Voices | What companies can do for criminal justice reform and racial equity

Our country is experiencing widespread explosions of anger about systematic racism–particularly in the criminal justice system–and passionate demands for serious change, even radical transformation. Great business leaders will harness the passion for change and will respond to the anger with action.

But how does your business navigate this transformational moment? How can businesses contribute to social justice, be “anti-racist” and help transform the criminal justice system? My company has worked with other organizations to navigate change during uncertain and even volatile times: police departments, elected officials and increasingly, business leaders. Doug Brien, CEO of Mynd Management (and in full disclosure, my husband) has been one of these leaders, wanting to use his influence for good but uncertain what to do.

A good first step is always communication. Business leaders can make internal and external statements in support of their Black employees, Black Americans, and people of color. Although sincere words of empathy and support are worthwhile, the moment demands more. Business leaders must make a commitment to act to make meaningful change. 

Here are four positive steps to that end:

1. Turn inward.

It’s always good to start with yourself.  CEOs and business leaders can make a personal commitment to learn about their own biases and privileges. Take the Implicit Association Test. If you are white, read White Fragility by Robin D’Angelo. Everyone should read How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi and to know the history and meaning of the criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Remember that learning is on you. Do not rely on Black and brown people to educate you about what is happening.

Doug reads tons of books on leadership, building teams, and creating culture.  It’s time to educate ourselves on ourselves, the systems of oppression we live in, and the ways we each perpetuate those.  Share your commitment with your employees and encourage dialogue, questions and feedback.

2. Learn your industry’s role in racial inequity.

Similar to the first suggestion, your company should look inward at itself and its whole industry to understand its contribution to race-based inequities.

For example, companies in the real estate industry like Mynd Management, should dive deep into red-lining, housing discrimination and their impacts on access to credit, capital and wealth accumulation. We recommend the book Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

Companies in the healthcare industry must carefully consider the causes of the health disparities facing communities of color and most recently exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. An episode of the podcast 1619 called “How the Bad Blood Started” documents the history of racial disparities in health care and is a good place to start.

Tech companies must grapple with their persistent exclusion of women and people of color, especially from places of power.

Learning more about the causes and history of inequities in your industry can lead to some insights in how to change.

For example, real estate investors may consider investing in neighborhoods which were “red-lined” 50 years ago but are still feeling the negative economic impact of those maps. 

3. Take meaningful action now.

Of course you can give money to organizations. YouTube pledged  $1 million to the Center for Policing Equity and Peloton donated  $500,000 to the NAACP and asked its members to speak up for and learn ways to practice anti-racism.

But consider the small ways your company could make a difference, this could make a big impact too.

For example, Doug’s company is a technology-enabled property management company.  They waived the application fee for apartments in order to allow those most impacted by the economic downturn (mostly people of color) to find housing. They were flooded with applications and it was a mess for a couple of weeks. But they learned.

Fighting racism, even in small steps, is uncomfortable. 

If you are in the healthcare industry, how could you contribute the Black and Native American communities hit hardest by COVID-19? If you run a technology company, can you help close the digital divide by contributing to the equitable distribution of hardware, software or internet access for students of all ages? Black and brown students are disproportionately impacted by the shift to distance learning.

Whatever your business is set up to do, there is a way to use that position and your expertise to make a meaningful impact.

4. Make changes for the long-term.

Commit to diversity in your teams and especially in your leadership. 

Stanford Business School has an initiative, Stanford Women on Boards, dedicated to training and placing women and especially women of color onto corporate boards. The “pipeline problem” simply doesn’t work as a valid explanation anymore.

Change your policies to show that you value social justice and an equitable criminal justice system.

Provide paid time off for voting and jury duty. Eliminate using criminal convictions in employment decisions. These types of “ban-the box” laws are widespread throughout the US. Consider going a step farther and hiring people who were once in prison. “Giving formerly incarcerated applicants a fair chance is a win-win. It’s a good deal for the economy, for communities suffering under mass incarceration, and a good deal for businesses looking for a competent, effective, and loyal workforce,” said Jeffery Robinson, Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality at the ACLU. The ACLU published a report documenting the business case for hiring people who were formerly incarcerated.

Commit to diversifying your vendors, partners and collaborators.

Start looking now so that in the future the companies with which you work – from law firms and financial institutions, to caterers and couriers–are Black-owned or have people of color on their management teams, C-Suite or boards.

Although this may seem like a daunting project, so is dismantling racism. 

Doug suggests that each business leader and CEO should consider this one of their most important functions. He says, “Every CEO should think of themselves as the Leader of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Champion of Company Social Responsibility.”

I say: you just got a promotion. Start working.

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Shanti Brien is an educator, consultant, writer, and co-founder of Fogbreak Justice.

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