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A Call to Action in a Crisis, from a White Mother and Her Black Daughter

A few days ago, my biracial daughter Mariah posted an email from her white, 88-year-old grandfather (my Dad) on Twitter:

The number of likes and comments from the followers who found this note heartwarming and wholesome could not alter the heartbreaking reality of her response to my worried daddy: 

“I’m scared too, Papa.”

Racial injustice has reared its ugly head yet again as another viral video is added to our nation’s library of recorded, systemic murders of black Americans. I bear witness to these horrific events from the discomfort of my own duality. I am both the beneficiary of seemingly untouchable white privilege and a mother to two black children who suffocate under the weight of systemic racism. 

As a business executive and a mother who walks the tightrope over the racial divide, I feel compelled to reach out and implore business leaders to step up in this crisis of racial inequality and injustice. I am discouraged by the lack of leadership emerging in the political realm to organize those most affected, to channel the despair, powerlessness, and rage, and galvanize these traumas into a powerful force for change. 

I have long known that business can and will take an ever-increasing role in navigating social dynamics. I’ve seen this over the past few weeks in all the exemplary ways the executives in companies I advise have responded to COVID-19. 

And now there is yet another opportunity to make a difference. Our current crisis of racial injustice is forcing all of us to confront the inextricable tie between power and responsibility. Even as it calls us, as leaders, to navigate the uncertain and tumultuous currents between politics and business, we must act. 

In working with the executives at her company on their response to these events, my daughter Mariah emphasized a crucial point: silence is complicity. Silence is not neutral, silence is political. Silence benefits and privileges the status quo, the very systems and structures that enable and perpetuate systemic inequality in America. 

As leaders, we need to do better than this. Our black employees, our black communities, and our black children need us to do better than this. 

In response, Mariah worked with me to develop a call to action for our nation’s business leaders. Below, we’ve outlined six actions every leader can take in this moment to make an impact:  

  1. Lead with humility. As leaders, our fear of saying the wrong thing can prevent us from doing the right thing. Accept that you will inevitably do this imperfectly—that you will not know what to say, nor how to straddle the line between politics and business, but that you will speak truth to power anyway. Your discomfort in speaking up is marginal compared with the discomfort that your black employees feel when they are asked to “bring their full selves to work” at a time when their full selves are losing members of their communities because of their skin color.
  2. Speak out with compassion, empathy, and curiosity. This crisis acutely affects a subset of your employees and warrants an empathetic response. It is important to remember that the reason you are speaking up is not to take up space—but to create space. To let your black employees know that you see them, validate their experience, and are committed to learning and listening in an effort to do better for them. Acknowledge what has happened—and let your employees know that you are committed to supporting them in this moment, that they do not have to suffer in silence, and that they are not responsible for making you, or anyone else, feel better.
  3. Equip your leaders and managers with tools and training to support employees in need. Acknowledge that, like COVID-19, this crisis is creating stress and anxiety, and triggering fear and trauma. Acknowledge that employees may not be operating at the peak of their performance, and communicate that your managers should not expect them to. Do not simply ask your managers to support their teams during this time—show them how to, and make sure they can do so in an intentional and compassionate way. Managers should check in on their black teammates and ask what they need—time off, coaching, space to process, etc. Encourage managers to be flexible where possible with how their employees manage time, work hours and deadlines. Recognize that each situation is unique, so rather than creating a blanket solution, ask each employee what would be most helpful as they navigate this challenging time.
  4. Provide guidance on how individuals can be sensitive to the challenging and often painful dynamics of race. Ask employees who do not identify with the black community to abstain from asking those who do for education on how to feel, support or respond to the black community. Instead point them to other resources to educate themselves—such as this one.
  5. Recognize that this crisis is a direct threat to safety for those in the black community, and in response, implement initiatives designed to create greater psychological safety and inclusion in the organization. This article provides tips for meeting practices that increase inclusion and psychological safety.
  6. Support non-profit organizations that do important work in this. Offer donation matching to 501(c)3 non-profits working to promote racial equity, tolerance and justice, or offer employees paid time to volunteer for non-profits focused on these causes. You can Google “George Floyd Where to Donate” to access numerous articles that recommend non-profit organizations to support.  

Leadership is a calling. While simultaneously handling day-to-day and long-term management situations, how leaders respond during conflict and crisis is what sets them apart. As The Servant Leader author James A. Autry writes in his poem, Threads:

Listen

In every office

you hear threads 

of love and joy and fear and guilt.

the cries for celebration and reassurance.

and somehow you know that connecting those threads

is what you are supposed to do

and business takes care of itself.

Listen. Hear the threads of fear and guilt and the cries for reassurance. Even if you don’t know what to say, now is no time for silence.


This piece was written in conjunction with Mariah Driver, head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Webflow, where she educates and empowers a globally distributed team to build a workplace that provides equitable opportunities and inspires a sense of belonging for everyone. Mariah graduated from Georgetown University with degrees in Psychology, English Literature, and African American Studies.

Kate Purmal

Kate Purmal

Kate is a Board Director at ABD Insurance and Financial Services and a Business Advisor and Executive Coach. She is also an author and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University. Kate is a passionate advocate for diversity at the highest levels of business and is a firm believer that unwavering optimism can transcend even the most daunting systemic barriers in the workplace. She has spent decades as an executive coach, bringing out brilliance in leaders and their teams. Kate launched her career as a member of Palm Inc.’s founding management team before becoming a Senior Vice President at SanDisk. She has subsequently served as CEO and COO for several start-ups and privately held companies, and serves as an Independent Board Director. Kate now applies her expertise to research gender equity in the C-Suite as a Senior Industry Fellow at Georgetown University. Kate is a guest lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, University of Michigan’s Ross school of Business and Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. She is the author of The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual. Her second book, The Impostor Breakthrough, will be published in 2021.

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