After 4 ½ years at YMEN — during which he spent several months in Kenya working with a Nairobi-based NGO called the Uzima Foundation — Ramey moved on to the United Way of Metro Chicago. He then headed to the University of Chicago to lead a new initiative called Social Innovation and Philanthropy at the school’s University Community Service Center; working with and teaching students, he created several social justice programs that would help students (as the school put it at the time) “think creatively about how to address major social issues and how to start up, run, and sustain an organization whose primary mission is to serve the public.”
After three years, alarmed at the country’s widening political divisions, Ramey decided to “create a new definition for social impact consulting.” As he told the Chicago Maroon, the university’s student newspaper, the “overall goal” of his new company was “to bring a different way of thinking, but also a different type of leadership structure, into corporations, nonprofits, and foundations.” That new company would be Justice Informed.
“Our work at Justice Informed is not to make things more possible in the world. It is to make them probable.”
The insidious nature of privilege
Justice Informed conducts workshops and strategy sessions, but Ramey’s work often begins with his speaking to a group. “Most people are still making up their minds if they want to do the work of equity,” he says. “They want to spend more time listening to views on it than actually getting something accomplished.”
Invariably, the first query he gets is a revealing one: “How do we stop racism?”— which is often followed by “How do we promote more women?” or “How do we make LGBTQ people feel that they belong?” The questions are so broad and so rudimentary — volumes have been written about them — that Ramey is sometimes taken aback at the lack of nuance. “Some people say there are no bad questions,” he says. “But when your questions come at the cost of the psychological and emotional safety of someone else, who’s a presenter or a speaker or a witness to harm, then you do have a responsibility to do your homework before you start asking questions.”
He also feels a need to instill in the people with whom he consults that sense of urgency he expressed two years ago in Toronto. “Organizational leaders simply don’t want to move at the pace that’s needed for change,” he says today. “Racial progress moves at the pace of white fragility, gender progress moves at the pace of male fragility, and so on. Even our well-intentioned allies are on the fence about how fast we should all move to get along.”
The upshot is that before he can even get to helping build strategies, Ramey must engage in a certain amount of reeducation and dispelling of myths and stereotypes, and replace them with “narratives” (to use his word) that reflect starker realities that many never want to face. “Justice Informed uses words to create ideas about new narratives in the world,” he says, “and those narratives allow for certain strategies to be possible.”
Ramey challenges a host of narratives during his corporate training sessions, just as he did during our conversations. Nothing was off-limits; no topic was safe. The value of philanthropy, for example. Surely, such giving has no caveats? Well …
Philanthropic giving is fine and has its place, he allows. “I think giving back is important. The reality of what I’ve come to know as a Black man in America is that there is a better way than just giving back. And that better way is to not take first.” That’s what he tells the organizations he works with. “Don’t focus on giving back; focus on not taking first. You can put that at the top line: Pirates can’t become philanthropists.” And as he did in Toronto, Ramey quotes Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote that “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
“We work with foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations around reenvisioning how racial and social equity can be at the center of their grantmaking.”
Likewise, he balks at the idea that talking about racism is hard. “Talking about racism is not hard — if you practice,” he says. “When you don’t practice, it shows.” But being able to practice means creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable being their authentic selves and able to speak up about issues — both of which, Ramey says, can be hard, especially when people fail to understand the insidiousness of privilege.
The very nature of privilege, for example, is that you don’t have to assimilate to participate in society. “If you’re Asian in America, if you’re Middle Eastern, if you’re, let’s say, from Botswana, what is the first thing you have to do to get into a corporate job?” he asks. “You have to assimilate, meaning you have to study the people in power. Now, if you ask those people in power, they’ll say we’re all the same. But they didn’t have to study like the woman from Botswana. They didn’t have to learn another language or put their cultural clothing in a closet so they could go to dinner at a potential new boss’s house. People are closing off entire parts of their lives so that you don’t have to feel their difference.”
So how can that be changed? The key, as Ramey says in his speeches and workshops — and as he and his team build strategies for inclusion and equity across the United States — is to create a setting where people believe they will be heard and not punished for telling the truth as they see it. But to accomplish that, every assumption about relationships — in the workplace and in society — needs to be torn down and rebuilt in a more authentic way. I ask Ramey if that’s really possible. Again I seem to have asked the wrong question. “Our work at Justice Informed is not to make things more possible in the world,” he replies. “It is to make them probable.”
Which, Ramey explains, is the main reason he joined Rotary. “Rotary does a lot of good work, but I saw a century-old organization struggling under the weight of the conversations it was not willing to have and the traditions it was not willing to analyze and replace,” he says. “Rotarians have to apply The Four-Way Test to the inequities that exist in their communities and countries and around the world today. There is a reason why Rotary clubs struggle with diversity, equity, and inclusion. The new DEI statement is a place to start, but it lacks the specificity required to create enduring change for anything except gender. There is a reason why Black American Rotarians don’t stay members for long in a club. There is a reason why women had to file lawsuits to be admitted into Rotary clubs as equal members. All along the way, people insisted they be evaluated on the basis of whether they were a ‘nice person.’ Niceness and goodwill are inputs to productive conversations and meetings, but they are not strong enough to create an equitable world.
“I wanted to step in to challenge, be in community with, and provide an example of linguistic and civic rigor for the Black and Brown, LGBTQIA, and nonmale persons who need Rotary to be a place where our prosperity in any country we inhabit is probable, not just possible. We need to move beyond grants and volunteering, though that work is good. We need to move into accountable relationships, and that means that the people who need more than help — who need justice — get to define impact. That was what the hundreds of people, mostly Black and Brown people from across Africa and Asia, said to me after Toronto as I left the stadium. One elder lady told me, ‘Young man, I don’t think you know what you have done by saying these things, but I thank you.’
“That is how we prevent people like George Floyd from being killed on video. That is how companies move beyond ‘the business case for diversity’ and into real relationships with people of different backgrounds and identities. And that’s how Rotary moves powerfully and proudly into the future.”
‘We have much work to do, Rotarians’
That was the message that Ramey, a member of the Rotary Club of Maywood-Proviso in suburban Chicago, delivered in Toronto. “It was always possible for a Black man to be president of the United States,” he said then. “But until 2008, it was improbable. It has always been possible for a woman to be paid what a man is paid. But it is also, in most parts of the world, improbable.”
Those words came early in his speech, but they were met with applause. The crowd was already with Ramey as he paced the stage and held up the various truths he insisted must be seen. But he wasn’t only holding the mirror up to his audience. He stared into it himself. “I am the hope and the dream of the slave,” he proclaimed, this time echoing the poet Maya Angelou. “I repeat, standing here I am the hope and the dream of the slave. And, and I am a privileged American. I am a systematically excluded Black person in my own country, and I’m a privileged man. These are my contradictions. I accept them. I urge you all to do the same, to acknowledge it, to recognize it, to hold that tension. This is the tension for our time.”
Then came the challenge: “We have much work to do, Rotarians, in moving to the next phase of civic responsibility and global relationships. We must make the possible probable. We have a beautiful and important world to build, if we can keep it. If we can keep ourselves. If we can love. If we can be life. If we can be together. Know that the fate of our very world depends upon it. Thank you all.”
The audience roared its approval. Challenge accepted.
• This story originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.
• The senior writer at Chicago magazine, Bryan Smith last wrote about Montana farmer Bob Quinn for the March 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.