How Business Can Help Fight Systemic Racism | #students | #parents

All of those statements of solidarity aren’t enough. And no business can do it alone.

In the weeks since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the corporate community has unleashed an outpouring of pledges to oppose or even combat systemic racism and police brutality. Some organizations have made concrete commitments to specific acts. Many have issued vague promises to support communities of color, oppose racism or examine their own behaviors and cultures.

Most of these pledges appear sincere. I believe these organizations want to make a difference. But I fear few of them actually will.

That’s especially unfortunate because in this moment, corporate America should think big, should use its power and resources to help solve the systemic problems we’re all talking about – that we’ve talked about for decades. Business owners and executives can be a driving force for ending racial inequality.

They just can’t do it alone.

The barriers are too large, too complex, too entrenched for any single company – or trade group, or nonprofit or government agency. That’s why business leaders must not only band together, but forge partnerships with education, nonprofit and community leaders. Systemic change requires systemic cooperation.

What We’ve Learned in Ohio

I’ve seen for myself just how daunting the barriers will be. For the last few years the organization I work for, a mission-driven, nonprofit manufacturing consultancy in Northeast Ohio called MAGNET, has collaborated with a network of regional nonprofits and governmental entities to connect unemployed and underemployed African Americans to well-paid, stable manufacturing careers.

Our Early College, Early Career program has created the opportunity for more than 100 apprenticeships for young African Americans in Northeast Ohio manufacturing plants. We provide workplace training for formerly incarcerated young adults, mostly black. And for three years, in partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, we’ve been recruiting dozens more high school seniors into credentialed manufacturing training programs, with a focus on finding on-ramps for people of color.

We’ve seen some initial success. But we’ve also seen just how hard it will be to achieve more. And the challenges we’ve encountered aren’t unique to Cleveland, or to manufacturing.

Systemic Challenges, Cultural Barriers

We started by working to change how young workers perceive manufacturing. But often the young adults who were most interested in pursuing factory work couldn’t afford the necessary training. Even if we could find ways to train them, many had no way to commute to the suburbs. Others had no childcare options. Our high-school program has seen students suddenly drop out when they changed schools – because their families got evicted. Most horribly, we’ve lost a student every year to violence.

It became clear that we were up against problems – education, transit, childcare, housing, neighborhood violence – that we couldn’t solve ourselves.

We realized that each challenge would require different combinations of public and private groups working in concert, with few clear divisions of labor. Educating young people about careers largely falls to schools, but businesses have to help ensure those career paths are presented accurately and compellingly. Businesses might train workers on specific skills, but government and nonprofits can deliver basic workplace training. Solving the transportation problem falls to regional transit agencies and politicians, but business leaders have to lobby for the funding.

In Northeast Ohio, we built a network of 17 local entities, across the public and private sectors. The initiative is led by manufacturing executives, but everyone is at the table: manufacturers, community groups, non-profits, philanthropists and educational institutions.

The network came together just last year, but we’re seeing promising momentum. Even amid the COVID-19 lockdown, a cohort of 12 formerly incarcerated individuals has been receiving coaching on technical and basic career skills to help navigate the manufacturing workplace. Funding comes from public and philanthropic sources; three local non-profits deliver coaching and other services; a national manufacturing trade organization provides technical training; and local manufacturers have pledged to hire these individuals. We’ve planned similar pilot programs for high school students and adults who visit unemployment offices looking for work.

Coordinated efforts like these are happening all over the country. The Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance, the Wisconsin Training Partnership in Milwaukee and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology in Hartford are all partnerships between local manufacturers and various combinations of the nonprofit, education and public sectors – all working to bring more minorities into the manufacturing labor force.

Business leaders who want to act on their pledges to combat racism should seek out existing partnerships like those, and join them. Where none exist, they should start them. With continued support of industry these efforts can build economic bridges from businesses to African American communities – bridges that lead to jobs, economic security and, we hope, progress.

Those leaders also must understand how hard it will be, how much determination and will it require. Much of the work will be bureaucratic. Most of the progress will be incremental. There will be few victories worthy of press releases. Training and hiring will only be the first steps; next, business leaders will have to settle in to do the hard work of creating inclusive cultures that give people of color real opportunities to advance and lead.

And even if they’re successful, they won’t end racism. Economic injustice is only one piece of America’s deep and complex racial puzzle.

But if business leaders can pool their resources, their resolve and their clout, they can collectively turn their economic power into a force for equality and racial justice. While those may not be the kinds of goals businesses are set up to pursue, this moment calls for grander ambitions. What it requires is concerted action.


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