As we grieve the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd and so many others across the years, as we witness the protests that have erupted across the country, we want to take a moment to reflect on how we got to this moment — and how we, as a company and as a community — can come out of it stronger and more unified.
First, a bit of context.
In 2017, Levi Strauss & Co. founded Project Onyx, a resource group for Black employees. The idea was, and remains, to create awareness and empathy for issues impacting the Black community. And to drive change in our policies to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce.
We now recruit from historically Black colleges (HBCUs) for our internship program. We also launched our first ever Black History Month consumer facing program this past February. And we’ve amended our approach to interviewing and hiring such that every slate of candidates must include one person of color.
That’s a start. But it’s not nearly enough.
The following conversation between the Executive Sponsors of our Black Employee Resource Group, Jen Sey (our Chief Marketing Officer) and Charis Márquez (VP of sales), discusses how we can move forward.
JS: While much of life has ground to a halt during the COVID-19 crisis, racial discrimination and violence have not. We’ve seen Ahmaud Arbery shot and killed in a Georgia suburb and, more recently, we’ve seen George Floyd killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Can you talk a bit about how you are feeling right now? What is the impact on you, your family, the LS&Co Black community, the American Black community?
CM: Thank you, Jen. As a Black woman, it means a lot to start this conversation. I’m a firm believer that having these kinds of conversations is key for change to be made.
To answer your question, I have been on a constant emotional roller coaster. I am scared, I am angry, I am sad and I am confused at why the world has to be this way right now. I wonder why these kinds of things hit us so hard, even when we are trying to do the right thing.
The impact on me is more on the emotional side. As you know, I have three Black sons (the oldest being 10), and I am still trying to figure out when to have “the talk” with them. These incidents remind me that it’s coming sooner than I would like.
For those who don’t know, “the talk” is when Black parents decide to tell their children about some of the things that they might deal with being Black. For example, at younger ages, you tell them, “You have to be better than everyone to be considered equal. How you dress, how you behave, what you say to people will be judged — and that matters.” At slightly older ages you discuss how to behave if you are ever confronted by the police (i.e. show your hands, only answer the question asked, don’t make any sudden moves, tell them every move you are making, etc.)
From a community standpoint, at LS&Co and beyond, we are in mourning. Every time one of these incidents happen, you mourn that person because you know it could have easily been you, or someone close to you. At work it can be very lonely, so we try to reach out to each other where we can.
JS: Another incident we’ve seen thanks to cellphone video in the past few days is that of Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York’s Central Park, calling the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man birding in the park, who asked her to leash her dog in an area of the park that requires it. Can you talk about the history of white women making claims of violence against Black men and how that impacts the way you feel when viewing this video?
CM: This one gets me really fired up, Jen. It gets me fired up because it falls under the category of, “I was doing everything right, but you still feel like you are better than me.” This man went to Harvard, was bird watching and was asking her to follow the rules!
These are the kinds of incidents that happen almost daily to Black Americans. Not necessarily calling the police, but things that are more subtle like clutching a purse when a Black person walks by, or even taking up more space on a crowded train when you walk up. It’s this constant assumption that white is always right.
I remember that when I was 11, a store manager followed me around a pharmacy. He then followed me out of the store and searched my bags. My white best friend and I were together and bought the same thing: baseball cards. But he never asked to search her bag.
JS: I’ve watched this particular video countless times. I find it utterly devastating. There is something about the tone of her voice. The way she seemingly forces a tremor to signal legitimate fear (though it’s clearly fake in my estimation) in the presence of this man – simply there to look at the birds with his binoculars. The way she uses the phrase “African American” to somehow signal her progressive values, her “wokeness”, while deploying it in such an obviously racist “I have the power here and how dare you tell me what to do” way. I just can’t.
To know that I am in the same category of human as this person — white woman — I just feel shame in the face of it. But I also feel motivated. To do more. Black people are not responsible for white racism. White people are. We need to drive the change.
Here are some great anti-racism resources you can use to educate yourself as a white person.
Also a few books and films I’ve benefited from reading and watching:
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- Waking up White by Debby Irving
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates
- 13th on Netflix by Ava Duvernay
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Anything by Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison or bell hooks
JS: Another facet of what’s being experienced right now by Black Americans is that the health crisis created by COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the Black community. Can you talk a bit about this (what’s happening) but almost more importantly why you think that is?
CM: Yes, I think that most Black Americans know someone who was impacted. There are many factors that have caused this:
- We are typically in lower paying service jobs where we are exposed to a lot of people without proper equipment (e.g. my cousin in New Orleans who contracted COVID-19 as a bus driver).
- We already have many pre-existing conditions (e.g. diabetes) that exacerbate the effects of the disease.
- We live in conditions and areas with poor housing, food quality and in many cases high levels of pollution (e.g. Flint, Michigan). There are many other reasons, but they all relate to our exposure to poor conditions, highly stressful events and trauma on a consistent basis — plus poor overall healthcare and support.
JS: Can you tell us what LS&Co has done to address racial inequality? Can you also speak to what more you think we can and should do?
CM: The Levi Strauss Foundation has partnered with leaders like Zach Norris of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Pastor Mike McBride of Live Free, who work on the front lines of change to address issues, such as mass incarceration and urban gun violence, that disproportionately affect our communities. The foundation’s voting-rights funding is supporting leaders like Alicia Garza of Black Futures Lab, whose work builds Black communities into constituencies that influence the way power operates — locally, statewide and nationally.
Also, as part of the company’s $3 million COVID-19 response, the foundation funds Live Free’s Masks for the People Initiative, which secures PPE for essential workers, newly incarcerated individuals and vulnerable residents within communities of color.
I think we need more discussion. I think people need to know that the company supports them. I think we need to have a culture where people can call each other out on microaggressions. But mostly I just think we need to make people feel like they have a safe space to bring their authentic self, regardless of what color they are — globally.
JS: Lastly, and I hesitate to ask this, because I don’t think it is your responsibility to tell me how to be a better citizen. But I’m going to ask: what can I do, as a white person, to be a stronger ally?
CM: I wish more people asked that, actually. I think the answer is simple: check on me when these incidents happen. Be open to having a conversation. Don’t tell me I’m overreacting. Listen. Think twice, and ask your white friends to think twice, before calling the police on my sons.
JS: I have two Black sons, ages 19 and 17. And I feel very personally affected when I read these accounts (I don’t watch the videos) of Black men being killed in the streets, by citizens and police officers. Police violence is the sixth-leading cause of death for young Black men in America.
I worry constantly about my boys when they leave the house. Will they be appropriately deferential if they come into contact with police? Will they be stopped by the police for no reason? If they are, how will they respond? Do I want them to stand up for themselves or do I want them to just get out of there any way possible? Will their corner store purchases be mistaken for weapons, thus giving permission to some rogue citizen or police officer to commit violence against them? (For those who think, “Not in San Francisco,” think again). Will they be stopped and have their bags searched every time they leave the corner store that they’ve been going into their entire lives. (The answer here is YES, every time, unless I am with them.)
It should not be the case that I only think about these things because my kids are Black. (I also have two white children, and they are very young, but I know for a fact that when they are teenagers, I will not worry about these things.) We all need to think about these things because these are American children. They are our children. They are our future.
We — white people — must take an active role, arguably the most active role, in changing the course of racial discrimination and racial violence in this country. Not because, like me, we have Black kids. But because America’s children depend on it. The future of our country depends on it.
We simply cannot sit idly by and think this is Black people’s problem. It is America’s problem, our greatest shame. We must do better and for me, a much more active approach — an aggressively active one — starts now.
The events of the past week have shined a spotlight on the systemic racism and injustices directed at the Black community throughout our nation’s history. In response to the heightened moment of tension playing out in cities across the U.S., LS&Co. is making a $100,000 donation to our longstanding partner, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for its critical work on criminal justice reform and racial justice. In addition, the Levi Strauss Foundation is making a $100,000 grant to Live Free, an organization on the front lines of social-justice issues. The organization is led by Pastor Mike McBride, who is part of our foundation’s Pioneers in Justice initiative, which supports next-generation civil rights activists. The foundation has invested $7.3 million in this initiative over the past 10 years.