When I was in elementary school in Oakland, California, one of my fondest memories was that every morning at the start of class we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by singing the national anthem. Not the national anthem that most people think of, but rather the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” We were taught that song well before The Star-Spangled Banner. The first stanza of the song went like this:
“Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring Ring with the harmonies of Liberty Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
At the tender age of seven, I could not grasp the full meaning of the song or its significant themes of endurance, freedom, suffering and joy, or the homage it pays to my ancestors while also thanking God for having brought us this far. If I close my eyes and sit in silence, I can still hear my mother singing the song, and upon finishing it, saying over and again that God would not have brought us this far to abandon us now. Sometimes, getting through the day is the difference between remembering that thought or forgetting it.
For me, the welcome relief of the Derek Chauvin verdict of guilty times three was significant. But as many others have said, it wasn’t a moment of celebration. At best, it was a signal that justice is possible — with cameras, a crowd, and a group of witnesses who forced the jury first to see their humanity and not their skin color.
That relief was short-lived. I find myself wondering if Black people are in this fight alone. Are we the only ones who care? Is it just us that feel each blow or bullet as though it was meant for any one of us?
I’ve never committed a crime unless you count shoplifting a tube of mascara from K-mart more than 40 years ago. Come to think of it, I was just an accomplice, but my white friend got a slap on the wrist and was allowed to walk home. I was taken into the back of the store and held until my mother could get off of work and pick me up. This burden of fighting for basic humanity doesn’t make sense to me, not then and especially not now. But I have to believe that God has not brought us this far to abandon us now.
Last week I saw that truth in action. I had the honor of moderating several discussions about racial injustice for Page and other organizations and seeing firsthand how much we care. All the sessions were powerful, but the Page Conversation keeps coming back to me. Or maybe I keep revisiting it. But what I am sure of is that I wasn’t alone in my feelings and exhaustion. Our featured speakers Stacey Jones (Accenture) and Becky Edwards ( ACLU), shared views that moved away from the typical corporate rhetoric to a more profound sense of understanding and meaning and were joined in agreement by the more than 100 communications professionals on the call. Stacey expressed a powerful view when she noted that her company realized in 2016 that their discussions had to move beyond DE&I to workplace racism and later anti-racism training throughout the firm. Her point was quickly echoed by a fellow participant who said it best: “until we name it, we can’t confront it.” It wasn’t enough to say the right things; they had to start doing the right things.
Becky shared the ACLU point of view on the importance of moving beyond words and focusing efforts locally because that’s where systemic change begins. She emphasized the importance of reforms, community investment and legislation, among other things and the personal toll of it all – preparing messages and calls for actions while also grieving. And perhaps, most poignantly, she reminded us that the ACLU has been reporting on racist policing practices since its inception more than a hundred years ago. (You can find out more about the ACLU’s vision for reimaging policing here.)
While the impetus for the call was to openly share how companies were planning to respond to the verdict, the one-year remembrance of the murder of George Floyd, and continued racial and social injustice, the session was at times a sharing of ideas and at others a place for refuge and psychological safety. That’s what we’ve become. We are in this together. As communications leaders, we recognized our unique position to push for change and how we must be a catalyst for our organizations.
There was realism, too — and we understood the moment for what it was — a point in time, not a signal of lasting change, but a point we could all come together and capitalize on if we’re willing to do the work — and we are.
These sessions are closed, but I want to share a few ideas from participants that will hopefully help you jump-start a movement from within yourself and your company:
Articles worth reading that were mentioned during the call. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. It’s a few well-meaning thoughts from your colleagues on ways to get started, build momentum, and keep that momentum going.
Thinking back on the memory of seven-year-old me, I also recall that as I looked around the classroom, singing at the top of my lungs with glee, nearly everyone in the room, except the teacher, looked just like me. I wasn’t different. I looked just like everyone else. I couldn’t possibly have known then that the only time that would happen again with regularity was on Sunday morning at church, a time that many have called “the most segregated hour in America” - words first stated by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961 on Meet the Press.
What saddens me sometimes is the realization that the moment was not singularly mine or that of my classmates in the room. It belonged to so many more of us who have endured a lifetime of double standards. Yet, we hold our heads high even in the knowledge that rockier roads are ahead. Because that’s who Black people are. We come from strong stock but even stronger hearts that see hope even in the darkest of times.
I chose this profession for a reason – a love of words and an understanding well before my time that communicators are catalysts. CCOs have the power and the permission to lead change. We don’t have to stop at messages. We can let our carefully crafted words meant for the leaders of our companies be the beginning of the effort to right a too-long story of societal wrongs. Colleagues, I ask that we be intentional. Be powerful. Be the change we need. Let’s use our hearts, our minds, and our gifts to lift every voice. And let’s sing together, the chorus of one of the most beautiful songs ever written:
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.”
The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905. While there are many renditions of the song, among my favorites is linked above by the songstress Alicia Keys. You can also find it here.
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