Finnish Organizational Allyship: Making BLM Support Impactful
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Laura Smith, a black American professional based in Helsinki, shares an open letter on how Finnish businesses can be active allies of the BLM movement.
Dear Finnish business community,
Following the murder of George Floyd, I lay awake at 3 am, contemplating the luxury of breathing. George Floyd was a stranger to me, but the circumstances surrounding his death were not. You see, I grew up black in America. This means, I was taught about the possibility of police brutality, the indifference of societal structures, and the ever-looming danger of white fear of my personal blackness. These lessons were imparted by my mother, not to instill paranoia, but to increase the likelihood of my overcoming these barriers someday. Awareness, you see, is essential for black life -- and as I lay in bed that morning, my own daughter beside me, I realized I had the ability and the responsibility to spread awareness, to enable and better lives. This is why I’m writing you today.
From personal to professional: a perspective on BLM
I chose a more peaceful place to live, to work, and to raise my daughter. I’m in Finland, a country that is objectively one of the whitest in the world, and I’m here – like a speck of pepper in a Bechamel sauce – accepting that I may never blend in, but that I can certainly flavor the professional ecosystem in which I exist.
I currently do so through researching and consulting at the intersection of communication and organizational development. To clarify, this means I believe that words support organizational realities, and I build better organizations through shaping messages that correspond with constructive actions. Diversity and inclusion, then, are more than buzzwords to me; they’re organizational building blocks, cornerstones, of structural viability.
With that perspective, it’s no wonder I believe that Black Lives Matter – or BLM – is more than a declaration or a movement. I believe it is an assertion with associated actions; it’s a commitment to constructing racial equality, wherever we are – Finland included.
Allyship in the Finnish context
I’ll be honest with you: allyship or supporting BLM as a Finnish company is going to take work. More specifically, this is going to require three things of you – radical empathy, active advocacy, and sustained action – all of which are needed to construct a better organization and society for black people.
1. Radical empathy
Empathy – the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings – is hard enough.
Radical empathy – what I define to be empathizing when it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unnecessary – is harder still and, even more so, essential.
Radical empathy, unlike its passive counterpart, requires active understanding.
It means researching, listening, learning, and striving to know the unknowable – what someone else feels and experiences. If you’re a Finnish company concerned with BLM, that means understanding the various black experiences around you (e.g., no, my experiences as a black American ascendant of the Transatlantic slave trade is not the same as a black immigrant’s directly from Africa or of an Afro-Finn born and raised here). What are these groups experiencing here? How are you contributing to – or passively perpetuating – those experiences? What is your current outreach to and inclusion of these groups?
Such awareness, if allowed to germinate with intention and planning, can grow into productive applications. You can provide your black employees time to process and grieve the racial tragedies that impact their communities; you can afford them the space and dignity to not be your uncompensated cultural consultant or racial educator in this (or any other) time. You can have them as meaningful contributors to your organization and not just as faces of a cause.
Your empathy can extend towards supporting the BLM cause directly: you can allocate a pool of personnel hours to be used for social advocacy; you can donate monetary or technical resources, or even services to support organizations that are on-the-ground in areas where help is most needed [i.e., any- and everywhere]. Most importantly, as a company, you can examine and correct your own actions, atmosphere, partnerships, and products to not only ensure that what you create doesn’t perpetuate or normalize anti-black sentiment, but rather that it provides a safe haven and solutions that benefit black people.
2. Active advocacy
So, what can benefit black people more than a #BlackOut background, hashtag, or social media post? Active advocacy.
I encourage you to recruit, hire, fairly compensate, and retain black talent. Actively search for qualified black professionals, even and especially when it’s not convenient to do so or if doing so necessitates forming connections or relationships you would not otherwise have formed. This will be inconvenient, and yes, this will be awkward. This will also be mutually impactful.
Do not exclusively search for or assume that black talent is junior. Top universities around the world – including in Finland – graduate countless experts of color every single year, and experienced black professionals are present in almost every international organization of note. Subvert the narrative of racial inferiority through your people practices: hire black experts who can truly shape, guide, or represent your organization. As one of the few research-validated means of attenuating social status within organizations, you must publicly praise and recommend your black employees. Celebrate their victories and their voices; publicly seek their opinions and potentially defer to them.
Allow space for black excellence and not just black marginalization.
Active advocacy in this area will also require you to make your organization an anti-racist space. To do so, you will need to create an actionable definition of racism – not too broad that it can never be identified, nor to narrow that most instantiations are overlooked. You will need to educate and train your employees (including management) about your company’s definitions and behavioral expectations -- and clearly define what happens when an employee violates the rules of your anti-racist space. Create and clarify a safe means of reporting and addressing racism in your organization – taking into account that your HR and management may, in fact, be potential violators of your policies, as well. As an advocate and ally, if you declare that your organization will not tolerate racism, you must consistently follow through with specificity, assessments, and actions; you must enable and protect the anti-racist space you champion.
3. Sustained action
Your empathy, your advocacy, and your actions must all be sustained over time. Compassion should never be simply a PR campaign.
To be clear, singular actions can be useful: donations, for instance, can be a lifeline to organizations servicing black communities or the BLM movement. To be an actual ally to black people, however, you need to open your mind to actions beyond one-off donations and grand gestures. You need to plan and build better organizations and processes that are pro-black and not merely black-tolerant.
Plan to be uncomfortable and evolving for years to come. You will need to allocate a budget to sustain this change: costs will include employee training, employee time, new or rescoped positions, and potentially letting go of even talented individuals who disrespect your anti-racist space. This will cost you something, yes… but the potential future you construct with your actions - your advocacy beyond words - is invaluable.
Perspective beyond the protests
Long after the media focus, posts, and protestors about BLM have moved on, I will still be black. I will still work and live in a world where that fact is, often, a disadvantage. I can use my words and research to help highlight that reality, but the fact is, whether my or other black lives matter – that is, matter to the level of safety, employability, and viability on par with our non-black peers – is largely dependent on you.
I need you to make BLM more than a stance, more than a statement. I need you to construct and sustain businesses that build better realities for black people… because we need change, not chants.
True allyship in this era of BLM requires conscientious organizations with radical empathy, active advocacy, and sustained action. Your PR and black backgrounds have been good starts, but your commitment over time is what truly lets black people breathe.
Laura Smith Communications & organizational specialist
Laura Smith is a communications director, organizational researcher, and human advocate. She builds better businesses to build a better world.
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