A Renewed Commitment to Workplace Dignity in a Collective Moment of Reckoning

As Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights completed its third month of remote work during a worldwide pandemic, some previously unthinkable habits have emerged as new normals. We’ve spent time talking about the increased physical and emotional demands of caring for children, partners and aging parents, as well as the added stresses and complexities of trying to stay healthy while meeting regular deadlines, deepening our understanding of how human rights don’t end at the workplace door.

The pandemic allowed us more opportunities than ever to leverage our voice as a worldwide leader fighting for a more peaceful, equitable world. That’s been evidenced by RFK Human Rights’ successful Emergency Bail Out Action, the development of a new Speak Truth to Power lesson plan on pandemic truth tellers, and even the conversion of our RFK Italia offices as housing for doctors and nurses on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis in Florence.

These strange times also allowed us a small peek into the personal space of colleagues—a complete unknown just weeks before. We’ve wondered aloud about just what book or painting that is affixed on our team member’s shelf. We ask about the little ones who’ve mastered the art of Zoom-bombing at hilarious and inopportune moments.

Yet, days ago, our society, and within that, our organization, went through a seismic shift once again, with recent protests revealing more fully how little we understand one another’s experiences and pain, as our nation began to be gripped by protests of the death of yet another Black person at the hands of police.

This is a time that’s painful, confusing, depleting, traumatic, and above all, raw and real for so many of us right now, particularly our Black colleagues and friends. At this time of systemic reckoning on matters of racial justice, particularly in the weeks leading up to Juneteenth, we acknowledge more fully that our vantage points, experiences and imprints are vastly different from one another, and we should have addressed more of this long before.

What’s more, this comes at the same time we must do without the physical contact that as human beings we’ve come to rely on to help meet and ease one another’s pain. We can’t cry with or embrace one another, or reach out and grasp their hand. What scientists call “touch deprivation” can impact us on psychological, even physical levels, a recent Time Magazine article noted.

It is in this time that workplace dignity is more important than ever before, in order to create a sense of safety and togetherness, and allow our colleagues and friends free to be vulnerable and reveal their true selves, as we can only thrive when we know we are seen, heard and valued.

Just as we made an affirmative choice to condemn racism and systemic violence in this country in recent weeks, we make an affirmative commitment to respecting and valuing those that my father calls upon us to remember “those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they see, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

It is striking to note that his words come from my father’s Mindless Menace of Violence speech, delivered to the Cleveland City Club the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in 1968, a speech we and others have drawn from many times in recent days as we demand a better world.

It is truly fitting that the heart of this speech is about honoring dignity, which author and conflict resolution expert Dr. Donna Hicks describes as the fulcrum of human interaction, in families, communities, in the business world.

When dignity is violated, Hicks notes, the response is likely to involve aggression, even violence, hatred and vengeance. On the other hand, when people honor the dignity of others, they become more connected, and have more meaningful relationships.

This pairs naturally with the practice of remote humanity, which need not give way due to a remote work environment, a better understanding of how to confront myriad emotions so many of us are feeling, magnified because of our work in human rights and social justice, and magnified because of new realities of isolation. This pain, the rawness, these realizations have been amplified even further in recent days for all of us, but particularly our Black colleagues and friends—making this work to better incorporate compassion into our management more crucial than ever.

Some Black colleagues, as well as colleagues of all backgrounds and races have privately expressed that silence hurts, that they need leaders at all levels to speak up, to communicate that they see pain, that it is OK to be unproductive, sad and disorganized during this time.

As leaders, we have committed to doing extra legwork in order to ensure that organizationally, we’re not over-relying on those who are already being the burdens of marginalization. We’ve committed to supporting colleagues who may feel isolated or excluded because of their race, realizing that many may feel unable or unwilling to raise the issue of societal racism and its effects on their well being. And we’ve explicitly empowered our colleagues with the self-determination to have the room and space they determine they need. By being continually cognizant of how we’re communicating to our partners, donors and the world at large, we have stressed, externally and internally, it is our actions at this time that count, more so than our words.

Yet, through a recent centering discussion, we, like many organizations right now, have learned some hard truths about ourselves as an organization, where we realized through some uncomfortable silences that we can do more to uncover the experiences and feelings of our employees. We, together with others, have committed to learning, growing and building trust, to creating more of these intentional spaces, to challenge our unconscious biases in the present and future, and now, more than ever, provide tailored support to those who are impacted both directly and indirectly by the traumas of racism and are coping with the upheaval of a worldwide pandemic.

In this moment of needed reckoning on anti-Black racism, that means committing to practicing more humility, focusing on impact over intention, and practicing active listening, with the voices of Black staff, artists, activists, academics and others leading in shaping our responses to current events.

And it also means that we demonstrate mindfulness and act in concrete ways against the COVID-19 remote workplace backdrop, practicing remote humanity and honoring the dignity of workers in workplaces other than our own. Polling our staff in recent weeks, we found that they have been inspired by the actions of others, big and small—from nightly balcony cheers for healthcare workers, to children writing notes for healthcare and sanitation workers, to hearing stories of celebrities like Trevor Noah and James Corden who are personally supporting furloughed staffers, and of anonymous, five-figure tips left for restaurant workers.

This prompted one of our staffers to invite a building doorman and his family over for dinner. Others have prepaid barbers and hair salons, bartenders and restaurants, donated to local unions, and stopped buying from companies that have been criticized for poor treatment of its workforce during the COVID-19 crisis. Another noted the realization of the importance of smiling with one’s eyes, since our mouths are covered by masks. We have also taken time to share those things, wherever we are, that in those spaces bring us joy and happiness, and to identify the remote humanity behavior we want to see continue.

In a recent piece in the Yale University Press Blog, Hicks emphasized that honoring the dignity of others can be seen as an act of generosity. Making a commitment today to be generous in action and in spirit to those we work alongside or who, with the services they continue to provide, are helping us move our lives through this moment a little more easily, shows dignity-consciousness. And at a time our hearts feel heavy, and we find ourselves continually asking how we can better be proximate to the pain that others are experiencing in these moments, it allows us to answer a question Hicks ultimately poses in a way we can be personally and emphatically proud of: “What did I do to make a positive contribution when the world was in such a state of upheaval?”

By committing to these small but concrete actions, we are truly leading with actions, and getting proximate to one another. In the end, it is the quickest and safest path to realizing my father’s dream to “admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others.”