How can corporations authentically engage with and support the BLM movement? For that, we turn to Jeff Furman, President of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation who spoke on this topic at the 2019 Engage for Good conference.
Before 2012, we did some basic things (we had D&I work, we hired folks, we celebrated MLK day – this basic kind of work). In 2012, it was the killing of Trayvon Martin that impacted our Board and our Company so much that we could no longer stand by and play around the edges of racial justice. Some company had to come out and challenge what is happening to our people of color.
I don’t know if it was because we were parents and you worry on a whole different level. Or was it because of all the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, who motivated us to stand up?
We know that racism is one of the country’s greatest tragedies and threats. Despite being deeply rooted in our culture, it’s difficult to talk about. I’m going to try to talk about this.
We began to learn about systemic racism. In all our institutions. From healthcare to education to employment to wealth to criminal justice. We understood that challenging racism was rarely on the radar screen of the private sector.
We felt it was essential to learn to be humble and understand that we are not saviors but just allies in this struggle. We would make mistakes but we had to be fully committed. This meant no one-off’s, no retreating and no greenwashing.
We had to be fully transparent and advocate within our company and outside. If we were going to be impactful, we would expect pushback from the things we did. We were going to get pushback from the things we didn’t do. And pushback when we did something wrong.
Now all that is fine but how does a predominately white ice cream company based in Vermont get engaged? What do we really know? What do we really understand?
We first brought together individuals and groups that had been doing this work for a long period of time.
We learned immediately that we had to get out of the office and we had to go south. We went to Greensboro, NC and brought 30 employees from the company at all levels. Greensboro, NC is where the four students sat in the Woolworth’s counter in 1961 and three days later there were 300 people and three months later that action was happening in 50 cities.
We learned that none of us are expected to finish the work for justice but neither are we free to abandon it. Someone once described the justice journey as an endless pilgrimage of the heart. We learned about the importance of hope and the responsibility to keep hope alive by taking action.
We learned about the many who worked diligently with grace and commitment and, at great personal risk. We learned that democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is a becoming, rather than a being. And that it’s the most important thing for making America possible. We learned that the structure for voting rights is far from over.
We took that knowledge and a few of us were able to meet with Congressman John Lewis to get his guidance. Since then, we have used our voice in support of Black Lives Matter. Our employees have taken this on and brought it to the Board to say that they wanted to support BLM. We have used our voice to talk about systemic racism. We have used our voice to challenge the current status of school segregation. We have supported the voting rights struggle by coming out with a flavor called “Empowermint”. We have taken an active role in supporting the Poor People’s Campaign.
We have brought employees to Oakland to learn about mass incarceration. And this fall we will be in Montgomery, Alabama to visit the lynching museum and the Rosa Parks Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative. We will take a bike ride in New Orleans in a place called “cancer alley” which represents the most horrible environmental racism you can imagine where there’s a high incidence of cancer from the refineries. They are now putting in a $1.6 billion plastic firm that is also going to be a pollutant.
Last November we were in Florida fighting for Amendment 4 to get passed, which gives felons the right to vote. The most amazing revelation to me is that once you get a glimpse of the fundamentals of racism you start to see it everywhere and understand its intentionality. I realize that we are all tempted (myself included) to believe that ending racism, poverty or war are not possible for ourselves, for our children and for our nation. I recognize that it is easy to feel discouraged when we look at this day to day but we have to imagine a future beyond our lifetime.
I stand up here not as an advocate of using activism as a tool to create customer loyalty or points of difference (although I admit that Ben & Jerry’s has been successful because of its activism and I believe that’s just because it’s been a natural part of its DNA). I stand here as an advocate of the power of business community to play a significant role in challenging our growing culture of hate, our growing and immoral income wealth divide, our racial and gender divide.
I’m here to advocate that once we recognize the climate crisis or the refugee crisis or any injustice, we understand that keeping quiet, saying or doing nothing, is as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either we are responsible as a business or not.
We may never know what results may come of our actions. But if we do nothing, there will be no change.
There are those who say that justice is none of our business. That Ben & Jerry’s should stick to ice cream. But that’s just as there were those who say that businesses should not care about the environment but now speaking about the environment and climate issues is OK. It is also OK to speak about justice.
And what we choose to emphasize in our work and in our business will determine our lives and those of our children. It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize and accept our difference. And yes, justice comes in many flavors.
If we don’t speak up, Ben & Jerry’s will be irrelevant. The world does not need another ice cream company. It has been said that if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work. But rather help them to yearn for the endless beauty of the sea.
We can begin this journey by standing in solidarity with our younger generation who are about hope and despair. About saying “yes” to life. And “no” to hate. About finding the courage to love and care for the health of this world and all upon it. Who care what we do about clean water, clean air and healthy soil, the very things that give us life.
Each of us in this room has a little spark of madness. I encourage us to reinvigorate this madness, to enjoy it, to use it, to love it and never let it go. I encourage us to bring our deepest self to our work, including that spark of madness, including our own dreams and hope. And don’t forget to sing more, dance more and laugh more. And maybe, just maybe, the world will be more just, more joyful and more kind.