Last week was one of the most pivotal in my time at StriveTogether. We launched a Racial Equity Planning Team in partnership with individuals representing 15 members of the Cradle to Career Network. This group of amazing people has committed to develop an action plan for the Network to improve outcomes for black and brown kids.
Over my 18-year career — and especially over the last year and a half — I’ve been asked to launch a lot of meetings and planning efforts. (I should add metaphorical ribbon-cutting to my resume!) But the kickoff to last week’s StriveTogether Racial Equity Planning Team is long overdue and comes at a critical time for the Network and the country.
Something else happened last week on the same day our Racial Equity Planning Team first met. During a town hall meeting on CNN, Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks and possible 2020 presidential candidate, responded to a question about racism at Starbucks, saying that he “grew up in the projects and doesn’t see color.” Wait, what? I did a double-take wondering if he seriously just said that. But he did.
This is one of the most cringeworthy things that well-meaning white people say. And I get it. I do. My guess is that like me (and perhaps like many of you), Howard Schultz was taught to see racism only as individual acts of hatred — and not as the systems and structures that result in white dominance and privilege. And so if we’re “colorblind,” then we can’t be racist, right? Wrong.
Comments like this underscore how much more needs to be done to achieve StriveTogether’s vision of “every child, cradle to career.” Equity is at the center of our work as a Cradle to Career Network — I often say that equity is the work. With racial equity as a priority in our new five-year strategic plan, we are actively working to build the capability of cradle-to-career partnerships to close disparity gaps and create more equitable systems that lead to economic mobility for black and brown families.
The data makes it crystal clear that this is where we need to focus as an organization and network. Our recent assessment of communities across the Cradle to Career Network shows that the 67 partnerships in the Network impact 13.7 million students, 8.6 million (or 62 percent) of whom are students of color. When you take a closer look at this data, it is evident that systems are perpetually failing students of color. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. We know that systems and structures in our communities are designed to perpetuate these results. For this reason, the Network is doubling down on our efforts to transform systems so that race and income no longer dictate a child’s ability to thrive.
This is no small task and requires courageous leadership at all levels and across all sectors. I am grateful to be able to work with the diverse group of individuals who comprise the Racial Equity Planning Team as we unpack the key barriers facing communities. Together we will prioritize policies and practices needed to address those barriers.
In addition to this Planning Team work, StriveTogether continues to build our racial equity competency. Our organization recently has started holding racial affinity groups for staff. Once a month, I participate in a white anti-racist affinity group along with some of my colleagues. I can admit I was skeptical at first. I wasn’t sure how putting a group of white people together in a room could be productive — isn’t that just the recipe that has led to the outcomes we see today? And, if I’m honest, I can admit that my own white fragility had me a little freaked out about saying or doing the wrong thing, especially in my role. But as I’ve written about before, going on this journey to become a white leader for racial equity won’t be comfortable and will require learning in public, so that’s what I’m doing. And I’m learning and evolving and finding my voice. And anyone who knows me well knows that, once I find that voice, I usually don’t stay quiet.
Rather, I have started using my white privilege as a megaphone to help educate other white people, especially white leaders. And there are a lot of us. White people, especially white men, still dominate leadership roles in every sector. And it is not a surprise that, when reviewing the StriveTogether assessment data, we see that most cradle-to-career partnerships in the Network are led by white people.
Fellow white leaders in this work: This is very important and something I want to emphasize. Disregard what Howard Schultz said. You absolutely do see color. And you have to. Please, I’m begging you. Because if not, if you hide behind this idea of “colorblindness,” then you continue to whitewash history and the systemic oppression and injustice suffered by entire groups of people. I know that it makes you uncomfortable and maybe a little stressed. But don’t you think we should be made to feel uncomfortable and a little stressed? After all, the color of our skin privileges and protects us — we can probably handle a little stress and discomfort.
Because if we cannot see color, then we don’t end up naming race in this work. And if we can’t name race, then we won’t be able to challenge the systems and structures that perpetuate inequitable results. And if we can’t transform the systems, then we won’t be able to embrace or enable the future we strive for — a future in which every child has every opportunity to succeed and thrive from cradle to career.
I believe we can do all of this. We can see color; we can celebrate the beauty and opportunity in diversity. We can transform systems to achieve more equitable outcomes. We can be white leaders for racial equity.