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Protestors gather downtown June 6 to support a widespread call for an end to racism and social injustice following the recent death of George Floyd.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
Protestors gather downtown June 6 to support a widespread call for an end to racism and social injustice following the recent death of George Floyd.

Businesses respond to 'racism pandemic'

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Thousands gathered downtown June 6 to join demonstrations nationwide to elevate a message: “Black Lives Matter,” read the signs.

The protests are in response to recent events that have spurred a widespread call for an end to racism and social injustice, pinpointed by the alleged murders this year of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

Protestors weren’t alone in their call for systemic change in Springfield, as several businesses supported the demonstration.

Civil Kitchen, The Coffee Ethic, The Golden Girl Rum Club, Mudhouse Coffee, BookMarx and Harbell’s Grill & Sports Bar are among downtown businesses that remained open during the protests to show support by passing out water, masks, sunscreen or offering protestors a place to escape the early summer heat.

Clothing shop SGFCO distributed signs to participants with statements “End Police Brutality” and “No Justice No Peace.”

Others have turned to social media with statements of solidarity, including Empower: abilities and Springfield Regional Arts Council. CoxHealth and Mercy also posted photos on Facebook of physicians kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the length of time prosecutors say Floyd was pinned to the ground under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee before he died.

As the U.S. continues into not only a public health pandemic but also a racism pandemic – as declared by the American Psychological Association – the question is: What’s next?

Toni Robinson, president of the Springfield NAACP, said calls for justice have to go beyond public protests.

“The protests might last a few weeks, but what are we doing after that?” Robinson said. “More than anything, this should push us to build relationships. I would encourage businesses to have those relationships to be promoting black and brown businesses all the time.”

Wes Pratt, chief diversity officer at Missouri State University, said the business community has a role in promoting fairness, justice and addressing issues of systemic racism. It starts with cultural consciousness, he said.

“We have these aha moments and people wring their hands, but they have to go beyond wringing their hands,” said Pratt. “The [racism] pandemic has been with us for 400 years. … Everyone has a role in addressing it and hopefully working to mitigate it.”

First steps
Some business owners in the community have taken what they call their first step in support of the movement for social justice.

Michelle Billionis of The Coffee Ethic said she kept her coffeehouse on the square open during the June 6 protests and offered water to participants. She said she’d been struggling to figure out what to do to show her company’s support for equality and inclusion.

“The first thing I did was nothing, and to be quiet and process everything. I try not to let social media guide our actions,” said Billionis. “I was upset, disappointed and kind of ashamed. So, it was a lot of processing, and one of my fears was that by not saying anything through social media that it would be perceived as not caring and not being part of the solution. “As a business owner, you’re worried you’re going to say it wrong.”

She said the company’s next steps will include donating to the local NAACP chapter proceeds from the fourth-annual Tumble for SGF event June 18. Later this month, Billionis said she’s requiring all employees to go through an equality and inclusion training program, which she said also will help her formulate a company statement and policy. She said Heather Freeman, a longtime diversity and equity activist and owner of The Decor Fix, is leading the charge in developing curriculum with two other undisclosed educators for cultural consciousness and anti-racism training. Freeman said in an email that the trio is planning to offer the training to small businesses later this summer.

Billionis said she’s encouraging herself and her employees to be better at creating relationships with those who look different than themselves. “It’s their turn to have the stage, and it’s important for us to sit back and listen and learn,” she said.

Summer Trottier said she’s been using her artistic talents to take a stand through her company, Culture Flock. The screenprinting business has designed T-shirts that say “Find your voice and speak up! Silence kills.” They were released the first week of June, and 25% of proceeds are going to the local NAACP chapter. Trottier said $310 had been raised by June 11.

“We know change starts locally. The more resources available to them, the more good they can do in town,” Trottier said.

Trottier’s applied to join the NAACP and she’s actively pursuing partnerships with black-owned businesses to sell their products at her store. Culture Flock already carries merchandise from mostly women- and minority-owned businesses. “We want to make sure we’re amplifying those voices,” she said. “If you have a platform, it’s important to use your voice for good things.”

What’s next?
According to an SBJ.net poll taken June 5-11, 44% of respondents thought their company was doing enough to support diversity, inclusion and social justice. Nearly a quarter of the 260 respondents said their businesses weren’t doing enough, while a third answered that it isn’t the role of businesses.

Pratt, who’s also co-founder of networking group Minorities in Business and has been engaged in civil rights activism since the age of 15, said business leaders need to be engaged and intentional about creating change.

“We need to make sure our organizations are culturally conscious. They have to be aware, knowledgeable and acquire skills to allow them to negotiate consciously in a multicultural and global economy,” said Pratt. “We need to look at our policies and procedures and practices that prohibit participation.”

He said having a diverse workforce can provide different ideas, perspectives and conversations that otherwise wouldn’t be heard.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us to promote a work environment, business environment that values what everyone brings to the table,” he said.

But in a predominately white community, there’s an education piece that needs to be bolstered, said Robinson. Of Springfield’s population, 88.4% of citizens are white and 4.4% identify as black, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data. The remainder comprises those who identify as Asian, Hispanic or more than one race.

“What I do know is that silence is violence,” said Robinson. “It doesn’t propel us forward. It’s not supporting black people and isn’t pushing white folks to accountability. I think it’s something in the community we don’t know. We talk about education, but what does that look like? Everyone’s grappling with, how do we really do this, and how do we make it work?”

It’s a question business leaders have been asking over the last few weeks, said Karen Shannon, vice president of business consulting at Ollis/Akers/Arney. Shannon said the firm has received dozens of requests from business owners to revisit their internal policies, identify avenues for diversity education and what their stance will look like.

“For every organization, your call to action will be different. That’s for every organization to determine themselves,” she said. “Everyone’s trying to figure out that first next step. … There’s a real desire to be thoughtful and intentional in their next steps.”

Minorities in Business staff member Justyn Pippins suggested business leaders start the conversation about equality among their teams and begin looking for diverse job candidates. He said being proactive, such as starting implicit bias training or creating a position that focuses on workplace diversity, can bring awareness to internal issues.

“Start ... those tough conversations, because then it’s not as uncomfortable moving forward,” he said. “That’s why a lot of people don’t talk about things – its uncomfortable.”

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