Speaking Out in America: Exploring 7 Lessons on How to Advance Social Justice in Today’s World

These bold leaders have proven that advocacy and activism can—and should—go hand in hand with a leadership role. As we grapple with ongoing injustices, let's draw inspiration from these trailblazers. Let their bravery empower us, their wisdom guide us, and their dedication fuel our own quest for a more just society.
November 13, 2023
Speaking Out in America

In this current moment of pivotal change, it’s more important than ever for leaders in business and nonprofits to step up and advocate for justice, equity, inclusion and systemic change.

Taking a bold stand for social justice not only shows integrity.

It also has the power to inspire and unite your stakeholders—your employees, clients and the community at large.

As a leader, you have the influence and resources to drive change beyond your organization’s boundaries. By immersing yourself in discussions on racial and social justice and fearlessly speaking out on these crucial issues, you have the opportunity to champion policy reforms, support community initiatives, and make lasting improvements that benefit society as a whole.

What follows are examples of leaders who have been using their intellectual prowess and influence to make a real impact. We hope they provide inspiration as you seek to do the same.

1. Garth Brooks: Leading with Shared Values

When Bud Light collaborated with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney to promote their #EasyCarryContest, controversy erupted, with calls for a boycott of the beer. Country legend Garth Brooks, who was preparing to open a bar in downtown Nashville, faced the question of whether he would sell Bud Light at his new establishment. His response provides us with important insight into how to speak out on social issues.

Garth emphasized the importance of inclusiveness and diversity, stating, “Everybody’s got their opinions. But inclusiveness is always going to be me,” said the Country Music Hall of Famer. “I think diversity is the answer to the problems that are here and the answer to the problems that are coming. So, I love diversity. All-inclusive, so all are welcome. I understand that might not be other people’s opinions, but that’s OK, man.” His approach highlights the significance of leading with shared values, a critical element in both politics and business. Shared values are the foundation of understanding and decision-making. If your message aligns with your audience’s core values, it’s more likely to resonate and drive action.

2. Aurora James and the Fifteen Percent Pledge: Proposing Positive Solutions

Aurora James launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge, a racial and economic justice nonprofit urging major retailers and corporations to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. It was born from recognizing systemic issues and a lack of accountability. This initiative has already made significant strides, with over 60025 Black-owned businesses forming partnerships with companies that have taken the Pledge.

“Over the last few years, I continue to be invigorated with power and passion because I see the data moving towards real systems change. I think what we’ve proven over the last three years with the Pledge is that Aurora was absolutely right. It works,” said Aurora. “Progress is happening. People are having tough but courageous conversations. That’s how we learn and how we grow as individuals — and we need to keep pushing our own growth.”

What sets the Fifteen Percent Pledge apart is its focus on proposing positive solutions. Instead of dwelling solely on negative issues, it empowers people to take action by offering a clear path forward. Combining the condemnation of issues with actionable steps points to a brighter future and motivates individuals to participate in creating change. This approach is effective in combating compassion fatigue and driving meaningful engagement.

3. John Legend: Connecting Personal Stories to Broader Issues

John Legend, a multi-talented artist and social activist, exemplifies the power of connecting personal stories to broader social issues. He has used his platform to advocate for penal reform in the United States, a cause deeply rooted in his personal experiences and observations of how the criminal punishment system has affected his community and family.

“That’s part of me not forgetting where I come from and remembering how the criminal punishment system has affected so many people in my family, people in my neighborhood,” said Legend. “And then, as I grew older, it grew beyond what was personal to me and personal to the people around me. And I began to understand more holistically, in the nation, what we’ve done over the past few decades. We’ve become the most incarcerated country in the world. And it’s been costly in so many ways. I’ve been spending the last decade or so fighting to change that.”

Legend’s ability to connect the dots between individual stories and the larger issue of mass incarceration highlights an essential lesson: to resonate with a diverse audience, you must bridge the gap between personal experiences and systemic challenges. People relate more readily to individual stories than abstract concepts, making it crucial to humanize and contextualize complex issues. When individuals see themselves in the narrative, they are more likely to engage and advocate for change.

4. Varshini Prakash: Engaging with People Who Can Create Results

In a recent move to help mitigate the climate crises, U.S. President Joe Biden used his executive authority to create a New Deal-style American Climate Corps that will serve as a major green jobs training program. One of the foremost advocates for the American Climate Corps is Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group that has led the push for the Climate Corps.

“After years of demonstrating and fighting for a Climate Corps, we turned a generational rallying cry into a real jobs program that will put a new generation to work stopping the climate crisis,” said Prakash.

Prakash attended a call with the White House and advocated for the corps directly. This kind of engagement is crucial for movement leaders to convey their message directly to the authorities, who can bring about change.

Prakash demonstrates the importance of engaging directly with an audience that can become a force for change.

5. Gabe Kapler: Authenticity and Transparency

In 2020, during his first season as manager for the San Francisco Giants, Gabe “Kap” Kapler became the first big-league manager to take a knee during the national anthem to protect against racial inequality and police brutality, leading others to do the same. However, Kap’s decision didn’t come without hesitation.

Following the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Kap published a blog post announcing that he intends to remain in his clubhouse during the national anthem in protest against the nation’s lack of action on gun violence.

Kapler’s authenticity shines through in his blog post, where he openly admits his initial hesitance to protest and his internal struggle. On the night of the shooting, Kap shared his internal struggle during to stand for the national anthem. “My brain said drop to a knee; my body didn’t listen. I wanted to walk back inside; instead I froze. I felt like a coward,” Kapler wrote.

What Kap teaches us about speaking out is the importance of being genuine about your feelings and beliefs, even if they are conflicted or uncertain. Showing transparency in your words can help foster trust with your audience.

6. Michael Crow: Turning Controversy into Opportunity

When right-wing group Turning Point USA (TPUSA) announced plans to host an event at Arizona State University, faculty members swiftly condemned the event on grounds that the speakers are “purveyors of hate who have publicly attacked women, people of color, the LGBTQ community [and] institutions of our democracy.”

Controversy ensued as the faculty who criticized the university for platforming the group were added to the TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist, which they claim aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students.” The watchlist resulted in the faculty receiving a slew of harassment.

In response, ASU president Michael Crow penned a letter to TPUSA asking them to remove the faculty from the watchlist, stating that “the only basis for their inclusion appears to be that they have expressed views with which [Charlie Kirk and his] colleagues disagree.”

Crow’s response demonstrates how to turn controversy into an opportunity to emphasize the values of academic freedom and diverse opinions. By reinforcing organizational values and principles, Crow shows how speaking out against hateful disinformation and freedom are not contradictory positions.

7. Jaylen Brown: Having a Clear Vision

In July, basketball player Jaylen Brown agreed to a $303.7 million supermax extension with the Boston Celtics, marking the richest contract in NBA history. Following the history-making deal, Jaylen Brown announced that he intended to use his resources to help bridge the wealth gap and generate more opportunities for Black Bostonians.

“I think through my platform, through influential partners, through selected leaders, government officials, a lot who are in this room,” Brown said. “That we can come together and create new jobs, new resources, new businesses, new ideas that could highlight minorities but also stimulate the economy and the wealth gap at the same time.”

With a clear vision to generate tangible outcomes, Brown demonstrates the importance of having a well-defined vision and actionable goals to drive their efforts for social change.

Key Takeaway

In a society where systemic bias still shapes the lives of many, the stories of these bold leaders show us there is a way to create a more just and equitable society for all. They’ve defied societal norms, challenged authority, and led with conviction, redefining what it means to be a public figure.

Their unwavering pursuit of social justice isn’t just a part of their leadership.

It is the heart of it.

They’ve shown us that being a leader or public figure is about more than just making money and influencing people. It is also about using that influence to spark societal change.

They’ve proved that advocacy and activism can—and should—go hand in hand with leadership.

As we grapple with ongoing injustices, let’s draw inspiration from these trailblazers. Let their bravery empower us, their wisdom guide us, and their dedication fuel our own quest for a fairer society.

Remember, you have the power to make a difference too.

Be bold. Be rebellious. Be the voice this world needs. Stand for justice, and let your impact inspire the generations to come.

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