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Ideas Commentary2020-06-01

'How can we help?' An open letter to people and brands who want to make a difference

Chike Ume

We live in turbulent times - but they’ve always been turbulent for us. Lately, I've been asking hard questions of myself and my occupation about our collective role in addressing the world’s ills. I've also been asked a lot of questions, the most common of which is 'How can we help?'

The short and honest answer is - it’s complicated.

Racism is not new - it’s one of the oldest human hobbies. Society indulges in it actively or casually in order to justify and erase the context of our actions and how it affects the people around us. Many of us become unwilling participants, even with the best of intentions. That’s enough to make anyone angry. But we have to acknowledge that this most recent rage isn’t just because of one incident.

It’s not just George Floyd, it’s Eric Garner. It's not just Ahmaud Arbery, it’s Sandra Bland. It’s not just Breonna Taylor, it’s Philando Castile.

What makes this worse is that in most, if not all of these situations, those we lost were just living their lives. Not criminals, but participants in a daily routine and a supposedly clear social contract: If I am good, the world will be good to me. 

Doing things they’d likely done a hundred times before their fateful encounter.

It could have been us.

That’s where the exhaustion comes from - the imagination and self-realization to see how little it takes to become yet another statistic, another face on a t-shirt, another body to memorialize and quickly forget. Another reason for some to push for change and others to take advantage to obfuscate the discussion. Another injustice never resolved.

It could have been us.

That’s why when brands ask 'How can we help?' during moments like these, the question itself creates tension. These are not new problems. They are the result of centuries of systemic action and inaction that shape our everyday lives: where we live, the opportunities afforded to us, our ability to vote, our ability to transcend economic classes, our ability to build generational wealth, our ability for confidence in the workplace, and our ability to live fully realized lives.

That's a lot to say and even more to fully process. But it’s not enough to leave it there. Even if there isn’t a perfect answer that solves these issues, actually 'helping' requires brands to commit themselves to seeking solutions and experimenting until we find answers that work. And brands will have to keep searching for ways to answer these questions as we all begin to demand more from the companies we choose to support than their ability to produce products.

So instead of 'How can we help?,' or another empty showcase of solidarity, here are some more specific questions that brands can ask in order to drive change that matters. 

  • Help by making a deeper commitment: We live in an era where we can no longer afford drive-by philanthropy from brands during the month of February. Ask: What are systemic issues, central and tangential, your brand can champion year round to drive real change and keep it top of mind? How can we add in necessary complications like the impact of intersectionality to drive more immediate conversations year-round? 

  • Help by providing a platform: A common sin lies in choosing to emphasize your own brand's voice over the actual voices of the unheard. The best way to make an impact is to listen to and elevate those with personal stakes in the everyday struggle. Ask: How can we continue to create platforms for leaders in the community - and create opportunities for other leaders to develop a newfound voice?

  • Help by furthering the understanding of people's true context: Society often presents a sanitized view of history and the consequences of our actions. It’s comforting and idyllic. But comfort is the enemy of progress. Ask: Are there ways for your brand to commit to the idea of context and help consumers understand the long-term perspective? Where are the uncomfortable places we have to go in order to create advertising that matters?

There are more questions to ask, of course. This list is hardly exhaustive. But for brands truly looking to make a difference, answering these questions will begin to answer the bigger one. And for those asking 'How can we help?' to their friends and loved ones: Be kind. Be patient. Be there. But be understanding if people of color choose not to respond. These are issues we’ve lived with since birth and sometimes it’s simply too exhausting to put on a smile and answer the question yet again.

So I guess what I’m really asking is, 'How can you help?'

* Photo courtesy Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash