Hopes and Dreams Since 1619
As I sit here today, it hurts and frustrates me to see that for some business leaders, their resolve to achieve racial equity appears to be fading already, as their will to effect substantive change falters. I see two potential reasons for this: some leaders don’t want to change, and some leaders don’t know how to change.
For those of you who don’t want to change, I believe this is because the cost of change is too great to bear for some of you in positions of power, advantage, privilege and wealth.
You don’t want to share. You don’t want to reconcile. You don’t want to repent. You don’t want to heal. You don’t want to confront your bias and your prejudice. You don’t want to admit your ideas and beliefs about Black people are incorrect. You want to preserve your way of life, at the expense of ours. You don’t want to admit you’ve been wrong.
You don’t want to give up White supremacy.
You even expect that this dialogue about racial equity will center White experiences, as if that’s not already the way things are.
You have a modern day plantation mentality and you hope this is just a small rebellion that eventually will die down. You want things to stay the way they are, because that’s easier for you. So you hope that your checks and your statements are enough, until this thing passes over.
Here’s the good news (good for Black folks, at least): this will not pass over. This is about racial EQUITY, which inherently demands justice and equality for ALL. I hope your unwillingness to change is fueled more by self-interest than hate, because that would mean there’s still time for you. Time to get right. Time to choose which side of history, which side of righteousness, which side of HUMANITY you want to be on.
For those of you who do want to change but don’t know how, here’s the good news, for all of us: there’s a way forward.
A few weeks ago I shared perspective on what business leaders can do if they are serious about achieving equity in their companies: 1) pay attention to racism, 2) listen to the stories of the experiences of Black people, 3) reflect on your beliefs, biases, policies and practices as a leader and an organization, 4) commit to and take enlightened action, 5) work with people unlike you.
Speaking of stories, during a recent team meeting for an equity empowerment initiative that I am part of, a group of us were discussing the kinds of stories we want to encourage and empower African Americans to share about their experiences with racism. Several team members shared ideas about how to convey not only the obvious negative experiences with racism, but also the hopes and dreams African Americans have and still pursue in spite of it, of our individual and collective pursuits of the aspirational, the ideal of the American promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, of equality for all.
So with that in mind, I share what my hopes and dreams are and have been, with you.
When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a doctor like my father. I remember making a poster for Career Day in the second or third grade, and I drew a picture of a doctor in an examination room. I don’t remember if I was drawing myself or my father. During this time, I hoped for other things, too. I hoped that our family would always stay together, that my father would be a better man, and that we could live in nice houses, all the time instead of occasionally.
By middle school, I dreamed of being a preacher when I grew up. Having spent so much time in church during this phase of my life, the role models were shifting in front of me. I didn’t see as many doctors, lawyers or businesspeople – or at least I didn’t recognize them as such. Almost all of the adults were religious people. During this time, I also hoped that I could live in one place long enough to get to know other kids at school.
During my teenage years, I had dreams of being an entrepreneur, a businessman. I read business magazines and fancied myself the inventor of something that would change people’s lives and make my family rich. I started my first business at 15. In high school, I saw so much wealth around me, I became obsessed with building a company that would last so that in the future, my kids and grandkids could have the kinds of advantages and opportunities, especially financial ones, that I saw around me. I also began writing a lot more, and in some alternate universe, I fancied myself the author of the next Great American Novel. I hoped that I wouldn’t be forced to choose one dream over another.
In college, I continued to dream of having my own company and of becoming a writer. I did not know how to do either, yet these were the things I wanted in my future. After multiple failings of both the character and academic sort, my hope at this point was just to make my mother proud, to not be seen as a failure for the rest of my life.
And with adulthood came responsibility, the need to care for a new family at a relatively young age. I shifted my focus to work, and for a while my dream was to become a high-powered executive, to one day run the company I worked for. But silently, my deeper hope was that I would somehow be able to make my long-running dreams of building a business and becoming a writer come true.
And as I sit here today, I know I am fortunate enough to have achieved some of my dreams, even I am still struggling to realize others, and coming to terms with the idea that some of them won’t ever come true. I’ve so desperately wanted to give my children a more physically, financially and emotionally secure childhood and entry to adulthood than I had, so that their adult lives would be spent less on making up for lost time, and more on fulfilling their purposes on this planet. I know that I have been able to overcome so much due to effort, grace, opportunity and the support of hundreds of family members, friends, mentors and colleagues along the way, and I have been able to make progress. And I know that I am not alone – I come from a culture that makes progress sometimes against nearly impossible odds and in the face of 400 years of built up structures and systems designed to keep us from our dreams, to keep us from progressing, to keep us from rising to a place of equity for all.
I know I have to use my voice, my platform and my privilege for good, to empower others to achieve their aspirations. Our hopes and dreams shape our imagination and intention, they reveal our desired futures. And when empowered, they become realized, reflecting who we are becoming. So when we give energy to one another’s hopes and dreams, we realize potential – individually and collectively.
And that is my hope now, that I can inspire and empower others to reach their human potential through love and equity. Now my dream is to see the end of racism in my lifetime, for my children to live most of their lives without it, and for their children to only know of it through history books.
So back to you, and the way forward: I need you to really pay attention and become aware of what’s going on around you. Why is this step so crucial? Well, like the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem. You cannot fix a problem when you do not realize or acknowledge its existence.
Activate your personal empathy by listening to the stories of African Americans inside your organization or your community. Demonstrate your willingness to become aware of our lives, our challenges, our triumphs, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. I think you’ll find these stories to be both surprising and expected, both sad and joyful, both unrecognizable and familiar. You will find in them the beauty of our human paradox: that each of us is unique, and yet at our core, we have so very much in common if we would just embrace one another empathetically, equally and equitably with love.
And as you understand our hopes and dreams, also see what stands in their way. And then use your power, your privilege and your platform to dismantle the structures and systems of racism so that all of our dreams come true.