Month 7: Who’s Shoulders Do You Stand On?


Whose Shoulders Do You Stand On?

Facilitator: Have everyone in the group find a partner. Facilitator reads:

Whose shoulders do you stand on? Reflect on how you grew up. Perhaps you can remember a time when you or your family were helped out, to make it through a hard time financially or emotionally, or how you helped someone else. Maybe it was a time when you felt overwhelmed and someone showed up to care for your kids, or maybe it was your grandma passing on her used car to your family, or perhaps it was a connection for an internship that led somewhere else. Remember the situation and take a moment to reflect on how this may have affected you. I will give you two minutes to reflect and then you will turn to your partner to share your story for 3 minutes before I ask you to switch.

Facilitator: Time 10 minutes for the two partner experiences

Then take 10 minutes to stand in a circle for reflection.  Ask the question:

“Whose shoulders do you stand on?”


Understanding the History to Solve for the Future

An important 2016 study showed that if current economic trends in the United States continue, the average black household will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as white households, even if white people stopped accumulating wealth now. 400 years of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and legal discrimination in the labor and housing markets have resulted in an unfathomable wealth gap.

Jessica Norwood, the Founder of the Runway Project, an organization working to narrow this inequity, points out that African Americans have a long history of building supportive communities to help each other rise up together, including families pooling money together to build colleges, churches, and insurance companies. But despite collective efforts, the barriers to household wealth accumulation have been extraordinary. Jessica says, “The way wealth is accumulated in this country is through credit and assets — a home and its equity that you can use to access to more capital. When you look at history, that was absolutely not available to most black people.” In fact, legalized discrimination in housing ownership was only outlawed through the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and then took 20 more years to be fully implemented. Even as recently as 2012 Wells Fargo admitted guilt in discriminatory lending rates to Black and Latino households.

This wealth gap barrier became even clearer to Jessica when, as a smart young entrepreneur, she would talk to investors about her business ideas and hear from them that her first money should be raised in “the friends and family round.” She remembers being confused and thinking, “How will I raise money from friends and family, when no one I know has wealth for me to borrow?” According to the Pew Research Center, Black Americans have access to approximately $11,000 in their friend and family networks, well below the minimum $30,000 it takes to start a small business in this country. Jessica says that is significant because “wealth is attained in this country through capital ownership — ownership of land, ownership of a business, and ownership of self.” To level the playing field we must open up pathways so that people in the African American community have an opportunity to build wealth for their communities through ownership and entrepreneurship.

The Runway Project is working to do that by solving the friends and family money problem for African-American entrepreneurs. “This is not always about the fact that you didn’t have a great idea. It’s not about the fact that you aren’t smart enough or don’t have the best aptitude. It’s about a system that has always been designed to actually not help certain people achieve. And how do we right that in a very real way?”

“In order to right inequality you have the understand the history,” says Jessica. “You have to agree that the long history of abuses that occurred within and by the system against African Americans, makes the process of creating solutions through banks and other financial institutions even more challenging. “It is not that African Americans don’t want to go to these institutions. They have been shot down. Their trust has been broken.”

The dictum “pull yourself up by your bootstraps tells us we should all be able to improve our circumstances on our own, when in reality very few people achieve success alone, and we are a part of larger systems. Jessica says that a loan from your uncle or your mom is often more patient and comes with advice, connections, and someone really rooting for you to succeed — she calls friends and family money “I believe in you money.” She said, “I want these patient loans from the Runway Project to be there because it tells African American entrepreneurs, ‘I believe in you as part of the solution, not as part of the problem. That I believe all of us together can accomplish beautiful things.’”

Jessica says to new entrepreneurs, “People haven’t allowed or created the space for you to be your full best self, unencumbered. I want to give you a start at that.”

Wrapping Up Your Circle

To close your gathering, go around the circle and invite each participant to share a word or phrase – something about the story that stood out or touched each person.

(Facilitator might want to model by starting first, then go around the circle.) 

Thank you. I invite and encourage you all to use these practices & parables in other settings – staff meetings, or at group gatherings with other business and community leaders. We are joining hundreds of other communities in doing this. Together, we can choose to meet these times with courage, and we can #ChooseConnection.

Share Your Stories

Have a story about how your company is defying “business as usual” or how the members of your circle develop a new tool or process to help others? Please share your stories so others may be inspired by your experience. We welcome you to email us stories, feedback, or photos at any time. On social media, use the tag #ChooseConnection so we can repost.