Teaching Today’s Leaders to Champion Racial Equity

Through a new BattenX educational module, CEOs and nonprofit executives from across the globe are reckoning with systemic racism.

Graphic by Macy Brandon
Graphic by Macy Brandon.

Like so many other leaders across the country and around the world, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Mariah Levin heard a question repeated again and again in emails and phone calls to her office: What can we do?

Levin directs the Young Global Leaders program, a five-year educational opportunity sponsored by the World Economic Forum. Its participants are heads of state, ministers, business executives, and other leaders under 40 who have demonstrated extraordinary levels of accomplishment in their fields. 

In total, it’s a community of about 1300 people, and it was clear that they wanted action. In response, Levin turned to a former program participant: Batten School Dean Ian Solomon. Solomon helped lead UVA’s Racial Equity Task Force last year. 

“We didn't want to do something that was just talking for talking’s sake,” Levin said. “We wanted to figure out how to spark some type of systemic change.” 

Levin was hoping to offer a course that would teach leaders to dismantle systemic racism, and she wanted Solomon to lead it. But Solomon gave her an answer she didn’t expect.

“I said no, because we haven't figured out how to dismantle racism yet,” he said. “I share the aspiration one hundred percent, but the question is, how do we manage the reality that there's a lot of work to do?” 

Instead, Solomon suggested that the course help leaders better understand systemic racism—and then teach them to champion racial equity.

The resulting educational module, which is part of the Batten School’s BattenX programming, is being offered through a partnership between the Young Global Leaders program and the international consulting firm Accenture. It’s structured around the culture cycle, which includes four ways the concept of race plays out in society: through ideas, institutions, interpersonal interactions and individual attitudes. The course kicked off with four sessions on Zoom featuring members of the Batten School faculty who study racism in various contexts, as well as Accenture employees with expertise in building inclusive workplace cultures. 

At the end of the four days, participants took part in a role-playing activity where they were given a challenge: Convince your superiors at an imagined company to improve their inclusion initiatives. Solomon and other members of the Batten faculty played the company’s executive team, pushing back against the participants’ arguments by questioning whether it was a business’s role to support diversity efforts and expressing concern about how new recommendations might affect the bottom line.

Kieron Boyle, chief executive of Guy’s & St. Thomas’ Foundation, said hearing how they responded to his argument offered him and the other participants a valuable shift in perspective.

“We were taking our ideas to senior management, and that was interesting in its own right,” he said. “Lots of people on that call aren't in that position anymore, i.e., they are the leaders of their organizations, so people are coming to them. There was a moment of reflection for me, and I suspect for others as well: When this conversation is put in front of us, which of the parts that Dean Solomon and the faculty were acting do we ourselves act, without realizing it?”

Jacqueline Musiitwa, who sits on the boards of the International Refugee Commission and the nonprofit design firm IDEO.org, said she also saw a familiar conflict of interests surfacing during the activity. “It was definitely reflective of what could be the case in many different organizations, where managers are saying, ‘Look, I have a limited budget, why is this a greater priority than everything else I'm working on?’”

With participants pushing hard for their recommendations and Solomon and the faculty digging in their heels, the situation grew tense. Boyle said he recalled one of the core maxims from the course, connect before you correct, and attempted to build rapport with the executives first, asking them about their needs and concerns for the company.

Musiitwa, who was on Boyle’s team for the activity, took notice. By de-escalating the situation, she said, he helped the exchange feel safe again.

“I think in that context and at a wider societal level, the question is, how do we all come to the table authentically—with our pain, with our fear—and create safe spaces to have a conversation?” she said.

That work is ongoing, Solomon said. At 30 people, the class is intimate in size, but its participants hail from a range of places, from Switzerland to Hong Kong to Kenya, and help lead major organizations, such as Google and Amnesty International. As time goes on, they will have the power to collectively influence hundreds of thousands of people.

Solomon said he wanted to avoid calling the course “dismantling systemic racism” because he sees it as the first step on a much longer journey toward that goal. He asked module participants to create accountability plans for how they intend to help their organizations become more inclusive. Over the next nine months, students will attend periodic check-ins, where they’ll be asked to report on any progress. 

“I want to emphasize that this course is not over,” he said.

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