Recently I sat with two business colleagues on my screened-in porch, our first meeting since the pandemic took a hold of our lives. During the early weeks of the shelter-in-place, we had to cancel a video shoot about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and now a few weeks in I emailed them, and asked, should we try to record our conversation on Zoom?
I wondered out loud whether we should wait since the nation had gone into lockdown and everyone’s attention was on COVID-19. The response back from my two colleagues who think about race every single day wrote emphatically that minority-owned businesses were even more important to address during this time.
Instead of taking chances on smaller black-owned contractors, for instance, they said businesses were taking short cuts in their contracting practices out of sense of efficiency and a desire to go with what was familiar They told me that minority businesses were being left out of the distribution of relief funds that were funneled through banks with established business relationships. In short, they reminded me that race issues do not go away because of a pandemic, if anything, the need has been amplified.
Shortly thereafter we worked with colleagues from the Chicago area to convene conversations and develop community resources to help small and minority owned businesses rebuild. The engagement was intense and the issues expansive, and then in the final stretch of that work together, George Floyd was killed by police officers and the seams of our society burst wide open.
So, when we finally got together again on my screened in porch, the world had been turned on its head. Protests permeated the news cycles and the need to address systemic racism had re-entered our national dialogue in a way we had not felt before in our lifetimes.
We were in a different place and could feel it as we re-grouped. We shared what had been going on in our lives but were open about the fact that these conversations can be uncomfortable, even with people we trust and then we began to talk about what could be done. In the end, although we share common goals, our different perspectives made it difficult to come together on a plan of action. We needed more time to think through our business ideas.
This brings me to the quote by Brian Stanfield at the top of this article. Last year as I was developing my business model around pioneering extraordinary change, I came across his ideas that a social pioneer is someone who brings about change without confrontation or agitation, but through engaging people in finding a consensus about what is necessary. The scribbles in my journal reflect my reaction to his words then and as I come back to them now, they remind me of my conversation that evening on the porch.
My notes beside this quote (unsure, yes, maybe) reveal deep-seated questions I had when I wrote the note, but today, the attention to the Black Lives Matter movement have settled my questions.
I am now certain that there are times when agitation and confrontation are necessary to reach consensus about what is necessary. I am equally convinced that engagement through dialogue can be as, if not more, powerful.
[Note: since the time of this writing, Representative John Lewis’ passing has reminded us of the history of the civil rights movement and part of Mr. Lewis’ story was his decision to take a non-violent approach. Nonetheless, his famous advice to young people remained steadfast: “get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” Read more about him and see photos in the NYTimes obituary.]
Our conversation that evening helped to bring these thoughts center and front. Dialogue and conversation are central methodologies in my consulting practice, but sometimes it must wait until people have time to think, to process and know where they stand. On the other hand, many who have experienced racism for the entirety of their lives are weary and hoping that those of us who have not will take steps to catch up.
It seems to me quite likely that we are never going to entirely converge in our thinking because our body of experience is different. And I wonder if that is even necessary or desirable. For that reason, in my notes from last year, I question whether it is always possible to reach consensual understanding.
Right now, at this time in history, I have a much greater appreciation for the degree to which relationship plays an integral role in reaching across perspectives and for the necessary work to get there. It may be more important and practical to strive toward consensus than to focus on reaching consensus. Good relationships allow us to be comfortable with, and even celebrate, differences.
This period of time, and that evening in particular, brings to my mind that the way in which we meet this moment is more like the way in which we build community, slow and steady, brick by brick, with our hearts.
In the words of John Lewis:
Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime.
As we closed our evening, we said thank you to each other for the offering of perspective, the sharing of ideas, experiences, and friendship and most of all the potential for prosperity through change.