How to Leverage Your Spheres of Influence for Social Change

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.” 

Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist

Some moments in history are etched indelibly in our collective consciousness. The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was one of those moments.

There have been many such killings in the course of our history, but this time something was different. This time many non-Blacks who had been ignorant or complacent about the history of violence, lynching, and murder of Black Americans were galvanized to become allies in the movement for racial justice.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25th was our wake-up call. It was a moment to choose sides and take a stand, to be on the right side of history. Black people are tired of calling out to us, “Can’t you see we are dying?”  They are tired of having our boots on their necks. Change is coming, with us or without us, and we need to decide which side of the call for racial and economic justice we want to be on.

To be allies, we have to face some hard truths. White people are responsible for creating and maintaining the power structures that led to systematic oppression of Blacks in our society. Now it is our responsibility to dismantle them. No more standing on the sidelines, no more empty words. Now is the time to act with courage and take a stand.

The Quest for Racial Justice is a Movement, Not a Moment

Following George Floyd’s murder, hundreds of thousands of people around the world came together to protest and demand change. The protests dominated news media for more than two weeks. Social media blew up with people from all walks of life wanting to join the cause. Non-black people formed groups to listen and learn about structural racism and white privilege. Lists of books and resources were shared. Influencers and thought leaders hosted town halls and webinars to discuss where we should go from here.

But already the historic moment is being drowned out by other news. Inevitably, this moment will become just another one of those indelible collective memories seared into our souls forever.

Those of us with privilege will have to make a choice. It would be easy to retreat to our insulated lives, saying the right words but not doing anything to implement them, making ourselves feel better by talking to one another about our privilege as we drink wine and enjoy our comfortable lives. As Tre Johnson said in the Washington Post, “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.”

It is much more challenging to do the inner and outer work that is needed to create real systemic change. It  will require us to confront our own privilege, to have uncomfortable conversations with our friends and family, to speak up when we would rather be invisible, and to change things that have been working for us in our homes and workplace. We will have to act outside of our comfort zones and be willing to give up something of value.

Putting Consciousness Into Action

Today, one month after the death of George Floyd, it is time to put our commitment to racial justice into action. This may seem like a daunting task. You may hesitate because you don’t want to do anything offensive or controversial. Maybe you have already started, but you feel like your actions are just a drop in the huge painful bucket of white privilege and racism. But let us not forget, inaction in the face of racism is only possible to those of us with privilege.

Being an ally means taking a risk, making mistakes, and being accountable. It is not something we get to try out once and then forget. It requires daily, sustained forays outside of our comfort zone.

The good news is, you are more powerful than you think. Your family and friends trust and respect you. Your workplace values your opinion and your children’s school needs parental involvement. Your neighbors depend on you to be a good citizen, and your church needs you to volunteer and take leadership. You have a voice in where you spend your money and who gets elected to positions of leadership.

All these relationships and daily interactions fall within your zone of influence, and you can use them to further the dialogue about race and privilege and push for personal and political change.

Leveraging Your Zones of Influence for Racial Justice

What follows are 5 ways you can use your voice and leverage your power to be a better ally in the movement for racial justice.  

1. Continue to learn and educate others within your spheres of influence.

When news of George Floyd’s murder captured our attention, many of us felt called to do something. Yet we saw the problem as something outside of ourselves, something only evil, consciously bigoted people would do. We saw ourselves as part of the “good” non-Black people. We thought we were color-blind and didn’t have a racist bone in our bodies.

Now we know better. We are all a part of the system that perpetuates racism for its own economic ends. The history that we learned in school intentionally excluded the story of what happened to Indigenous Peoples and Black people who were brought to this country in slavery. We were equally deprived of positive narratives about the accomplishments of BIPOC.

We all have years of conscious and unconscious bias to expose and confront. It is easy to get overwhelmed, but that is not an excuse to retreat into our comfortable lives. Anti-racism is a life-long process. Racist narratives cannot be unlearned and replaced with the truth overnight.

We need to learn from Black authors and thought leaders and bring our family and friends along on the journey. We need to call on our spiritual support system, recognizing that we are part of a collective movement that is unfolding for the betterment of all humankind.  

There are many lists and resources circulating on social media, but if you need a good starting place, check out this free Anti-Racism Resource List curated by Tiffany Bowden, PhD in Diversity and Inclusion. Tiffany will be updating the guide as needed, and you can visit her website here or follow her here.

2. When you see racist behavior, find the courage to speak out.

For too many years, we have relied on BIPOC people to challenge their own oppression. It is time to recognize that white privilege is our problem, and it is our responsibility to dismantle it.

We all have well-meaning friends who just don’t get what is wrong with saying that “All lives matter.” We have relatives who love to get a good laugh by telling a racist joke at Thanksgiving dinner. We have bosses who say they would love to hire a Black candidate but they “just can’t find anybody qualified.” We have cringed at the staff meeting when somebody talked about how “articulate” a Black colleague was, then took credit for her idea.

These micro-aggressions are not just momentarily unpleasant; they all add up to one continuous traumatic life experience for BIPOC, especially when they are left unchallenged. Being a good ally means speaking up, even when it would be easier to look the other way.

While we are talking about this, please don’t “unfriend” people who are questioning their beliefs on social media. One short month ago, most of us were in the same boat. We believed we were good, decent people and did not understand the harm our words and actions were causing. If we don’t engage with patience and compassion, we are putting the burden back on BIPOC to live with the consequences.   

One book that comes highly recommended for learning how to navigate these conversations is Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad & Robin J DiAngelo. It has journaling exercises that some folks are using to educate and empower themselves and their families.

3. Question everything through a race-conscious lens.

Yes, I mean everything. Yes, it gets exhausting. Welcome to the world that BIPOC have experienced their entire lives.

Take a good look around at your circle of friends, your geographical neighborhood, and the institutions you regularly attend. Do most of the people at your church, school, and library look like you? Are your principals, teachers, pastors, and community leaders most white? Are the only BIPOC you see in service industries: picking up your trash, mowing your lawn, and delivering groceries?

Once you start looking, you will see that institutionalized racism is all around you. The United States is one of the most segregated countries in the world. This is not a random occurrence; government policies were intentionally designed to house people in their own distinct neighborhoods with disparate accesses to housing, medical care, healthy food, and educational resources. One excellent resource for understanding residential segregation is Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Although individual actions can’t undo years of bad policy, we can take steps to break down the barriers in our communities and neighborhood institutions. Challenge your neighborhood school to hire a more diverse faculty. Recommend more multicultural and historically accurate books for your schools and libraries. Check out your neighborhood banks and see if they have a good track record of lending to BIPOC people. Take a stand against NIMBY (not in my back yard) challenges that prevent low-income housing, homeless shelters, and halfway houses from being located in your community. If your neighborhood has a pool or playground, talk to the people in charge to make sure they are welcoming to kids of all races.

Next let’s talk about your workplace. Does your company have an articulated commitment to diversity and inclusion? Does the experience of BIPOC employees live up to that commitment? Check out the company’s leadership structure to see whether it includes a representative number of BIPOC. If you have the power to sit on a hiring committee, notice the (usually coded) conversation around hiring and use your voice to advocate for candidates of color. When your company does hire a person of color, take the initiative to mentor them and make them feel welcome. When people of color talk at a meeting, listen and amplify their voices. Make sure they get credit for their ideas.

You can do the same kind of introspection if you are a solo entrepreneur or business owner. Check out my next blog post for specific ideas for coaches, healers, creatives, and spiritual leaders. Though we consider ourselves to be enlightened and heart-centered, we are not immune from unconscious bias in our modalities, our clientele, and our business practices.

4. Use your purchasing power to support businesses and nonprofits owned by and serving BIPOC.

Institutional racism is largely an economic structure, and we can use the power of the purse to disrupt and dismantle it. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t shop at stores that overtly discriminate, but our power is much greater than the simple boycott.

Think about all the ways your money supports the economy every day. The banks and funds that hold your investments, your home mortgage, your car loans and credit cards. The grocery stores, the big-box department stores, and the mega-online retailers where many of us purchase everything from books to appliances. Imagine what would happen if we diverted that money to small, local, businesses that are owned by and serve BIPOC.

I acknowledge the irony that many of the links to books in this blog post go to Amazon. It would be better to purchase those books from Black-owned bookstores in your own neighborhood. Shopping at Amazon is a national habit, but it is a habit that diverts funds away from the local economy where most Black-owned businesses are found. One place to find Black-owned businesses in your community is on this Facebook page with more than 50k followers.

While you are thinking about where to buy, it is also important to think about who makes the stuff we buy. You might be surprised by the number of products that are made with prison labor. This is one of the last bastions of slavery. Mass incarceration put a disproportionate number of BIPOC in prison, where they are forced to work for little to no compensation.

Here is one story from PBS News Hour that documents how prisons are making a profit even during the pandemic from inmates who are forced to work for pennies, and here is a partial list of the companies that benefit from prison labor. The more you dig into this issue, the more there is to find. The agricultural industry benefits from the forced labor of migrant workers; the garment industry notoriously employs slave labor from home and abroad. If you want to make sure that your products are ethically sourced, End Slavery Now puts out a Slave Free Buying Guide and also lists the various certifications you can look for on your purchases. 

You can also use your purchasing power to support organizations that are doing anti-racism support and advocacy. New York Magazine put together a list of 142 Ways to Donate in Support of Black Lives and Communities of Color which includes victim memorial funds, bail funds, community restoration and enrichment funds, organizations doing political advocacy and policy reform, and dozens of other organizations supporting different segments of the BIPOC communities.  

And if you don’t have money to donate, how about contributing a service to the Reparations: Requests and Offerings Facebook group? All voices and talents are needed in this movement, and this is a great way to get connected to a BIPOC who needs what you have to offer.

5. Use your voice to amplify the movement and influence public policy.

Social media is a great way to build movements. This moment would never have happened but for a viral video capturing the brutal murder of George Floyd in graphic detail. Leaders of the movement have also used social media to belatedly highlight the stories of Ahmad Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, Rayshad Brooks, and Elijah McClain.

People have also effectively used social media to educate, share stories and resources about white privilege and anti-racism, but it is important to do more than share and retweet. At a minimum, make sure you read and cite check the post before you send it along. Even better, put the ideas into practice in your own life and issue a “call to action” for those who read it.  

Inevitably, due to the fleeting nature of social media, trending topics change as the news evolves. Today, one month after George Floyd’s murder, I had to scroll down more than a few times of Facebook to find a post about the larger movement. To keep momentum going and reach a broader audience, it is equally important to engage traditional media such as print, radio, and television. For example, an Op Ed in an influential national newspaper will be read by politicians and policy makers who have the power to change laws. The popular newspaper in your own community has the same power to help galvanize support for change at the local level.

Black Lives Matter and other large social justice organizations recognize the importance of a communication strategy. Many develop toolkits that your organization can use as models for putting together a campaign. Here is a general guide to building a communications campaign along with some free organizational toolkits that emphasize the importance of storytelling, narrative, and community-building:

SpinWorks Media Guide

The Opportunity Agenda: Vision, Values and Voice

Black Lives Matter: Trayvon Martin Toolkit

Chronicles of Change: An Organization’s Guide to a Theory of Social Change

If you want to directly impact laws and public policy, there are many tools that go beyond the online petitions you see on social media. Legislators take note of petitions with thousands of signatures, but they are more moved by individual letters signed by one of their constituents. Most calls and letters are read by staffers, but if you take the time to learn about an issue and put together a well-reasoned argument, your views may be passed on directly to their boss.

It is even easier to influence local legislation. Most city council meetings are open to the public, and many invite community members to submit written or oral testimony at public hearings or roundtables. You generally only have 3-5 minutes to get your point across, but an advocacy group can put together a powerful message by having several members testify to different aspects of the issue.

Of course, one of the most important tools we have as citizens of a democracy is the power of the vote. We focus a lot of energy on Presidential elections, but many of the decisions that affect us most directly are made at the local level. Get to know the positions of your local candidates and help elect those who align with your vision and values.

Your voice can help create a ripple effect for a more fair, just, and equal society.

Let’s not let this moment pass us by. Let’s be a part of this collective transformation to eradicate the vestiges of the past and make this world a better place for the next generation.

“If you are a person who wants to be a good ancestor, then you know that this work is some of the most important work that you will be called to do in your lifetime.”

Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy