A conversation about social justice and racism, with Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism strategy, Chris Miller.
300 years ago, the church was the most powerful entity in society, and then we saw the rise of nation states and national governments. Now we see corporations holding great sway, and that’s problematic, because corporations are most often pursuing their own narrow self-interest.
They’re not typically engaged in these wider issues that our societies are wrestling with. They’re thinking about tax policy. They’re thinking about trade policy. Typically, companies believe that they have a limited amount of political capital, and to expend it on issues and causes that perhaps are part of the greater good, detracts from their ability to advance the things in their own narrow self-interests.
As consumers, as individuals, we have different relationships with different kinds of brands. We purchase products and services from a broad range of companies, and I think some of those purchases are built around a straight product transaction. When I’m going to fill up my car with petrol, I’m not particularly brand-loyal. It’s “When do I need it, where am I, where’s the gas station?” But the companies that we are most fond of, I think, as a rule, are the companies that engage us outside of that straight product transaction.
Ben and Jerry really pioneered this model of corporate social responsibility. They were on the first wave of that movement. Ben said, many years ago – and it’s a quote we continue to reference at the company – “The strongest bonds you can create with your customers is around a shared set of values.” Those customers who connect with you around something other than just buying a tub of ice cream, are the consumers that are less likely to trade you for Haagen Dazs when it’s on sale. Right?
You’re clearly seeing more and more companies trying to do this. They understand that that’s true. This buzz around the term “purpose” and purpose-led companies and brands, and everybody’s got a purpose. That’s an acknowledgement that it is both a strategy to grow businesses and that it is increasingly an expectation that consumers have that companies engage on these kinds of issues.
We’re a company with a 42-year history of using our business as a lever to advance change, not just sell ice cream. We have been engaged specifically on issues of racial justice and the need to reform our nation’s criminal justice system for the last few years. While racism and discrimination exist in every society around the world, we have a unique history in the U.S. that’s built on essentially 400 years of legalised repression of Black folks. The law enforcement community and the criminal justice system have been the ways in which that legalised repression has manifested itself. That was the tool through which our society, primarily metaphorically, kept the knee on the neck of Black folks for 400 years.
So, if you are a white American, like I am, it never ever occurred to me, growing up or through much of my life, to ever even consider the idea that the police represented a threat to my body. It’s not something that entered my consciousness. I mean, I didn’t want to get pulled over and get a speeding ticket. However, if you’re a Black American, you fear the police.
For us – a company of a lot of white people in a pretty white state – we saw work on the criminal justice system necessary because of the huge disparity between the way white Americans and Black Americans experience law enforcement. There was an opportunity for us to step into that breach and perhaps help our fans and consumers see this issue in a way they hadn’t before. So, we’ve been doing that for the last few years, advocating for a set of policies that would reduce mass incarceration in the U.S. because it is so disproportionately felt by people of colour.
Ben & Jerry’s released a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in October 2016, following the killing of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.
And we released a statement, just a few weeks ago, in response to recent events, calling for our country to grapple with its uncomfortable past in order to dismantle white supremacy. There are moments when it is important simply to stand and be counted. To say the things that are hard, that are uncomfortable, that people don’t often want to say, because, at least here in the U.S., there is no path to a more just and equitable future that doesn’t include reckoning with and confronting this really uncomfortable history.
All Americans know slavery existed. But it’s a pretty common point of view in the U.S. to believe that this country was desegregated in the ‘60s: legal discrimination was ended by the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act in 1965. We had a Black president and therefore, we’re good. And there is a history that most Americans haven’t been taught. Part of what resonated with our statement about dismantling white supremacy was that it talked about the things that most often people don’t want to talk about, and certainly corporations don’t want to talk about.
We are on the ground working in communities like St. Louis; Missouri; and Miami, Florida on specific aspects of reforming the criminal justice system, but there are times when sometimes you just have to say, “This shit is fucked up,” and say it. Part of the work is to say it. We don’t want to overestimate the importance of the statement, but there are moments when it is important simply to stand up and be counted, and that’s what that was.
It has been the biggest thing that we’ve ever put out in the world, in terms of reach and engagement.
The average time on this page tells us people were reading the entire thing. The reaction to it has been overwhelming, and I think it’s probably just because it stood out in a sea of maybe less direct statements from corporations.
But even for the companies who bobbled it, on balance, this is a good thing.
In the same way that people don’t know how to wrestle with this issue, people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Generally speaking, those who were speaking out on this came from a place of good intent. Companies are just a collection of people. And look, I’m super cynical and I do think that, day in, day out, companies are putting messages out in the world that are not authentic, that are trying to appropriate causes in order to create buzz and drive relevance for their brands.
I was on a call today. I won’t disclose the company, but it is a company and a brand that you would know, and they wrestled deeply, internally. They wanted to say something, they all felt strongly about what’s been happening, but they were also petrified that they’d get it wrong.
The fact that so many companies spoke up, I think is less about marketers trying to surf a trend. Because this is a Black man who was murdered in the streets of Minneapolis, and people are protesting in the streets of London and Sydney. This now has a scale that has been felt in a way that these issues haven’t in the past. That’s what it represents. Yes, there were other companies that I think made good statements. There are companies that made no statement.
The companies that got the most blowback were the companies who tried to navigate this mushy middle. They felt the need to say something, but didn’t want it to be too controversial. The National Football League, their first statement, which was just ridiculed – particularly given their history on this very issue – didn’t even mention the word racism. It’s not productive if we can’t even say the word racism.
When I think about the way in which we approach the advocacy and activism work that we do at Ben & Jerry’s, I think about it as having breadth and depth. The breadth is, we have a huge megaphone. Right? I remember many, many years ago, gosh, it’s probably the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Ben and Jerry’s used to do an annual music festival in Vermont, and people would travel from all over the Northeast and there’d be some national acts. And in order to get a free ice cream cone, you’d have to sign a postcard to Congress.
At the end of the festival, after two days, I bet they had 8-10,000 postcards to Congress. We now have the ability, with our digital and social channels, to reach an audience that Ben could only have dreamed of back then. We can get 10,000 people to hit Congress on the need to legalise marijuana in ten minutes.
The depth work is about the on-the-ground grassroots work that really drives change. There’s a part of the breadth that’s about shifting narrative, and helping people become part of movements by taking action with our partners. We’re working with a grassroots coalition of groups in St. Louis, Missouri in order to close a particularly terrible prison. It’s a prison that’s over 100 years old. It’s dirty, it’s horrible, and it essentially exists to house people who are pre-trial.
The city of St. Louis is about 50% African American. 96, 97% of the people in this prison are Black[i], and many have never been convicted of anything. They’re simply sitting in jail because they don’t have the money to post bail to get out prior to their trial. So, literally, they’ve criminalised poverty in the city of St. Louis, and Black people are paying the price. So, we are working with those groups on the ground, using the diverse set of tools that we have as an ice cream company, to help and support their strategy to get this prison closed.
This is a critically important election in the U.S. We have been planning for 18 months to be deeply engaged in voter turnout. Young people in the U.S. have shockingly low rates of voter participation. And again, that plan has breadth and depth to it. We are launching a national digital push to make sure people are registered, and to register them if they’re not.
It remains to be seen the degree to which these calls for change are realised, but I’ve seen nothing like this in my lifetime. Again, in the second whitest state in the country, there was a big rally in my little suburban hometown today in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That would have been insane to think about a few weeks ago. Literally, Burlington, Vermont is the largest city in the state. It has 40,000 people in it. There was a meeting of the Burlington City Council to discuss the 2021 fiscal year budget for the city. There were over 1,000 people that queued up on Zoom to call for sizeable cuts in the Burlington Police Department budget.
I am willing to bet there have never been 1,000 people who queued up to say anything to the City Council, let alone reduce the size of the police budget. That’s one in every 40 residents of the city of Burlington.
This is a different moment.
As told to Andrew Beattie.
[i] Close the Workhouse: a plan to close the workhouse and promote a new vision for St Louis. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ada6072372b96dbb234ee99/t/5efa4138a8553428c9426948/1593459020672/CTW+Report+1.0.pdf
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