by Eric Ratinoff
You don’t have to work in diversity and inclusion to be moved by the recent events in Baltimore. You don’t have to work in diversity and inclusion to read the headlines and see the pictures and watch the videos and feel hurt, anger, frustration, despair, or sadness, sometimes all at once.
Even for those of us who do work in diversity and inclusion, it’s easy to feel helpless. Maybe you feel helpless because you’re not in Baltimore. Maybe you feel helpless because you can’t influence how police treat Black men. Maybe you feel helpless because, well, what can one person do to address generations of injustice?
But the death of Freddie Gray, and the uprisings in response to it, are symptoms of a larger systemic inequality that affects everything from policing to housing, from banking to hiring.
Because this incident, like too many similar incidents in the last year, raises questions about police treatment of Black men, it’s easy to think about it solely as a racial issue. The issues raised are issues of social justice, of equity, and of fairness, both under the law and in our daily interactions with our fellow citizens. As such, they touch, and are touched by, every aspect of our society.
In other words, these issues of equity and fairness are no more limited to racial inequality in Baltimore than they are to gender inequality in Silicon Valley. To care about one and not the other is to miss a critical connection. That connection, that common thread, is unequal treatment. Or to use a more blunt word—a word that makes people even more uncomfortable—it is oppression.
Placing these events within the framework of oppression or inequality has a drawback: it can make the issues seem overwhelming.
But we are not powerless. We can do something about them.
Whether we live in Baltimore or not, whether we work with the police or not, whether we are legislators or not, whether we work in diversity and inclusion or not, we can do something. Within our own sphere of influence, no matter where that influence exists, no matter how broadly it extends—whether it is so small that we feel we can only influence our own heart and mind, or whether it is broad enough that we can influence our entire organization—we can do something.
Maybe you don’t feel comfortable protesting. Maybe you aren’t in a position to change policy. Maybe you aren’t even comfortable posting something on Facebook.
But we can read, listen, and empathize. We can consider carefully our words and deeds. We can speak up when we see ignorance uttered right beside us. And we can understand that the workplace is a reflection of the greater society, and that what we say and do at work impacts that greater society. We can work for a more fair, a more just, a more equitable workplace, wherever we work.
We cannot leave the fight for equality to those protesting in the streets of Baltimore, or Ferguson, or any other American city where people are standing up. The fight belongs to all of us.
The name of our company, The Mouse and the Elephant, comes from a parable. The long version is on our website (and the inspiration, and longer version, are in The Loudest Duck by Laura Liswood), but the short version is this: in every sphere of life, there are mice, and there are elephants. The mice often lack power, and a voice, but they do not lack skill or smarts or passion or value. The elephants usually have the power, and while they do not by definition lack empathy or compassion, they often do not see or realize their power, or the sometimes-destructive ways in which they wield it.
The best, most productive, most effective workplaces, communities, and societies understand that when the mice and the elephants can appreciate each other, when they can see and hear and understand and learn from each other, and when they can work together, everybody benefits.
In Baltimore today, the mice are speaking up, and people across the country are finally paying attention (in truth, the mice have been speaking up for quite a while). But we cannot expect the mice alone to erase generations of injustice. In every civil rights victory in this country, when mice fought for equality, elephants stood beside them in solidarity. Not all elephants, of course. But enough elephants to make the less-enlightened elephants think twice.
The fight the protestors in Baltimore are fighting is not the fight of Black people alone. It is our fight. And the battlefield is bigger than Baltimore. It is our workplace, our community, our schools, our homes. It is any place justice, fairness, and equity are threatened. In other words, it is everywhere.
True confession, before we go any further: writing this is hard. It is uncomfortable. I get paid to teach and train about diversity and inclusion, and I co-author a regular column about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and yet as I read and read and read and read some more, and then sat down and tried to write, I kept thinking, “Who am I, as a White man, to speak up on this? Why would anyone care what I have to say? What if I have nothing of value to say? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say the thing wrong?”
But I know that saying nothing is the greater mistake. If we don’t have a conversation, we only have reaction. What we need is a proactive, ongoing, nuanced, deliberate, difficult conversation.
Injustice, inequality, racism, sexism, oppression … these are hard things to talk about. We are afraid that the words we choose won’t be the right ones. Even when we feel solidarity and compassion and concern, we fear the words we might find will fall short of a solution. But no one of us has to find a solution. Rather, each one of us is responsible to be another small voice in the conversation, trying to figure something out. Change doesn’t happen with one march, with one protest, or with one rousing speech, but one conversation at a time.
The protesters in the streets of Baltimore are carrying on a proud tradition that runs back not only through 2014 in Ferguson and 1965 in Selma, but back to the 1940s through Woody Guthrie’s guitar, back to the 1840s through the women’s suffrage movement, all the way back to the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Every one of those protesters believed, fundamentally, that the United States should be a place where everyone had an equal chance.
And that’s why we must all do the work—not just those who are oppressed, not just those who are affected by inequality, not just those who suffer, but all of us. The mice and the elephants together.
This work belongs to all of us.
This post originally appeared in The Mouse and the Elephant Weekly. Click here to subscribe.