Over the past four years, we have lived through so many events that have sparked, challenged or reshaped national conversations about race. Donald Trump was elected and inaugurated, followed four years later by the election of President Biden. Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and was forced out of the NFL; his example continued to influence other sports figures and became the focus of a Nike ad campaign. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd sparked global uprisings in solidarity with Black lives. The coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, exacerbating economic and racial inequality. And throughout, organizers have continued to push to change policies, practices, and powerful narratives that cause harm to communities of color and replace them with new narratives that advance safety and power.
During this period, Living Cities has also been focused on narrative change as a strategy for advancing racial equity. The Narrative Change Working Group—a collaborative network of foundations, financial institutions and other partner organizations—was established in 2018 to explore and understand how systemic racism manifested in dominant narratives in the private sector. The Working Group was specifically interested in understanding beliefs that were held and perpetuated by corporate leaders, and how they could be challenged to push companies towards equitable practices.
This work took place in the context of a long history of people of color organizing within the corporate sector to reshape narratives and policies. We learned from PolicyLink and FSG’s 2017 publication, The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity, and W.G. Kellogg Foundation’s 2018 publication, The Business Case for Racial Equity, as well as the work of The Center for Economic Inclusion, JUST Capital, B Lab, Equity Matters, and other working group members and partners. And, the project was perpetually evolving in response to our shifting knowledge, and the many real-time examples of narrative change unfolding around us.
This timeline highlights major milestones, but what was most impactful about the Working Group was how we worked together. Despite representing over 20 different institutions, we approached this work in the spirit of collective action in service of a shared goal, rather than competition. As a result, members remained open to following the inspiration of group members and trusted one another to carry different parts of the work forward as we learned more about what it would take to build towards narrative change. Each individual brought their own stories and perspectives to the collective. We invested in our relationships with one another, pushed our imagination of what was possible, and leveraged our personal and institutional power and networks to bring our ideas to life.
All along, we were building personal racial equity competencies to inform our strategy. Several members of the working group attended Racial Equity Institute’s Groundwater training and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism training to build a systemic analysis of racism. Working Group member Erika Bernabei, Principal at Equity & Results LLC, led the group through a workshop on anti-racist Results-Based Accountability (RBA)—a framework for defining success and having discussions about measurement and evaluation. The meetings were also designed to foster reflection, competency building and personal growth.
Together, working group members reached out to dozens of corporate leaders to reinforce the moral, economic and business imperative of racial equity and identify some leaders who were working to truly embed racial equity into their business model and operations. The working group gathered and shared stories reflecting a new narrative about the role of racial equity in corporate America, sharing their own experiences and institutional lessons along the way. The group recognized that infrastructure is needed to support those seeking to operationalize a new narrative about racial equity, supporting the development of A CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity, published by PolicyLink, FSG and JUST Capital, and for a group of consultants advancing a new way of working with corporate clients that reflects deep racial equity competencies.
There is still a long way to go to change narratives to build safety and power for people of color in the workplace, and the organizing must – and will — continue. During one of our Working Group meetings, we collectively reflected on what an equitable and just workplace might look and feel like. Members imagined open, colorful, and light-filled workspaces with people who reflect the community at every level. We described colleagues who take joy in knowing one another fully and authentically. We saw workplaces grounded in the spirit of abundance and where everyone’s needs were met with just pay and opportunity. This is the vision we are dreaming of and collectively building towards.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the narrative change working group and whose contributions led us through this journey: Aifuwa Ehigiator, Alison Omens, Amber Randolph, Ben Hecht, Carina Wong, Catalina Caro, Dennis White, Dwayne Proctor, Ene Afufu, Erika Bernabei, F. Javier Torres, Geri Yang Johnson, Jana Holt, Jeff Johnson, Jessica Fontaine, Joan Springs, Joanna Carrasco, Jocelyn Corbett, Joe Scantlebury, John Kimble, Josh Kirschenbaum, Julie Bosland, Julienne Kaleta, Kerry Sullivan, Kristen Grimm, Lakshmi Iyer, Lisa Talma, Mahlet Getachew, Mark Harris, Megan McGlinchey, Mekaelia Davis, Michael McAfee, Na Eng, Norris West, Owen Stone, Santiago Carrillo, Shammara Wright, Shane Harris, Sloane Kali Faye, Tawanna Black, Thomas Houston, Yusuf George
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