As a Black person, the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others last summer in the US left me feeling heartbroken, furious, and scared. But I also felt called to action, and knew that my workplace could make a bigger impact on systemic racism than I could alone. The question was, how? I wanted real change, beyond just a corporate pledge.
It’s clear that other justice-driven employees across many companies feel the same way. You want to leverage company resources for good, but you want to move faster than the usual CSR (corporate social responsibility) project. I’m here to tell you to snap out of that thinking.
You don’t need to wait for executive support to advance antiracism work. In 2021, we’re taking matters into our own hands. We’re launching grassroots campaigns and affecting change from the bottom up.
Employee-organizing works. I know because I’ve done it at my company. Now I’m sharing everything I’ve learned about it, including how to define your mission, talk about race with executive leadership, and bake credibility into your movement. Use this as a guide for starting a grassroots racial justice initiative at your own organization.
Defining your mission
This initial step of defining your mission might be the hardest one. The first piece of advice is to give yourself a tight deadline so you don’t get stuck spinning your wheels.
There are hundreds of ways you can work to end racism, and there are hundreds of intersections of the PoC community you can help. Where should you even start?
Start with getting clear on purpose. Ground your mission in a cause that aligns with your organization’s own mission. For example, at Emburse, the expense management company where I work, our mission is to humanize work and make an impact on our customers, employees, and the community. Our grassroots project, called PROJECT RISE, focuses on empowering the Black community with financial capital.
I recommend aligning with your grassroots mission with your company mission for a few reasons. One, you can be sure that you’re launching an initiative that will resonate with co-workers and executives alike. Two, it means you likely already have the talent you’ll need to get your program off the ground. Three, if you’re fighting for hard-won budget resources, working alongside the company mission can be another arrow in your quiver.
Ground your mission in research, both desk research and ethnographic interviews. Societal and racial injustice are long-standing issues. It’s imperative to know what worked in the past, and what didn’t, for earlier groups addressing the same issue. Then, go out and interview the people whom your mission aims to serve. Listen with empathy and an open mind, and learn about their biggest challenges. Listen to what they think would help (not what others or you might think).
Foundational planning isn’t the sexiest part of organizing work, but it is crucial. For our research component, my team interviewed 20 Black entrepreneurs to understand the variety of financial challenges they faced. These conversations formed the basis for our first activation: a hackathon-style innovation event where our co-workers developed product ideas to tackle those challenges. One of the winning concepts, for example, directs corporate card holders to make a habit of buying from Black-owned businesses.
When it comes to crafting your mission statement, keep in mind that the most successful movements often focus on breaking a “big picture” issue into actionable goals. As an example, here’s the mission statement my team landed on: “to promote social and economic fairness in the Black community, and find sustainable ways to combat systemic racism through innovative solutions.”
Earning executive support
At work, I used to never bring attention to the fact that I was Black. I never wore braids or my favorite earrings. I felt that I was lucky to have a job in tech, and that I had to prove every day that I deserved to be there.
That all changed when I pitched my grassroots project idea to the Emburse executive leadership team. For the first time in my career, I talked candidly about what it’s like to be Black in a corporate environment: always keeping yourself in check, processing so much community trauma, being scared to speak up.
Executive leaders need to understand why standing up for racial justice is important to you before they decide how to support the initiative. If you’re in a safe environment to do so, sharing your personal story can help put them in your shoes.
They also need to understand the larger framework. Come prepared with anecdotes or statistics that demonstrate the impact your project can have on the issue. For example, I talked about the forces behind why Black businesses have such a hard time raising capital—from the burning of Black Wall Street to the challenges of today, when Black-owned businesses are half as likely as white-owned businesses to get approved for a loan.
Securing outside credibility
Of course, once you’ve earned their approval, it’s important to keep yourself, your campaign team, and your executives accountable. That’s where outside influencers come into play. Third-party credibility makes the project “real,” not just another internal corporate initiative, and holds you, your team, and your leadership to a higher standard.
Here’s another reason not to skip the research stage: meeting future partners. Anyone directly affected by your issue will have a vested interest in working toward a solution. You’ll want to recruit a mix of higher profile influencers and community figures—influencers to bring exposure to the project, and community figures to take a more active, strategic role.
To cast an even wider net, you might do some cold calling or leverage your existing network. Working our connections is how my team got influencers like Tammarrian Rogers, the director of engineering at Snap Inc., to serve as a panelist for our innovation event.
No matter who they are, be very clear about what their role will involve. Will they be contributing guidance, exposure, connections? Is this a one-time ask or an ongoing commitment? How many hours will it take, per week/month/year? Make sure outside partners know exactly what they’re signing on for, and you’ll have a much easier time keeping them engaged.
Involving and motivating co-workers
Speaking of engagement, no relationships in an employee-led initiative are more important than the ones you share with your campaign team members.
Your first instinct might be to round up your DEI-oriented co-workers and call it a day. Fight that instinct. Try instead to assemble a balanced, genuinely diverse team. To guarantee that you’re tackling the issue in an actionable way, you’ll need dialogue and even pushback from people with different opinions and backgrounds. You don’t get those constructive discussions when everyone already agrees with each other.
When I say “diversity,” I mean all kinds of diversity: race, culture, gender, age, disabilities, educational and career experiences, political ideologies, and skill sets. A campaign team consisting of representatives from different sides of the business, such as engineers, creative marketers, and product managers, offers a solid foundation for most business initiatives. Then, share the leadership responsibility. That’s what grassroots organizing is all about: understanding your partners’ unique strengths and giving everyone a chance to lead based on their interests and skill sets. Democratizing leadership might require you to nominate a quiet team member to take a more active role, or ask a go-getter to scale back.
Most importantly, the best grassroots leaders promote a culture of psychological safety. Racial justice is an emotional topic. Give team members permission to be vulnerable and ask questions, and listen to the things that aren’t usually said out loud. Your campaign team members are volunteering a lot of extra time, effort, and emotion on top of their regular 9-5 jobs. Activist burnout is real. Pay special attention to body language and team dynamics.
I’d be remiss not to mention the role of executive support here. Because our executive team gave anyone who took part in our innovation event four days off, 150 people participated—that’s about one fifth of the entire company. You might ask leadership to recommend certain rockstar employees to join the campaign team, or incentivize event participation with time off or gift cards. You want to make it as easy as possible for co-workers to get involved.
Keeping the momentum
Nothing feels as good as pulling off that first big win. But how do you keep team members motivated as you move on to the next thing, especially if activist fatigue starts to set in?
The beauty of grassroots organizing is that it allows you to keep your strategy flexible to new goals and activations. The event or beneficiary that works one year might not be right for the next year. Focus on the outcome, not on inputs. You can run a grassroots project on a $0 budget as long as you have a strong, balanced team that wants to see your mission through to the end.