October was Black History Month, and this year’s theme is “Proud to Be” – a campaign that focusses on how we all make a difference and make history in our own way.
It’s a fitting time to take inspiration and learn from those in our community who themselves have really made difference – and continue to make history.
One of those people is the Right Honourable Stuart Lawrence – youth engagement specialist, coach, secondary school teacher, now author, and brother of the late Stephen Lawrence, who died in a racially motivated attack in 1993.
Together with CJ Desai, ServiceNow’s CPO and Co-Sponsor of Black at Now, I caught up with Stuart in a recent webinar. Here’s what we discussed.
Stuart told us he had never faced racism before the time of his brother Stephen’s murder. “My school was quite mixed and diverse, and I was one of two black kids in my class. It wasn't a thing.”
Unusually for this kind of case, the identities of the killers were known at the time. So when Stuart’s family and many others reported names to police, they expected swift justice.
But the police made other assumptions about Stephen. “They thought Stephen had been involved in some sort of gang-related crime,” says Stuart. Stephen had black leather gloves that he used for graffiti art in his backpack at the time of his death.
The prosecution against the attackers fell apart due to a supposed lack of evidence. But, aware of the serious failings in the investigation, the Lawrence family came together with other organisations and groups in a much bigger campaign for justice.
In 1998, after years of campaigning, an inquest found the original investigation to have been incompetent, and the Metropolitan Police Force that conducted it to be institutionally racist. After a further review, and the Lawrence’s continued fight for justice, two of the original suspects were convicted in 2011.
Believe in yourself – and stay the course
It’s an unimaginable experience, and one that no family should have to go through.
At the same time, I can’t help but think that what Stuart and his family achieved is incredible. I put it to Stuart, and asked him what he’s learned from his experiences, and what his ‘proud to be’ moment is in all of this.
“I’d say the resilience of my parents is what I’m most proud to talk about”, he said. “My mum is only 5 foot and a little bit, she’s quite a small little lady, [but she’s tenacious]. My parents and their perseverance, I have to say, is a massive part why I'm proud to be.”
It’s their example that has driven him to believe in the importance of having a cause, and sticking to it.
“I say to everyone all the time, believe in yourself and your self-power. You all can change scenarios and situations. You just have to stay the course, and sometimes the course is rough. [The campaign for justice] wasn’t an overnight success.”
Staying the course isn’t just about saying the right things, however. Stuart believes it’s vital to actually do something.
“It’s really important that we all understand that talking is great, but we have to do things. That’s the reason why we as a family made change. It was like, this is what we're going to stick to, this is our mission: to ensure that what happened to us as a family never happens to anyone again.”
The importance of belonging
We can’t discuss the issues behind Stephen’s murder without considering where we are today. While there’s no doubt we’ve made progress, the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd in 2020 shows that our societies still have a long way to go.
We face difficult questions every day. One of the greatest is perhaps: how do we celebrate and remain mindful of our differences, but, at the same time, come together?
Stuart gives us an example. “I spoke to a young man I was mentoring, he’s only 16 […] we were talking about the difference between confidence and arrogance. That is, do you understand who you are, where you come from, love yourself? Or are you arrogant, where you’re outwardly trying to be the friction we have in life?”
In a sense, it’s the difference between being something and trying to prove something that you’re not.
“That’s why I love this year’s theme ‘Proud to Be’, because I’m unapologetic – but I’m not forceful with it. I’m confident in knowing who I am […] I love the idea of being your authentic self, no matter where, no matter when.”
In my opinion, that authenticity is important wherever we go – at work as much as at home. Sometimes, especially in our line of work, there is a desire to fit in and not stand out. But it’s important to celebrate our differences, to bring something new to the environment in which we work. And that’s part of the diversity that we want at ServiceNow.
But our conversation touched on the fact that, while we should encourage people to be themselves, we also need to create a space of belonging where people can actually be their authentic selves.
According to CJ Desai, “…people want to show up [and] feel like they're contributing to society, and so they work hard. But if you're working hard … and the environment doesn't allow you to be authentic yourself … that's not a sense of belonging.”
And without belonging, there’s no authenticity: people become demotivated, and we fail to get the most out of them.
“If you don’t have that sense of belonging, then it all stops mattering to you, and you’re always going to be a different person at work.”
Creating the right environment
So how do we create the right environment for belonging to flourish?
First and foremost in CJ’s experience, minority communities need to be empowered to speak out.
“When you feel like other people are making you uncomfortable, are you speaking up saying, ‘’Hey, this is not okay?’ I have struggled sometimes to speak up when I’ve seen a person make a rude, racist comment, or sexist comment. But that's our duty as human beings, and as members of society.”
Of course, the burden can’t rest on minorities alone. Allyship is critical.
CJ notes, “When you know that there is nobody looking out for you, whether it's your peers, your boss, or somebody else, your mentor, it is a lonely world. And it is very easy to get discouraged, or disappointed […] I always tell people: if somebody is different, we should go out of our ways to make sure that person is comfortable.”
When it comes to allyship, there is however sometimes an elephant in the room. Some often hold back their allyship due to a sense of guilt or awkwardness or privilege. According to Stuart, it’s important we move past this:
“Sometimes we get bogged down in the conversation around recognising privilege. But we can’t get hung up on that point. We need to move forward, and talk about the positivity of change that we can make, and how we can talk about and say why it should never happen again. Because that's part of this as well, isn't it: ensuring it never happens again.”
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