When it comes to race, allyship and activism, many of us ask ourselves and our consulting psychologist colleagues, “what should we do?” Our hearts and intentions are squarely in the right place when we ask this question. Yet, there is so much more to social change than simply acting. Our actions and choices in consulting psychology can and will make a difference; however, we must not be so quick to act without deeper understanding. Just as we would advise our clients: we mustn’t act hastily, nor should we stay idle just to collect more information. Progress through activism depends on understanding, so what exactly should we better understand?
When this question was posed to Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks, a rich discussion emerged about the diversity of experiences in the United States. Imagine an esteemed friend and colleague whom you admire, respect, and deeply trust being followed by grocery store employees, suspected of theft. Place yourself in the passenger seat of your friend’s car, while pulled over by police, and watch verbal commands be barked at them. Picture your colleague being told they are in the “wrong line” boarding a plane because it’s first class priority. Imagine your friend on their afternoon jog, tackled by police for suspecting them as a criminal in the high end neighborhood where they live. These and many similar situations are happening to our colleagues each day because of the color of their skin.
Although anger is an appropriate emotion to injustice, Dr. Wilson-Starks is clear on how it should be harnessed. Following the non-violent activism of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis, she said, “progress is more about building than tearing down. Non-violent activism targets detrimental laws and practices and uses peaceful demonstration to bring attention and change to real issues. Violence, destruction of property, and assaults on people cause further polarization and remove focus from the important issues. Perpetrators of systems of oppression are rarely willing to look in the mirror when the same disenfranchising tactics are used against them. Non-violent social change is an entire system of response that requires rigorous training and learning to consistently take the high road even when mistreated.
For long-term sustainable change, you tear down the systems of oppression without tearing down people. For example, you may find a policy in an organization that negatively impacts or discriminates against a person of color, or any minority group. You can tear down the policy and build a new one without tearing down the human resources manager.” Understanding that systems can be destroyed without destroying people, offers much hope about how progress is achieved.
Dr. Wilson-Starks included an important reflection on history: “Although the tearing down of a confederate statue may be a symbolic win, we also need to understand that history, even when it is very unpleasant, needs to be preserved if we are to learn and make change. A fuller picture of history allows us to change today’s system.” She adds: “If we are to make progress through understanding, we must recognize that everybody is missing part of the story. When we truly listen to each other and embrace diversity of thought, we get a little closer to having a fuller understanding of what’s happening around us. In organizations, we know that homogeneity of thought is counterproductive to peak results. The same is true of social progress. Disparate groups must see each other’s strengths, then create community together.”
Dr. Wilson-Starks made a few recommendations for consulting psychologists who’d like to better understand the past and said “it’s crucially important to know and learn from history and create progress from those lessons. Without knowing what happened both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s difficult to grasp the full impact of systemic racism.” Many mistakenly believe that slavery was in the distant past; however, her father grew up on the slave plantation where her great-grandparents were enslaved.
She recommends focusing on the Reconstruction Era and the promising early successes of inclusion and wealth-building in the black community. Progress was halted and gains eroded when nefarious systemic racism in the form of Jim Crow laws and other systems of oppression, segregation, and anti-blackness increased and persisted. She encourages us to study those in the civil rights movement, with emphasis on the non-violent approach led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to familiarize ourselves with continuing injustices in the systems of incarceration, voting, and housing. “The goal of this understanding is to recognize where America is not living up to its values, so that we can change.”
When we better understand diverse experiences and have a stronger grasp on the nuances of our history, then what do we do as business consultants? Dr. Wilson-Starks made a motivating call to action: “Companies are in a great position to make a stand, be a role model for the country, and take us further and faster.” She shared five essentials for creating change in business:
- Understand that this is a long-term commitment and lifestyle change for all.
- Listen more deeply and develop an appreciation for diverse experiences.
- Search for and uncover initiatives that negatively and disproportionately affect different groups
- Tear down systems and ideas that no longer work for the greater good
- Address real-world issues together. Collaborate on and co-create solutions.
“When business leaders are not willing to listen, show them the data. They are likely unaware of the unintended consequences that mishandling diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism has on their company. Missed opportunities lessen market share and profitability. We can bring people into a room, without bashing, and show them that doing the right thing is profitable and that multiculturalism serves the greater good. To achieve this, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder in our earnest effort to see the same events from different lenses. It’s only when we are side by side that we truly see what the other sees and then collectively decide what to do about it.” Dr. Wilson-Starks concludes.
Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks – Consulting Psychologist
Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks is the President and CEO of TRANSLEADERSHIP, INC., host of The Voice of Leadership podcast, and author of Lead Yourself First: The Senior Leader’s Guide to Engaging Your People for Greater Performance and Impact.
Her Ph.D. degree in clinical psychology is from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Her previous positions include Senior Faculty member for the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and active duty Army officer and psychologist.
She consults with executive business leaders to select and retain their best people, create high performance teams, and develop cultures that get rapid innovative results.