Adapted from a keynote speech I gave at the B Corp Leadership Development — Pacific Northwest (BLD PNW) Conference on October 14, 2020.
I once had a dream where I called hundreds of Black women into an arena and invited them to share their wisdom with a crowd of thousands of witnesses. They shared their wisdom in many forms, stories, poems, songs. When they were done, the Black women exited the arena — hugging and laughing and crying — filled up by the experience they had just shared.
The crowd however was stunned into silence. No one moved. No one spoke. As the Black women exited the arena, the crowd didn’t know what to do next.
I woke up from my dream in tears — as if I had had some kind of religious experience.
If you are anything like that crowd of people in my dream, you may have been stunned into silence by any number of events of the past year. Of course you were. This past year has been…well…stunning.
But my guess is that, now, you are ready to move. You are ready to speak. You are ready to follow those Black women out of the arena, to join in on the hugging and laughing and crying. You are ready. You just need to follow their wisdom.
Do you want to know what the Black women in my dream said?
Well, damn, I don’t remember. It was a dream. It happened months ago.
But, lucky for you, this wisdom lives inside me, always. In the life I have lived, the work I have done, the people I have met. Perhaps in sharing my wisdom, I will be sharing theirs as well.
In sharing this wisdom, my hope is that you will come out knowing just how to show up for racial justice during this time of political and economic uncertainty, environmental devastation, and racial awakening. The answer is simple, but not easy. It’s all about stories. Your story. Mine. The ones we co-create.
In sharing my wisdom, my hope is that you will listen. You will believe me. You will know just what to do.
I have spent my entire career creating opportunities for people to tell their stories. I have helped kids express themselves on stage. I have helped organizations define and live into their values. I have helped brands and entrepreneurs shape campaigns that inspire and encourage loyal fans to take action.
The one thing I know about storytelling is that it is an act akin to breathing. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Telling our stories is something we must do. We must do it regularly. We must tell the same stories over and over again until we are exhausted. Like any practice, the more we do it, the better we get at it. The better we get, the greater impact we have on our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Stories are magic. They are how we make sense of who we are and what we believe in. Our stories connect us to each other and the planet. Our stories are so magical, that they have the power to shape the future we want to live in. Let me REPEAT that…Our stories are so magical, that they have the power to shape the future we want to live in.
Right now, we need all of the magic we can get. Am I right?
Our stories have the power to Notice, Name, and Dismantle™ racist, sexist, and other oppressive systems. The systems that are designed to keep some of us centered in the arena and the rest of us forced out — marginalized, exploited, silenced, erased. This is our work, 100%.
To Notice…what is true.
To Name…what has happened and what is happening.
To Dismantle…what causes harm.
All of us. Notice. Name. Dismantle. If any of you are wondering “What is my purpose? How can I make a difference?,” I want to encourage you to repeat after me…Notice. Name. Dismantle. This is the work of this time. You are vital to this work.
You will participate in this work through storytelling. Here’s how.
Notice — To be aware of the truth of our history, your industry, your company, yourself; to pay attention
We know that we cannot easily move forward without knowing where we have been. To notice is to pay attention. To be aware. To activate our senses to what is. In a society based on the false premise of white supremacy, we have seen the same guys in the arena, saying the same shit for so long, that we don’t have much practice at noticing what is actually happening. All of us, not just white folks, have been trained to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” To believe that this carefully curated set of stories makes up all that is right and good and to ignore and violently reject the rest.
In this Notice phase of our work, we must practice telling and listening to the stories that have been left out of the arena. The stories of Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks. Of women and gender expansive folks. The stories of poverty and trauma. The stories of migration, and detainment, and incarceration. The stories of queerness and fat bodies and disabilities. Those of us who hold these stories must tell them. Over and over again, until we are exhausted.
Yes. This is a heavy emotional lift for us. Telling our stories can feel impossible at times. To keep showing up and making ourselves vulnerable just to have folks gaslight, get defensive, and downright reject our stories.
Some of us are done. Just can’t do it anymore. I get that. For those of us who can make it through one more day, we will keep telling on your behalf. We got you.
Those of us who are unfamiliar with marginalized stories, must listen. Over and over again, until we are exhausted. We have to practice because the white guys in the arena have set us up to believe that stories like these are the lies. So, it’s our job to keep listening until we believe them. Until we trust the tellers. Until we pay attention to what is actually happening.
Name — Honoring what is by calling it by its name; to speak plain
Rapper Kendrick Lamar says “If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.” To name something gives it an identity. It makes it real. Brings it to life. Once we Notice what is really going on, we must Name it. We must speak plain and use the words that correspond to what the things actually are. No one wants to be called out of their name. It makes us feel ungrounded. Unsafe. Unseen.
Through our stories, we must practice honoring what is happening by calling it by its name:
- Share your identities. I am a queer, Black, cisgendered woman. I am an educated, English speaking, able-bodied, fat, mom of a neurodivergent daughter. Own the parts of your identity that are privileged and the parts that are marginalized. Practice saying them over and over again until you are exhausted.
- If you are a majority white organization, say it. Name it. Tell the truth about why that is so. If you are working to achieve greater diversity, you are not going to do so by skirting around the fact that you are not diverse now. Name it. Name the mistakes you have made and the harm you have caused. Another quote…the great James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Notice it and then Name it.
- Get good and naming harm when you see it. When you are part of or witness to acts of racism or sexism or homophobia or ableism, name them as such. Call it out. “That is racist. I see it and I am not having it.” We have all been in those meetings lately that are super uncomfortable. Someone says something and you can tell — even through our zoom squares — that the energy has shifted. Maybe you don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe you can’t name the exact offense. But if you can feel it, you can name it. You can call it out simply by saying “Bob, when you said that, I noticed a shift in the energy. I am not sure but I wonder if anyone else here is uncomfortable.” Just naming the moment can make space for someone else in the room — who can articulate exactly what Bob just did — to speak up and take it further.
- Once you can name the harm, you can also be accountable for it. I know for sure that your organization has harmed Black folks and non-Black people of color. It’s harmed women and queer folks and gender non-conforming folks. I know this because all of our organizations have. Even mine. We have to get good at naming the harm so that we can take accountability and move towards healing and repair.
- Finally, name white supremacy for what it is. “White supremacy,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the Black race, and should therefore dominate society.” White supremacy is not confined to the Proud Boys and Klan, it is the carefully constructed set of systems and policies that birthed this country and made space for Proud Boys and Klan members to thrive. Name it, please, for what it is, so that we can dismantle that shit. Which brings me to step 3.
Dismantle — to eliminate or radically change harmful practices, policies, and procedures to make way for something new; justice in action
Y’all, we gotta tear this shit down. And you know it.
The foundation on which our businesses and organizations are built is toxic and deadly. An economy based on extraction and subjugation has not only brought about unthinkable atrocities to Native and African peoples of this land, it has harmed us all and damaged our planet. We see it, feel it, and are living it right now.
My guess is, if you have read this long, you are here to tear some shit down. You might not know it yet, but you are.
Okay, my last quote, I swear. NYT bestselling author, producer, director, and activist Janet Mock writes, “telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.”
In revolutions, shit comes tumbling down to make way for something new. And when shit comes tumbling down, folks get real uncomfortable.
If you have been properly noticing and naming, you will inevitably not be able to un-see the ways in which our organizations continue to harm the very people we say we care about helping. We cannot proclaim “business as a force for good” and not expect to destroy some evil shit along the way. Have you seen a superhero movie lately? The fight for good can take out whole cities, let alone teams or policies or organizations.
As socially-conscious business leaders, it is time now to move away from asking “how do I save my business” to having the courage and imagination to ask “how do I contribute to building an economy that is equitable, inclusive, and sustainable for all?”
It’s time to ask yourself “what does my business really need to be in order to make that happen?” What is that story?
- How does power and money need to shift in your company towards greater equity and inclusion?
- What programs and products need to be eliminated to make room for ones with greater social impact?
- How do you need to structure your teams, policies, and procedures in ways you have never thought of before?
- How do you communicate this revolution with your customers, prospects, partners, and the community at large? How do you inspire, educate, and activate them to join you in the work of dismantling?
I guarantee that tearing shit down will expose your haters. It will bring about angry tweets and bad Yelp reviews. White people don’t like when shit comes crashing down that they believe has benefitted them. Hell, no one likes it!
But that’s okay. We don’t have to protect the haters anymore. I give you permission to stop making sure that white folks or men or straight folks — or whomever else has been centered in the arena — remain comfortable at all costs. Remember, you are not asking yourself “how do I save my business,” you are asking yourself “how do I contribute to building an economy that is equitable, inclusive, and sustainable for all, and what does my business really need to be in order to make that happen?”
When you make the commitment to Dismantle, here are a few things you should absolutely expect:
- Customers will leave. But you can also expect new folks to show up. Folks who actually trust you because you are telling the truth about what is happening and making space for their stories. And you can expect these customers to be more loyal than you have ever imagined.
- Employees will quit. But you should also expect talented, passionate, and values-aligned applicants to show up and help you continue the revolution.
- You will spend a lot of time and money. Learning how to tell a new story for your business is hard. Dismantling takes a lot of intentional work. You will not be able to do it alone. Just like how you hire an experienced CPA to do your taxes, you must engage the services of Black and non-Black professionals of color who are experts in the work in racial justice. And you must pay them well. They will help you engage your team at all levels of the org chart so that the work gets prioritized and integrated into your day-to-day operations — one day at a time.
At Hella Social Impact, we have developed the Racial Justice Spectrum Assessment™ based on the Notice. Name. Dismantle™ framework. The Assessment is designed to measure how your organization is showing up for racial justice now, and to determine what work still must be done. For a limited time, we are offering this tool to companies free of charge. To access the Assessment for your company, please click here.
The Black women in my dream weren’t just joyful and connected as they exited the arena. They were confident. They knew that the silent witnesses would make a move eventually. They knew they just needed time to process the wisdom and figure out what to do next.
NOTICE. NAME. DISMANTLE.
We must have the courage and imagination to access the magic of stories — ours and each others — to pay attention to what is really happening, call it out for what it is, and tear shit down that causes harm. This is the work.
Are you ready?
To see the original speech on YouTube, click here.