we need to do is begin the arduous task of establishing a common set of values. Then we can start talking about what needs to be done to prepare – rationally, creatively and in loving solidarity – for a future that is already here. This sort of coming together requires disconnecting from the machine and ceasing to be concerned about whether what we’re doing is known by others. We need to relearn the one thing that sets us apart from every other mammal on the planet: communication in the totality of the present moment, when two or more human beings come together, face-to-face, and begin to dialogue with respect and loving kindness. This is difficult stuff, but it’s radically antithetical to the machine. The good news is that it’s not as if we didn’t do these things in the past, before we were blown apart by the car, the airplane, and oh yeah, social media and the cell phone.

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