An Open Letter to Employers
This letter is addressed to “those of us in power,” but it’s really a letter for anyone. It was written with employers in mind — executives with the power to hire and fire — but it is also for anyone with the resources to make a change and the desire to live and work with compassion. I hope you’ll join us too.
To Those of Us in Power,
Out of love for our nation and fear for our self-destruction — more than from anger or shame — I write to ask for your help. The current moment demands not only compassionate response but durable change. At the end of this note is a list of resources and six actions that we can take together.
I. Ground yourself in the context.
The recent homicides have lit a match to an already gas-soaked society. Given centuries of incarceration and killings, and the absence of full scale changes, it is shocking that the reckoning we face today did not happen sooner. Good. Give face and voice and publicity to pain and suffering. It’s about damn time it happened at this scale and with this level of visibility.
From access to education and healthcare, to economic mobility and wealth generation, to incarceration and poverty, the oppression of Black Americans was written into the birth of our country and has compounded over time.
And enter COVID-19, the perfect storm. Schools closed, illuminating equity and access issues in education. The economy shut down, leading to disproportionate unemployment in Black communities and virus exposure for those employed in essential services and dependent on that income. And increased risk with pre-existing conditions and lack of access to healthcare in Black communities meant higher risk of fatality from the illness. Add in continued systemic killings of Black Americans, and here we are.
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As Maslow’s psychological hierarchy states, we must have our basic needs — food, shelter, safety — met before moving up and accessing things like love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
Racism, and often poverty, compromise an individual’s executive functioning skills. Our brains literally cannot fully develop if we are denied these lower rungs of psychological and physical safety. It’s more substantial than not being able to carry out daily tasks. Could we get through our day if we thought we might be arrested getting chips at the gas station? How would we act if we knew changing our name or wearing glasses to an interview would more likely land us the job? Could we fully be ourselves?
II. Recognize the risk of doing nothing.
We mourn the lost artists to the AIDS epidemic.
What about the lost artists to the centuries of Black oppression?
How devastating for all of us.
Artist and activist Lilla Watson said, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
The loss is unconscionable, and we can never undo the harm.
But amidst the loss, what about survival? The tenacity, creativity, love, hope. The resilience.
To my people in power, acknowledge both and recognize the vigor of the latter.
III. Do something.
If you’ve been fighting for this for a while, be exhausted and angry that others are only just joining, but also invite them in as you continue your own journey. Rest if you need to so that you can fight harder, better, longer. Recognize that being able to rest is a privilege not afforded to all.
If you haven’t been fighting, join.
If you have the luxury to opt in or out, opt in.
We have power. We must use it.
Let us do the work to listen, stand up, educate ourselves, join or encourage dialogue, shift our behavior, participate in the political process, be vulnerable and ask for feedback, share resources, amplify Black voices, support Black-owned businesses, lean into activism, untrain implicit bias and rewire our subconscious. Let us continue to confront our privilege and guilt and perpetuating tendencies. We must be allies and also realize the limitations of our empathy. That’s ongoing and will remain so. Let us do it now and keep doing it.
But that’s not enough.
This is about race, yes. But it’s also about how poverty often protects racism, allowing race to hide behind class and class to remain a socially acceptable way to discriminate.
We can only make our society more just when we shift the systems that create unequal access to opportunity. When apartheid ended in South Africa in the 90s, non-white citizens were permitted to move freely about Cape Town, but the resulting poverty that disproportionately affected people of color meant that permission was not enough. The neighborhoods have remained largely the same, even though the city is “integrated.” In the US, lack of access to high quality schools and jobs for Black people have allowed for sustained oppression, even as cases like Brown v. Board of Education were passed. And here we are, decades later, largely unchanged.
This is about both perception and reality, mindsets and behaviors.
We must change our expectations first. Whatever they are, people will meet them. Who do we expect to see at the front of our child’s classroom or in a lab coat at the doctor’s office?
Then let us change our reality.
We must do the things now that will build to a world in which we expect the aforementioned all the time, in which there is an abundance of Black representation in leadership and throughout all parts of companies and industries. We must do the things now that will contribute to a world in which circumstance does not dictate outcome, in which there is neither conflation of race and class, nor one making excuses for the other.
- Send our children to public school. Work in schools and advocate for unified enrollment.
- Diversify our recruitment pipelines, and ask for help if we need it. Our networks tend to reflect ourselves; if we are white, our networks are likely also very white. We need to stop saying there’s a talent pipeline problem.
- Build competency based hiring practices. Mine for skills and character strengths over pedigree and other resume shortcuts. In fact, remove identifiers on applications and resumes — names, addresses, schools, degrees. Use performance based hiring and clear rubrics and scorecards.
- Once we’ve hired lots of overlooked talent — people of color, young people, people with non traditional backgrounds — , we must mentor them, promote them, help them grow, and empower them so they can do the same for others.
- Do this ourselves if we are in leadership or in HR. If not, speak up to our leadership and talent arms of our companies.
- Talk about what we’re doing, and invite others in. Compel our peers and peer companies to follow, and help train them. Ask for feedback and listen. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Know we will never be done, and that we must opt in because some of us do not have the luxury to opt out. Choose to stand alongside them not out of guilt, nor even out of moral imperative, but because we believe the world is a much better place when all people are free.
Please do not recoil or stay silent out of discomfort or fear of doing the wrong thing; lean in. Be patient, tough, and kind; listen to voices that have been silenced for too long, recognizing that it does not mean that your voice does not matter. We need everyone here.
I am with you, tripping over myself and swallowing my pride and not going anywhere. Join.
Claire Fisher, CEO, The Arena Inc.
Arena is a nonprofit organization that strengthens the school to work pipeline and ensures young people can build reliably stable lives. We believe circumstance need not dictate outcomes, diverse labor forces win, and proof points lead to systemic change. We started in the Bay Area in 2018 and serve students and partners nationally; through embedded partnerships across sectors and a database of training providers, we work to build more fluid pathways to economic freedom for overlooked talent.
Without exception, in every large school district in the US, white students significantly outperform Black students. Much of this is attributed to regions with greater disparities in socioeconomic status between white and Black attending families and segregated schools. In fact, “in half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75% of all students qualify as low-income based on federal guidelines.” Most of these schools are under-resourced, contributing to the gap in outcomes.
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