Why anti-racism education belongs in business school

The co-presidents of Wharton’s African-American MBA Association discuss leading the Black at Wharton community’s response to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the impacts the demonstrations have had on them and their communities.

Erica Williams and Femi Brinson
Erica Williams and Femi Brinson, co-presidents of Wharton’s African-American MBA Association.

Femi Brinson and Erica Williams, second-year students in the Wharton School’s MBA Program and co-presidents of Wharton’s African-American MBA Association (AAMBAA), say they are not immune from anti-Blackness and racial injustice in America, even though they attend one of the world’s most prestigious universities and business schools. 

“There’s this idea that if you are educated, you are good to go—but that’s not always the case,” Brinson says. “So there is a need for us to educate people.”

Given that graduates of the MBA Program are expected to become the future business leaders around the world, Brinson says anti-racism training and awareness is crucial to ensuring an equitable and just workplace

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting people from different walks of life during my time at Wharton, and I have no doubt that many will become fantastic leaders,” he says. “What they learn here at Wharton will inform decisions and perspectives, so it’s critical that while they’re here in Philadelphia, they make the effort to learn about following, teaming, and leading people who view and are viewed differently in the workplace. We need everyone to be aware of blind spots to be strong advocates and mentors for communities that have been historically disenfranchised.”

The African-American MBA Association, found in 1973 as the Black MBA Association, supports the continued achievement of students of African descent and provides extensive resources to foster their successful progression from prospective students to Wharton alumni.

“As our mission suggests, we (AAMBAA) exist to provide community for our members,” Williams says. “While we do hope to see, and work to create, change in our school and in this country that would eradicate the racism many of us are experiencing and have experienced, we know the charge at this point needs to extend to our allies. It is exciting to see so many of our classmates galvanizing around anti-racism education and social justice activism, and we would love to see that tenfold as the year progresses and as more non-Black allies are brought into the fold of the fight for our rights.” 

It is not enough to passively say racism is harmful and wrong; we need our classmates and alumni to make a stand to actively fight racism. Femi Brinson, second-year Wharton MBA and co-president of the African-American MBA Association

Following massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd, Brinson and Williams were called upon to speak on behalf of their peers. With the support of the Wharton administration and AAMBAA alumni members, they released a statement that included the following:

“We struggle to find words that truly encapsulate our current feelings. Black people living in America experience many emotions during times like these, emotions that also arise in response to injustices across the entire global African diaspora. The pain we feel when witnessing inhumane, intentional, and tragic acts of violence towards our sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, and friends ranges from sorrow to rage to exhaustion and beyond. We also know that as Black community allies, you are dealing with your own set of feelings as you work to identify the best ways to support and stand in solidarity with us.”

Brinson and Williams say they leaned on past AAMBAA presidents and members for guidance in crafting the statement, and their support was invaluable.

“Writing a statement like the one we wrote—living through times like the one we are in now—is never something we planned for when we took up the presidency for our organization, and it was not something we could have prepared for,” Williams says.

Brinson says having support from past and present members “who know our pain and know that our experiences are both contemporary and habitual throughout the ages” gave them the strength they needed to speak on behalf of such a powerful, engaged, and familylike group. 

“As co-presidents, we are simply the mouthpiece of a game-changing, trailblazing family that extends well before us and will continue long after us,” he says.

While this also applies to other minority communities, Williams says particularly within the Black community, while the value of the Wharton MBA is extremely strong, systemically there are a lot of barriers that might prevent people from even feeling comfortable pursuing higher education.

“Being a member of this school, a student at this level of academia, is a privilege. It shouldn’t be, but it is,” she says. “I have Black friends, former classmates, and colleagues who have difficulty fathoming how they would cover the cost of the business school application process (visiting school campuses, paying for standardized test preparation materials and resources, seeking out admissions counseling services and programs, losing wages during full-time schooling, adding to significant debt from undergraduate education, etc.). I know that there is value in my ability to occupy the space I take up at Wharton and in the degree and the network that will grant me both the skill set and the connections to excel in ways I likely can’t even imagine. However, I also know that it is my duty to make this process, this experience, more accessible to people who look like me and to ensure that my Black peers and successors know that their experiences, challenges, and successes are valid and considered no matter how different they may be from the broader MBA population.”

Williams and Brinson have led the Black at Wharton community’s response and say anti-racism can be a part of all students’ education moving forward. 

We are ready to see change and we are ready to support the anti-racism efforts led by groups that would be effective in enacting it. Erica Williams, second-year Wharton MBA and co-president of the African-American MBA Association

“It is not enough to passively say racism is harmful and wrong; we need our classmates and alumni to make a stand to actively fight racism,” Brinson says. “In our earliest classes and interactions with classmates, we discuss identity and disparities, but we need to go a step further to have all classmates understand the ramifications of being silent. It goes back to Wharton’s motto of  ‘Knowledge for action.’ Currently, there’s a gap in the training and knowledge that is directly tied to inaction against racism.”

“Anti-racism education can, and should, be a part of the MBA education process,” adds Williams. “It should be a part of the undergraduate education process, it should be a part of the high school education process. Anti-racism education should be a part of every academic and social setting in which an act of racism can (and often will) occur until those environments are no longer a safe place for racism to thrive.

“We are ready to see change and we are ready to support the anti-racism efforts led by groups that would be effective in enacting it. At present, that could largely be groups within Wharton, within Penn, and beyond that have historically intentionally or unintentionally marginalized our community and are now seeking to pave a way for a better future. A future where we can focus more on ‘just having fun’ and less on never ending fear and tragedy.”

Brinson says it is important now more than ever to lean into the tough conversations with his Wharton classmates about racism.

“These last few months have been disorienting, but I’m hoping that the energy I’ve seen regarding race and inequality in business and society are sustained,” he says. “Without a sustained effort, this will simply be another moment as opposed to movement and a reckoning of our history as a country. Righting wrongs, supporting disenfranchised communities, and changing the narratives won’t be easy, but we’ll need to push ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our social circles to see changes we can be proud of.”

Williams talks about how Wharton students are encouraged to join the efforts to eradicate racism and believes the conversation has to go beyond AAMBAA.

“I’m encouraged by the conversations I have seen the Wharton Graduate Association and Wharton Return on Equality club host on topics surrounding inclusion and allyship during the month of June following the resurgence of nationwide protests,” she says. “I hope to a see a continuation of these discussions and an extension of the same to groups with lesser, or no, Black student membership. There is an adage, ‘preaching to the choir,’ that applies here. The phrase is used to indicate an instance where someone is sharing an ideal or having a discussion with people who already agree or know the item in question to be true. Black people working to eradicate racism targeted at us is both an exhausting and an insular approach to the systemic racism problem. It is time for our administrators, our professors, and our peers to find productive and relevant ways to incorporate the discussion into ‘choir rehearsals’ beyond AAMBAA where they might not happen otherwise.”

Both Williams and Brinson say progress has to be sustained and not just a flicker of a quick initiative here and a donation there.

“If you are doing the work with us and in our place in spaces we as Black students don’t occupy or are excluded from, we appreciate you,” Williams says. “If you are using this moment to educate yourselves and peers and family members and friends and colleagues on the ways racism is ingrained in the systems we all actively participate in, we encourage you to keep going. As activists often say, ‘this is a movement, not a moment.’ Don’t let posting black squares on social media in solidarity be the end of your work. And if you don’t know what to do beyond posting a black square, ask those who might in the exact same way you would ask a classmate for a course recommendation or a recruiting contact.”

“Finally, we hope to see this work continue in between or long after the periods of unrest subside,” Williams continues. “We acknowledge the momentum that June’s events brought to the fight for anti-racism while admitting that it can be painfully obvious when those same efforts die down. People are still actively protesting in cities across the country. Whether you’re physically protesting or combatting racism in the course of your day-to-day interactions, we need your solidarity for the long run and we appreciate those who have already committed themselves to a lifetime of undoing multiple lifetimes of hurt.”

“I think of donations, statements, and these smaller actions as band-aids when a full treatment or procedure is what’s required,” Brinson says. “We need something radically different; even at my age, I’ve seen the flickers of outrage before, so while I’m hopeful, in a sense—I know better. What I hope is different this time is people’s level of outrage matching their level of introspection and willingness to seek out knowledge, new perspectives, and make tangible changes in their lives and communities.”