DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson Speaks to Rutgers Center for Women in Business About Addressing Racial Injustice

DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson spoke today on how leaders can be morally courageous and speak out against the racial injustice. Her fireside video chat with Lisa Kaplowitz, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers University Business School addressed racism, allyship and the power of speaking out. Johnson is a founding board member of the center.

Johnson began by saying how important it is for leaders to address racial issues. She said sometimes leaders who don’t want to deal with diversity, inclusion and belonging pick other social issues to bolster. However, it is critical to address racism.

“We have to deal with racial injustice and understand how it happened before ​we can even begin to be effective change agents. Only then can we begin rebuilding and truly achieve real racial equality,” Johnson said.

Leaders should also be well-read on the topic. On DiversityInc.com, there is a list of book recommendations discussing anti-racism and other skills for strong leadership.

“It is our responsibility as engaged people leaders, as educators, as activists, as parents, as coworkers, as friends and community members — to know what is happening with people, even if we don’t believe we are affected. We must understand the historical barriers and challenges they faced in order to be an ally in helping to move them,” Johnson said.

While silence can be the status quo for large corporations, Johnson said leaders should not allow anyone to tell them that they cannot speak on subjects that they know matter to their employees and communities. Additionally, measuring the outcomes of diversity and inclusion programs is paramount.

“You’ve got to measure, and you have to have an active role in making sure that the questions that you’re asking are free from bias, and the responses are not manipulated to make things look better than they are,” Johnson said.

Johnson recounted the anecdote she told in her statement to DiversityInc employees and clients. In the days after George Floyd’s murder, Johnson said she found herself tired, frustrated, and in mourning. However, she was faced with a situation in which her white neighbor asked her how she could help the Black community. Despite her exhaustion, Johnson said she felt it was necessary for her to understand and encourage her neighbor’s genuine desire to act as an ally.

The power for real change lives with the people — especially disenfranchised people — sharing their stories, and leaders, who are more often than not white men and women, listening and amplifying them.

“It’s the stories that people like me tell, authentically, honestly, without holding back — again with respect — that brings about real change,” Johnson said.

Everybody has something they can do to help. No one is powerless. Some people may take to the streets in protests, others may feel they can serve the cause best through volunteer work at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. What’s most important is that the actions are ongoing and authentic. For example, if leaders are hiring women of color, they must also continually make an effort to groom them for leadership roles.

Johnson said the worst thing a leader could do is pretend that these egregious acts are not happening. Acknowledging racism — and even one’s own compliance with it — is uncomfortable but necessary. Get comfortable with discomfort. Listen to and amplify Black voices. Include them in your circles.

What allyship truly is, is an intentional effort to help someone in a way that is not self-serving.

“I don’t need saving, I don’t need a savior, and that’s not the definition of an ally. Everyone can be an ally,” Johnson said.

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