“There’s a need for us to educate people. There’s a need for us to have some of these tough conversations because we expect that our classmates are going to graduate and become leaders.”

For Femi Brinson, WG’21 Wharton’s Black community is like an extended family. As he enters his second year in the Wharton MBA Program, he joins classmate Erica Williams, WG’21 as co-president of the Wharton African American MBA Association (AAMBAA). AAMBAA and a number of other student-led clubs have long-held collaborative programming to unpack racism and share ways to act as an allies. The group is also a place where Black students can form bonds over shared experiences, lift each other up, and just have fun. For example, this summer AAMBAA organized a virtual “Emmy’s style” awards show that drew more than 70 students to a Zoom call — complete with DJ sets and black tie attire.

“It’s a support system for professional work or personal struggles you’re going through, for even spiritual things you’re thinking through. For me, it’s like this extra gas to keep me going,” Femi said.

In June, a new urgency and demand for change emerged after a series of racial injustices in the United States ignited massive protests across the country and the world. Erica and Femi were called to speak on behalf of their peers while processing their own thoughts and emotions. With the support of the Wharton administration and AAMBAA alumni members, they released a statement, and plan to sustain and scale their efforts this fall.

We spoke to Femi and Erica about the “Black at Wharton” community and the importance of anti-racism education in business school.

A number of Wharton alumni reached out and spoke to you on a call as you were writing the statement. How did that come together and what did you take away from that conversation?

Erica Williams: “I think the key takeaway from that conversation is the knowledge that we have such a strong support system that extends years and years before our tenure, but it’s a support system that is there for us to tap into when we need it, as opposed to something that is cast onto us. That wasn’t the case at all with this particular situation. It started just as an email thread that connected us to one or two folks within past AAMBAA administrations. Then other past presidents piled on, offering to be there.”

“It was purely, ‘We’re here for you. We can provide our insight. We can share the things that we did in similar situations in past years during our time as president. We can even share things that other schools were doing at the time, but we are here to support you in whatever ways you need.’ I thought that was just really powerful.”

Why is it important to have conversations with your Wharton classmates about racism?

Femi Brinson: “There’s a need for us to educate people. There’s a need for us to have some of these tough conversations because we expect that our classmates are going to graduate and become leaders. They’re going to lead diverse teams. They’re going to need to be pounding the table for people who don’t look like them, and they’re going to need to understand some of the cultural nuances of the things that we go through. Even though we’re in the same spaces when we walk into an elevator to go to work or in a meeting, we might have different experiences based on our history and based on how we’re treated.”

Erica Williams: “I will likely cross paths with a lot of my classmates again. We will work in organizations together, maybe on a board or on any number of different levels. We don’t want to continue to provide an opportunity for the microaggressions that existed in the places that we’ve come from to now move through Wharton and persist in the places we will go after this because that’s essentially what will happen if we don’t provide a platform to say, ‘Whether you learned it through a conversation you had in Return on Equality, or through a small group discussion that WGA had, the buck stops here in terms of continuing to perpetuate any racist actions or thought processes or behaviors that people don’t necessarily even maybe realize exist.’”

How can other Wharton students join the efforts to eradicate racism?

Erica Williams: “We really think that at the end of the day, it has to go beyond us. It has to go beyond just AAMBAA, just WASA, just CariBiz. And we need more communication about the importance of being anti-racist and not just tapping into or acknowledging the fact that you have unconscious bias. Acknowledging that we all have unconscious bias is the first step, actively working to eradicate that from our views and unlearning some of these things that were inherent to the way we were raised and the experiences that we’ve lived, is even more important than just acknowledging that they’re there.”

“We referenced [the incident in New York City’s Central Park in which Amy Cooper called the police on a Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper] specifically (in the letter) to highlight the fact that no one is immune to unconscious bias, to holding racist ideologies, or to act out on those ideologies in the workplace, in our personal lives, in public, or in Central Park — anywhere. It is important in galvanizing people to understand that we can’t pretend anyone is immune in this movement, or any others if we want to continue to move things forward.”

Femi Brinson: “Ultimately, we believe that if we are to change things culturally, even at this small level of Wharton which is just a representation of America, we need to make sure that organizations are being held accountable. We can shout about how important these things are, but if it’s only happening in our small echo chamber or at our meetings, we don’t see that changing anything.”

Do you see progress being made? Have you seen the “light bulb” moment happen among non-Black Wharton students?

Femi Brinson: “This is going to be a dissatisfying answer, but I see the light bulb flickering. It’s starting, but it has to be sustained. It can’t just be a quick donation we’re making here or a quick initiative here; it has to be woven into the culture. I do see a lot more interest, definitely heavier towards the more emotional, earlier parts of it, and now kind of tailing off a little bit. But I’m hopeful that with the programming students are setting up in the fall, we can sustain the momentum.

I remember being an undergrad and doing very similar work when Trayvon Martin was killed and feeling the same emotion. I remember where I was when I heard the verdict with my parents. To some extent, I was like, ‘Wow, I hope (the students in AAMBAA in 2025 or 2030, 2040, aren’t having to do the same thing.’ And that galvanized us because we were like, ‘What can we do to try to minimize the chances of this happening again?”

Erica Williams: “Unfortunately, unlearning is a very uncomfortable process. We all have to do it along a number of different levels. I don’t think anybody is immune to that, but in this particular moment, unlearning is with respect to the experience of being Black and what it means to have a history of suffering associated with that. We need to understand again, ‘How can we as business school students check our privilege at the door and use that knowledge to make sure we’re being actively anti-racist moving forward?’”


— Mike Kaiser

Posted: August 10, 2020

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