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When Speaking Up Requires All We Have

Reflecting on the emotional labor that comes from discussing the tragedies we see in the world, both internally and externally

Authors: Jennifer Njuguna, Co-CEO, Cristina Diaz-Borda, Editorial Manager

In June 2020, as countless people took to the streets, demanding a better world for Black people, we saw corporation after corporation put out statements in support of Black Lives. For many, what was said was too little, too late, and they took to the internet with anger in droves — not necessarily thinking about who was on the other side of the keyboard.

Generally, company social media accounts are run either by a single communications employee or social media managers, who write content that specifically fits within company guidelines. Of the 26,000+ social media managers currently employed in the U.S., more than 60% are women, and 30% are BIPOC — a steadily growing demographic in the largely white field of advertising. What’s more, those positions pay the lowest for social media managers who are Black or Latine.

However, before 2020, few organizations had spent significant time discussing when and how they weigh in on events happening in the world. When that summer’s racial reckoning took the country by storm, it was social media managers who were put in a position of acting. That pressure often came internally, asking countless social media managers to write statements on behalf of the entire organization — a task that is normally planned in advance and written by higher ups. What many don’t realize is that it requires a majority-women team to do a tremendous amount of emotional labor, monitoring the popular conversation, quickly reacting, and convincing higher ups at the organization to make a statement in the first place.

At Common Future, our approach is to be additive rather than reactive, and to take care of our team. As a women- and BIPOC-led company, and that means when it comes to making statements, leaders like our COO Jennifer Njuguna, often have to balance their personal responses to tragedies and how to address the company. “It’s wonderful that our staff have lived experience, identify with the communities [affected],” Jennifer said. “The flip side of that is we’re also very much impacted when these things happen.”

When Jennifer learned of the Buffalo shooting in May 2022, she remembers feeling a deep pain at the news of what happened. She thought about the elderly people who were shot, and thought about her own family, imagining them going to the store after church, getting snacks, and the horror of something like it happening to them. She thought about all the ways that Black communities have been targeted in violence like this going back in history — to slavery, lynchings and house burnings, the destructions of homes and businesses. She thought about all of these things as she continued her day, her care for her two young kids, who would grow up to be Black men in America, vulnerable to the same violence and oppression. She thought about how to talk to her kids about the shooting, how to live in this country. She’d catch clips of the news as the days continued, and each detail made the event worse and worse.

That time, our VP of People Operations sent out a statement about the tragedy. But before they’d read the statement, some of our staff had sent in questions about the company’s lack of a more immediate response. Jennifer told staff at a meeting days later: “when you don’t hear from me about an [event], or if you don’t see a statement, it’s not because we’re not acknowledging it or don’t care. It’s because I don’t have the strength in that moment to make a statement.” She was a Black woman, a mother, and sometimes she needed her own space to process and grieve. Then she started to tear up. “I think that moment of vulnerability really kind of drove that home for people, maybe if they hadn’t understood that before,” Jennifer said.

The constant need to respond, to keep up with the tragedies in the country, is exhausting, Jennifer says. “It’s heavy and it’s a lot.” She hadn’t anticipated it as part of her job. It takes a toll.

But Jennifer believes that Common Future fosters a sense of trust between our workers, and the leadership’s efforts to make internal statements acknowledges the full impact of what happens in the world. In a different kind of organization, there might be no conversation around the events that occur at all. It’d be business as usual, or joviality and lightheartedness. The silence in those cases can feel like violence, Jennifer says, “because there’s not a broader sense of safety and collective understanding that we’re in this together.”

These internal facing statements acknowledge the realities facing different communities during national tragedies, “and what it takes to do the work and also and simultaneously grieve and process trauma and worry about your safety or physical safety or your families and loved ones’ safety.” The silence, on the other hand, inflicts a dual kind of trauma; “that trauma of trying to process whatever is causing the need for a statement, and then the trauma of existing in spaces that are not designed for us.”

At Common Future, we work to build that sense of safety and belonging outside of one-off statements — “we prioritize our people,” Jennifer explains. It’s reflected in the company’s flexible policies for mental health support, or its four day workweeks. “These are things that we’ve been very intentional about, given our staff [demographic], recognizing the burdens that are often felt by [marginalized] communities.”

Common Future is an organization focused on racial and economic justice, about elevating people, shifting power and capital. That means we’ve already created a space for staff to understand and trust that if there is a temporary silence, it doesn’t come from a lack of care, but rather the opposite — when our leaders making statements have to wrestle with the pain themselves. “I encourage organizations that haven’t already to really foster this sense of community and inclusion,” Jennifer says. “So that they’re not having to suffer in the absence of a statement, but also not bearing the brunt of having to make the statement.”


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