None of us quite understood what the future held when ACCE published their Horizon Initiative: Chambers 2025 and invited chamber leaders to think differently about the “nature of belonging and gathering” or “scarcity and abundance.”
Nor did we understand the opportunities we would be given when WACE asked us if we were:
- The catalyst for business growth?
- The convener of leaders & influencers who make things happen?
- The champion for stronger community?
2020 has certainly provided us with many opportunities to exercise these roles within our community.
First, we experienced an unparalleled global pandemic, (at least unparalleled in modern times). Now, we’re experiencing heart-wrenching national civil unrest. And we haven’t even gotten to the summer storm season yet!
No, this is not an easy time to be a leader particularly not one in an industry where so many businesses are just trying to stay afloat.
But those chamber leadership organizations have served us well in reminding us that we have opportunities to be catalysts for growth, stronger communities, and a convener of the people it will take to make these things happen.
Our nonpartisanship places us in a unique position to bring all sides to the table and ensure that all voices are heard. This is a difficult time where emotions have run high and lines are being drawn. Blame is everywhere. As chamber professionals, we can begin helping our communities heal by bringing people together.
How you do this will depend on your community and its needs.
Some areas are simply more devastated than others. Whatever commitment you decide to make to come up with a solution, you should consider creating a document that details your role and what you plan on doing.
Just as you use a strategic plan to guide your chamber decision making, you will want to use this “commitment” to ensure the chamber is keeping to its desired course.
Some things chamber leaders should consider for the plan include:
- Leading and healing your community as a chamber professional
- Getting involved in community solutions
- Helping individuals directly
Continue reading for more details on each.
How to Lead and Heal Your Community as Chamber Leaders and Professionals
There are two interconnected issues on the American stage right now.
The #blacklivesmatter movement is concerned with ending violence against Black Americans and ensuring they receive equal rights and opportunities and are not simply judged by the color of their skin.
Interlaced with that movement is the desire to end police brutality. While these issues have become intertwined with George Floyd’s death, they require separate solutions in your community.
One of them may be a more pressing concern than the other.
There may be a greater need to fix one before starting on the other or you may be able to work on them simultaneously.
Both of these issues have been exacerbated by the perpetuation of hurtful stereotypes. It’s likely whatever solutions you are working on will need to address this critical part of the problem as well because that is what current and future actions are based on.
Chamber leaders will need to focus on two areas of healing:
- On the larger community level, addressing current struggles and assisting in creating a plan for the future
- On the member and individual community member level addressing immediate economic needs and helping with individual healing
Some of these suggestions and solutions are easier than others but both of these issues require long term commitment to creating viable solutions. They will take detailed strategies and organizational planning but here are a few things the chamber can do to get started.
Get Involved in Community Solutions
Remove the Rose-colored Glasses
The first component of rectifying any problem is to admit that there is one. While this is a national concern, you need to be honest about how it is impacting your community. Some communities are more affected than others. But before you decide your community doesn’t have an issue with racism or police brutality, consider the thoughts and opinions of others.
Even if you don’t have a problem that is reaching the level of other cities in our country, is there something you could be doing better as a community? Is there a need for more diverse voices to be heard and welcomed, for instance? Are the staffing needs of your police department adequate?
These are not solutions the chamber has to undertake on its own. In fact, it’s likely the solutions lie within a multitude of departments and organizations. But before you can begin doing anything you need to be honest about the current environment and that is not always comfortable for everybody in the community.
Be aware that some people will be hesitant to join the conversation. These are topics that are not easy to talk about because they involve admitting failure and inequality. But when you are convening leaders of your community, make sure the focus is on the future and what you can change, not the perceived failures of the past.
Also, encourage the necessary leadership and voices to become part of the conversation. Make sure everyone is represented. If they choose not to participate, make sure they know that won’t stop the conversations from happening. Their absence will simply prohibit their voice from being heard.
Be a Part of the Conversation
If you are not the convener of these critical conversations, ensure the chamber has a voice. Depending on your past level of advocacy within the community, the people putting together conversations about race or police violence may not consider the voice of business in those conversations.
But the chamber’s voice, and that of your members, is one that should be heard. You need a safe environment to bring in new business and if there are groups in your community that don’t feel safe and protected, if they don’t feel like their needs and desires are being heard, they will go elsewhere and that affects the chamber and the economy.
But there is another reason you need to be at the table.
As mentioned earlier, the chamber represents business. It is nonpartisan. The same cannot be said for every member involved in these critical conversations.
While everyone wants a solution, they may not all see it in the same way. Some groups may blame others. Any time spent blaming is time taken away from finding a solution.
The chamber needs to be represented so that you can ensure things will get done. You are an ideal go-between without party or voters to be concerned with. Your focus can be completely on viable solutions. That makes chamber leaders a very important voice in the strategic planning of the future of your community.
Which brings us to…
Create a Safe Place
It’s critical for a variety of groups to be represented in these conversations. Again, this is an uncomfortable topic for most people. Some may be afraid they’ll say the wrong thing.
Whether you organize the conversations or you are a participant, you want to ensure that there is a level of safety for those working on solutions. Participants need to feel safe in order to present solutions. This is less about physical safety then it is about ensuring no one squelches someone’s desire to participate. Make sure that when participants are sharing they are treated with respect. No one will want to be part of the conversation if they feel like they’re consistently belittled and not taken seriously.
In all your dealings, do your best to maintain an unemotional attachment to the goals of making your community a better place. That does not mean you won’t feel passionately about making this happen. An “unemotional attachment” means you will remain professional and not see disagreement as a personal attack. Encourage others to do the same.
Also, remember that things like peaceful protesting and public discourse are within our rights as Americans.
Helping Individuals Directly
We were already dealing with business shutdowns and limitations due to COVID-19. With George Floyd’s death, many communities added violence and destruction of physical property to their list of challenges. In addition to finding solutions for your community’s future, you need to help with the healing of existing pain on the individual level through helping your members and community members at large.
Some of these things may seem small compared to the larger issues and voices chamber leaders will bring to the table to create future solutions. But helping members and the community heal goes a long way toward the grassroots initiative and future success of your community.
Showcase the Positive
Celebrate people in your community making a difference, regardless of their backgrounds, skin color, or ethnicity. When you see a shining star, share their story. Focus on those who are helping others. They can be business leaders or retired grandparents. Give people something to feel good about.
Consider the Needs of Minority Business in Your Community
Are the needs of minority businesses being cared for in your community? Are you listening to them? Are there things you could be doing through the chamber programming that would help make a difference such as minority-owned business seminars on topics like “how to work with government” or “how to apply for minority-owned business status”?
You may also consider an open-forum discussion led by the chamber. Report out on your findings.
Speak to the Economic Needs
If your community was heavily impacted by looting and riots, there may be some business owners who are very angry. They may not want to hear about the importance of the cause. Listen to their concerns and help them find solutions for their economic problems.
When someone is struggling financially they often can’t consider larger issues at hand. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The lowest level of need includes food and shelter. If some of your members are concerned about that, a more lofty concern like equality is beyond there abilities currently. Be understanding of that.
Lend Your Support to Fundraisers
Some of your members may have very pressing economic needs right now. In fact, you may have so many members affected that you are unable to help from a financial perspective. Whenever possible try to work as a matchmaker between those in need and those who are providing.
Another way to help out is to lend your social media influence and audience to these people. Ask them to keep you involved in their fundraising and offer to call community attention to what they need. For best response, think of very specific things they may need and ask for those things. Gifts of money may not be possible for a large portion of your community right now but if you had a dog grooming business that needed old towels, there may be many people who are able to help.
You’re going to be doing a lot of listening over the next few months–listening to government leaders, protest groups, disenfranchised organizations, members, etc. but you also want to listen on social media. In addition to your chamber page, go out to other local groups on Facebook. What are people saying? How can you help? When appropriate, make them feel heard and valued.
Also, listen to how other communities are working together toward a solution. Look for examples and consider whether they fit your community or not.
However you choose to lead during this pivotal time in history, it’s important that you make a commitment. This topic is not one you can pay lip service to until the populace moves on to the next hot button.
At the very least, the chamber will need to make a commitment to how it individually will handle the concerns at hand.
When you do, you’ll want to communicate your plan with your members and community. Just as your chamber’s strategic plan should guide your chamber decisions, creating a document detailing the role you plan on playing is the best way to ensure consistent practice to the commitment you’ve made.
This is a pivotal time in history. What role will your chamber play?