Realizing Normalcy Has Taken a Leave of Absence

Full disclosure: I am Black. And I am not OK.

We’ve all learned that a crisis births a new norm. I still remember the days my mom could pick me up from the gate after my flights, before the 9/11 tragedy. 

Both the COVID crisis and the “other crisis” have helped me learn that the casual ‘hope all is well’ and ‘how are things?’ land a bit differently when people are in a constant fear for their personal safety. The well-intentioned ‘have a great weekend’ doesn’t have the same jolly ring when the mere thought of stepping outside of our homes strikes fear. Optimism wanes with every uptick in victim statistics, especially when many are left wondering whether leaders are doing all they can to keep them safe.

The silver lining of the past few months has been the astounding level of empathy and solidarity inspired among leaders and colleagues on account of the COVID crisis. The steady flow of published thought pieces, company bulletins, and virtual ‘check-ins’ have proven that we have the fortitude to collectively rise above the COVID crisis with our colleagues and friends.

Crises present the sobering realization that impressive titles and credentials are great for resumes, but leave us ill-equipped to confront some of the unexpected challenges life throws our way. But then again, it’s through navigating times of uncertainty and fear where leaders truly earn their stripes. While there is nobility in management as a profession, assuming this honor amidst a crisis gives weight to Professor Christensen’s belief that “no other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow.”

Conversations with my friends working across different industries have left me wondering whether other business and thought leaders have been applying the same tools and frameworks for colleagues dealing with the “other crisis” – police brutality in the US.

Lest you think there isn’t, there IS another crisis at hand.

How Do We Know If There Is A Crisis?

Before addressing what we can do, it’s important we first believe that there is a crisis. For anyone yet to feel the heat of the “other crisis”, the protests across the US are the alarm. The murder of George Floyd is not the fire; rather, a powerful gust of wind that stoked a forest of flames.

A 2019 University of Michigan study (based on police-reported incidents) showed that about 100 in 100,000 Black men and boys are killed by police in the US. For context, that makes black males two and half times more likely to be killed by police than White males and two times more likely than Latino males. To put that into context, I extrapolated the US COVID-19 mortality rate in April (the most fatal month thus far) to a full year, discovering that about 200 in 100,000 people will be killed by COVID in the US.

Mapping Police Violence

There are two stark differences between these threats – or crises – if we agree. For one, the COVID crisis is caused by an invisible, merciless contagion, while the “other crisis” is at the hands of law enforcement professionals who have vowed to protect and serve our communities. The second difference is that only the former has brought our society to a near stand-still.

To be clear, I’m by no means insinuating all US law enforcement officers are akin to Coronavirus. Rather, the figures are meant to illustrate the severity of the “other crisis” which has existed long before 2020 and shows no signs of slowing down.

We’re Amidst A Global Pandemic - Why Is This So Pressing Today?

The line drawn between our personal and professional lives is more blurred now than ever before. For many, our place of dwelling and work are one and the same. When meetings now feature echoes of children or barking dogs and involve virtually inviting colleagues into our homes, people cannot seamlessly turn one off to fully engage with the other.

The widely felt concerns for personal safety and for the lives of our loved ones, and anxiety in public spaces due to Coronavirus are, for some, exasperated by the threat of the “other crisis”. While the COVID crisis is promised to be under better control, the “other crisis” has remained steadfast and appears to be escalating, and technology is enabling previously undocumented cases to finally be seen.

Our colleagues’ mastery of “covering” has allowed them to muster up the energy to “show up” every day, seemingly unbothered by the “other crisis” pacing outside their doorsteps, whether or not they’re ‘on the clock’. Know that all is not well. Know that having a great weekend has not been easy.

Headlines over the past few months have been a reminder that our globally shared new norm brought on by Coronavirus has not mitigated the "other crisis".

  • Ahmaud Arbery: this 25-year-old was chased down and shot three times by two neighbors, one a retired police officer. Echoes of Trayvon Martin. The District Attorney blocked arrests of the suspects, allowing them to remain free, until video evidence was leaked.
  • Breonna Taylor: this 26-year-old, award-winning EMT was shot 8 times in her home by Kentucky police during a “botched” raid, targeting the wrong home. Echos of Atatiana Jefferson. Making matters worse, Breonna’s boyfriend was charged with attempted murder for standing his ground against the unexpected intruders.
  • George Floyd: this father to a six-year-old was choked to death by a Minnesota police officer while handcuffed. George is seen in the video crying out, “I can’t breathe” over the course of several minutes before his body laid limp. Echoes of Eric Garner. The officer was placed on paid administrative leave.

Jarring as these stories may be, they are only amplifications of countless deaths not recorded on camera or tallied in the margins of our news stations. Unfortunately, measures taken to socially distance, shelter in, or fend off threats to the respiratory system couldn’t save these victims from the “other crisis”.

Some have even gone so far as to weaponize the "other crisis" to intimidate the susceptible. A couple weeks ago, in a video that went viral, Amy Cooper is seen calling 911, hysterically pleading for police to be sent, claiming an “African American” was “threatening [her] and [her] dog”. This was a lie in response to a man out bird-watching who asked her to put a leash on her dog, in accordance with park rules.

Placed in the context of the COVID crisis, Amy’s act is the equivalent of intentionally coughing in the direction of a known asthmatic requesting 6 feet of space. Even if the very act may not result in death, the fear meant to be imposed on this law-abiding victim only further legitimizes the threat at hand.

What Can We Do About It?

We can do more than we think. Frankly, anything more than nothing is the only reasonable starting point, as complete silence on the "other crisis" speaks volumes. Don’t allow yourself to be crippled by the fear of saying the “wrong” things. Vulnerability is uncomfortable for everyone, but easily dwarfed by the discomfort of ignoring the elephant in the room. Also, remember not to assume who is or isn’t impacted.

Since more knowledgeable people have studied and written about the how behind the what to do, I’ve listed some guidance and resources that can enable meaningful action:

  1. Acknowledge openly and proactively how both crises may be affecting your colleague(s)
  2. Offer a safe space for all interested to freely express how the “other crisis” is or isn’t impacting them
  3. Listen with an open mind and seek to inform yourself about the “other crisis”
  4. Accept that you or others may not feel the full grief, but know showing empathy goes a long way
  5. Stand as an ally and advocate, across your span of influence, for abolishing the “other crisis”

On May 27th, news broke that a Louisiana police officer was fired for saying it’s “unfortunate” more black people didn’t die of Coronavirus. While this officer’s dismissal is a step in the right direction, it should remind us that the “other virus” is far from eradicated. We all have more work to do.

In our passion for action, it’s also helpful to remember, from The Prosperity Paradox, that “we cannot fix problems with the law, systems, and institutions by simply adding another law, system, or institution. Effective institutions are not just about rules and regulations. Ultimately, institutions are about culture – how people in a region solve problems and make progress. At their core, institutions reflect what people value. And that, it turns out, has to be homegrown.”

As our cities begin paving paths towards a post-quarantine normalcy, keep your favored BSSE frameworks in-hand and add to them. Your choice to address the “other crisis” can impact our colleagues' ability to “show up” for you and your team – figuratively & literally.

So, let’s consider how theories of disruption could aid us in unlocking profound solutions.

  • How are our organizations examining the actions or inactions that perpetuate the systematic inequities the “other crisis” stems from?
  • With much emphasis being placed on the symptoms of the “other crisis”, how do we focus our team’s energy and resources on addressing the true problem to be solved?
  • Does our organization and its stakeholders mirror the imbalance of representation the “other crisis” is rooted in or embody a structure positioned to disrupt the sustained constructs?

Extending thanks to friends, my fellow BSSE alumni, my manager, and my Danaher community for beginning the work; expressing homage to those killed by the “other crisis”; and offering prayers to the families left filling dark voids with memories of loved ones.

Alula Eshete MBA '17 is Director of Service - EMEA at Danaher Corporation.