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September 16, 2019 Outside the box

Speak up for more than just yourself

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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My daughter has a sticker on her favorite water bottle reading: “Be a good human.” I asked her what that means, and she said, “It means to be kind, respectful, and thoughtful of all people and the earth we live on.”

This relates to how we behave as social beings. I often contemplate historical narratives of positive change and progress for social justice, particularly those supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion, in order to better understand current workplace change dynamics. History shows a clear pattern: Most of us are driven by self-interest, which is anchored in primal instincts of survival driving us to care for our own; meaning individuals focus on protecting those with similar identities to themselves.

This is rooted in a family-first mentality. As we expand from the microcosm of family to reflect on the larger society – local, national, and global – we must recognize our tendency to act as social justice champions, tied specifically to the things personal to us.

With this, history shows people with power are not willing to give it up, expanding beyond family first. In most cases power only shifts when there is no other choice but to change course.

This mentality is short-sided and reactive (vs. proactive) and will not garner long-term success in our growing multicultural economies. If you are the CEO and you only care about the things impacting you, how can you possibly encourage, support, and empower an inclusive work environment for all employees and cater to multicultural clients? Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders must set the example to work beyond self-interest.

Men have kept men in power for generations, but to do better, women in power must recognize it is irresponsible to only give attention to the needs of women. A prominent DEI leader for a major corporation in Framingham shared with me he sat in on a call with all women executives discussing women in leadership; what they needed to be more empowered, and what the organizational deficiencies were. When he was asked what his thoughts were as the organization’s champion for equity and inclusion, he stated there needed to be more men in on the discussion to listen and engage the needs voiced by women.

Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) was a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany. He became an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He embodied social justice advocacy, illustrated most pointedly when he said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

There is a complex matter regarding power embedded in the identity of the Niemoller; as a white man, he had more social privilege compared to most, allowing him more safety to speak out. Even though his actions were met with punishment, I imagine had he been a black man, he would have been murdered for his outspoken rebellion.

Where would we be if there were no social justice champions fighting for people with plights not of their own? What would our society look like without allies? People with the least privilege are forced to focus on self-interest, because the very nature of their oppressed status forces them to be insular, or otherwise destruct. To this end, it is imperative allies with more privilege support the needs of people and communities with less privilege.

There is nothing wrong with taking care of your own, but I urge you to be better than innately human, driven by self-interest. Strive to be a good human, one who extends more kindness, and give more care and thought to the needs of people not your own.

Bonnie J. Walker is the interim director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 15 years. Contact her at

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