I have spent most of my life in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota. I joined Saïd Business School’s MSc in Major Programme Management in October 2010. My curriculum focused on the science of implementing major programs, which are defined as enormous transformational initiatives that can fundamentally revolutionize companies, cities, and even countries. To put it simply for this conversation, major programs are vehicles for change. During my time at Oxford, I was also able to spend the spare time before modules traveling to remote parts of Europe out of pure curiosity. I often describe that period in my life as my dual learning experiences, absorbing information in the halls of Oxford from the foremost academic and professional experts in major programs and spending time in hostels, pubs, and historical sites from like-minded travelers absorbed in wanderlust.
As the protests in my hometown spread across the country and eventually the world, it had felt that for an instant, there was finally some global empathy towards the challenges of being black in America. However, it seemed that moment dissipated almost immediately. The discussions about the real problem became quickly diluted with dialogue about property damage and respectful ways to kneel. The opportunity to discuss the true problem at hand was fading away and I struggled to understand why there was so much deflection. Certainly, a majority of this country has literally nothing to lose by talking about racism. Or so I thought. As the conversation unnecessarily shifted, I started reading and listening to as many disparate voices as possible and began noticing patterns that reminded me of my time at Oxford.
In my journeys through Europe, I saw firsthand the role that nostalgia and history have in shaping the pride of peoples. I met Croatians that looked upon the ancient Roman Empire with complete adoration. I talked with people in Istanbul who harkened the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. I interacted with Serbians and Romanians who saw the Russian empires of past as if they themselves had served in the several centuries-old conquests. This yearning for yesterday stemmed from a romanticized folklore of a seemingly more successful time. Years after my days at Oxford, we’d see this type of nostalgia politicized into the narrative that fueled both Trump’s Make America Great Again and Brexit.
In terms of major programs, which is again a proxy for creating change, my own dissertation reinforced the importance of culture in transformation. Research has shown that successful transformations have cultures that can adapt by bringing in outside information. Cultures associated with failure tend to be more closed and seek to solve problems from just the insights within. In the United States, there is certainly a portion of society that seeks to be more open. However, there are also portions of society that are incredibly closed. In Chicago, The South Side is comprised of African Americans and cannot be more different than North Chicago which is comprised primarily of upper middle-class whites. In Manhattan, a few blocks separate Harlem from the wealthy elite of the Upper East Side. In most midsize cities like Minneapolis, homogenous rural America is just a 45 min drive from a diverse urban city center which is usually recovering from a legacy of discriminatory city planning and housing that made up most of the 20th century.
Therein lies the challenge. To fully address systemic racism, culture has to be open but in doing so people have to acknowledge that nostalgia is often at odds with the reality of others. In closed societies, homogeneity can reinforce nostalgia with minimal contradictions. In open cultures, where information is constantly being exchanged for the greater good, nostalgia is constantly being challenged. The fact of the matter is that Black Lives Matter is in direct contradiction with the romanticization of the past. Sometimes, as my travels reinforced time and time again, that nostalgia is often a core part of peoples’ identities.
Years ago, at the inception of Black Lives Matter, there was a lot of pushback about the term with some, the extreme voices, even labelling the movement as anarchism. What happened in the days after George Floyd’s death changed the dynamic in ways I never could have imagined. Within days of the violent protests in Minneapolis, there were BLM marches in almost every continent across the globe. People and even companies that have typically shied away from making a stand due in part to the politically charged climate currently in the United States loudly embraced Black Lives Matter. I attended a march in Chicago and saw people with signs that stated 'Hong Kong is with BLM'. Social media was flooded with pictures from war-ravaged Syria where people were painting murals of George Floyd. By all indications, a movement has started. The world has moved collectively to accept the narratives of African Americans, even if it is uncomfortably at odds with nostalgia. If an open culture which taps into the free exchange of information is truly synonymous with a successful transformation, then the entire world protesting in unison may reflect the very beginnings of the largest major program of all time, creating human equality.