Black History Month: A Conversation with Dr. Bernice A. King

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Published March 7, 2022 | 2 min read

Dr. Bernice A. King is a global thought leader, strategist, peace advocate, and CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center For Nonviolent Social Change. In this position, Dr. King continues to advance her parents’ legacy of Nonviolence and shares the approach at an RBC enterprise event.

In a fireside chat with RBC’s Chief Auditor William Onuwa at the company’s Black History Month enterprise event, Dr. Bernice A. King shared her views on the state of society at the present time and how all people can embrace and apply a nonviolent philosophy to create meaningful and long-term change.

 

Being Dr. Bernice A. King

“To be honest, it has been a challenge,” said Dr. King in response to Onuwa’s question about how she has managed to carry the pressure, spotlight and expectation of being the daughter of two outstanding personalities in human history – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Explaining that any person wants to exceed what their parents have done, she admitted that in her case “the likelihood of that happening is slim to none,” particularly as both her parents continue to contribute – even in their death – to our current world. Her mother, however, helped her in this journey, saying ‘you don’t have to be me. You don’t have to be your father. I just want you to be your best self.’ So anytime Dr. King faced great expectations and the pressure was too great, she would remember those words.

This notion of ‘being your best self’ underpins the conversation between Onuwa and Dr. King, as they discussed how society – individuals, leaders, corporations, communities – can create nonviolent change.

 

Embracing a Nonviolent Approach

Dr. Bernice A. King is often asked: What would your father say if he were alive today? And she has replied We’re just not listening. “We’re not listening to each other – we’re listening to our own voices, our own groups, or our own beliefs, but we’re not opening ourselves to listen to what people are really trying to say,” she said.

While she feels that for the most part, people are striving for a similar goal in this world, tension comes into play when it comes to agreeing on the means to get to that goal.

“While most people are on board with the changes that need to occur, people have different ideas about how this needs to be accomplished. And, instead of doing the hard work to understand one another and find points of intersection, we are instead drawing lines in the sand,” she said.

The Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change, which are based on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent campaigns and teachings, begin with information gathering – that is, taking a step back and understanding and researching the issues at hand. Dr. Bernice A. King emphasized the necessity and critical importance of this step.

While she explained that information gathering is easy, it is in fact one of the hardest steps to take, because we are programmed to respond and react in certain ways. “We automatically draw conclusions, rather than backing up and taking the time to gather information.”

Part of her work at the King Center is taking people through this step, as well as the five steps that follow. “So many people want to rush to direct action,” she said. “We want to do something immediately, but we forget that we have to do some information gathering so that we have all the important elements and can approach things in the right way.”

She added that a nonviolent approach enables people to truly engage with one another, have courageous conversations around divisive issues and either restore community or create new community. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it’s the presence of justice,” she said, explaining that justice starts with curiosity, listening and gathering information.

 

Rebuilding trust through humility, accountability and forgiveness

Moving forward also requires building a foundation for new relationships, said Dr. King, who explained that people must be able to trust each other if change is to occur. And to rebuild trust in one another, which she admitted is a difficult thing to do, we must start from a place of humility. “Humility in understanding that there is a lot of frailty, sensitivity and brokenness in our world,” she said.

“You must look inward to see if you have ever failed and ask yourself if you have done something that may have been abusive or created inequity.” Otherwise, people will be afraid to reengage or give a second chance if there is no acknowledgement of wrongdoing, however large or small. “Sometimes we have to sit down and evaluate – I don’t think we do enough self-evaluation as a world.”

She offered this phrase: ‘Talk without being offensive and listen without being defensive,’ adding that accountability and forgiveness must work hand in hand. “Forgiving oneself is important. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been the one who has violated trust. And for those who have been violated, being able to forgive is just as important.”

 

Mobilizing change takes vigilance and sustained momentum

Onuwa pointed out in their conversation, over the last number of years a number of African Americans have reached the highest ranks of political office – Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Condoleezza Rice, the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State; President Barak Obama; and now Kamala Harris, first female vice president and the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, as well as the first African American and first Asian American vice president.

When asked about how this momentum can be sustained, Dr. King reminded the audience that such change didn’t just happen. “There are people who have come before us,” she said. “There are many people who have been fighting vigilantly for these opportunities for Black people to ascend to these places.” She added that sustained pressure is required. “It has to continue on an everyday basis. We can’t take it for granted, because we’ve had a Black president and now that we’ve had a Black vice president that everything is good now. There are always forces of darkness, evil and injustice – so we have to be vigilant.”

At the King Center, part of this vigilance involves the work they do with the many young people who join their Beloved Community Leadership Academy. The Academy aims to develop leaders who understand the interconnectedness of the world, who are equipped to think beyond their own self-interest and understand how to distribute opportunities so that people can share fairly in the resources of the world. “When young people leave here, they will be Beloved Community leaders – whether they’re going into corporate America, technology, media and entertainment – whatever career they go into, that will be their mindset.”

She believes that corporations can and must also play a role in sustained change and she has in fact witnessed change at the corporate level in recent times. “I’ve seen efforts in corporate communities to really dig in and look at what is needed to create greater inclusion, ensure there is equity within the ranks and most importantly show up in the communities to change racial disparities.” She added that corporations are comprised of people who live within communities around the world, with the responsibility to show up, lift up and empower those communities.

 

“We are part of a human family”

“This may come as a surprise, but I don’t like the word allyship,” said Dr. King when asked about the role of allyship – both on a corporate and individual level – as we move through this journey. “Allyship to me represents you coming to my aid – that you are going to come along to help me with my problem,” said Dr. King. “Too often, we look at injustice and inequity as something the Black community is dealing with – but these are things that threaten our humanity. Yes, we have different faiths, we have different cultures, we have different genders, and we have different religions. But the one thing that is true, regardless of all that, is we are a part of a human family. We are interconnected and interrelated.”

She added that when we start to see inequities and injustices as affecting every single person, we will begin to take it personally. “And when I take something personally, I will typically invest my time, my energy and go as far as I need to go to make sure that I’m showing up and doing what needs to be done,” said Dr. King.

This is what she explained as ‘leading with your heart.’ Yes, we may be drawn to stories of violence, and the events of the past few years have certainly raised awareness of the issues of systemic racism and injustice that exist. “But awareness does not equate change. What creates change is when people’s hearts are attached. When something touches our heart, it moves us to action.”

While dramatic, violent stories have made headlines, Dr. King believes that it’s the stories of hope and transformation that will inspire all people to create change in a peaceful, meaningful and lasting way. By being curious, really listening, gathering facts and recognizing that we are all in this together, more stories of hope and change can emerge and lead to positive outcomes for our entire human family.

 

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