By Zachary Gabriel Green, Ph.D.
AABLI Board Leadership Training Faculty
Professor of Practice, Leadership Studies, University of San Diego
The #BlackLivesMatter movement began in 2012 as a mere social media hashtag in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the non-conviction of his assailant. As the list of unarmed Black people who died in the face of police excess or under mysterious circumstances grew, a diverse array of strategists and activists responded to the call of the founders of this Internet effort. Further inspired to action by the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, a national movement was born. #BlackLivesMatter moved from seats at a computer to feet on the streets. Since that time, #BLM has become arguably the most powerful and prominent “ideological and political intervention” on issues affecting Black people in the United States.
The actions of #BlackLivesMatter have not been without controversy. In particular, the disruptions of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ remarks created a rift in the ranks of progressives. These disruptions were either deeply denigrated or loudly applauded at left, center, and right of the political spectrum. The result has been that the discourse on how Black lives matter has moved up on the national political agenda. Polling results suggest that for the first time in more than a decade, the majority of white Americans also recognize race relations as an issue that needs to be addressed in this country.
When we sit on boards–especially as the lone African-American–where one stands on #BlackLivesMatter is an implicit question. Whether we like it, accept it or agree with it, there often will be an unspoken presumption (or suspicion) that #BlackLivesMatter somehow represents our voice. Moreover, when one is the sole African-American member of a board, he or she has the burden and responsibility of representation, like it or not. “I am only speaking for myself,” one can say. “I cannot speak for all Black people.” This does nothing to change the circumstance, however, when one’s immediate audience has no other direct contact with African Americans.
Naturally, we must continue to educate our fellow citizens that the African American community is not a monolith. We must also routinely affirm that each of us has his or her own perspectives on issues of race. In the absence of a critical mass of Black voices, however, this may not always be clear. We may be called on for a quick opinion at any given moment, implicitly or explicitly, so it is incumbent upon us to know where we stand on such matters.
These challenging moments are opportunities for us to speak with clarity and conviction, to know the subtleties of the arguments for and against what #BlackLlivesMatter represents, and to recognize potential blind spots that could cause us to be reactive or defensive, a stance that could influence the board’s perception of our authority and credibility.
No doubt there will be generational and political differences in how this necessary skill is managed. Those who lived in the times of the Civil Rights Movement era tend to question the discipline and tactics of Black Lives Matter. Those in the generation that gained the benefits from civil rights can perhaps see both the benefit and the difficulties that the new movement represents. Millennials, in contrast, are likely to embrace the ambiguity, rawness, social media savvy and “in your face” stance that #BLM represents.
At AABLI, we invite those who are part of our process to be more cognizant and take responsibility for the invisible dynamics that are present on the board. Political perspectives are often in plain sight, even when unspoken. Complex dynamics are at work on boards, both at the micro level and–given the United States’ political climate–on the macro level. It would be a grave error in judgment and perception to see the micro and macro levels as disaggregated. They are connected.
As African American board members, we must not ignore or be naïve about the implications of our questions on budget or governance issues, our recommendations on fundraising, and our votes on the strategic direction of an organization, all of which bring color to the boards where we hold membership–in more ways than one.
It matters that we are Black in the lives of those influenced by our actions and in the eyes of those who are fellow participants in our board’s performance. In those moments, regardless of our personal views or attitudes about #BlackLivesMatter, we may often be perceived as its closest available proxy. Even if we’ve never written the hashtag or if we bristle when asked to speak on behalf of the lives of all Black people… it matters.
This blog is not written by aabli.org or The African American Board Leadership Institute. The author is solely responsible for the content.