by Damon Carter

How (and why) to address systemic racism through community engagements

Jan 04, 2021
Diversity and Inclusion IT Leadership

Extending your diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategy beyond the IT department and into the local community can have a positive impact on your organization's DE&I efforts and could play an integral role in eradicating systemic racism in society. Here's how IT leaders can do this effectively.

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Editor’s note: This article is the final installment in a four-part series on how IT leaders can effectively address systemic racism in their organizations. Start reading here or jump to either the first article in the series, which lays the groundwork for effectively addressing systemic racism, the second article in the series, which outlines how IT leaders can begin creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, or the third article in the series, which offers a 5-step approach to building a fair, equitable, and just IT culture.

The decision to take a stand against systemic racism by actively supporting social justice reform can be a difficult and pivotal choice for any organization.  In today’s social and political climate, there are increased expectations by both employees and consumers for companies to get actively involved in supporting social justice initiatives moving forward. 

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report, 64% of survey respondents say they believe that CEOs can create positive changes in prejudice and discrimination, while 54% say that CEOs should speak publicly on controversial political and social issues that employees care about. And 53% of consumers say that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.

By actively supporting social justice initiatives in their local communities, corporate leaders can realize several strategic benefits as it relates to the organization’s DE&I strategy and cultivating a fair and equitable workplace culture.  It demonstrates leadership accountability and organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion, promotes continuous learning opportunities for employees who volunteer their time to community organizations, and improves the overall sustainability of the DE&I strategy.

Developing a social justice reform strategy

IT leaders must be thoughtful, open-minded, and measured when determining if they should develop a social justice reform strategy. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business, proposes that corporate leaders should consider the following 3 questions to guide their approach:

  • Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?
  • Can you meaningfully influence the issue?
  • Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

Once corporate leadership decides to proceed with implementing a social justice initiative, it is critical for the leadership team to immediately start managing the new initiative as a core business strategy for the organization.  Then, the leadership team must communicate the overall purpose of the social justice reform strategy to all employees and clearly explain how it aligns with the company’s core values and strategic interests in the community. 

During these early engagements, leaders should encourage all employees to get involved in supporting the new corporate initiative in various ways, if they are interested in doing so.  Additionally, the board of directors, as well as other key constituents like customers or third-party vendors, should be engaged to support the new strategic imperative for the organization.

Leadership in action

Throughout 2020, many companies have issued corporate pledges and made financial commitments to demonstrate their support of various social justice initiatives in local communities.  The most successful of these commitments identify a social justice initiative that both aligns with the company’s core values and resonates with employees in a meaningful way.  Here are several examples of companies demonstrating their commitment to social justice reform in their own way:

Netflix Inc. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Netflix announced a new corporate commitment to invest 2% of cash holdings into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities across the Unites States.  The initial investment into this social justice initiative will be up to $100 million, including $25 million to a new fund called the Black Economic Development Initiative and $10 million to Hope Credit Union.  These capital investments will help promote economic opportunity in the communities both of these organizations serve.

A series of innovative leadership sessions led by Netflix’s director of talent acquisition Aaron Mitchell and curated by Yardstick Management’s CEO Dr. Ebbie Parsons helped shape this new social justice initiative.  Mitchell collaborated with Parsons to facilitate conversations with Black executives from multiple industries and corporate functions across the United States.  During these candid executive discussions, participants provided feedback regarding their personal experiences with racial inequalities in the workplace.  The group was encouraged to openly discuss specific leadership actions that organizations can employ to effectuate meaningful changes in the future.

Author’s note: I had the opportunity to participate in one of these engaging conversations in March, 2020, and found it to be a powerful example of the benefit of engaging a diverse group of talented individuals in open and deliberate dialog regarding DE&I opportunities in the workplace.

Connecticut Attorneys Title Insurance Company (CATIC) In addition to enhancing CATIC’s focus on its internal DE&I strategy, the senior management team also identified a clear opportunity to leverage the company’s strategic relationships with key constituents in the real estate industry and legal experts to begin actively addressing various housing inequities consistently encountered by people of color.  (Disclaimer: The author is SVP and CHRO at CATIC, a member of the board of directors, and President of the CATIC Foundation)

The following strategic actions were initiated by the senior leadership team and the board:

  • Developed and incorporated a new social justice reform strategy into the company’s strategic business plan and openly communicated the business rationale with all employees;
  • Launched an employee-led project team to focus on improving the historically low percentage of minority home ownership across the country, including establishing new partnerships with community organizations and key stakeholders in the home buying ecosystem;
  • Obtained full commitment from the board of directors to initiate a board-led project team focused on promoting fair housing standards; and
  • Expanded the scope of the CATIC Foundation, the company’s philanthropic organization, to strategically support social justice initiatives through socially responsible investments and charitable donations to community organizations.

Rock Family of Companies This summer, Jay Farner, CEO Rock Family of Companies, announced his commitment to promote racial equality for all Black employees and the residents of Detroit, as well.  He outlined a comprehensive action plan for the organization, which includes specific DE&I strategies that will help cultivate a fair and equitable workplace culture for people of color.  The company is also committed to leveraging its scale and influence in the mortgage and lending industry to actively address systemic policy issues with regard to fair housing standards across the country.  Additionally, the company will create opportunities to directly partner with organizations like the Detroit Police Department to promote constructive dialog in the local community to help address difficult social justice issues.

Most importantly, Farner openly communicated the company’s commitment to actively engaging all employees, clients, and the local community in social justice reform moving forward.  “Saying ‘Black lives matter’ simply is not enough. We need to hold one another accountable in this pursuit of racial equity, and acknowledge that we will only succeed if we stand together…. I invite all businesses across the country to set a course of action that will be the impetus for change that is far overdue in our country,” Farner writes in an op-ed published in the Michigan Chronicle.  

The power of collaboration

AT&T’s decade-long “It Can Wait” campaign against texting while driving is a great example of how companies, not-for-profit organizations, government agencies, and the community-at-large can successfully work together over an extended period of time to address a complex and pervasive issue in our society.  Here is a timeline of several key outcomes over the past 10 years:

  • March 2010: AT&T launches the “Texting & Driving, It Can Wait” campaign.
  • May 2013: All major carriers, including Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, join the campaign along with more than 1,500 other companies.
  • April 2016: Research indicates that states with anti-texting laws experience significantly lower rates of texting while driving incidents.
  • June 2017: Only three states have not enacted legislation banning texting while driving.
  • September 2019: New collaborations are formed with companies such as General Motors and Swift Transportation to encourage consumers to speak up about the dangers of distracted driving.

Through this engaging and deliberate approach, AT&T created opportunities to actively involve all key constituents in their ecosystem to collectively address a serious issue that had an adverse impact on the quality of life for everyone, particularly young drivers who have a propensity for texting as a primary form of communication.  Consequently, countless lives have been protected in our society as a result of this purposeful and collaborative effort in the community.

Following the texting while driving example, companies must create new opportunities to collaborate with one another as a corporate community to address issues of systemic racism.  If companies thoughtfully and intentionally partner with other organizations that possess a similar desire to address social justice issues in their local communities, then the cumulative impact of their joint efforts will have a substantial impact on systemic racism over time. 

For instance, a new corporate community was recently announced that will focus on training Black talent for a variety of corporate positions.  According to the Wall Street Journal, “The startup, called OneTen, aims to create one million jobs for Black Americans over the next 10 years and has so far recruited over 35 company backers and raised more than $100 million in seed funding.”  Furthermore, “Nonprofits, community colleges and credentialing organizations will provide training to help them be successful in business, and the CEOs who have joined the effort are committing to hiring these workers.”  This is a great example of how companies can effectively leverage their tools and resources to collectively initiate meaningful actions that will directly address systemic racism over time.

The keys to future success

Throughout the “Answering the Call” series, I’ve covered several critical topics that will help leaders begin the work of eradicating systemic racism in the workplace.  To summarize, there are four fundamental actions that corporate leaders must execute when embarking on this transformational journey:

  • Lead with purpose and personal conviction. IT leaders must act now with clear purpose to begin the journey to eradicating systemic racism in the workplace and remain steadfast in their commitment to do so.
  • Build genuine connections. Leaders must be committed to establishing genuine connections, rooted in mutual respect and trust, with a segment of the employee population that has historically been made to feel ignored and disconnected.
  • Take deliberate strategic actions. Developing a comprehensive DE&I strategy and seamlessly integrating meaningful inclusive practices into the workplace culture requires continuous commitment by the organization over time and the ongoing influence of authentic leaders with specialized skills.
  • Activate new community engagements. Building meaningful strategic partnerships with similarly committed institutions in the local community will have real impact on addressing issues of systemic racism in society.

It is also important for leaders to remember that taking specific actions to eradicate systemic racism in the workplace will be challenging, intimidating, and controversial at times.  Leaders may become apprehensive about getting actively involved in social justice reform as they learn more about the vast complexities associated with the institution of systemic racism.  Nonetheless, IT leaders must remain committed to creating a better workplace culture by taking one step at a time towards achieving a brighter future for Black talent. This requires a bold commitment to always demonstrating authentic leadership both at work and in the community.