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June 10, 2020 | Notes From Leadership, Race and Equity,

Organizations Have Stated Their Commitments. Now What? by David C. Howse

A black banner image that reads "Words are appreciated, but action is necessary."

This post was written as part of a larger series leading up to our fourth Town Hall on Wednesday, June 17th at 12 pm EDT. We encourage our audiences to read all of the posts in the series in preparation for the Town Hall. Information on the Town Hall and the remainder of the series can be found here.

In response to the most recent displays of racist acts in this country, my inbox has been flooded with “organizational commitment” statements; commitments to anti-racist practices, commitments to Black Live Matters, commitments to share resources and commitments to be better white institutions, better white people. And I hear you. The words are appreciated but your action is needed.

As a black human being, I watched with some skepticism as they filed into my inbox. The comforting expressions of solidarity that were intended landed with a slightly different impact, and I found myself with a number of questions. Why now? What about the lynching of this black body triggered your current protest? How is the herd mentality clouding your ability to see what is true? Where have you been over the past years? Decades, even? How long will this recent act of violence against the black body hold your attention? Where will you stand when the spotlight on Christopher Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd begins to fade?

And I am trying to stay on the side of generosity about these statements, despite the temptation to something other.

What does it mean for an organization to make a commitment statement? What track record, if any, is necessary for those statements to have meaning? And what does it say when an organization chooses to say nothing at all? Are they any less committed? Are they, maybe, more committed to listening than talking? How can we trust the truth of the commitments? What if I asked that you move from behind those organizational statements to reveal your personal commitments—not for fanfare and visibility, or for validation from me, but simply for personal reflection on what you will do individually towards true transformation and change?

Yes, I am encouraged by the energy and spirit of solidarity of the moment, and yet my expectations for change are measured. History is not on our side. For too many years, commitments have been made only to go unfulfilled. This country is built on scores of unfulfilled promises and unrealized commitments. Many of us are still waiting on our forty acres and a mule. This country, its institutions and its people don’t have a good track record of keeping such commitments. Moreover these organizational commitments, in their bizarre way, have the potential to retraumatize. I deeply believe that the statements were written with the best intention, and in most cases, the sender would never want to do harm. But unintended harm still hurts.

So how do we begin? What can we do? Say?

If your organizational voice is new in this protest, resist the temptation to jump in as if you have done the work. Stepping out into moving traffic when you have no momentum behind you can be dangerous. Pay attention to the organizations that have been on this journey, organizations that have been loud in the protest, even when it wasn’t trending. And if you are sincerely going to get on the journey with them, approach the onramp with humility, yielding to all that is in motion and be prepared for the long haul. If this wave of solidarity passes, and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t you will have to resist the comfort of returning to business as usual. Are you ready for that?

You are heartbroken. You are outraged. You are sorry. I hear you, and I know that this is true, and I ask: what are you going to do about it? Show me what results from your broken heart. Show me your protest and let it be courageous and loud. Let me see that you mean what you say. We should not accept fleeting attention of our white allies and co-conspirators; we should harness this incredible momentum and hold organizations accountable to their passionate rhetoric. Our survival cannot be realized by words alone, action is necessary.

So, to all those who, in the heat of this moment, have drafted beautifully versed statements articulating newfound passion for the value of black bodies, I say, thank you. These important gestures suggest possibility, but more is required, and so I ask, “now what?” You’ve told us, but show us. What is the next thing you will do to help black people believe that what you say is and will be true?  What are you really going to do?

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