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Mindset Monday: “A PR Statement isn’t Enough”

By MJ Ryan, Featuring Steph Speirs, Co-Founder of SheEO Venture Solstice

From MJ Ryan: SheEO is dedicated to supporting new mindsets and new models to create a better world. Today, as we collectively face the pain and shame of racial injustice around the world, I wanted to highlight and amplify the actions of Solstice, a company dedicated to community solar power founded by two powerful women of color Steph Speirs and Sandhya Murali. Their commitment to racial justice goes so much deeper than a p.r. statement and further than the past month. I’m honored to share Steph’s words and hope they inspire each one of us to take specific, concrete action inside and outside our organizations to right the terrible legacy of white supremacy.

When I first met Steph in March 2019, she had just come back from taking her entire staff and board based in Massachusetts to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Founded in 2018, this is the US’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.

As Steph explained it, “We felt it was important [to go] because we believe our work lives should be infused with the same values and ethics we aspire to bring to our personal lives. Every company is an institution of power that has the danger of mirroring the systems of injustice that exist in our broader society. Consequently, company leadership has a duty to intentionally cultivate a more aware environment. No matter how much you do or don’t already know about the history of racism in America, visiting the Memorial is a deeply affecting experience and if visiting the Peace and Justice Memorial were required of every person in the country, I believe we would be a more just and peaceful nation. We educate ourselves about these issues because it helps us understand the life experiences of people who have suffered injustice through no fault of their own. We cannot work on issues of inequality without first gaining that understanding and empathy.”

Last week, Steph wrote the following statement on behalf of the Solstice team:

 

A PR Statement Isn’t Enough
Together, we stand against racism.

Solstice is based in Boston, where almost exactly 250 years ago, a Black man named Crispus Attucks became one of the first martyrs to die in the American Revolution. Crispus Attucks had escaped a life of enslavement and worked as a seaman for over 10 years at the moment he was killed fighting for American freedom.

James Baldwin once said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  Part of what he was describing was the unjust duality that a Black person could be one of the first freedom fighters in the establishment of this nation, and yet centuries later, still be forced to tolerate an inequitable system that stymies their own freedom. Baldwin was also talking about how Black and Brown Americans make up the vast majority of essential workers taking care of Americans now and yet cannot enjoy the benefits of equality.

What happened last week with George Floyd’s murder was horrifying, especially after the tragic killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, especially after countless similar murders in recent years, especially seven years after the Black Lives Matter movement began. Justice is applied unevenly in this country, and it is especially absent for those with black and brown skin.

In no uncertain terms, Solstice firmly supports people who suffer injustice and advocate for their liberties. The Black community deserves better than the broken promises that have been inflicted on them in the last 400 years. They have endured enslavement, a rescinded offering of 40 acres and a mule, redlining policies that obstruct their ability to own a home or accumulate wealth, Jim Crow laws establishing racial supremacy as the law of the land, and a criminal justice system that has proven to be systematically biased against them. As a result of 400 years of racist policies, recent data demonstrates that communities of color are dying disproportionately from COVID-19 and health disparities so it is no wonder we now find ourselves in a feckless tinderbox.

In a functioning democracy, there is a social contract that exists between governments and their citizens. As citizens, we agree to endure some sacrifice and forego personal freedom in exchange for the benefits of equality and protection that are offered by the state. The social contract allows us to unite around the common good and create a community that is greater than the sum of our parts.

Langston Hughes wrote a poem in 1936 called “Let America Be America Again” in which he described the broken social contract that had been unfulfilled for Black Americans:

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 

Solstice was explicitly founded to dismantle the system of inequality in the energy industry, and we have taken steps over the last four years in our hiring, training, and operations to emphasize social justice and minimize bias in our processes. Our day-to-day work involves trying to put clean energy in the hands of ordinary Americans, regardless of their income, their home ownership status, and other markers of privilege.

Yet though our work to date has been focused on income inequality, we have not done enough to address racial inequality. We cannot neglect the proven fact that being Black and Brown in this country means you are disproportionately low-income, disproportionately paying more for energy costs, disproportionately suffering from air pollution, disproportionately bearing the effects of climate change, and still, disproportionately locked out of the benefits of the clean energy economy.

At this juncture in our history, it is not enough to put out a public statement on social media that racism and murder are abhorrent. Individuals and companies must do the hard work to chip away at the systems of inequality that pervade our society, regardless of whether we are suffering ourselves. Pandemics and climate change reveal that we are, as MLK Jr stated, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In the coming weeks and months, Solstice will be taking the following small actions to be better allies and anti-racists, and we are exploring other ways we can help in addition to this list.

We will:

  1. Share anti-racism resources with all employees in the company and organize company conversations about the importance of anti-racism;
  2. Revise our mission statement and goals to incorporate racial inequality (in addition to the income inequality on which we already work);
  3. Begin tracking employee race data (in addition to the gender, national, and educational diversity data we track) in an effort to hold ourselves more accountable to increasing our share of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) employees;
  4. Investigate how to incorporate customer racial demographic data in our software (in addition to the socioeconomic data we track) in an effort to increase the share of BIPOC customers in our customer pool;
  5. Launch a diversity and racial justice committee to ensure our actions persist in the medium and long-term, rather than permitting this moment to be a flash in the pan;
  6. Grant up to 3 paid days off to Solstice employees that volunteer to get-out-the-vote in November for any local election campaign, because local voting is one of the most effective ways to reform racist policies.

Given the economic downturn, Solstice is unable to donate from company coffers to racial justice and criminal justice reform organizations at this time. However, the Solstice co-founders will be personally matching employee contributions to these organizations.

If there is one thing we have learned from working on inequality over the last four years, it is that unjust systems do not fix themselves. The incentive structures and power dynamics of the status quo are the greatest inhibitors to change. Reforming systems requires us to act over a long period of time with big and small actions alike, with deliberate intention and community organizing, even when it is inconvenient to do so.

Langston Hughes ended his poem with a firm belief that we could be successful in fulfilling America’s promise for all Americans. Solstice is committed to this outcome, and we are eager to partner with other like-minded individuals and organizations in pursuit of this vision. Because what we do today affects whether we have justice and peace tomorrow, and because we have a lot of work to do.

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again…

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

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