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We Went to the Moon, But Can We Address Racism?


Michael S. Rafferty, President and CEO, New Detroit, Inc.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This is one of the most famous lines ever uttered in history.

Except that is not what Neil Armstrong said after Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 and Armstrong stepped out onto its surface.

Armstrong maintains that mission control did not hear him clearly, later clarifying that what he really said was, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

A man.

The giant leaps that mankind takes are dependent on how a man, or woman, starts. Where a person begins. Whether a person has the will, the desire, and understanding to undergo personal change, to implement systemic change.

In social justice work, we talk a lot about systemic and institutional racism; access; and equity. And those words, in recent years, have become mainstream messaging points. But without action behind the words, that is all they are: messages, not actual deeds.

It is not enough to simply issue blanket statements condemning racist acts. That is the very least an organization can do. Leadership must actually lead by implementing policies that put procedures into place that improve economic equality, employment, and housing, and increase access to quality health care and education for the long-term. Leaders have access to people and opportunities that many do not. They must insert themselves into policy change by advocating at the local, state, and federal levels of governing.

Leaders must put into practice, the words that they print. This starts by:

  • Hiring more Black people and people of color into positions of senior leadership.
  • Providing opportunities for professional development so that Black people and people of color may grow within theircareers.
  • Increasing minority suppliers to diversify the economy.
  • Stepping down from board positions and ensuring that a Black person or person of color takes your place.
  • Intentionally seeking out opportunities to mentor Black people and people of color; providing access to networks, resources, and information that they may not be privy to.
  • Going beyond just saying an environment is a safe space and making it one by amplifying voices traditionally marginalized.

Corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives must be about more than just feel-good seminars but digging deeply and exploring personal relationships to racism and bias. That process starts with self-examination.

It required much innovation for the United States to land a manned shuttle on the moon. It is going to warrant even greater effort for us to change the spirit of a nation divided by decades of racist institutions that continue to systemically disenfranchise and subject Black people and people of color to state-sanctioned violence.

Leadership starts with a person doing the necessary work in every organization.

Michael S. Rafferty is the president and CEO of New Detroit, Inc., a non-profit coalition of leaders working to achieve racial understanding and racial equity in Metropolitan Detroit. He resides with his family in Detroit.