The Learning Journey We’re On

Posted 06.17.2020

I’ve had a lot of conversations with corporate leaders over the past couple of weeks that have all focused on variations of the same question, “What can I do to help end racism?” This is one of those times when I’m glad that the conventional wisdom on how to coach others is that it’s more about the questions than the answers. I’m good at asking questions, but on the topic of ending racism, don’t have a lot of answers based on long-term personal experience.

Like a lot of other white people, I’ve learned more about racism and its impact in the past two weeks than I have in the rest of my life combined. I’m not at all proud of that fact; the lessons were certainly there to be learned if I had been paying closer attention. That said, I’m grateful to be on the learning journey I’m now on and to be sharing it with so many others who have a new commitment to bringing more social justice, equality of opportunity and grace to the world.

A learning journey moves through four stages of competence:

  • The first is unconscious incompetence which is the stage of not knowing what you don’t know. That’s where a lot of white people, including me, were until a couple of weeks ago. Then, George Floyd was murdered on camera by a police officer and that was the tipping point that led to millions of people worldwide demonstrating to make the point that black lives matter and millions of conversations about what it’s like to live as a person of color.
  • Those protests and conversations have led me and a lot of other people to stage two of the learning journey: conscious incompetence. Now, I’m beginning to recognize and understand what I didn’t know. This is really uncomfortable because, again, there were plenty of stories and people that I could have engaged with to learn more but didn’t. The super saturated learning of the past few weeks have opened a lot of eyes including mine to the necessity of being engaged in ensuring true liberty and justice for all.
  • Next will come conscious competence in which I learn from my mistakes and become incrementally more effective at being an advocate and an activist for anti-racist policies, practices and ways of living.
  • The final stage of the learning journey is unconscious competence in which the new knowledge and skills become almost second nature or automatic. I don’t think I want to reach that stage in this case because I don’t want to ever assume that I know enough about how to make society more just.

So, all of that raises the question, how do those of us who need to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence make that shift? I don’t begin to have all the answers but here are some early steps that have been helpful to me and the leaders I’ve been talking with:

Listen, Learn, Amplify: This is advice that I saw early and that I and a lot of my clients have been doing. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard about and had the opportunity to attend online panel discussions that my corporate clients have organized for their team members to listen to and learn from the life experiences of their black colleagues. They’ve been both illuminating and extremely moving. There are countless videos and articles that have been released in the past few weeks that share the experience of being black in America that are must-views and must-reads. I shared two of those from Trevor Noah and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a recent blog post and this powerful video from newly appointed U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., on LinkedIn.

Connect: A lot of us have been struggling with what to say when we check in with black friends and colleagues during this time. For now, I’ve landed on a couple of simple questions to start the conversation – how are you doing and how can I help?

Read: You may have seen that last week’s New York Times bestseller list was filled with books on the black experience and anti-racism. I’ve been reading two of those, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and have had my perspective productively challenged by both. A re-read of Between the World and Me by the great Ta-Nehisi Coates is next on my list. If you’re looking to expand and deepen your thinking, check out this list of books from Harvard Gazette that my friend and colleague Greg Pennington shared with me and others. My wife, Diane, shared this extensive collection of non-fiction and fiction books from the New York Public Library and the Schomburg Center Black Liberation Reading List.

March: One morning last week, I received a text message with a couple of photos from a friend and client named Ryan. He and his teenage son, Drew, were marching in the vicinity of Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.. One of the pictures Ryan sent was of Drew with his arm over the shoulder of a young black boy named Drue wearing a t-shirt that said “I can’t breathe.” The picture both broke my heart and warmed it at the same time. Diane and I can’t march because of the mix of COVID and pre-existing health conditions. I’m sorry we can’t be out there but am grateful for those who are.

Give: When you’re new to an issue that is capturing your heart and mind but don’t have a lot of expertise to bring to bear directly, it makes sense to give to organizations who organize experts and others to make a difference. Diane and I have found that to be a good way to stay involved and informed over the years and added the Equal Justice Initiative to our list this week. As The New York Times reports, we weren’t alone; donations to groups like EJI and Black Lives Matter have broken all records in the past couple of weeks.

Is any or all of this enough? Of course not, but those of us who are new to the movement have to start somewhere and these seem like reasonable places to start. One of my favorite quotes comes from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden – “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.” That’s my goal in this and all things – to get a bit better each day in the service of accomplishing great things. No doubt, I’ve already made mistakes on this new journey and will make some more as I go. I hope that when I do more knowledgeable and experienced people will point out my mistakes to me so I can apologize and learn from them. That, after all, is why we call it a learning journey.

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