In these fast-moving times, it’s easy to miss the slow burn ingredients of a movement victory.
It’s been widely reported that President Trump’s business advisory councils have fallen apart. Many sources have even talked about how the CEOs involved began fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. But what you may not know is that this is actually a movement victory.
Behind the scenes, before words of condemnation were put into Trump’s mouth, three CEOs began talking about how Trump’s response was inadequate. They were the CEOs of Pepsi, IBM and General Motors: Indra Nooyi, Ginni Rometty and Mary Barra. All of them women.
They began calling on other CEOs to quit the panels. According to one inside source, “If you were a customer-facing business, you definitely were feeling the heat.”
Why customer-facing? Well, there we have to point the finger at groups that have been pioneering corporate targeting, like Rainforest Action Network, SumOfUs and Color of Change. Corporations are looking over their shoulders in new ways.
Specifically, Color of Change launched a campaign called #QuitTheCouncil in January. They targeted Uber, Tesla and Disney after Trump introduced the Muslim ban and pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. With the support of other allies, Color of Change got those three CEOs to pull out.
According to Color of Change campaign manager Jade Magnus, “We focused on companies that have a public commitment to diversity and public commitment to affirmative action that weren’t walking the walk, but continued to collaborate with Trump. We wanted them to take a stand and choose either to stand on the side of the consumer or stand with Donald Trump and every single issue he represents.”
Corporations were worried.
It should not be a surprise that it was women CEOs taking up that mantle. Older, white executives, like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, wanted to keep the council together and just weather the storm.
Instead, it was a brown woman, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, who led the way and kept pushing.
This is not to say that these CEOs are with the activists now. Instead, it’s important to note that they are where they are because of activists — namely the movements that pressured corporations to hire more women for leadership roles. It was a slow strategy, using agitating groups and inside groups.
To cite one example: In the world of socially responsible investing, activist investors have increasingly made diversity and leadership in executives a criteria for choosing funds. The result has been a slow but noticeable shift in the number of women in executive and board level positions.
The erosion of the glass ceiling for women is good for social change. So were the movements that encouraged more African-American leadership, as shown by the first public acts of the council after Trump displayed his empathy with Nazis and fascists. It came from one of the few African-Americans on the manufacturing council: Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier. He publicly quit, claiming “a responsibility to take a stand against violence and extremism.”
Whatever we can say about Frazier’s timing, the result was swift. Trump attacked him publicly with his typical blustery accusations.
To recap: We have women organizing behind the scenes, led by a woman of color. We have a black man taking public action and getting attacked.
Gender and race dynamics don’t always unfold like this, but it certainly isn’t uncommon.
The CEO’s actions spurred others. The women drew in more CEOs and eventually organized a call where “each panel member was called upon to speak, in alphabetical order.” The result was the decision for the council to disband.
In that spirit of pre-emptive break-up, Trump broke up the council and claimed it was his own move.
But the die had been cast. The stage had been set.
No, it was not Trump. Nor was it some “well-meaning” CEOs. It wasn’t even a single contemporary campaign. It was many movement actions over the ages that led us to the place where a business council quits because a president defended Nazis and fascists.
These are the steady pieces that make for the building of a new culture. Although we’re not there yet, we should claim the victories along the way, as well as honor those who helped make them possible.
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Daniel, good essay! I appreciate your pointing out how the CEO actions can be traced back to long-term continuing efforts against racism and sexism. It’s valuable to draw attention to this history, and also to take time to celebrate the fruits of past work.