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The tragic events that occurred in 2020 brought racial injustice and the urgency of systemic reform to the forefront of our attention in a way that hasn't occurred in over 50 years. Many of us were home or at least very limited to what we could do. Thus, there was a stark increase in the attention paid to the media, especially the news. Much like the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury and George Floyd at the hands of police caused our country to collectively pause and take a long overdue account of our progress (or lack thereof) as it pertains to racism. And like many times before, Black people reacted publicly, with protests erupting in at least 140 cities across the nation. It became clear and unavoidable (for those who continue to question its very existence) that, similar to a virus like the one devastating our country, racism and systemic racism is nowhere close to being eradicated — it has simply adapted with the times.

Unfortunately, racism resulting in death is nothing new to Black people, and the same is true of the public outrage that followed these tragedies. However, one novelty that arose in 2020 was the magnitude and depth of the response from corporate America. Companies ranging from local to entire enterprises released statements signifying their alliance with the BLM movement and took a public stand against racism. And though this unprecedented level of corporate support was appreciated by many, Black people still questioned the motives at the core of such public political statements. Afterall, Black buying power is over a trillion annually, so corporations had a lot to lose (financially and morally) if they ended up on the wrong side of history last summer.

We may never know with certainty if a company truly opposes bigotry and systemic racism (as some have already been exposed for being disingenuous in this realm). But we as Black people can capitalize on the efforts our employers are making to address issues and increase D&E at work as we move forward. Black employees and business leaders are equally as (if not arguably more) important as Black consumers. In order to adequately market to, engage with and ultimately do business with consumers of color, corporations need Black thought and voices in the room. We’ve all seen what happens when there’s a lack of that, right?

So how do we, Black professionals, move forward in 2021 after what seems like a real awakening to the very real disentanglement of politics, identity and business? How do we take our next steps in ways that don’t settle for company-wide emails and social media proclamations? Here are some suggestions on how to step into knowing and owning your value as a Black professional post-2020:

Speak Up

This may not be the easiest action to take if you typically prefer to remain reserved at work, but rest assured that nothing will ever change if nothing is ever addressed. If your employer has created opportunities for suggestions and/or ways to address issues already present in the office, speak up! If you have ideas on how to make your office more inclusive and your employer has committed to this work, they will likely appreciate your efforts to help them reach that goal.

Whether it’s a group, a campaign, an event or a fundraiser, there are creative ways you can help change the future of your company to make it a more inclusive and productive environment for every employee. But that can never happen if POC don’t begin or lend our voices to the conversation.

Know Your Worth

From a purely factual perspective, a multitude of studies that show Black employees are invaluable. Having diverse employees from the top down in any business has been shown to yield more profit, improves innovation and leads to less employee turnover. So, what does that mean for Black employees in 2021? It means first knowing that as a hardworking professional (who also happens to be Black) you are an asset. Now is the time to seek out opportunities to grow and market yourself as such.

If your company has made any commitments to standing against racism and/or improving diversity within their employee pool, they really can't afford to lose their employees of color. And if any company truly wants to diversify, they can't accurately do it without the assistance of their Black and brown employees. That's not to say we should go to work and act cocky. It means we need to go to work and assert ourselves in ways that speak to our true value.

Never Stop Learning

This leads me to my next point: NEVER stop learning. In a society where inventions and apps are created every day (and if not, you can bet your entire bank account someone somewhere is working in the next big thing), no one in the workforce can afford to settle with the skills and knowledge of yesterday. We must always seek knowledge and opportunities to learn, even if it is a skill that seems mundane.

The workforce is competitive, but oftentimes what can set you apart from the competition (in addition to being a diverse candidate) are the unique skills you possess. Suppose a recruiter seeks to fill a position and the three final candidates being considered all took the same courses in college and completed similar internships. What's the differentiator? Sometimes it is the knowledge a potential hire acquired outside a traditional classroom that shows both willingness to take the initiative and is the special sauce that gives them an edge over the competition.

So do your due diligence in your field: read professional publications, study the market, familiarize yourself with new developments, and utilize online learning resources like LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Khan Academy or Lynda.com. You'd be surprised the kind of boost these seemingly small efforts can give to your resume and overall value as an employee.

Don't Be Afraid To Move On

Few people want their careers to remain stagnant. And I'm willing to bet money even fewer are willing to take all the previously mentioned with return on their self-investments. Companies need to recognize that increasing diversity in numbers and percentages is just one piece needed to truly make an organization equitable. Executives must take account of how much diversity they have on the leadership levels and if opportunities for their diverse employees to grow exist. Having zero to little people of color or women in leadership reflects poorly on that organization and can deter diverse candidates from applying at all.

If you find yourself in a situation where you've done whatever you can to advance and to no avail, don't be afraid to start looking for opportunity somewhere else. There are other employers who will give you what you deserve and, sometimes, even more than what you could have imagined.