There are conversations that I’ve refrained from having and some emotions that I’ve never fully expressed at work — for the sake of wanting to maintain professionalism.
Throughout my career, I can recall times when I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, even while I felt isolated and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be perceived as the black employee making issues about race. I didn’t want to be labeled, misunderstood or perceived as having a bias, especially while working in newsrooms.
And now as protests erupt in every state and across the world, millions of people are publicly rejecting racism and the killing of black people at the hands of law enforcement. Against this backdrop, you have some black employees who feel conflicted about speaking out and about how their words might be misconstrued. They fear that they will be perceived as being biased. They’ve been told that speaking up and speaking out will diminish their chances of future employment.
As a government employee, what you can and cannot say while at work is a separate conversation for another day (a topic we will actually be diving into in a later post). Race should not be a political issue, but it is. This can make matters all the more painful and stressful, especially now.
There are black men and women in Zoom meetings maintaining "professionalism," biting their tongues, holding back tears and swallowing rage, while we endure attacks from a pandemic and police.
Understand this and be mindful.
— Ms. Golding (@GoldingGirl617) May 28, 2020
What black employees working in government feel at this moment cannot fit neatly into one sentence or a hashtag. I cannot and will not generalize the range of thoughts and emotions that each individual feels, but here are some things that I have read and heard: tired, numb, angry and emotions so complex that they can’t fully describe them.
I have seen social media posts and a level of vulnerability and sadness that I am not used to seeing publicly, and it cut deep. The bravery and multiple re-writes it must have taken for them to share their emotions, I know all too well because I have struggled to write this piece.
They are having those uncomfortable conversations — publicly. My question: Are fellow employees, managers, directors and agency heads creating space for those conversations and following up with actions?
Here’s an excerpt from a very open and deeply personal statement that local government employee Christian Williams wrote to the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) community on behalf of the organization’s board:
“I never imagined I would have to provide so much education to people who have little to no idea what is going on or why hearts are so heavy. I never thought I would have to justify my blackness or discuss with people, publicly and openly all of the vulnerable times I felt unsafe or sad.”
He goes on to say, “We are all different, despite our shared commonality, we all have different stories, different fears, different hopes and different experiences. We all have different needs. We are not a one-size fits all people and the solution and our needs will not be one-size fits all.”
I was heartened to see that a black woman in my network who works for the government said that she scheduled a meeting with her chief information officer to discuss the unprecedented challenges, given the pandemic, global recessions and nationwide unrest.
Kaleth O. Wright is another individual whose words I could not stop replaying in my mind. Please read his entire Twitter thread here.
Who am I?
I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.
— Kaleth O. Wright (@cmsaf18) June 1, 2020
Air Force Times reported that Wright “announced an independent review of the service’s justice system after a series of scathing reports that showed it disproportionately punishes young black airmen.”
Marc Ott, Executive Director of ICMA, an association of local government professionals, wrote this in an email to members:
“We as local government leaders focus on building trust and creating an environment where all our residents feel safe. Yet as these incidents continue to erupt, it often feels like African Americans have targets on our backs. As city, county, and town managers who set the tone in the organizations that you manage by the standards you establish, the selection of professionals to lead your departments and your community-wide efforts, you have both the opportunity and responsibility to advance equity and inclusion.”
As a black man, Ott said he feels angry that there is continued inequity and disparity in the treatment of people of color by those who hold power. He ended his email with these words: “Great social changes often come from turmoil and we as local government leaders can lead that transformation. We can create the kinds of communities we envision, where everyone can flourish.”
So why am I sharing these examples with you? What do I want you to take away from this piece? What can you do now?
Speak up. For the managers and senior leaders reading this, your silence is deafening. Even if you don’t have all the words to say, a heartfelt acknowledgment goes a long way. Do not shy away from openly addressing your team and your department about the civil unrest. Don’t shy away from the fact that this is an extremely emotional and traumatic time for black people, especially for employees who regularly experience racism.
Now is not the time for canned statements. Use your words wisely, and if you cannot find words of empathy, stop and ask yourself why that’s the case. Is there such a disconnect between you and those you work alongside that you cannot — even on the most basic human level — try to understand the pain of another?
Listen with empathy. No, every black employee is not ready to suddenly pour their hearts out, particularly those who have felt oppressed and mistreated at work. But there must be a safe space for all employees to have these honest conversations and to be heard. This movement is about more than a hashtag. If black lives truly matter, is that reflected in leadership, your team and the voices who help make decisions about how you serve a diverse nation? Also, seek to understand what allyship looks like in your office? How are you using your influence, your words and your actions for good and to include colleagues who are marginalized?
I’ll leave you with these words from Doris Truong, who serves as Director of Training and Diversity for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization. Although these words are directed to newsroom managers, I think they are applicable to government leaders as well.
“My fellow managers, really listen. Give us the space to tell our stories in our way. We can be fair and accurate — but we should not abandon part of ourselves along the way. Reexamine what you mean when you ask us to be objective. Build a bigger table so more of us can be involved in decisions. And learn to sit with discomfort.
Together, we can create the newsrooms that our audiences deserve.”
I’ve shared my experience, and I want to give our community the opportunity to do the same. What are you doing to create space for dialogue in your office? What follow-up actions are you taking? What change do you want to see in your office, and how can GovLoop support you?