Accountability is much more than getting one person removed from their position of power. It requires rooting out systemic oppression from the workplace.
By Rachel Jones
As the movement for racial justice sparked by the killing of George Floyd continues, many companies are being held accountable to back up their performative #BLM statements with real action towards racial equity. Across industries, BIPOC staff are exposing their experiences with systemic racism, from the Condé Nast-owned Bon Appétit Magazine to “ethical” clothing company Everlane.
My own former employer, Chicago-based non-profit Free Spirit Media (FSM), was the subject of one of these public motions for accountability. Titled the #MatchYOURspiritFSM (MYSFSM) campaign, the movement fought for the removal of the organization’s founder and executive director Jeff McCarter — and won. The campaign, my experiences working for the organization, and the many parallel callouts happening across the internet have taught me a good deal about holding employers accountable.
You don’t have to run a public social media campaign to push for change, but it can offer some insight on ways to advocate for equity in your own organization. Here are some tips:
1. Organize With Your Co-Workers
When fighting racism in your workplace, it’s best not to fight alone. Accusations of a toxic culture are best received when multiple people can attest to the toxicity. Chances are, it won’t be hard to find others who have had similar experiences and feel the way you do. The challenge is finding a safe space to talk to them. Take advantage of existing opportunities like Employee Resource Groups, and virtual staff hangouts to share experiences and align on ways to move forward.
This works best if you can organize with leaders in the workplace who you know are committed to equity and inclusion, and enlist them in backing up their commitment. When you have folks on your side with the ability to institute actual systemic change, this forces your organization to recognize you as more than just a few coworkers complaining.
Organizers of the MYSFSM campaign started out by building a village of support. They leveraged their networks to collect personal statements from former staff, participants, and partners who had experienced McCarter’s predatory behavior. The sheer number of statements and stories presented to the organization’s board of directors gave them no space to shrug things off. When so many different people all have various examples of the same treatment, that proves a pattern that can’t be ignored. And when former board president and current Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx voiced her solidarity, the campaign gained some real weight.
2. Gather The Receipts
When Free Spirit Media’s board of directors was faced with the petition for McCarter’s removal, they hired a third party to investigate the claims. Investigators aren’t satisfied with half-remembered anecdotes, or general feelings of discomfort. When holding your employers accountable, you often bear the burden of proving the conditions you seek to address. It helps to have your receipts together.
Start documenting every oppressive and/or racist thing you observe. Get as much in writing as you can. The more actual timed, dated, quoted evidence you can bring, the better. Create a paper trail. Your organization likely already has some channels for you to share grievances — things like satisfaction surveys, or supervisor reviews. Exhaust every official channel to speak out on what you experience. These levers themselves often aren’t connected to real change, but when taken together, they provide great evidence of harmful patterns.
You best believe when it was my turn to speak with the investigators, I directed them to the 10-page exit interview, the record of anti-racist trainings I facilitated as a member of the culture committee, and the suggestions I sent in to the organization’s “anonymous idea box.”
3. Decide What Progress Looks Like To You
When you’re preparing to hold your employer accountable, make sure you spend some time thinking about what that accountability would actually look like. It’s even helpful to pitch this vision at the same time as you’re discussing the workplace’s toxic culture and anti-Blackness. When you offer a solution while highlighting the problem, people are often more willing to get on board.
Accountability likely looks like more than just getting one person removed from their position of power. It most likely includes rooting out systemic biases from the company’s hiring practices. Maybe it looks like workplace-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Maybe it requires a change in the way you work with your students, clients, stakeholders. Do some research to find what options are available to take your workplace beyond performative gestures. Envision what would change if everyone was free to contribute their full selves without fear of harm, abuse, or exploitation.
4. Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts
Your employers have a deep investment in the status quo. Convincing them to break free from that takes persuasion. Take your organization’s values and culture into account when you’re framing your argument. Some may be moved by a call to morality, or the desire not to be on the wrong side of history. But more than likely, you’ll need to outline why your desired change is beneficial to the company itself.
Think about what scares your organization or workplace and what they have to lose. Are they fearful that falling out of step with the current movement could alienate their audience? Nervous that donors may pull their support if they knew more of the internal conditions? Scared that missing out on Black talent could hurt their bottom line? For Free Spirit Media, the pressure was largely financial. The MacArthur Foundation awards the organization with grant funding that they would be unable to operate without. So when the foundation made clear they were watching the investigation closely, the impetus for a real response intensified.
5. Figure Out How To Move Forward
One thing this campaign has taught me is to manage my expectations. Yes, you deserve to be your full authentic self in your workplace, with equal respect and opportunity — but work is work. We’re bound to our jobs by the realities of capitalism, and we can’t really expect that much from institutions that were never invested in our wellbeing to begin with. As your employers move forward with incremental change and respond to inevitable pushback, it will be up to you to continue to push them toward real action. Decide how much of your mental energy you want to spend keeping your employer on the hook. In some environments, it may be best to remove yourself altogether.
When FSM’s Board of Directors announced McCarter’s decision to resign after the conclusion of the investigation, I felt hollow. The statement outlining the change read more like a speech at his retirement than the admission he was resigning in disgrace. Even as he was leaving the organization, there was no recognition of the harm he caused. Instead, there was a celebration of his legacy and a short nod to the investigation which found “no evidence of unlawful actions.” The fact that he’s no longer in a position to abuse BIPOC staff and students is a victory, but I was left feeling like we still didn’t get the one thing we were asking for: admission of wrongdoing.
When you’re holding your employers accountable, it’s possible you’ll feel like the resulting change doesn’t go far enough. The way I handled this was to focus on the community within the organization that grew in spite of its executive director. We have the tools to collaborate without the institution and the investment in each other to do it authentically.
Rachel Jones is a digital content creator and strategist. She believes firmly in the power of storytelling to build community and create change. You can read more of her work on Medium.
JOIN WEAR YOUR VOICE ON PATREON — Every single dollar matters to us—especially now when media is under constant threat. Your support is essential and your generosity is why Wear Your Voice keeps going! You are a part of the resistance that is needed—uplifting Black and brown feminists through your pledges is the direct community support that allows us to make more space for marginalized voices. For as little as $1 every month you can be a part of this journey with us. This platform is our way of making necessary and positive change, and together we can keep growing.