Companies and organizations around the world, but especially in the U.S., have struggled to find relevance in the lives of their consumers and employees well before the Great Pepsi-Jenner Debacle of Spring 2017. So much so that Stanford Graduate School of Business is even offering a new course, "Strategy Beyond Markets," that aims to teach executives how to "anticipate and develop strategies to address critical beyond-market forces, from legislation and regulation to activism and the media."
It goes without saying that workers are impacted by currents events outside of their jobs, and customers by issues outside of their wallets. However, the increased presence of social media in people's lives (both as a conduit of genuine connection, as well as branding and marketing tool), has placed greater pressure on businesses to respond to the news cycle. Sometimes, the results are cringeworthy outcomes, at other times, they're uplifting.
Olayinka Akinsuyi, a science teacher at KIPP New Jersey, one branch of the KIPP charter school network, shared a screenshot on Instagram of the email sent out by Sarba Aguda, the managing director of KIPP New Jersey's Teaching & Learning Team, after the violence in Charlottesville, VA last weekend. The snapshot explained her decision to deviate from the site's normal schedule, choosing instead to allot some time to reflect on the impact of the weekend on KIPP students and faculty members.
Akinsuyi captioned it: "When your place of employment stays woke. #ittakesavillage #charlottesville."
In her full email, Aguda wrote:
"Part of our Heartbeat involves helping our kids navigate the things they see in the world around them – including injustice. This weekend, we saw some very disturbing, in-our-faces displays of white supremacist violence. If our kids were coming to school tomorrow, you all as teachers would want to create a space to discuss what happened in the classroom. Clearly, the events in Charlottesville this weekend meant that some incredibly overt examples of racism and hate were all over TV and social media, but we also know that racism and inequity are an ongoing, ever-present part of our society, and thus we have to confront and create space to discuss with our kids and teammates, even when this past weekend’s horrible events aren’t dominating the news cycle.
"We can’t and won’t just start with PD on Monday as if these events never happened. So, we will be beginning the day with some small group discussions that will give us the space to reflect and process in teams. Moreover, we are working on creating time and space during lunch for folks to continue the important conversations we will begin in the morning (more to come on that)."
KIPP NJ declined R29's request for comment, but Akinsuyi told us over email that even though her "personal working style doesn't necessarily need that kind of professional reinforcement," she understands that other people may "need the space and time to process and reflect, rather than just jumping right into work."
"It is erroneous to tell employees to not take things personally, when in fact that is exactly what they are: a person."
"It is erroneous to tell employees to not take things personally, when in fact that is exactly what they are: a person," Akinsuyi says. "I do think that organizational leaders that do not directly have any stakes with the populations involved in a tragedy or controversial current event shy away from bringing up the issues at work, in order to not make people uncomfortable. However, in my line of work as an urban educator, causing discomfort (especially to systems of oppression) is necessary."
Akinsuyi added that she feels proud to work for an organization that doesn't "suppress or sugarcoat what is going on in the world." Beyond considering what the letter meant to her as an individual, she was also able to connect with colleagues to talk about how racism and xenophobia displayed on such a national level impacts their community.
Racquel Quarless, the director of teacher support at OneGoal (a nonprofit that pairs teachers with underserved high-school students for college guidance), woke up to a similar email. "Please prioritize whatever you need for self-care — spiritually, emotionally, physically, and otherwise," wrote cofounder and CEO Jeff Nelson.
"The CEO of my company gets it.... and it completely reaffirms my work here," Quarless shared in an Instagram post. In his full email, Nelson centered the events in Charlottesville in the greater context of OneGoal's work, saying:
"We will find ways to speak out about these heinous acts. We know that there was nothing new about what happened this weekend. This type of domestic terrorism has played out over and over again since the violent inception of our country. While not new, there is something especially abhorrent about the location. The 'rally' was organized and executed on the grounds of one of the largest institutions of higher education in the nation – and a predominantly white institution at that. While hundreds of thousands of young Americans are working hard to prepare, pack, and get ready (emotionally, intellectually, and practically) for college, the terror events paint a symbolic picture of what first generation college goers often have to face in more subtle ways day in and day out on campus. New class orientation starts in four days at UVA. And we wonder why there is a persistent degree divide in America. We will find ways to speak up and out.
"Lastly, given that all of this is happening during such a critical period of time for our Fellows and alumni – please reach out if there are ways our organizational resources can be best applied to support Fellows, alums, PDs, and our partners during this stretch. Our young people need to know that they do not need to process alone and that there is a growing army of people standing alongside them in resistance."
OneGoal also declined Refinery29's request for comment. The organization did, however, post a letter to the community on the OneGoal website, encouraging students in particular to contact them on social media or through a private Google doc with any thoughts, questions, or concerns they might have — including "what OneGoal can do to better support Fellows [...] and all students as they head off to school this year."
In an email to Refinery29, Quarless repeated that Nelson's message "reaffirmed" both her work itself and her recent decision to switch careers and join the organization.
"My previous jobs would NEVER have taken such a powerful, self-care approach to political, social or racially-motivated current events," she told Refinery29 in an email. "Perhaps it was because I worked in sales and our fear was to 'not upset the customer' but it often left me unable to truly bring 100% of my full, authentic self to work."
Quarless says that she expected to have to go to work as if it were a normal day, "suppress and ignore" her concerns, and not discuss her personal concerns or worries in any way. So, to unexpectedly have someone at the very top of her organization create an opening to articulate her worries — including fear for friends and family who live a short distance away from the University of Virginia campus — made it easier for her to be more present than she would have been otherwise.
White supremacists publicly attacking people may have reignited a national conversation about racism, anti-Semitism, and violence in the U.S. that some people will always choose to opt out of or ignore. But when your organization purports to employ and support people in the communities at risk, staying silent could send a bad signal.
"It's an uneasy feeling at first as you recognize the fear and vulnerability associated with sharing your true opinion on an issue. However, while watching the news this weekend on the horrific, terroristic attacks at UVA, the reality of what could have been hits home even more," she says. "I truly wish more CEOs boldly spoke up about what affects their employees thus caring fully about the whole person working for them," she says.