Black Resilience

Feb 28, 2023   |  By Chris Watler

Black History Month is a time to honor and celebrate Black resilience. Resilience is generally defined as “the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficulties.” This definition seems lacking. It does not fully encompass what I mean by Black resilience. Black resilience is more than fortitude in the face of difficulties; it is an act of defiance and resistance to systemic oppression. It is an individual and collective action rooted in a desire to reclaim our dignity and joy and help others do the same.

As I think about our work at the Center for Employment Opportunities, it is also a story of Black resilience. Our mission: is to help people leaving incarceration to secure employment. It is rooted in our core values -- equity, community, impact, and person-centered. While CEO serves anyone coming home from incarceration, Black people are disproportionately represented in our service population. This results from the broader racial disparities prevalent throughout our criminal justice system. Today, just under 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, including over 1 million in state prisons. Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons. Coming home from incarceration, Black Returning Citizens are less likely to find a job and more likely to face racial discrimination compounded by their criminal conviction. In one well-known study, a white person with a criminal conviction was more likely to be called back for a job than a Black person without one.

Despite these daily odds, I see the hope, talent, and passion that CEO participants and staff bring to our mission. I saw it at work recently when I facilitated two healing conversations for Black staff at CEO in the wake of the release of Tyre Nicole's video by the City of Memphis and the funeral. The healing spaces allowed Black staff to claim time to connect to their feelings and support each other. Healing and taking care of yourself is a necessary pathway to resilience. Maya Angelou once said, “If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me.” I am proud to work for an organization that makes healing & resilience for Black staff a priority.

Black resilience seeks to change the structural and systemic roots of American racism. However, ending America’s racial caste system cannot be the work of Black people alone. White people must also do their work, and it begins by listening to Black people, understanding Black history, and addressing the present-day manifestations of racism.

The ideals that define the American experiment -- life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness- can only be achieved if we acknowledge the truth about our shared history and act today to address injustice. The civil rights leader Bayard Rustin once said: “We are all one, and if we don’t know it, we will learn it the hard way.” We can only understand our oneness and our humanity when we hear the voices of the marginalized and oppressed and take action to advance justice.

One of the key insights I have learned in my study of Black history is the importance of institutional power. This can undoubtedly be seen in the failure of institutions to protect Black Lives. Yet, I am reminded of the ways Black people organized and used institutional power to effect change. Examples include the formation of the Niagara Movement in New York by W.E.B Dubois and other Black intellectuals, the establishment of Black banks like Carver Bank and other Black-founded businesses, and the Office of the President under Barack Obama. Institutional power is critical to advancing racial justice and ending mass incarceration.

I see CEO’s work in this light. I know the power of our policy work to address collateral consequences and our advisory services to help businesses and industry associations open up more opportunities for people with past convictions. I see it in our internal DEI work that has strengthened our culture and is changing our structures and systems through an equity lens. It is in our efforts to advance justice-impacted leaders at CEO through our Emerging Leaders Program. In all of our work, we are committed to centering on the voices and leadership of justice-impacted people.

As we celebrate Black History Month, let's learn about and celebrate the incredible resilience of Black people in America. It is a story that should inspire anyone, regardless of race or background, to stand up for justice and a world free from racism. If you are reading this, commit to doing something to advance racial justice. Support a Black founded or led organization or business in your community, read Black authors, volunteer your time with organizations that are led by Black leaders.