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“Implementing the Demands of Justice”: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. Through Our Practice

Alisha Johnson

To be honest, I’m sick of MLK Jr. …

Well, actually, I’m sick of the image of MLK that we celebrate every year – you know, the one with a grand vision for some future better world. The man with unbounded patience that we hold up for marginalized communities to model themselves after. The “I Have a Dream” MLK of passive resistance. Someone that makes us feel comfortable with the way things are because, hey, they’ll get better… someday.

There is, however, another (lesser-known) MLK. One that reminds us that the marginalized cannot be passive bystanders in their own liberation. Neither should those of us who have the power to effect change. The Martin Luther King Jr. I’d like to commemorate is peaceful, but not passive. In his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” King speaks of power, love, and action:

Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change… What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, is love implementing the demands of justice.

I think that most of us understand what reckless and abusive power looks like, but we have a far more difficult time recognizing that love without power might not be enough, might not do enough for those who need real change. Love alone doesn’t move the needle for those who need more than sympathy.

What does this have to do with Neon?

As a woman of color who’s worked in corporate, academic, and nonprofit spaces for two decades, I’ve grown accustomed to being the only one who looks like me in many spaces. That being said, Neon has the most diverse team (across any number of categories) I’ve had the privilege to work with.

A Story…

I was riding with the head of HR the other evening and I brought up our hiring. I commented that hiring a diverse workforce is easy – just look at our group!

I was quickly set straight on this point.

HR: “I have put A LOT of work into getting the team we have.”

Me: “Wait. What? It seems so effortless…”

HR: “It is very intentional, and it takes a ton of effort.”

I’ve been thinking about this ever since. We have such an amazing well of talent, creativity, and personality… turns out, finding the right folks for the work we do hasn’t only been about skill.

For those out there searching for talent, and those of us making hiring decisions, it’s not just about blindly pulling from the standard pool of resumés that come in. It’s about actively looking in many different, possibly non-traditional spaces for people with diverse perspectives – and then, inviting them in.

And this isn’t just about hiring, it’s about a culture that is fostered every day. For MLK Day, and as we move into Black History Month, we will be sharing an Implicit Bias questionnaire with all of our staff. This is not a mandatory exercise, but it is an opportunity for those who are interested to pause and think about our own pre-conceptions and knee-jerk reactions. A chance to consider our own power, capacity for love, and our (respons)ability to make choices that implement the demands of justice. To that end, we’re also encouraging our staff to go out and volunteer!

What does this have to do with the organizations we serve?

We work with so many amazing nonprofits, many of which make it their explicit aim to bring about social, political, and economic change, whether on a structural level or in the lives of those they directly serve.

Nonprofits are, more often than any other kind of organization or institution, focused on providing some positive benefit for their chosen constituencies. In doing that work, I would challenge those in the social sector to consider whether you are working with those you serve. Are the voices of those who benefit from your work heard, and heeded?

I would also ask you to consider not just the power you wield in the lives of your constituents, but to think about those you invite to have a seat at the table of power with you – your decision-makers, your strategic planners, your fundraisers.

As King states, “love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

  • Who do you have on your staff?
  • Who sits on your boards?
  • Who has a platform in your advisory groups, and who are your volunteers?

How hard are you working to include those voices in the decision-making process – to share in the power that you might not even recognize you have?

These are questions for all of us, in our personal and our professional lives. We need to recognize our own power, and that inclusion doesn’t just happen naturally – it takes a lot of work. It is intentional. If we are to “implement the demands of justice,” we have to go beyond merely caring, we have to be deliberate and take action.

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