“When the dust settles, I wonder if I will actually change?” 

A non-black POC friend recently mused on Facebook. After weeks of emotionally charged posts about the marches and protests – this time feels different, but then it always does.

Another friend, a black designer, admitted she is less hopeful. “I’m tired. I’ve been here so many times, I can’t get my hopes up.”  The struggle has been going on her entire life. 

When things break down, and I think the dumpster fire that’s been 2020, counts as a breakdown, we can either return to business as usual as soon as we can – or we can try something new. In The Happiness Hypothesis, American psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, “There is a window of time – just a few weeks or months after [a] tragedy – during which you are more open to something else.” 

What can we do before this window closes? It begins by understanding and owning our power. Access to money and the power of state may feel out of reach, but we have the power of the people, and we have the power to establish social norms about how we treat each other. 

Since my area of expertise is in behavior change, I thought I’d share some tips from the research to make this process sustainable – while we have both the attention, the will and momentum. 

Making Anti-Racism a Habit 

When confronted with a trauma or a crisis – it’s productive to both take action and engage in sense making. This allows us to move our good intentions from our head, into practice.  After consulting on dozens of change projects, change often comes down to whether people feel like it. Change is like any new skill from playing piano to swinging a bat, you have to engage in deliberate practice to make it last. 

A few things to keep in mind. 

  • A small action is better than nothing. We can get caught up in our anxiety – worrying that we are doing the wrong thing or not enough. Many of us are well advised to start before we are ready.
  • Make it easy. Dan and Chip Heath in Switch, talk about creating the path, to set yourself up for success. Make it easy and if possible automatic to start and maintain your habit. 
  • Keep aligned with your values. One way we can do this is by noticing how we feel when our values are challenged.  When we notice racism and people being put down – it often feels bad and inconsistent with how we see ourselves and how we want people to see us. Use your feelings like data, an emotional cue to form a new habit, by practicing allyship or speaking up.

You may be surprised when you speak up, how many of your teammates will be grateful for the opportunity to stay aligned with their values. As a leader you are also signalling that living up to your values — even when it’s inconvenient — is valued. 

Five Tips to Start Immediately. 

As a coach and strategist, all five of these habits do double and triple duty – serving you well in whether you are negotiating a deal, securing a raise, or debating your ten year-old over bedtime.

1. Practice Active Listening. Start to follow diverse voices on social media. The nice thing about doing this is it’s pretty much automated and should provide you with ongoing perspectives. Take a minute right now and follow leaders like, 

  • Rachel Elizabeth Cargle – @RachelCargle
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge – @renireni
  • Ijeoma Oluo – @IjeomaOluo
  • Ibram X. Kendi – @DrIbram

You may also consider following hashtags and seeking out less polished voices. I started doing this in 2012 on Tumblr, listening to younger informal comments helped me cultivate compassion for emergent perspectives – even when I did not always agree, which brings me to,   

2. Practice Being Uncomfortable.  Notice what is painful to hear and what you resist. Notice the feeling in your body. For example, I don’t like being lumped in with “All White People.” It makes me feel tense and I tighten up. The result is, I am more likely to be disagreeable, more likely to argue and contradict whatever I am hearing or reading. This can be intensified when other people display big emotions like anger, and pain. When I feel that tightening happen, I take a breath and double down on listening. I try to access my curiousity, under the fire of anger there is usually an experience of injustice. If we can connect and understand the sense of unfairness, and bring the other person into the space of calm, trust and respect – then we can get to work. When we solve problems from that space, we turn an adversary into an ally. Honestly when that happens there is no better feeling. 

3. Commit to Community – Broaden your tribe and seek mentors from all sides. Challenge yourself to connect with people that make you really uncomfortable in different ways. Choose to see “challenging” as a good thing. The process of resolving conflicts teaches us to trust. Having a relationship with a broad group of people helps us course correct. 

For example, I had a conservative client, an executive who had trouble recognizing faces, technically it wasn’t prosopagnosia, but it was similar. While discussing civil matters he commented that he literally doesn’t see color. I know him well, and I trust him – but he doesn’t read the blogs I do. So as his friend I was able to give him a bit of historical context for what it often means when folks like him say “I don’t see color,” how it is too often used to dismiss or minimize the experience of other Americans. Of course, he was embarrassed, since is words did not match his meaning. Fortunately, he didn’t need to convince me, I knew him and was able to coach him to use words that better fit his intention. 

4. Prepare to Mess up. If you do this work, you’re going to piss someone off – accept that as a given. Part of that is people are hurting. It’s also ok to disagree. Some will say we go too far, some not far enough. Some will assume our allyship is performative or just PR, or a shallow cynical maneuver. As Mother Theresa said, you will be criticized for doing the right thing for the right reasons, it doesn’t matter, do it anyway. Yes, something may come up and we may be wrong and held to account by people who are not compassionate and just want to tear us down.  Practicing 1, 2 and 3, and listening for understanding may help mitigate and reduce the risk of messing up. Even then things change, messing up is part of the process. Messing up and course correcting is almost always better than doing nothing. When you are wrong apologize as quickly and as sincerely as possible. Move confidently knowing you are doing the best you can in the moment, and that’s all any of us can do.

5. Embrace Transparency and Accountability. When we make public statements, it’s a signal. We’re drawing a line in the sand by declaring our values. The hope is when we do that we embolden others to do the same – we are establishing the norms. People may push you to do more (or less). Other people will gladly tell you when you’ve been wrong or haven’t lived up to your ideals. As uncomfortable as this is, embrace it. Don’t let yourself off the hook, – do the best you can and then do better. 

Making these little shifts, 1 percent actions to be better every day. This is the un-glamourous process of making lasting change – it’s a marathon not a sprint. 

As a bonus, when you learn a new habit and practice your values it helps you build true confidence. 

What gives me hope? 

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, when asked this question on a recent 60 minutes bluntly said, 

“Well I don’t know of anything in the history of black people in this country in which I’ve read some account, in which it ended with, “and then they gave up.” That’s just not what we do. I know that we work for the future of our children and our grandchildren and their children. That’s our obligation, we don’t have any other choice.”

That grit determination is the quintessence of what it means to be American. 

Frankly, as a daughter of a carpenter, I’d be ashamed if I hesitated for even a second to roll up my sleeves and get to work. This is not a fight we can ever, ever give up on. 

This is our moment to rally in service of a vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that surpasses the wildest most brilliant dreams of our founders. 

About the AuthorHeather Ingram is an organizational designer and people strategist – at the intersection of wellness, management, and game theory. Her new book, Applied Flow, helps employees and organizations create boundaries to create flow and prevent emotional burnout.

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