Between COVID-19 and the ongoing racial unrest in the US, the business community has been pressed into moral leadership. This is worthy of examination.

A Social Pandemic

The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers now finds businesses signing on wholesale to social justice. But what does that mean?

Will businesses put health-related needs before economics? Or profits over hateful material on social media platforms? Will leaders create policies and practices to support racial equity?

— It’s more than a little cringeworthy to hear the NFL declare that Black Lives Matter yet continue to ostracize Colin Kaepernick.

— Or financial firms standing with protesters while continuing practices that push out billions of government-issued, pandemic dollars that favor those with “access.” 

— Or witness tech platforms with algorithms that drive hate speech at marginalized groups yet issue edicts supporting equal justice.

— Or note the Washington, DC football team changing its racist name only because of boycotts from Amazon, FedEx, and Nike.

We have several contagions.

COVID-19 has devastated our nation with a biological disease. It has exposed a deeper moral epidemic of racial and criminal injustices, as well as depravity in our business, healthcare, and economic systems. These dilapidated priorities and beliefs have for too long maintained the very inequities that could tear our nation apart.

How will businesses lead at this time? Can business leaders imagine a world beyond opportunistic “scaling strategies” and impulsive, short-term fixations? Can we think beyond the next quarter, slogan, or branding scheme?

What does it mean to receive throngs of messages, posts, and viral videos supporting Black Lives Matter? Is this a branding, political, or strategic statement? Or is it a moral cause?

The current environment is fixated on performative allyship and activism, designed more for viral messaging and virtue signaling than facing historic injustices and securing true equity.

A Moral Moment

Regrettably, I wonder if many who occupy today’s C-suites can summon the moral courage and venture beyond branding, politics, or strategic considerations.

Our moment today seems different from other times, precisely because it ventures beyond civil rights (for full citizenship) to question the fundamental existence of our humanity. To meet this moment requires moral consciousness.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the Vietnam War, a reporter quizzed him, asking, “Since you face so many criticisms and since you are going to hurt the budget of your organization, don’t you feel that you should kind of change and fall in line with the Administration’s policy…?”

King answered, “I’m sorry, sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference… nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll.”

King properly questioned what it means to stand for something.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’

Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’

Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’

But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”

Sifting through the safe, opportunistic, and popular, what is right requires digging deep beyond branding, strategy, and politics. It requires moral imagination.

What Is Moral Imagination?

Moral imagination asks us to look beyond dogmatic views of right and wrong, good and bad, or the ethics of strategic calculations and pragmatic solutions.

Moral imagination involves:

  • the capacity to conceive of and generate beneficial ideas,
  • the ability to form ideas about what is worthy and just, and
  • the willingness to put the best ideas into action for the service of others.

We can conceive of a better, fuller world by including different perspectives, views, and concerns from the self and groups, society and culture, and humanity and the planet.

As leaders, we expand our focus beyond scaling and strategy to focus on cultures that enact principles of service and inclusion with humility.

As businesses, we expand our view beyond profit to include equitable practices for colleagues and customers, and sustainable systems for society and the planet.

As citizens, we bring an interdependent awareness to our place in society and on this planet. We demand policies and practices that honor the dignity of all humanity.

Success is measured by the development of one’s integrity and character, not the fleeting emotions of status or the accumulation of pleasures.

This is a time of consciousness. We are interconnected. To be whole today—in the face of distraction, disruption, divergent ideas, and diverse experiences—requires us to embrace an expanded view of humanity with deep commitment and practices beyond individualism, competition, and personal advantage.

In the face of social unrest, complexity, and disruptive change, cultivating moral imagination requires a larger view of justice that views humans as dignified beings and persons with complex experiences, not objects whose value rests in utility or usefulness.

To those in business with power, as the late Congressman John Lewis said, a moral vision requires “good trouble.”

As an emerging body of knowledge, study, and practices, antiracism marries moral imagination with social justice, calling us to take on such commitment and practice.

Evolving Toward Antiracism

For our firm, cultivating moral imagination is fundamental for this moment. Over these last few weeks, we’ve not made any proclamations. We’ve used this time to continue exploring who we are at this moment. What do we care about? How we will contribute?

I’ve outlined our years-long exploration into diversity, equity, and inclusion in a white paper titled A Pedagogical Inquiry: Challenges in Unlearning Systemic Bias, which has led us to antiracist work as defined by historian and author Ibram X. Kendi.

Kendi’s work develops a paradigm for thinking about racism and antiracism. He shuns the “not racist” cul-de-sac between racists and antiracists.

RACIST: One who supports a racist policy through their actions or inaction or who expresses a racist idea.

ANTIRACIST: One who supports an antiracist policy through their actions or who expresses an antiracist idea.

The entire antiracist enterprise clarifies a path forward with practices that have evolved from previous models.

The diversity awareness model, which emerged in the ‘70s, increases the sensitivity of other ethnic groups and cultures by gaining knowledge of each. The goal here is to address visibility and representation.

The cultural competency model, which emerged in the ‘90s, offers cultural competency as a skills-based effort. It includes a historical perspective on operating in different cultural contexts by relating and communicating across cultural lines. The goal here is to understand these dynamics to cultivate inclusion.

The antiracist model is different. Emerging around 2010, it challenges systemic racism to achieve equity. It recognizes the impulsive need for power and control that leads to structures and policies, which are then rationalized by ideas. It encourages action to reveal the power and privilege in policy and practices that impede access and opportunity.

The work of becoming an antiracist is a commitment to practice.

Begin with a Commitment Statement

For our firm, commitment guides our views, listening, speaking, and actions. It is not a description of what we want, but rather generates who we are. Generating a commitment embodies our values, priorities, and actions.

Creating such a statement is not a casual undertaking.

To engage this inquiry and process, we reached out for support. Educator and consultant, Joy Gardner at Evoking Change worked with our team to help us give voice to the following commitment statement. It represents our work, values, and priorities. We’ve added it to our website and enthusiastically share it with you:

OUR COMMITMENT TO DIGNITY AND JUSTICE

We embrace dignity as fundamental to the being of human beings. While we exist as one humanity with members of equal worth, we also acknowledge the systemic oppression that has prevented so many from sharing their unique contributions.

Because we are interdependent, we are deeply affected by the systemic dehumanization of members of our community. These ongoing transgressions create injustices that demand immediate action.

We are committed to the action and antiracist practices necessary to ensure racial equity and equality for all. 

We encourage our community to speak and act out, disrupt the status quo, and advance the cause of social justice.

We seize this moment to advance our moral obligation to reimagine education, expand what it means to be human, and undo the deep inequities that oppress our possibilities as a people and as a society.

Our commitment to learning ennobles the authentic voices of our community, as we:

    • Unlearn the misperceived view of “separation” that cultivates bias and exploitation.
    • Discover and cultivate an evolved imagination to conceive of expanded possibilities.
    • Listen to community members with humility and compassion.
    • Act with intention and wisdom to speak out against the systemic bias that impedes access and opportunity.

Today, we stand for this fundamental dignity and call it into existence.

Generate Commitment through Practice

A commitment statement is the beginning. It cultivates a view, outlines priorities, and details practices. The next step is to develop antiracist practices to generate that commitment. To do this, I’ve revised seminal practices developed by Tema Okun[1] into the following seven “Rs”:

  1. Read and educate ourselves on the history and impact of our Western Worldviews and other structures of racism.  (Begin with the list of books and films at end of this blog.)
  2. Reflect on what this education means to developing a (White) antiracist identity. Practices such as slowing down, reflection, and journaling support identifying speech and action to challenge everyday racism.
  3. Remember our intentions. Be mindful of the way we participate in the thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs that uphold racism. Discern hidden intentions as revealed by our impact. Remember that as White people, we “forget” that racism exists as a default.
  4. Risk your comfort zone by addressing racism in conversations when you observe it or realize when you are participating in it.
  5. Recognize the experience of rejection you will encounter with antiracist practices. We all make mistakes and “get it wrong” when it comes to identifying and challenging racism. Learn to recognize, accept, and examine rejection. Avoid identifying with mistakes, and taking things personally. You are not the mistake you made. The R-A-I-N Practice by Tara Brach (resources at end of blog) offers additional support. 
  6. Receive feedback by becoming non-reactive. Remember that a larger system is at play. We can improve by receiving feedback as a contribution, not an attack.
  7. Relationship-building is part of what you do along the way—with White folks and people of color who are somewhere on their journey from the nonracist “neutral” space to antiracist. Becoming more aware involves being in dialogue and practicing with others. 

Becoming an antiracist is an ongoing process of learning and unlearning. It is not a turnkey operation or one-time achievement. This mountain with no peak invites a climb, so learn to enjoy it.

A Blunt Truth

This moment calls for moral imagination to connect all levels of the infection that has metastasized in society. We are called to cultivate moral courage beyond political, branding, and strategic considerations.

We become committed to framing our existence—how we live, perceive, and interact, as well as what we stand for. This commitment examines our beliefs and worldviews and encourages practices to shape how we live, work, and play.

With study, reflection, and practice, I’ve arrived at this blunt truth: If I do not engage in intentional antiracist practices, as detailed in the seven Rs above, I perpetuate the disease. Calling myself non-racist merely glosses over and leaves unexamined society’s programming, structures, and systems.

I will continue to do harm as part of systemic racism.

Any possible remedy begins with that admission and a commitment to antiracist practices.

Reading Time: 10 min. Digest Time: 18 min

[1] Tema Okun’s work identified White Supremacy cultures is modified by Anneliese A. Singh in the Racial Healing Handbook.

BOOKS

FILMS

R-A-I-N. This practice as outlined here and in this video by Tara Brach stands for

  • R: Recognize it.
  • A: Accept it.
  • I: Investigate it, be curious. What is it like?
  • N: Non-identification. This is just a passing process that comes and goes, not who we are.

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tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.