BIPOC Black Lives Matter Business

Agapi Gessesse: Is Your Company’s Black History Month Statement Performative Activism?

Agapi Gessesse

“Black History Month is not the time to make broken promises to people of colour.”

Agapi Gessesse, Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, wants companies to know that February, Black History Month, cannot just be a checklist of making statements in support of Black employees without committing to taking action.

The CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals is a Toronto-based charity that specializes in addressing the social and economic barriers for Black youth ages 14 and over, to help them enter and succeed in the workplace. The charity focuses on improving the careers, education, and empowerment (CEE) of Black youth.

“We understand that our community doesn’t necessarily have a people gap, but we have a skill gap,” says Gessesse. “So, how can we equip our community to be able to be skilled so that they can take advantage of the jobs that are coming up?”

CEE has programs that focus on five main labour market gaps: Tech, Trades, Film, Social Services, and Hospitality. The organization helps identify opportunities and the professional development steps needed to succeed in future careers.

“The mission of our organization is for us to create an economy where Black youth become financially prosperous, live high-quality lives, and can contribute to the advancement of Canada,” says Gessesse.

Now, as February begins, and Black History Month is on everybody’s mind, Gessesse hopes that all companies are committed to creating real change, like the CEE, not just making empty promises.

Here, she shares what companies should be thinking about during Black History Month and beyond:

1. Look Internally

1. Look Internally

If you’re voicing your support for the Black community and Black History Month, you should be making sure that your Black employees and colleagues are actively receiving that same support within your organization.

Gessesse recommends asking your staff three questions: What should we stop? What should we start? What should we continue?

“Conversation with your staff is going to give you a very clear picture as to what can be done,” says Gessesse. She adds that employers need to be ready and willing to work on the feedback that’s given by employees.

2. Have “Uber energy”

2. Have “Uber energy”

One of the companies that Gessesse believes is putting their money where their mouth is, is Uber. 

Back in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement was in full force, Uber came out with billboards that said, “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.” This type of support is what Gessesse calls, “Uber energy.”

She compares Uber’s commitment to anti-racism to past conversations she’s had, where companies raise a concern about clients that have racist, homophobic, or sexists pasts, but then continue to serve them due to the money they provide. 

“You need to have Uber energy, and tell them that you don’t want their money anymore,” says Gessesse. “I think if you call yourselves allies in this, you have to hold the brunt of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not just say, ‘Oh, we stand up against racism.’ It has to come into action.”

3. Widen Your Talent Pool

3. Widen Your Talent Pool

When it comes to hiring, Gessesse says that she often sees a company tell Black communities that they have open positions, then say, “Oh well, no one applied or was skilled enough.”

Providing the skills for a successful career is something that CEE specializes in. It’s organizations like CEE that Gessesse says companies should be building relationships with to diversify their staff with well-prepared and passionate people.

“When you’re going out into the community, and you’re wanting to recruit, don’t go to the same places that you’ve been going to all of this time,” says Gessesse. “You need to really expand and figure out where diverse populations are meeting and networking and try and get in there.”

She recommends seeking out Three-B Organizations, which stands for Black-led, Black-focused, and Black-serving, to reach out to and align with.

4. Make Action-Based Statements

4. Make Action-Based Statements

When it comes to voicing support for the Black community, Gessesse says that she is all here for it—as long as it comes with action items, “Words without action don’t mean anything.”

She believes that statements should have at least three action items and that companies need to be dedicated to following up with them. If not, cancel culture can come into play.

“If you say you’re against anti-black racism, then it’s rampant in everything you do? This is not the time,” says Gessesse. “Black History Month is not the time to make broken promises to people of colour. “

5. Make it 365

5. Make it 365

Though it’s called Black History Month, Gessesse urges companies to consider the treatment of Black people year-round—not just when it’s in the headlines, or during a dedicated month.

“Allow Black History Month to educate you, but the plights of Black people and the effects of anti-Black racism is a 365 days a year experience,” says Gessesse. “We don’t just sit in it in February—this is an everyday thing.”

She encourages companies to use Black History Month as an opportunity to learn and celebrate Black culture, but know that allyship doesn’t end on February 28.

Black History Month is an important time for reflection, learning, and celebration. As the world bears the weight of an almost year-long pandemic and the fatigue of keeping up with everyday news, we need to ensure that the support for the Black community prevails and is stronger than ever. Use this time to demand more from yourself, your workplace, and the companies you support, and keep that momentum going year-round.

“Are you going to be here when the Black Lives Matter conversation is no longer in the news headlines? Are your donations and your commitment going to be just as strong as they were on day one?” asks Gessesse. “That’s going to be the true testament to what real allyship is going to look like for our community.”

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