“Sankofa.” It’s a West African saying, sometimes expressed visually by a bird with its head turned backwards and an egg in its mouth. It means “Go back and get it,” take what is needed from history in order to move forward successfully. All healthy societies know history is important not only for its own sake, but to create a more fruitful future. Black History Month is a chance to practice sankofa and take from Black history what we need for a thriving future.
But increasingly, Black History Month feels more like a checkbox than a learning opportunity.
Last year even COVID-19 could not stop the pervasive nature of racism. The racially motivated murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd raised the issue sufficiently to provoke corporate responses. Juneteenth was declared a holiday by many companies, including a lot that previously did not know the history of Juneteenth or the traditions Black communities use to celebrate it. These reactions were performative, but they can develop into impactful work if companies truly learn our history and learn from it.
Based on my experience working with companies striving to achieve deep change on matters of race, here are a few approaches to make that happen.
Apply history directly to your work. Black history infuses every part of society and every industry in America. There are thousands of untold stories, from the many Black people, especially women, in science to the fascinating histories of the Freedman’s Bank and Philip Payton, the “father of Harlem.” Understanding why banking and real estate is fraught with institutional and structural bias helps leaders know where to look for bias and how to reduce or eliminate it. As a primer, I strongly suggest anyone in these industries read “The Color of Money,” by Walter Tevis.
Engage diverse networks on how to build a future that includes them. Too often Blacks and minority communities have no choice but to create their own spaces, after being excluding from mainstream, white culture and business. For example, Afrofuturism, an aspect of Black culture that imagines a future with Black people, developed in response to the fact that Black people are invisible in our technology culture and many science fiction visions of the future. Black History Month is an invitation to engage with diverse communities and ask them to join a dialogue about the future of your company. Something as easy as an Employee Resource Group (ERG) having resources to sponsor a conversation on Afrofuturism in banking with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This can invite a relevant conversation in a traditional way at the same time it provides important data and input to follow-up on as you move forward. It also gives you an opportunity to connect with a new talent pool.
Review your ED&I numbers at the management level. Use February as a way to check-in on progress and troubleshoot within your company. Our country’s history of exclusion is the reason equity, diversity and inclusion goals are necessary. Understanding why these goals are reparative for the history that created white privilege helps connect the dots on how to build equity.
Black History Month was created to highlight the many untold stories of Black people’s contribution to this country’s wealth, culture and progress. It is an opportunity to acknowledge that diversity positively determines our country’s future. But checking a box this month is not enough. We each must work to create business traditions that reinforce the core business proposition that diversity and inclusion are necessary for any company to thrive long-term.
Sankofa Black history. It belongs in your business.
Malia Lazu is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the former Eastern Massachusetts market president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.