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From Allies to Change Agents: Scheller MBA Alumnae Answer Four Key Questions in the Fight for Sustainable Racial Equity

Blais Hickey from Net Impact, Rachel Firstman from Women in Business, and Shannell Smith from Blacks in Business.

Blais Hickey from Net Impact, Rachel Firstman from Women in Business, and Shannell Smith from Blacks in Business.

This year, the pandemic of racism has risen to the forefront of public consciousness, exposing individual and collective failures. The need for effective advocacy and action in the face of complex systems, policies, and institutions that perpetuate racial inequity is abundantly clear.

The Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (“Center”) recently held a panel discussion around the role individuals and communities have in the fight for racial equity and social justice. The conversation centered around ways individuals can elevate their levels of engagement—in conversation, in protest, and in advocacy.

Panelists at the virtual event included three Scheller Class of 2020 MBA alumnae who held leadership positions within student organizations with demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion: Rachel Firstman from Women in Business, Blais Hickey from Net Impact, and Shannell Smith from Blacks in Business. The panel was moderated by Arianna Robinson (MBA ’18), assistant director of business operations at the Center and advisor to the Net Impact and Blacks in Business organizations.

Here is what they had to say in response to four important questions in the fight for racial equity.

What does it mean to be an “ally” in the fight for racial equity?

It is important to understand the vocabulary used in the fight for racial equity. In defining the term “antiracist,” Robinson paraphrased Ibram X. Kendi’s work, saying “It is not enough to simply be not racist. The opposite of racist is not ‘not racist,’ but is anti-racist: to actively fight against racism rather than passively claim to be not racist.” She likened racism to a fire: If you are only admonishing the fire but not actively helping to put it out, then you are essentially allowing the fire to continue to burn.

Further discussion went into the differences between “equality” and “equity.” While the words are often used interchangeably, they mean different things. Working towards equality makes sense if individuals have the same access to resources and opportunities. Equity, on the other hand, aims to address individual needs. “While ‘equality’ is used for equal input, ‘equity’ is really seeking equal outcomes,” said Firstman.

Firstman referenced this image in explaining the difference between equality and equity (Interaction Institute for Social Change

Firstman referenced this image in explaining the difference between equality and equity (Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire)

Hickey helped to define “white privilege,” saying, “Even if you are not financially privileged, white individuals do not have added racism and oppressive systems acting as barriers against them.” Hickey also shared her personal experience. As a runner, Ahmaud Arbery’s story was eye-opening to her. Her ability to go for a run without fear was an example of the white privilege she experiences.

With an understanding of these terms, among others, individuals can come prepared to discuss racial equity and what it means to be an ally versus an agent in the movement. “‘Allyship’ is a blanket term we have used for a very long time,” said Smith. “It is not a dirty word; it is simply a generic word. It allows for some disconnect and separation. You can be a silent ally.”

Contrast this with the concept of an agent. “An agent is not limited or restricted to any one community based on your color, your gender, your creed. An agent is simply an active contributor. This term allows us to empower ourselves and take on responsibility to affect change, whereas an ally would passively hope for or be in favor of a more positive outcome,” said Smith. Moving towards agency means taking an active rather than passive role in the fight for racial equity.

What challenges do we face in building solidarity among those who care about racial justice?

One of the major challenges a community faces in building solidarity is the separation of those who bear the burden of racial inequity and those who do not, with the impetus for progress placed on the affected group. “Outsider-insider thinking is damaging because it removes those who have access to the most privilege and the highest probability of affecting major change. It leaves the responsibility on the disenfranchised group that doesn’t have access to decoding a system that it did not encode,” Smith explained.

She continued, explaining that it may be difficult for someone who wants to get involved to know what to do or where to start out of fear that those efforts will be perceived negatively. “We are in a time where everything is hyper-politicized. Everything you do informs how people perceive you politically. It creates a culture of debate where people say, ‘That’s not the issue, this is the issue,’” Smith said. She explains that what is required is a multifaceted approach that utilizes the varying perspectives and resources each individual brings.

How do we motivate ourselves and others to do more?

After a cross-country move, Hickey is trying to find ways to make personal progress in her new community in Oregon. “I am trying to look for where I can fit within the community. I would consider myself a non-racist, or an ally, and have since been educating myself and making moves to be more of an agent.” By educating herself on the community in which she now lives, Hickey is actively identifying where she can affect change.

Firstman, too, is making personal progress in a new city. “I asked myself, ‘Okay, how can I be an agent? How can I use my skills to really push the cause forward?’” After moving to California, she searched for a volunteer opportunity to teach financial literacy, the lack of which is an issue that disproportionately affects communities of color.

“What I have tried to do is to focus on the ways in which I am most equipped to help. That way, I can create a sustainable method for myself and for others to contribute,” said Smith. “In response to the racial reckoning happening, I have designed and created a collective simply intended to give people a space to explore where they are more equipped to contribute.” Smith’s collective, the Black Tea Party, features a cooperative model in which Black and non-Black contributors use their collective financial and civic powers to create ownership and reinvestment in society.

How can we work together to create lasting change?

Allowing room for change, correction, and discomfort allows for growth. “There’s a good chance I am going to say something wrong, but to me, you still have to get out there and have the conversations. I have to be okay with being wrong and take that feedback,” Firstman said. Hickey added, “It’s not a Black versus white issue. It’s ‘rising tides raise all boats.’ It’s getting out of your community where you feel comfortable and helping people.”

Smith ended, explaining the paradigm shift required at an individual level for meaningful change to take hold. “Get involved with something that can provide you with resources, something that can hold you accountable, something that can provide you some sense of community. What it is really going to take to make a difference is a shift in thinking.”

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