September 28, 2013

A lesson in social change from the 2013 B Corp Champions Retreat

3 minute read, in Business / Social Issues

I love the minutes of my day, helping interesting people solve important problems. I love the hours, defining the conceptual models that inform what we design for these clients.

But. In the aggregate. At the end of the day. I occasionally wonder whether we’re making a useful dent. Whether we’re sufficiently contributing to change.
And the notion that we’re playing  such a small part can be disheartening.

Last week’s B Corp retreat pretty much followed the previous year’s format, with one, perspective altering exception: We were asked to read Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”.

We all know Dr. King’s oratorial prowess. But reading the letter, one can’t help but be blown away by the man’s philosophical, tactical and persuasive writing.

The letter was penned on scraps of paper and a newspaper margin given to him by a janitor while he was in Jail for ‘civil disobedience’. And it was in response to a public statement by 8 Alabama clergymen urging Dr/ King to stop agitating, and instead let their moderate efforts to create change take their course.

If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it as an adult, it’s worth a review to consider several massive ideas. But this post isn’t about those ideas. Or Dr. King. Or even the B Corp retreat. It’s about you. And me. I’ll tell you how.

Prior to the session where we would discuss the letter, we saw a short video of the discussion model we were about to use. In it, we heard the story of a discussion between President Kennedy and Dr. King.

Kennedy congratulated Dr. King on his efforts and said he supported them, but there was one initiative he couldn’t support, called the “Children’s Crusade”, which saw students in streets, peacefully demonstrating, sitting-in segregated stores and lunch-counters and confronting police, police dogs and firehoses. Kennedy wanted them to stop marching.

Dr. King explained that he hadn’t started the initiative, so he would need to confer with its organizer, a man named James Bevel. When he did, James reportedly said they wouldn’t stop. In fact, they’d march all the way to Washington if that was what it would take to bring equality to Alabama.

According to the story, when Dr. King reported back to President Kennedy, there was a long pause before he said “all right Martin”, you win.

The world knows Dr. King from his amazing rhetorical and oratory skills, for his resolve, ending up on the cover of time and for winning a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts.

What I took away from the story was the notion that like a chessboard, all players in a conflict are critical. The kids in the street, James Bevel, other civil rights movement leaders with other initiatives, even the white police, politicians and business leaders who clung to their ways at the expense of their humanity were instrumental in bringing the Civil Rights Act into being.

I find the reminder that we all play a role–that leaders are actors on stage who need everyone to play their part for the performance to come off…heartening.

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