Soft Skills for Black Lives Matter

February was Black History Month, but learning about Black history is a continually evolving exercise. Over the years since it was launched in 1970, it’s always been about remembrance and representation, then integration and justice. More recently, the terms diversity and inclusion have come to the fore.  Then with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the term ‘structural racism’ entered prominently into the public conversation, and now with a new presidential administration in power, brought largely by the mobilization of African American voters, the question of ‘remedies’ is now critically before the nation.

The Center for Third Space Thinking at the University of Southern California Annenberg School is devoted to enhancing diversity and inclusion across the board by helping individuals acquire the critical skills they need to be successful in our post-industrial, digital economy. Our teaching and community service provide learners the ‘soft skills’ that complement the STEM hard skills. Indeed, our students in high school and in college have come to call them ‘survival skills’.  They recognize these are ways they can gain power.

This year, Black History Month is being held against the back drop of two things that BLM has drawn us to.  First, achieving the desired outcomes of inclusion and diversity are more difficult than many had previously realized because they are so deeply embedded in the structural conditions of American exclusion and racism. Second, BLM stresses the urgency our focus must have on practical solutions to change the structural conditions from exclusionary and racist, to inclusive and anti-racist.  

Terms like diversity, inclusion and equity refer to final outcomes, destinations, places where we want America to be in the future. They are the journey’s end, a marking on a map. They are not, however, the engine needed to get us there. We need the means to get to those future locations. We need some consistent high-level horsepower to drive us there and we need some guidance.

This is where Third Space Thinking can help.  We can use it to review what BLM has brought to our attention so forcefully. The severity of the extraordinary triple crises of COVID, political antagonism and economic collapse reveals we need to take urgent extraordinary steps guided to dismantle the structural aspects of racism.  

Third Space Thinking shows how today’s transformational times require new skills, and says what they are and how to apply them. The five core competencies are adaptability; cultural competency; empathy; intellectual curiosity and 360 degree thinking. These five competencies are effective when applied to a problem one-by-one, and they are especially powerful when used together.

Let’s apply this Third Space Thinking framework to illuminate the core elements advanced by BLM.

360 Degree Thinking. BLM insists we must look at the big picture to understand black lives. Black cities, black institutions and black families exist in a broad social setting where multiple factors affect each part of the 360-degree whole. Police abuse of black people is not a single unconnected event here and there, but are a local expression of a larger pattern, a whole that should be viewed in a 360 degree context, as well as in historical context.

Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of its intersectional goals of obtaining racial justice. On January 29, 2021, the organization tweeted, “We hold the largest social movement in global history. Today, we have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. People are waking up to our global call for racial justice and an end to economic injustice, environmental racism, and white supremacy. We’re only getting started.” Three hundred and sixty degree thinking allows us to see how the history of white supremacy carries itself globally through racist policies, racist economic systems and environmental racism, in which the harmful impacts of climate change disproportionately affect Black communities and other communities of color. Therefore, the larger pattern of injustice is strung together through these systems the Black Lives Matter movement works to dismantle. 

Of course, looking for pieces of injustices throughout these systems can be difficult to comprehend, even after knowing they exist.  That’s why it’s imperative to be curious and to keep researching how white supremacy is upheld and what we can do to break it. 

In moments of unprecedented change, there are few useful formulae to apply that will solve all our problems. There never have been solutions to these problems because there have never been conditions where multiple factors converge under the eyes of digital technologies.  It’s unique.  Therefore, we must become relentlessly curious about what is happening. We must pose probing questions, sometime impolite ones. Neither brilliant scholars,  nor experienced professionals have automatic answers. 

Curiosity in context is key. How do the pieces come together, with what consequences? How does economics drive health care and the pandemic drive economics and both drive political activism? Let’s be curious about the whole picture. 

In an interview with Moyers On Democracy, BLM founder Alicia Garza said, “The biggest misconception about Black Lives Matter is that BLM is just one entity; Black Lives Matter is an organization and a network. We are a part of the movement, but we are not THE movement. This movement is diverse and flourishing, and there is a lot of important work inside of it that people need to know about.” Here is where curiosity meets the holistic world.

Empathy is one of the most important, if not the most important, core ACE-IT attribute to being a part of an anti-racist struggle because a united front organization like BLM must be willing to embrace others even when they are different from one another. Empathy means welcoming those who are willing to walk in the shoes of those who have been excluded from the sight of many other Americans. Empathy is explicitly promoted in BLM. 

Michelle Lugalia-Hollon, Director of Policy in the San Antonio Mayor’s Office, also reflected on the need for non-Black people to empathize and listen to Black voices. “Black Lives Matter is a refrain that perfectly captures the outrage and frustration with the unjust treatment of a people that have been systematically ignored, punished and discriminated against,” Lugalia-Hollon said in a blog by PraxisCenter. “It is also a cry for society to acknowledge the pain and experiences of Black people and an appeal for increased empathy for Black lives. While BLM is shedding an unwavering light on the impact of improper policing on Black communities, it is also uncovering what drives the unfair treatment of Black citizens in this country.”

Black people are often being ‘tone-policed’, being told how they should feel when tormented with racist behaviors. Non-Black people have criticized the methods to which Black people respond to injustice.  Allies, and indeed critics, need to think in their heads and feel in their hearts about how injustices provoke their responses. If one hasn’t ever experienced what the aggrieved person or community has experienced, it can be very difficult to know how best to respond. While non-Black people can be allies and work to be anti-racist to undo systems of racism, this must include listening to Black voices who are the leaders in the movement. 

Empathy is a vitally important core attribute and it is closely tied to cultural competence. To be culturally competent requires knowing the culture and lives of African Americans; it requires understanding the important outlines and details of their history, and being sensitive to their social and political conditions.  Cultural competence relies more on cognitive elements like learning a language, and knowing a group’s historical knowledge.   

In a TED Talk on fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Rosalind G. Brewer explained how diversity and inclusion cannot just be about the “numbers”, but about fostering relationships through cultural competency. “I worry about the race for numbers, to meet numbers, because what you will find, I’ve found many times in my career, is that some of our best leaders have good intentions, but they don’t understand,” Brewer stated. “They don’t understand the partner sitting next to them that looks different from them. And so I worry about when we race to numbers, because, you know what? The kind of country we live in, the world we live in, we all know how to make numbers work. What we don’t know how to do is to build strong relationships that are lasting, that are valued. And I think that’s where we need to start, is relationship-building and key partnerships.” 

Lastly and importantly in the ACE-IT model is being open to adapt to changing circumstances around you.  Adaptability provides society the ability to change itself to meet the needs of all its stakeholders. Working towards justice requires change and we must all be adaptable and ready to live our lives through the change, as well as adapt and respond to the changing systems where racism and white supremacy hide themselves. 

Adaptability is an essential component in the doctrine of the Black Lives Matter movement. Adaptability, like the other competencies, is needed among all the stakeholders. The most committed BLM activists adapt to the constant cross- pressures they must feel, from allies and antagonists alike. They need to adjust their personal behaviors, as well as the strategies of their organization.  Elected officials and police officers have to adapt, often in quick responses on the spur of the moment.  Flexibility and adaptability are essential when applying ACE-IT  in a charged BLM context, but each of us must also decide when not to adapt too much, when to resist flexibility. There are core beliefs and commitments that guide their beliefs and their ideology. Too much flexibility begins to feel like being wishy-washy, or lacking in sincerity.

At the end of the day, all of us need to embrace these special skills, whether called “real world skills” or power skills or soft skills, because we are all in danger in our personal and professional lives, if we can’t bring them into all our lives. We are committed to making this world a more humane and humanitarian place for people to live. Let us aim to eliminate racism and advance inclusion, using the universal soft skills that we all can use.