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Response Statements to Violence: What Organizations Need to Know

Most of us are still recovering from the blatant display of violent disrespect and assault on the U.S. Capitol last week. In the midst of trying to catch our individual and collective breath from this blow, organizations are issuing response statements. Many response statements contain the static and predictable formula: “this is not us” + tears(passive condemnation) = 0.

A perfect example of this formula can be found within the response statement from the University of Michigan:

Statement On Violence at U.S. Capitol: Issued by President Schlissel on January 6, 2021.

Response statements from organizations have the potential to hold value in moving our country through our pain and onward to justice. In order for response statements to become powerful catalysts in creating social change, organizations need to know 3 critical points:

  1. Acknowledge The Myths We Tell Ourselves

“This is not who we are as a nation. What distinguishes our form of government is its inviolable respect for the will of the people…where we ensure that democracy always prevails…”

Here’s the truth: This is who we are as a nation. To keep repeating “This is not who we are as a nation” is egregiously ahistorical. The danger in repeating this myth is that it only serves to keep us all bound to the oppressive systems that wield the violence we continue to claim is not us. This is us.

The good news is that this does not have to be us. Our story does not have to end with our current sordid identity. However, we will never detangle ourselves from a national identity of destruction if we cannot speak truthfully about what is (and has always been) wrong with who we are. How can we make something right, if we refuse to see and understand what is wrong?

In this moment, the pith of anti-racist work (not the comfortable veneer of DEI work) for organizations is to interrogate the reasons why it defaults to this myth when confronted with atrocities. The only way to disrupt the compulsory use of myths within response statements is for organizations to understand why the myths have become the go-to language in the first place.

If your organization endeavors to write a response statement to violence, then lead with the truth. In acknowledging the truth, leaders of organizations create the opportunity for us all to heal, rebuild, and redefine our collective identity.

2. Get Clear About What Are You Crying For?

Working in white-led and predominantly white organizations both within the education and non-profit sectors, I have observed much. On several occasions, I have personally sat in meetings where leadership cried at acts of anti-Black violence in our country. The problem here is not necessarily that folks are crying. The problem is the irony that is tied to the tears. So often, the very same organizational leaders who require their staff to hold space for their tears are the same individuals who uphold internal policies, practices, and culture that wield oppression, marginalization, and disparities.

To this point, I recently participated in a meeting where an organizational leader shed tears for the murder of George Floyd. Several weeks later, I participated in another meeting. In this meeting, this same leader — in reference to the organizational system, flippantly exclaimed, “this is a caste system, it’s just what it is…” It should be noted that several folks who identified as both female and a person of color were present at this meeting. That day, in that meeting, there was deep harm inflicted with those words, regardless of whether the harm was intended or not. The insult to the injury within this context is the fact that so many organizations that profess to be about social justice, yet are internally unjust, receive a profound amount of financial support for their social justice values and initiatives. This happens as a result of financial sponsors focusing primarily on the wordsmithing abilities of the organization rather than focusing on the extent to which the internal operations and culture of an organization is in alignment with their words. We do ourselves and the mission of our organizations a grave disservice when we allow leaders to wipe away tears from the suffering they witness with one hand, and stoke the flames that fuel suffering with the other hand. This is simply not how the true pursuit of social justice is played.

Let our tears no longer be only for the atrocities we are collectively forced to witness day after day. Let our tears be for the role we have collectively played in creating and sustaining the systems that allow these atrocities to thrive on our domestic soil. Cry for the ways in which we have been complicit in sustaining violence in our relationships, homes, communities, houses of worship, and work environments. Let our tears be for the ways in which we have given power over to individuals who are not aligned with who we are striving to become as a nation in areas where we clearly see the violence and disparities the most: in our government, law enforcement, military, education, and health sectors. May our tears move us into the bold and necessary actions we need to make to become the nation we want to become: a nation of decency, justice, equality, and respect for the human dignity in all of us.

3. What Organizations Must Know

For organizations trying to figure out how best to lead in these troubling times, this is not a time to be coddled in tears. Nor is this the time to write the same stagnant words that have been recycled for prior events of national terror. This is not the time to be the first organization to merely crank something out to inadequately demonstrate its commitment to social justice.

The time begs for organizations to rethink and reframe how to hold our leaders accountable in our collective journey towards social justice. The time demands that we begin the task of self-reflection. It is time for us to look at the ways in which our own mentality, actions, and words promulgate violence. For organizations, this is truly a time to just be quiet. To pause. To reflect. The call to action for organizations is very clear. We have no more time to waste on tears and statements. It is time to get it right.

Mother. Teacher. Disrupter. S. Rae Peoples is the founder and principal consultant of Red Lotus Consulting, a race equity and service boutique. Her writings and opinions have been published in the Washington Post, the East Bay Express, the Oakland Post, BlogHer, as well as Young, Fabulous and Self-Employed magazine. Currently based in Boston, S. Rae is a student affairs administrator and serves as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for North Atlantic Books.

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