The last few years have been an emotional roller coaster that is hard to put into words. The shared global fear of a health crisis that reduced each one of us to our most basic elements. The mix of horror and validation of violent racial injustice that displayed our most base instincts. And the wave of outrage and action that mobilized unlikely bedfellows towards change at every level. If you are exhausted, you are not alone. And yet, if you are fatigued, how are you possibly going to win the Woke War?
The Woke War is waging around us: a predictable and devastating distillation of centuries of nuance into sound bites and binary approaches that distract all of us from the undeniable truth that haunts our psyche. The truth is that our country’s fundamental belief in the American Dream has been crumbling for decades, and what is left is a population that has a shared disillusionment yet vastly different realities.
There are nearly 100 million people living in or near poverty. This 100 million includes 25% of all white people in the United States. That fact remains stubbornly true regardless of who holds political office or whose stock price is rising. And while people of color have dealt with an America that was not America for us, we were often encouraged that it could be. If we worked hard and fought harder. If we were substantively excellent and constantly non-threatening. People of color have an internalized curriculum on how to navigate change and disappointment for survival. Meanwhile, people of all backgrounds are beginning to realize that the American Dream is not attainable for most, and they are left hollowed out and frustrated with what had been promised.
It is within this context those working at the integration of ESG and DEI, or what we call at CapEQ “equitable impact,” are trying to navigate the headwinds of the Woke War. While there are many leaders who have been on the front lines for a while, there was a huge influx of new talent, whether through career changes or expanded roles, that are struggling during this intentional assault on equity. This influx actually began before the pandemic, with DEI jobs rising by over 50% in 2019. That growth continued in the pandemic, more than doubling through 2020.
So many people working towards equitable impact are struggling with how to lead throughout this backlash. For many of these advocates, the organizations that hired them are now rolling back their commitments. The public statements that attracted them are being softened to protect their organizations from legal crosshairs. The leaders who recruited them are being reassigned at best and fired at worst.
What is our combat strategy that mobilizes and equips this group of believers to continue their needed fight in light of the shifting public sentiment towards work they are passionate about? At CapEQ we have a few tips on how to navigate this polarizing environment based on our history of working with hundreds of companies and investors.
Battle Plans for For Your Situation
Below is tactical guidance based on where your organization is in its journey toward equitable impact.
Hold the Line: If your organization is rapidly retreating, then your main priority is to find ways to keep the commitment alive. As disappointing as this may be, you need to operate from where people are, not where you want them to be. One of the most important weapons in your arsenal is language and how you frame the issues. You need to remind your company that they will not only be on the wrong side of history but also the wrong side of the balance sheet if they roll back their efforts. Why is pulling back from equity such a liability? Equitable impact means business: Two-thirds of consumers say they prefer to buy from companies that create social impact, and nearly half say they are willing to pay more to do so. A LinkedIn study found around half of employees want to work for a company that has a positive impact on society. Those who feel that they are making a social impact through their job are twice as likely to be satisfied with their employer than those who are not.
Another obstacle you are most likely facing is that many leaders are wrestling with what to do based on the recent decision by the Supreme Court to end affirmative action. Once again language is critical, and you need to partner with legal counsel on proactive ways to protect what you’ve built. The Corporate Racial Equity Alliance recently wrote a wonderful article on the change management and soft skills needed to protect your existing efforts.
Join Forces: If your company has internally maintained their commitments to equitable impact but are externally clamming up to avoid the backlash, there’s a simple solution: Join (or form) a coalition. By doing things in a group, you provide cover for your company to continue to be more public about racial equity, because the coalition is not directly led by your company. And there is no shortage of coalitions to support! From the Council on Economic Opportunity and Social Justice to the Freedom to Invest movement, there are plenty of thoughtful organizations that your company can partner with that will equip you with the data, talking points, and the peer network necessary to combat future assaults.
Lead the Charge: For those companies that are willing to be vocal — you have to be bold right now. You have to talk about why you are still pursuing these commitments and goals and that it doesn’t matter what politicians are threatening or what the media is saying. Your boldness reminds others that the backlash is amplifying the voices of a small few, but you represent the majority. A not too distant example of the power of being bold is the Nike Colin Kapernick campaign. When the campaign launched (and this was pre-2020), the commentary was literally incendiary with people threatening to burn their shoes and boycott Nike altogether. According to a 2018 Harris poll, 17% of Americans had a negative view of Nike’s brand as a result of the ad. Yet two years later that number dropped to 9%. Along the way Nike won an Emmy for the ad and achieved $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales. Being unapologetic and bold is not only good for business, but it also gives other companies the cover they need to move forward and follow your example.
Never Stop Fighting
As we continue to work together to embed equitable impact in our organizations, we must hold onto our perspective. There were warriors before us who fought for and gained our freedom and civil rights in an environment more toxic and violent than many of us can imagine. I had the honor to meet one of those warriors, Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine. One thing that stuck with me in our conversation was that she was surprised at how so many people discuss the Civil Rights movement and the outcome she helped create — the desegregation of a nation — as if it was preordained. At the time, while she was walking into school as a 14 year old, surrounded by hate, she did not feel that way. Instead, she said:
“There was nothing but uncertainty. The only thing we knew is that we couldn’t stop fighting.”
This is not the time to stop fighting. Nothing is preordained. We may be living in uncertainty right now, but if we keep pushing forward, we will come out on the other side stronger than when we started.