Many companies in Williamson County released statements last week expressing support for racial equality after thousands of protestors across the U.S. demanded an end to systemic racism and police brutality.
However the next step will be much more difficult: making changes that root out racism from their organizations.
The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last month precipitated protests across the country, including Nashville, Murfreesboro and Franklin, but the demonstrations also highlighted years of other racial injustices.
The insurance company Jackson National, which has a large office in Franklin, posted on Twitter that “racial injustice has no place in our country,” and committed to listening, even when it’s uncomfortable. In a social media post, the Franklin theatre company Studio Tenn wrote that it “rejects racism and inequality in all its forms” and stands with Black artists and audiences.
At least a dozen companies in Williamson County posted statements on social media condemning racism last week.
Below is a quote from our Founder & CEO, Tim Estes, and our President & Co-CEO, Brook Hazelton, about the recent events taking place throughout our country. You can read the full statement on our website at https://t.co/DVoOgoi7Uh #FindingTruth #ProtectTheThingsThatMatter pic.twitter.com/asGUh7RS3B— Digital Reasoning (@dreasoning) June 3, 2020
Jeremy Fyke, a professor who teaches corporate communication at Belmont University, said it’s hard for companies to be silent right now.
"There's almost not that much of a choice but to say something," he said. "A big anchor point of the movement is that silence is violence ... That's one of the big slogans. If a company doesn't company doesn't come out and say something, is the presumption that they're against the movement? Maybe.”
During a virtual Williamson Inc. event last week, Sarah Fisher Gardial, dean of Belmont’s Massey College of Business, said it’s important for leaders to speak up about racial injustice right now.
“There is no substitute for the person at the very top of the organization using this as an opportunity to take a personal and organizational stand,” Fisher Gardial said. "I believe there's a deep wound in the community, and all communities, around this. The healing starts when the conversation starts and when we open ourselves up for dialogue.”
We’re deeply saddened by the recent tragic events in the US that have once again highlighted the pervasiveness of discrimination. We need to come together around the world to eliminate racism. We remain committed to inclusion, equality & justice for everyone. #TomorrowStartsToday pic.twitter.com/JpgNJDtGsE— Mars, Incorporated (@MarsGlobal) June 1, 2020
However, publishing a statement opposing racism doesn’t have much power if companies don’t take steps to eradicate it within their walls.
Last week, Brentwood-based Premise Health posted a statement on social media stating that the company stands “against injustice and inequality in all of their forms.” Later, CEO Stu Clark acknowledged that the next steps will be challenging.
“There is much more work to do,” he wrote in a statement. “We are constantly working to improve our approach and listening to our teams, and we will continue to reflect on our practices and polices to see how we can be better.”
Several local companies are already sharing some of the actions they are taking to combat racial injustice.
The day after posting a message of support on social media, Jackson National announced it would give nearly half a million dollars to organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League to address racial justice issues.
In a message to employees, Tractor Supply CEO Hal Lawton wrote that he plans to meet with the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, created earlier this year, to identify ways encourage diversity and combat discrimination. The company also plans to report on the progress of its diversity and inclusion initiatives in an Environmental, Social and Governance Report.
“We are committed to being a champion for equality and respect. Discrimination has no place in our society and cannot be tolerated,” Lawton wrote. “I believe we can do better, and we will be sharing more actions with you in the coming days.”
Nissan, which posted a statement expressing sympathy for victims of police violence, has a private foundation that supports organizations promoting respect and understanding among cultural and ethnic groups. The company started the foundation in 1992 after a California jury acquitted a group of police officers of brutally beating Rodney King, resulting in civil unrest near the company’s former headquarters in Southern California.
Parul Bajaj, the foundation’s executive director, said she felt like it was important to highlight the foundation’s ongoing work because the current protests are reminiscent of the frustrations following the King verdict.
“It's almost as though history is repeating itself. This makes the mission of our foundation more important than ever,” she said. “We wanted to speak on behalf of the foundation, which was formed in a climate just like this 28 years ago, and say ... we're not backing down from the work that we're doing."
In 2015, the Nissan Foundation starting funding a program at the Nashville Public Library that uses images from the library’s civil rights archive to educates police officers and dispatchers about past racial injustices. The program aims to help participants build cultural competencies that will help them better serve the public.
Normally, these Williamson County companies making statements about racial injustice don’t fill their social media feeds with posts about social causes. Fyke said jumping in now, especially with a corporate-speak statement about inclusivity or kindness, might seem opportunistic if businesses don’t take meaningful action to combat racism.
“Look at their track record. Does their track record actually indicate that they support diversity? Have they had a lot of discrimination issues?” Fyke said. “Do they have diversity and inclusion as a part of their company? Do they have positions assigned for it?”
A tweet last week from Ben & Jerry’s — which has previously spoken up about issues like mass incarceration and climate change — blaming the death of Floyd on “a culture of white supremacy” garnered hundreds of thousands of likes. A tweet expressing support for protestors from the Washington Redskins did not gain the same kind of praise.
However, Fyke pointed out that the national discussion about institutionalized racism gives companies a chance to make a positive impact even if they don’t normally wade into social issues.
“It may also be this opportunity to come out and say, normally we're quiet, but it's the right thing to do because we care about this issue and we care about people and we can use our voice,” he said.
Ultimately, Fyke is hoping that companies will stand up against racism. Business leaders have a large megaphone to make a statement, but they also have the power to make changes combating racism in their own organization.
“My hope also is that companies recognize the impact that they can have in trying to bolster and build up humanity, to try to support diversity, to try to truly take a stand. Not just because they have to or because it's opportunistic,” he said. “Right now, society is hurting, so companies can come out and say hey, we care. We want to try to help.”