In 2020, tragic events exposed latent inequalities and led to a global awakening regarding systemic racism and injustices experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour around the world. 30 million new allies lifted their voices for change. The question is, how do we sustain this momentum?

This Black History Month, as we celebrate the spark of new and overdue conversations, how do we ensure the flame catches, rather than burns out just as swiftly as it caught last summer? In an extraordinary Black History Month Event, thousands of RBC employees across the globe welcomed Van Jones, CEO of Reform Alliance, social entrepreneur, author and CNN political contributor, for a candid conversation to discuss how we can sustain the momentum of change, ensure allyship isn’t a one-and-done action, and inspire all members of society to contribute to the creation of a better tomorrow – this month and beyond.

In conversation with Natasha Holiday, Managing Director of Municipal Finance, RBC US Capital Markets, Jones shared several approaches that could lead to enduring inclusion, justice, equality and a better future for all.

Recognize our own biases and blind spots

Natasha brought forward some startling statistics. From an inter-generational study on race and economics conducted by Yale and Stanford research professors, it was found that Black men raised in the top 1% (effectively raised by millionaires) were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning $36,000 a year. A Black man raised by two parents together in the 90th percentile of economic income earned about the same as an adult as a white man raised by a single mother making $60,000 alone. In 2015, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported that 67% of Black Canadians fell to the bottom half of the national distribution of family incomes, compared to 47% of non-racialized Canadians. Health disparities exist around the world. And that’s just the beginning.

Jones calls the numbers ‘heartbreaking,’ but cautions they could also be numbing. “What do the numbers actually mean?” he asks. “It means that a Black kid who starts out with advantages encounters moment after moment after moment where those advantages are chipped away, where marbles are put on the stairs, banana peels are put on the sidewalk, and they’re not put there for other kids.”

He further explains that biases first begin to play out for children in school. “Two children may display the same behaviour, yet the system responds differently,” he says. When a white child throws an eraser across the classroom, for instance, he is called ‘precocious.’ When a Black child does the same, he is labeled ‘troublesome.’ Jones calls this response a ‘glitch.’ “It should humble all of us to know how much our brains have been hijacked. You’re seeing the same behaviour, but if you react differently depending on the skin colour. That’s a computer glitch.”

He explains that we all participate in this reality. The key to fixing it, he says, is to recognize what’s going on and to be honest about it.

“As a man, I have tremendous blind spots about what women go through,” he says by way of example. “When you’re one up, you have blind spots. When your life isn’t at stake, you don’t pay as much attention. When you’re one down on age, race or gender you have sore spots. But a lot of wisdom accumulates at the bottom. The key is to make sure that wisdom can be brought up and shared by everybody and those sore spots can be shrunk over time.”

Focus on investment, not charity

RBC has come out with a strong action plan against racism, with key deliverables combatting inequality. Is this enough? Holiday asked what role corporations and their employees can play in moving society towards equitable outcomes.

“If you live in a capitalist society and you don’t have capital, you’re like a fish trying to live on dry land,” explains Jones. While he loves all the grants given out to Black youth, communities and entrepreneurs, he explains that a grant is not the same as an investment. “A gift is not the same as a partnership. Charity is not the same as solidarity.”

He acknowledges that there is a tendency to see Black people only as deficits and problems, and to see Black communities as places where bad things happen, as sources of pain. “This is a big mistake,” he says. “We have tremendous assets in the Black community – we have businesses, we have banks, we have colleges, universities, houses of worship, fraternities and sororities… tremendous assets with well-educated geniuses who cannot access capital. This is one of the biggest tragedies – how much genius we are wasting in the Western world by simply not doing the things we need to do. By not moving capital to where it’s needed.”

Shift to a win-win mindset

Jones furthers his message by pointing out that moving capital in new directions is good for everyone – and something that should be done for both good reasons and selfish reasons.

“This ain’t charity,” he says. “You can make more money. Please don’t come to me with tears saying you want to help me. That’s going to last a week. Come to me because you’re greedy and you want to make more money, have more fun, learn more and be better for your family. Then we can have a conversation, because my self-interest and your self-interest will line up.”

The biggest movement for civil rights is very close in our rear-view mirror. To sustain the response, Jones urges the need to move to a win-win partnership model and see the opportunities that lie ahead.

“The goal is not to have a bunch of guilty-feeling white people doing charitable things for Black people. The goal is to have a fair deal, a fair partnership, and to have my genius and your genius recognized and monetized, and for all of us to keep solving great problems.”

Change your social network – even just a bit

And for those of us who don’t necessarily have capital to invest, or the decision-making power to form strategic business partnerships? There is much we can do to move beyond a hashtag and create meaningful change.

“Meaningful change comes from meaningful relationships with real people,” says Jones. “People think: ‘Oh, I have to go and fight police brutality.’ No – just change your own social network, even just a little bit. Establish one more link to another network and you become exponentially more powerful because that person brings in completely different assets, completely different world views and completely different information.”

There are also skills gaps that we can address. Jones explains that deep listening and empathy skills need to be exercised in order to generate understanding and build community together. “If your mindset is always win-lose, right-wrong, you tend to be much more inflexible than if you approached the world differently. If you don’t agree with your neighbour but you understand her, you have a shot at building a neighbourhood together,” he says, emphasizing that you don’t need to always agree with everyone. The key is to work at understanding. “If you don’t agree and don’t understand, it’s impossible to narrow conflict and resolve differences.”

“We are trying to do something hard together”

Jones acknowledges that our collective mission – to move from an unjust to a just society – is complicated. It’s going to take time, patience, and a lot of people working together. And there will be some trial and error, but he believes we will get better and smarter as we go.

“This is not about charity. It’s about all of us becoming more and more capable of doing great things. That’s the future that we are trying to fight for. Let’s get there together.”

Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.

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