Two months have passed since George Floyd’s final eight minutes and 46 seconds and white people still are asking me, and others who serve and lead Black organizations, “How can we help?” “What should we do?”
Like no other event in recent memory, the killing of George Floyd has ripped curtains of indifference and bashed barriers of otherness in this community and across the country. Young and old, Black and white, urban and rural, gay and straight — all who watched the video were leveled and equalized by our collective horror and outrage.
There has been no shortage of advice from Black folk to white folk on how to invest their resources and leverage this seminal moment. The advice tends to follow one of two streams: 1) Go big, meaning partner with an individual or organization that promises to disrupt systems and catalyze transformative change; or 2) go slow — that is, recognize that white supremacy and systemic racism were nurtured and built over centuries and will require strategic and sustained measures to dismantle. Figure out what part of dismantling racism you and your organization are good at doing, then do it.
Both strategies have appeal. The former offers delegation of the heavy lifting to an intermediary. The latter buys time. But sustainable systems change will happen only when the people who control, perpetuate and benefit from the systems engage and commit to personal change.
Fifty years ago, poet and singer Gil Scott-Herron sang, “The Revolution will not be televised.” It also will not be fought by remote.
Instead of go big or go slow, I would offer a different and complementary guidance:
Go small; start now.
The single, most powerful unit of capacity for transformation and good is yourself. Start there. Social system change begins with personal disruption. And the good thing is, you don’t have to wait for a consultant or committee to propose metrics, recommend a strategy and allocate resources. You can start small, with yourself. And you can start now.
Here are five steps guaranteed to catalyze your capacity to lead and serve the work of dismantling racism. They are not easy steps, but they are essential and minimal requirements for personal transformation.
First, select a Black neighborhood as your primary destination for personal commerce, including groceries, pharmacy, hair care and personal grooming, hardware, etc. Forgo your favorite mall, internet peddler and local eatery. Instead, shop where Black folk shop.
Second, choose to worship at an African American church, mosque or other spiritual center and give your tithes and offerings there. If you are not a person who worships, recognize that the Black church is oxygen for African American life. Scholar James H. Cone said, “religion has been that one place where you have an imagination that no one can control.” Volunteer at a Black worship center. Ask to clean windows, drive a bus or teach a class.
Third, join the board of a Black-led and -missioned nonprofit in the Twin Cities where Blacks are the majority on the board. Find a cause that aligns with your skills or interests and get involved.
Fourth, direct your personal philanthropy to Black led and missioned organizations. Support organizations and leaders you personally know and those recommended by your Black friends.
Fifth, develop personal friendships with African Americans who reside in a Black community. Not mentorship, but a relationship based on mutual respect and interests and the expectation of mutual learning and benefit.
This five-step challenge is not for everyone, but it can be. It promises to disrupt routine, waive privilege and dislodge comfort. The benefits will not be quickly realized, and no dashboard will guide and mark progress or achievement. The natural reflex will be to eschew personal change in favor of systems change from a distance. It is easier to write a check and wait for change.
But for those who are up to the challenge, the dividends will be substantial. Soon, and very soon, you will stop seeing Black people as “them” and Black communities as “there.” Instead you will see people you know, places you shop and experiences you have shared. When you read or hear about a celebration or success, a part of you will share in it. When you hear about crime or violence, you will experience concern for your friends, wonder how and if they were involved, and perhaps call them.
More important, you will be able to stop outsourcing judgment about Black people to media, intermediaries and subordinates because you can rely on your personal experience and relationships. And, when the next atrocious assault on a Black life happens, you won’t have to ask how to help. You already will be helping.
Steven Belton is president and CEO, Urban League Twin Cities (email@example.com).