“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” – Chief Seattle
I came across a friend’s social media post that shared the story of a Buddhist monk, who was asked to speak to a senior class about to graduate.
The monk entered the room and didn’t say a word, which caught the attention of the students. He walked to the whiteboard and wrote:
“Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.”
The students laughed. But the monk went on to say:
“Statistically, it’s highly unlikely that any of you will ever have the opportunity to run into a burning orphanage and rescue an infant. But, in the smallest gesture of kindness – a warm smile, holding the door for the person behind you, shoveling the driveway of the elderly person next door – you committed an act of immeasurable profundity, because to each of us, our life is our universe.”
Where is our sphere of influence? Where is our greatest opportunity to achieve lasting, meaningful change in the world?
Cosmopolitanism, the notion that all humankind belongs to a single ideal city, the Cosmopolis, is crucial both in many philosophies and, increasingly, in modern politics (or at least it should be).
Marcus Aurelias wrote: “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”
This is the Stoic concept of Sympatheia, the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.” In another word, cosmopolitan – the “universal city.”
Therefore, our greatest sphere of influence, our greatest way to achieve lasting change is to change ourselves, to be a model for others to follow. Not out of any selfish egotism, but out of the desire for doing the difficult, for doing the right thing when others will not. Influence your sphere, and they can (hopefully) influence their spheres for an infinite extrapolation until all the connected spheres across the globe are affected.
This is lofty, yes. Is it impossible? We won’t know unless we start. But this is known, we have no greater opportunity to change for good than to start with ourselves.
On this profound American holiday, Martin Luther King Day, we reserve time to honor a rare person who was able to break free and affect change on the world like few can. And he paid the ultimate price when he was murdered for having the courage to do what was right.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is one of deep misunderstanding. His quotes are often used out of context, misattributed, or used as a way to profess actionless, hollow righteousness. Regardless, what cannot be debated is his overwhelming contribution to the fight for a more just world.
Chances are that you and I will not have an opportunity to change the world so profoundly on his scale. There’s been a lot of great change that has occurred over the past several decades that can be attributed to his and his followers’ efforts. However, not enough change has occurred, nor at the pace a lot of folks deserve. I believe this is in part due to the fact that most people try to change the world rather than focusing on changing their world.
Changing the world is outside of our control. Changing our own world is mostly, if not entirely, within our control.
Human resource professionals have the unique ability to change their workplaces. The workplace is a part of our sphere of influence, and likely one that can affect a greater sphere beyond what we know.
In our efforts to continue King’s work, what can HR professionals do TODAY in the workplace to continue changing their universe? This is a small list, but small lists don’t mean big influence.
- Hire more Black candidates. Simple, I know… they are there!
- Relax or destroy dress codes. They’re archaic, not useful (most of the time), and discriminatory (sometimes).
- Give your power to Black coworkers. If you were supposed to go to a meeting, ask your Black coworker to go on your behalf.
- Hold folks publicly accountable for their racist behavior. If you see someone tell a racist joke, call them out. Come on! It never should have been acceptable, but in 2022? Please.
- Speak up in meetings and advocate for Black coworkers. Ask where the Black folks are if there are none. If a policy is detrimental for Black experience, speak up and explain why.
- Educate the organization on DEI matters. Train, train, train! Not just on buzzwords, but on actual real-world history, outcomes, and solutions.
- Paid time off for social justice issues. Make it explicit that time off can be spent and is encouraged for volunteering and providing to causes that are important to employees, such as social justice events.
- Don’t patronize or do things hollowly – do it with purpose and sincerity! Holding Juneteenth celebrations when you have one Black employee, or worse, none? No bueno. Maybe use Juneteenth as an opportunity to conduct further training and development, or have a Committee of Black employees plan events – and allow them to own it!!!
None of this is revolutionary! It’s been written and shared many times over by others more educated than me. Yet, it is THAT simple. This is just a start, but it’s the right thing to do. Some of these things will likely make others uncomfortable. GOOD. Then you know it’s working.
And we can keep this going outside of work by personally,
- Donating money or time to a Black nonprofit.
- Shopping at Black owned businesses, often!
- Inviting your Black neighbors over for a cookout.
- Sending your Black neighbors the same holiday cards you send other neighbors!
By doing these things, will the entire universe change? Not really, but we will have an immediate impact on the small universe around us. The power to change the world is overestimated. The power to change yourself is underestimated. A thousand small acts of kindness make for a large life full of kindness. Start by helping mom do the dishes, and end by leaving a legacy that inspired others.