Supporting Black Staff In Times of Crisis: What Managers and Organizational Leaders Can Do To Support Black Lives

Aug 24, 2020

Bryce Celotto, M.A.T. (he/him)By Bryce Celotto, M.A.T. (He/Him)

Black people in America are fighting a war right now against white supremacy for the right to live. We are literally fighting for our lives. I do not use the phrase "fighting a war" lightly. I am Black, I am a historian, and I am also a veteran of the Army National Guard. The combination of my lived experience means that I have been trained to fight wars and to name historical patterns of violence and racial terror: from the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade to Selma to the streets of American cities in 2020.

In the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery (Georgia), Breonna Taylor (Kentucky)George Floyd (Minnesota), Tony McDade (Florida) and the many other Black people that have been killed due to racist police violence and white vigilantism people everywhere are rising up demanding justice. The protests raging across the country have left America resembling the Arab Spring of 2010-2012, rather than what many thought Summer 2020 would be when the year started. Police are becoming increasingly militarized and Governors continue to deploy National Guard troops at a pace that hasn't been seen since the 1992 Rodney King Riots or the general unrest of the 1960's Anti-Vietnam War protests. Recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper compared protests in cities across the country to "battlespace" encouraging police and National Guard units to "mass and dominate" the areas where protests are happening. That militarized language is the same language military leaders use in mission briefings overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan; but instead, this is the Secretary of Defense describing the streets of Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Minneapolis, and so many other American cities.

In the middle of the systemic racial terror being unleashed on Black and brown Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging on (which is hard to fathom). The effects of COVID-19 have only compounded the impact of racial terror that Black Americans are facing at this moment as numerous studies have confirmed what most Black people already knew: the virus is disproportionately killing Black people. In fact, Black people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. The COVID-19 pandemic also means that a large percentage of people who are still working are doing so remotely. This trifecta of increased State violence against Black people, the global COVID-19 pandemic, and work from home protocols has created a new, messy landscape for organizational leaders and managers to navigate. As a result of this coalescence I want to let managers and organizational leaders, particularly white managers and organizational leaders, in on a little secret:

Black Americans are tired. We are exhausted y'all.

These are the conversations I have been having with my fellow Black friends and colleagues who are working right now in the midst of national upheaval. Many have shared with me that the weight of living with constant fear, exhaustion, anxiety, and uncertainty has been crushing. What's more alarming is that many Black people also feel like their employers have not been making space for them to properly process or heal, even at progressive organizations or companies. Many of my Black friends and colleagues have shared that they still feel a constant pressure from their managers to maintain, or even increase, their already robust rate of productivity.

Productivity is still being valued over people, the status quo is being maintained in many workplaces and quite frankly that cannot happen right now during this time of monumental political, and personal disruption.

These conversations that I have had the past several days inspired me to write this article, to answer the question: "What can managers and organizational leaders due to truly, holistically support impacted staff during times of crisis?" Before I answer that question, let me define impacted staff for you:

Impacted Staff are Black and brown staff members. As a result of their racial identity, these staff members are facing increased stress, isolation, anxiety, and fear right now due to escalating State-sanctioned violence, unrest, and the global COVID-19 crisis. These staff members do not have the privilege of whiteness to shield them from what is happening right now. Impacted staff do not have the privilege of "opting out" of facing the realities of racism and systemic injustice like white staff members do. Additionally, impacted staff are more likely to work in the lowest rung, frontline positions of organizations, companies, and foundations - meaning they are likely doing the groundwork of organizing, doing direct service or education work that puts them in direct contact with the trauma of white supremacy more than white staff members who are likely in management or executive roles.

If you are a manager or organizational leader you have immense power and privilege right now. You also have an immense opportunity in front of you outside the confines of the traditional work environment to reimagine what a supportive workplace looks like. Here are 10 practical steps that you can take as a manager/organizational leader to specifically support impacted staff during this time of unprecedented crisis and Black death.

1. Adjust Deadlines for Deliverables or Projects (or better yet abolish deadlines when you can)

This is the simplest and most practical step to implement as a manager. If certain projects, deliverables, or emails can be pushed back then push them. If a deadline can be wiped away all together then do it. Trust your impacted staff that they know how to manage their time, their healing, and their work. Now is not the time to be a stickler about deadlines. You hired them because you believed they were competent, now show that.

2. Provide Impacted Staff with Flexible Work Schedule Options

A lot of workplaces are already engaging in creating more flexible work schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic, but be particularly mindful about allowing for flexibility for impacted staff right now. Look at the possibility of people working half-days one or two days a week, don't pry and ask questions if a Black staff member tells you they need time off, take another look at your organization's formal HR "Time Off" policy - ask yourself and your HR team how you can adjust the policy to be more mindful of the impact of trauma right now?

3. Start an Organizational Bail Fund For Staff That Choose To Engage In Protests and Have a Legal Support Plan

As more people take to the streets to exercise their Constitutional right to protest, more peaceful protesters are being arrested by law enforcement. Set up an organizational bail fund for staff members that choose to engage in protests. Priority for bail fund money should be given to impacted staff members in the event of their arrest. Also, going back to point one and two - provide your staff with the time off to engage in protest and civil disobedience if that is how they choose to invest their energy right now.

Additionally, have a legal support plan (in addition to the bail fund) to support impacted staff who may be arrested while protesting. This means having a lawyer or legal team (either inhouse as many large corporations already have inhouse counsel, a private firm you consult with, or a local legal aid organization) that staff can work with pro-bono or for a reduced fee in the event of their arrest. If a staff member does get arrested during a protest it should not be used again them in any performance evaluation or any other aspect of their work.

4. Provide Impacted Staff With Funds For Their Wellness and Mental Health

Points 4 and 5 tie together - if your organization's budget allows for it to provide impacted staff with a stipend of some sort (Somewhere in the $200-$300 range minimum, again depending on your organization budget) to pay for wellness and mental health resources right now. There should be no restrictions on this funding regarding what it can and can't be used for: staff could use it for virtual therapy sessions, home workout equipment to blow off steam, new office supplies to enhance their work from home space, etc. Many organizations already give staff members professional development (PD) budgets each year to use for conferences, workshops, etc. Given that many traditional forms of professional development have been put on hold right now due to COVID-19 restrictions, PD budget money could easily be redirected into a wellness/mental health fund. White staff members could also contribute to building an internal wellness/mental health fund for impacted staff with their own donations as an act of solidarity towards impacted staff.

A free/low-cost option is having a white staff member (or committee of members) volunteer time to aggregate a list of free/low-cost resources (i.e mediation apps, local services, podcasts, self-guided mediations, etc.) into a Google Doc or shared document that is shared with the entire team for self-care resources.

5. Pay Impacted Staff Hazard Pay

Your impacted staff are working under hazardous conditions right now. As Shenequa Golding recently stated in her Medium article Maintaining Professionalism In the Age of Black Death Is...A Lot "I just witnessed the lynching of a black man, but don’t worry Ted, I’ll have those deliverables to you end of day." Managers and organizational leaders need to understand that Black people are working under extreme duress right now - therefore they should be compensated accordingly. This is especially true if you are asking impacted staff in your organization to do extra emotional labor by facilitating conversations on race, or having them lead Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives right now.

6. Release an Organizational Statement on Police Brutality/Racial Injustice

Releasing a statement expressing explicit support for protestors, impacted communities, and condemning the increased militarization of police is critical right now. A statement that does not clearly condemn police violence, white vigilante violence, racial terror, and the continued lynching of Black people has no purpose other than performative "allyship". Releasing a statement that is explicit in its support and intentions shows your impacted staff that organizational leadership is not afraid to take a public stance about defending the very lives and liberty of its Black employees (and their communities nationwide). Ideally, this statement should be written by impacted staff (which yes they should be compensated extra for) if they have the emotional capacity to do so. If you do not have impacted people on your staff (ask yourself why...), or if your impacted staff does not have the emotional capacity, pay a Black writer or Black-led consulting firm to collaborate with you on the project.

7. Create Space To Have Hard Conversations About Police Brutality/Racial Injustice in Affinity Groups

Carve out dedicated space and time to have meaningful conversations about police brutality, racial injustice, and systemic State violence. These conversations should take place in affinity groups; meaning all the white staff should be on one video call, and impacted staff should be on another video call. Splitting up into affinity groups rather than having one large group conversation is crucial for the success and authenticity of this process.

Splitting up into affinity groups creates space for white staff members to interrogate whiteness and grapple with their role in upholding white supremacist systems without impacted people having to be present to hold their feelings.

For impacted staff, affinity groups create a safe space for Black and brown people to heal from centuries of racial trauma and violence in a space free from the white gaze and the judgment of traditional "professionalism". It is ideal to bring in outside facilitators to facilitate these conversations (there are great facilitators in both realms: white people dealing with whiteness and POC folks dealing with generational trauma and self-care). For the white staff affinity group, there should be clear outcomes and action items on how white staff are going to actively work to dismantle systems of oppression within themselves, and the organization.

8. Ask Impacted Staff Directly What They Need To Be Supported, and Be Genuinely Curious About Their Answers

This may seem obvious but it needs to be said: Managers and organizational leaders need to lean into the discomfort of asking impacted staff directly what they need to feel seen, supported, heard, and safe. This requires organizational leaders to truly humble themselves to engage with impacted staff in a way that is authentic and does not minimize Black staff's thoughts, feelings or expertise. Remember: impacted staff are subject matter experts when it comes to experiencing racism. Their voices should not be drowned out, and instead should be intentionally centered.

Simply asking "As your manager, I want to show up and support you during these challenging times - what can I do better, or what can the organization do for you to make sure you feel seen right now?" can go a long way. The other half of this is that managers and organizational leaders must be willing to listen to impacted staff and take their feedback and turn it into tangible action and outcomes in a collaborative manner that doesn't co-opt the ideas of impacted staff leadership.

Note: If you ask "As your manager, I want to show up and support you during these challenging times - what can I do better, or what can the organization do for you to make sure you feel seen right now?" and the impacted staff member says they do not want to talk, or aren't ready yet THAT IS OK. Do not continue to push or pry impacted staff on sharing their feelings if you've already approached them and they've made it clear that they need more space to heal and process everything.

9. Stop Asking Impacted Staff If They Have Seen Videos of Police Violence, Murders, Etc. Stop Sharing These Videos With Impacted Staff Without Their Consent (yes that means in group email threads and Slack conversations too)

I've had several friends tell me that non-impacted co-workers of theirs have actually shared the viral video footage of George Floyd's or Ahmaud Arbery's murder with them on email chains or in staff chat groups, or in personal communications. This is not ok. I repeat - please do not share violent video or audio of police breaking up protests or murdering Black people with impacted staff without their consent. For many impacted people seeing video footage or hearing audio of the constant racial violence is traumatizing.

10. Let Impacted Staff Lead

Most importantly let your impacted staff lead the way as events with racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racial violence continue to unfold across the United States over the coming days, weeks, months, and years. Letting impacted staff lead means trusting their expertise on racial justice, trauma, and healing; it means trusting their lived experience over Whiteness. Letting impacted staff lead really is what this article is all about: uplifting impacted voices, paying them for their extra labor right now, having them be the organizational voices writing press releases and creating content but also letting them step back when they need to and not exploiting their lived experience as marginalized people in the United States. It is a tricky process for many managers and organizational leaders, and guess what? That is ok. For white managers and organizational leaders right now this isn't about centering your feelings or your needs. This isn't about you being perfect when it comes to racial justice and equity because guess what? You are likely going to make mistakes. That is OK. White managers and organizational leaders have to be ok with stepping outside the bubble of perfectionism. What is important right now for white managers to understand is that now is the time to approach your impacted staff with humility and empathy.

It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list of strategies that managers can, and should use, to support impacted staff right now during this time of unprecedented crisis. This is simply the beginning of reimagining workplaces to truly support and hold Black people, our lives, our feelings, and our humanity.

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About the Author

Bryce J. Celotto is the Founder and Head of Strategy at Swarm Strategy, a holistic, comprehensive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consulting agency based in Oakland, California.

Bryce is a proven leader in creating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and is also a skilled facilitator, trainer, writer, and public speaker. Prior to starting Swarm, Bryce led DEI initiatives at Brown University for the Education Department and at The Edible Schoolyard Project. Bryce has been committed to creating more equitable and accessible systems in education, progressive politics, and the social justice movement for almost a decade. He has a deep interest in organizational change, leadership development, and building talent pipelines to move more young professionals from marginalized backgrounds into leadership roles. His proven track record of success includes service on state-wide policy coalitions and training thousands of people nationwide on civic engagement, inclusion in the classroom, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice.


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