Will this be the moment?

I remain hopeful that George Floyd has truly changed the world, as his daughter Gianna has said.

Still, I find myself struggling to believe that we have sufficient resolve as a society to make the systemic change necessary for all Black lives to be valued, respected, and protected. This doubt gnaws at me as we continue to see more Black lives taken by police, and as I see how easily this moment is often reduced to a discussion purely of policing as a singular manifestation of racism. As a white man and CEO of a nonprofit, I am distressed by how many people in positions of power and privilege, including myself, can identify the change that is required in others, and yet struggle to articulate what we are willing to give up ourselves to make change possible.

During the days following George Floyd’s murder, a large number of white leaders from business, government and nonprofits shared their thoughts about the meaning and implications of his unconscionable killing and the uprising that followed. I added my voice on May 29 and emailed it to our entire distribution list. It was a hard message to write, partly due to the impact of those chaotic days, but also because, like many white people in positions of privilege, I felt compelled to act, but struggled knowing what I should do.

As I wrote that message, I was intensely aware of how relatively easy it felt to condemn physical violence and systemic racism in society at large, and how much harder it was to discern what I was willing to do personally to disrupt racist systems and what I was willing to give up for a racially just world.

On that day, what I felt moved to do was to take that moment to share how I have come to understand racial justice as core to both our organization’s environmental work and to the future of our city, our region, and our state. That realization had been emerging not over days or weeks, but in the course of nearly four years of transformative work at Environmental Initiative. What George Floyd’s death meant for me personally was that it was time to speak that truth more clearly than ever before.

What I did not anticipate was the response that my message would evoke. A flood of replies – all appreciative, all supportive, and each one inspiring – followed the publication of my message. I haven’t really kept count of the responses, but I think a conservative estimate is around 75, and they are still coming. I have been Environmental Initiative’s leader for almost a quarter century, and never before have I received such a powerful response, both in content and quantity, to anything else I have written or spoken. This says something important about who we are as people, and it says something important about the transformational change that, at long last, may be within our grasp.

It is impossible for me to do justice to the multitude of phone calls, messages, emails and other exchanges that I have had with our supporters, partners and community members. However, I can say that two themes have stood out:

  • Most every individual who responded shared messages of our societal interdependence and of the personal work required for larger systems change. White colleagues responded in a spirit of humility, self-reflection, self-improvement and acknowledgment of privilege; Colleagues of color, Black colleagues, and indigenous colleagues offered loving responses that were shared with a generosity of spirit.
  • Most white people who contacted me acknowledged the necessity of following Black leaders and community in this moment, but also recognized that there is specific work that is the responsibility of white people and of white dominant culture organizations to do. For some this meant committing to anti-racist action and for others it meant dismantling the white supremacy that has been built into the so-called mainstream environmental movement and into our wider society. For others, this was a moment of honest inquiry, understanding and reckoning.

Nearly all of those who responded expressed deep commitment to take action for racial justice in their lives and in their work, along with a desire to share in the struggle with others as they strive to do better, which means making mistakes, learning and persevering. Many chose to describe what they were doing as leaders within their organizations, and I wish that I was able to share all of that with you as members of Environmental Initiative’s community. I know it would inspire you as it has inspired me.

An environmental justice leader, who happens to be Black, told me last week that racism doesn’t begin and end with the police, and that we cannot afford to overlook our own contributions within racist systems and the actions that each of us can take to initiate change within our particular places in the world. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity for personal transformation so that each of us can take responsibility for the work that is uniquely ours to do.

His comment resonated in my core and it reminded me why I still feel so hopeful: the messages of genuine personal transformation and the outpouring of love and good-will that I have received from so many people since that dark day on May 25. Systems may not have been changed yet, but I know that the hearts and minds of many people have  – including many white Minnesotans, like myself, who have responded inadequately to past killings of Black lives. As hearts and minds change, I begin to see the stirrings of meaningful action and societal change beginning to take shape.

I’d like to share some of the steps our staff and board have taken since May 25 and what action looks like for us:

  • Our staff has discussed the characteristics of white supremacy culture and how these characteristics show up in our workplace culture and organization. We have committed to making this an ongoing discussion as we work to cultivate a truly multicultural and pluralistic workplace culture instead.
  • We have been collaborating with the Friends of the Mississippi River and the Minnesota Environmental Partnership to co-convene several dozen nonprofits around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We and our co-conveners are committed to diving deeply with the group to dismantle white supremacy and take anti-racist action within the environmental movement.
  • We have been redesigning our hiring practices throughout the past year, and we continue to grow in our commitment to building a staff that is representative of and responsive to those working on and impacted by environmental issues.
  • Our board of directors is in the midst of strategic planning and has embraced a shift from understanding ourselves as working with business, government and nonprofits to working with business, government, nonprofits and communities most impacted by environmental challenges, which often include communities of color, Tribal Nations, and rural communities. We are coming to understand our most important work is to heal division and separation, and recognize that racism is one of the most destructive forces of division on our planet.
  • We are increasing our financial support to a number of Black environmental justice leaders who already have been generous in their relationships to us, providing advice and guidance for our organizational and individual development.

None of this is to say that our transformation is done – far from it. We know that we are only just beginning to understand what is required of us as individuals and as an organization to bridge differences in power and perspectives and heal division. But we also know that it is our responsibility to share what we have come to understand so far and how we are applying it to our work. I hope each of you will feel a similar sense of responsibility to yourselves as people, as leaders, and as environmental advocates and professionals; I also hope you will join us in changing hearts and minds, and all that we must do together if systems are to change for the better.

Again, I invite you to reach out with your reflections, your questions and your insights, as well as your vision for what more we could be doing together for a world that is based on right relationship between all people and between people and the living world. Share your learning and your actions with us and with each other, and we will be able to go far together.

In partnership,

Mike Harley