We need to talk about the protests that are happening in our country and the underlying issue of racism. I write this because it is my responsibility as president to promote the vision and values of our organization. Our vision is that everyone has a pathway to meaningful and sustaining work, and all are included in this when both individual and systemic challenges have been overcome. Personal challenges include having a disability, illness, criminal background, or other disadvantaging condition. Systemic challenges include generational poverty, racism, discrimination, educational and economic inequities, and other long-term social injustices. In addition, two of our values are that 1) Every person is respected and valued and 2) Caring deeply about people, families, and communities is what motivates us. These are the things that are fundamental to Goodwill.
My strongest desire with this letter is to move hearts and minds to be open to better realization of our vision and values. Silence about race reinforces racism and so we have to speak. We need to talk about the white supremacy and racism that this country was founded upon and that continues with such abandon today.
To our co-workers of color, I want you to know that you are seen. The pain and frustration and fear and anger, I acknowledge. To those of us who are white: we have the privilege of not experiencing racism. When we acknowledge this, know that this is not about guilt or shame. Guilt and shame ignite rationalization and defensiveness, and are not effective in changing anything. If you notice either of these feelings, let them pass through you, and then join in to do something to change things for the better. Because it is up to us, the white people, to change the reality of racism.
I have a friend whose husband died a number of years ago when their daughter was very young. That young girl is now 9 years old, and has been through a lot. The protesting is happening close to their home in a city in Michigan. Here is the conversation this 9-year-old girl had with her mom about the protesting as she was being tucked into bed:
Girl: You know I am sad for our city but I get being mad like that.
Mom: Oh you do?
Girl: Remember when daddy died and I broke all of those toys that day?
Girl: I just had so much sad mad I didn’t know how to get it out. It was the only thing I could think of.
Mom: (remains quiet)
Girl: I bet it’s like that for them but way worse because they have been sad mad for so long.
Mom: I bet you’re exactly right…
“Sad mad” is great language for understanding that being mad can be a secondary feeling to grief, and this young, white child has used her experience to try to understand the experience of people who do not look like her. She has done a masterful job. My request is that you dig into your personal experience to do the same if you are not someone who experiences racism on a daily basis. Let’s take the wisdom and ability of a child to heart. We often reject the experiences of the other because we think we can’t relate, but if we look far enough, we can find the emotions and experiences to help us do just that.
Young black men are 20 times more likely to be hurt and killed by police than young white men. Anger about this is justified, and now for decades, we have failed at reforming police practices and our criminal justice system. Violence is happening for so many reasons and perspective is important in understanding why. First, I understand the emotions and decades of injustice that might lead to that kind of reaction from people who have been mistreated by those in power. In addition, there are many accounts from reporters of police responding with violence against peaceful protestors. There are also accounts of white supremacists taking advantage of the protests to bring violence to black and brown people. Regardless of the genesis of violence in any particular protest, when we focus on “looting” and “rioting,” we distract from the actual issue of the systemic racism that poisons our country. Let me also suggest that we go forward not using the terms looting and rioting, because in many cases, the protesters and looters are not the same people, and rioting implies a meaningless eruption of violence. The protesters demonstrations are the opposite of meaningless. They are a reaction against the current conditions for people of color in our country.
So what can we do at Goodwill? We need to double down on our diversity and inclusion efforts. This means more resources, more measurements of progress, more conversations about race, more openness to understanding the experience of our colleagues as they navigate life under this reality. I know some of you might respond with, “but we should do this for everyone, everyone’s experience is important to understand.” Let me talk for a minute about all lives mattering.
When we respond with “all lives matter” to “black lives matter” we are missing the point. Saying black lives matter is not saying that others do not, but black lives are the ones that are systematically treated as if they don’t. Talking about black lives mattering puts the focus on the experience of racism, and is a call to action for change.
There are so many things that we can do personally to impact racism. The first is understanding and believing the experiences of people of color. Sensitize yourself to the human experience of our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers who suffer the impacts of racism every day. Find a way to care deeply about all people and not only the ones who look most like you and who share a similar experience. Together, we can be better, and together we will rebuild stronger, more resilient communities.
President and CEO, Goodwill Industries of West Michigan