Members of the Business Fights Poverty network share their reflections on Black Lives Matter in this series. Today we hear from Dr Myriam Sidibe.
BFP: Please introduce yourself?
MS: My name is Myriam Sidibe, I am from Mali and lived in over 20 countries around the world. From within Unilever, I have spearheaded a movement to change the handwashing behaviours of one billion people, the single biggest hygiene behavior change programme in the world, and conceived and established the multi awards winner UN recognized Global Handwashing Day – now celebrated in over 100 countries. I am also the author of the newly released book “Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve social impact and Business growth through purpose” (Routledge 2020). I am currently on sabbatical from Unilever to Harvard Kennedy School where I am a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. Since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic I have been leading a movement in Kenya called: The National Business Compact on Coronavirus which is a platform of collaboration for businesses, the UN family and NGOs.
BFP: What is your personal take on the actions surrounding Black Lives Matter triggered by the death of George Floyd?
MS: I have felt a deep level of hurt and rage and the two emotions kept interchanging. I have spent my professional life thinking about health and wellbeing as the foundation of justice and how to pioneer new ways to address these issues. Racism is real and as far as I am concerned is a public health issue, a mental health issue pre-conditioned and that dehumanizes black people.
This is clearly highlighting the inequality level in the US and it was already being highlighted in the numbers of deaths due to COVID-19 being double amongst black Americans compared to whites but this is just pure outrage and a complete contempt of human life.
BFP: What do you think Business decision makers should do in light of this?
MS: There are only 4 CEOs on Fortune 500 companies who are black. I think businesses need to be much more proactive about protecting and nurturing black leaders. There is such exceptionalism expected of them and this is just not ok.
Brands like Nike’s “Don’t Do It” ad is far more than a statement on the painful issue of racism in America or one brand’s perspective on it and Ben And Jerry coming out with dismantling white supremacy. It does take years of commitment and dedication to be a real brand on a mission. Ben and Jerry ice cream can speak with confidence and authority on America’s current reality because since the civil rights movements, they have supported work towards racial equality on several fronts - education, housing inequality, income inequality and the criminal justice system. And this sensitivity is reflected on their board.
It’s a poignant reminder that brands have a unique and powerful role to play in shattering stereotypes and reshaping public opinion and I talk about this in my book Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose.
Nike took a small first step towards this goal, but there is much more that brands can (and should) do now. They must take a stand and make a positive difference, especially in times of leadership crisis. They have to do so without exploiting or inflaming situations
BFP: What does this mean with a backdrop of COVID-19?
MS: Double the people dying on COVID-19 in the US are black.
We are seeing higher levels of mortality within the Black community and I am worried that with the protests these numbers will rise. I think people are tired, stressed and angry and we have a complete void of political leadership in the US that is not uniting people. This is the opportunity to press the reset button and think about how we rebuild our societies better and build equity and justice.
BFP: What change would you like to see?
MS: I believe in humanity and I believe this is the beginning of a better America. I also believe in the American dream. America was there for me when I was 14 learning to speak English and also during my career transitions - by giving me a space at Harvard to reflect on what effective change I can lead.