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Getting Real with Social Impact and What I Learned from "Between the World and Me"


“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I was working as a whitewater raft guide one summer in Glacier National Park (Montana). One day my raft got into a large swell of water at the wrong angle and I was toppled into the rapids. I remember seeing my paddle and feet in the air, then all was water and its roaring like a passing train. Immediately, I was being tumbled around like laundry on a never-ending cycle. I couldn't get any air and couldn't get to the surface. Finally, I emerged and was next to a much older woman who must have had a similar experience. Her husband was still in the raft, now stuck in a some back water on the opposite shore. Her face was frozen in shock and the next rapid was quickly approaching.

Reading Coates' Between the World and Me was a similar experience. I felt submerged into a new world which had its own roaring sound all around me, but not like a passing train, more like the sound of a people's unified, if muffled, voice. As a white man dedicated to using business to the maximum beneficial social effect, this book was a welcome, powerful, and humbling reminder of how little I know about the problems and people I hope to understand and serve. Indeed, A. O. Scott of The New York Times said the book is "essential, like water or air" so I guess it both submerged me and provided the air I needed to breathe again.

Between the World and Me is written as a letter from a father (Coates) to his then 15 year old son. Largely autobiographical, woven from his own upbringing in Baltimore, Coates shares with his son a candid and well wrought picture of being black in America. Published in 2015, the book won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

Ta-Nahesisi Coates, (Image credit: Willamette Week)

Among many things I learned from the book, some hard to put to words, I offer the following:

You learn to be humble.

You learn to work to understand an issue. You will be an outsider looking in most of the time and time must be taken to lower yourself, seek partners and learn to listen, listen, listen. Many speak of social impact without a true understanding of what they are talking about. This is cheap rhetoric and an insult to the suffering. It is hard to gather the facts but equally hard to gather the stories, the emotion. We often exalt objectivity and indemnify emotions as non-empirical. But I would suggest emotions and the stories that are their vessel, are facts. Don't get comfortable with proxies or models that obscure the unvarnished truth of lives, communities, power, and pain.

You learn what to do with your privilege.

Privilege is the disproportionate opportunities given freely just because of one's country, race or class or ethnicity, gender or physical capabilities or age. What do you do with this unearned power and opportunity? You can either use it to further enhance itself, that is, to expand and strengthen your privilege, your wealth, your status, and your power. Or you can try to use it, and this will never be perfect, to work for fairness, for justice, for the community, for other people.

You learn that diversity is not just an idea but a necessity for effectiveness and for fairness. Diversity that at least reflects those who you seek to serve, is a requirement. Even though your life might be set up in a box fashioned by history and your own hands, that keeps you from the relationships and the networks that you need for this diversity to work for you--do it anyway. Become impatient with exclusion and exclusivity. Commit yourself to longer decision horizons so time can be invested to do it right. To get out of the box, to escape the orbit of our own social networks, takes time. Recognize that "diversity and inclusion" go against our natural tendency to surround ourselves with people that look, talk, act and think like us. This is the box and the orbit you must escape for integrative thinking, creative design, enduring solutions, and fairness.

You learn that "social impact" and "social innovation" might be guilt-management for the privileged or something more substantial.

Sustainability people get quite excited about "social impact" and "social responsibility." In light of Between the World and Me (and others like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass), I don't know what these terms even mean. My parents didn't have an easy life. There was pain and turmoil. And I have certainly faced adversity. But in the arc of history, my family began the race far ahead of those oppressed just because of race. "Born on third base and thinking you hit a triple" as the saying goes. Our difficulties were within a general context that favored our ultimate rise. People of color, on the other hand, have faced trouble but instead of favorable currents pushing towards hope they faced torrents of violence, riptides of discrimination. After 400 years of this, what might "social impact" mean? What are we really trying to accomplish?

Sustainability has witnessed the creation of the widest income inequality gap in American history. Obviously, I am not pointing to a causal relationship. And I am not suggesting that "sustainability" is at fault for income inequality. However, it is notable, and not a mere coincidence, that sustainability and income inequality have grown in parallel. I have heard sustainability referred to as "guilt management for wealthy white people" and while this is a gross assumption, it might contain some (uncomfortable) truths.

The problem with power.

Here's the challenge we must bravely face: social impact deals with power; who has power and who doesn't. This is difficult and then people like to pile on and complain that it's "hard to measure." Perhaps what they are trying to say is that it is "hard to talk about." And that is true. Power and privilege are difficult subjects. Between the World and Me made me struggle for air, made me look for the exit. "Your closest exit may be behind you..." Yes, I was looking, looking for how to escape, rationalize, distance myself from the pain. And it is pain. There is no other word for it. We want to use safer words like "social innovation" but we are talking about people's pain. Historic, systemic, and enduring pain. I hope I always remember that in my work.

Coates says, "The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all."

When I came up next to the elderly woman who had been "laundered" by the rapids, her face was frozen. I yelled that she had to swim. No response. The next rapid was approaching and the swift current was insisting we get to shore. I grabbed her life jacket and pulled and swam and finally got her to shore. She finally began to talk even though she was shaking. We eventually got back into the raft--I told the group "I usually charge extra" for that kind of excitement--and we finished the trip.

Coates has me back out there, struggling against the current, trying to get to shore. But I won't settle for the life jacket of conventional wisdom and "feel-good" language of sustainability and social impact unless it is accompanied by an empirical fact of a story changed, a life honored, a wrong put right again.

"I am speaking to you as I always have—as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologize for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."

― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

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