I’ve spoken to a lot of people ready to “turn the page” on 2023. Many cite the ruling from the Supreme Court that eliminated the consideration of race within the college admission’s process and how that decision emboldened activists to chip away at the gains that had been made in the corporate, philanthropic and investment sectors. Others mention the intense backlash to racial equity and ESG that has stifled (and in some cases) reversed the bold commitments announced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The tightening lips and pursestrings has felt like a betrayal that cuts deeper because of the hope and possibility of only a few years ago.
Yet, I have a slightly different perspective because of our work at CapEQ. Don’t get me wrong, the backlash has produced a chilling effect across industries, leading some organizations to retreat for fear of legal repercussions. But there are still many people inside these institutions standing up and pushing even harder in their commitments to equity although some of their tactics have shifted. Is this a reflection of cowardice or strategy? That depends on your vantage point.
I’m reminded of the Underground Railroad. For over two decades, the Underground Railroad, a network of the formerly enslaved, abolitionists, and their supporters helped usher over 100,000 individuals to freedom. The network included authors, philanthropists, academics, former enslaved Americans, all committed to ensuring our young country lived up to its ideals. And while the laws of the land were designed and developed by a few, the will of the people started with a few courageous actors and blossomed into a fully functioning operation. Think of all the moving pieces that had to be organized quietly and effectively in parallel with the more public and political battles. Transportation, lodging, food, education. As more people were brought in to play their part in the network, it reminded these actors that they are not alone and that together they could bend the arc of the universe towards justice.
The attacks on Fearless Fund, as well as other DEI initiatives at law firms and Fortune 100 companies, are also orchestrated by a handful of well funded individuals, such as the American Alliance for Equal Rights (led by conservative activist Edward Blum, who also instigated the Supreme Court’s overturn of affirmative action) and former Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s America First Legal. But the fear they can wield is nothing compared to the power of community aligned towards justice. The advances of the last several years have created a large community of people, across industries and sectors, who are deeply committed to racial equity. These are people new to the space, who were brought in post-George Floyd, as well as those who have been working for years on these issues. We have all created a beachhead of support for equity that will be hard to break.
I see the nodes of the Underground Railroad we are building today in my meetings with Fortune 100 leaders collaborating with each other to continue to build equitable corporate cultures where all can thrive. I see it with investors managing trillions of dollars of assets under management linking arms with community based organizations to ensure their capital is holding institutions accountable for civil rights in how they make their money, how they spend their money, and how they invest in their people. I see it in the legal community mobilizing pro-bono support and education for those most affected by the last gasps of detractors to equity.
I am not saying that the road ahead will be easy. But the gains of the past few years have not gone anywhere. If anything, the backlash has kept people heightened and focused on what needs to be done. As we look to the new year, we should acknowledge the barriers in front of us. But we also should acknowledge the role we all have to play in fighting the fight. I invite you to reflect, reset, and recommit to our collective work in 2024.
Together, in solidarity, we can build the Underground Railroad of the twenty-first century.