In the realm of allydom, choosing not to spend money at restaurants, venues, or shops that promote racism, sexism, nationalism, or any other -ism that speaks to you is an easy action. You simply don’t patronize the establishment in question. “Voting with your wallet,” a phrase I’ve truly loathed as long as I’ve known it (not unlike financial conservatism, a made-up term that means literally nothing at all), is something that requires so little that we do it without thinking. I don’t shop at Walmart, but I don’t consciously think about boycotting them anymore, it barely even registers. It is less of an action, and more of a passive statement. 

But what happens when the company you work for is the organization in question? What happens when your company is complicit in the actions of its owners, or even worse, when the corporate structure requires complicity? 

I started thinking about this months ago when I realized a few of the major employers in Portland didn’t offer its employees Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday. Unum, for one. Employees could take it as a “floating holiday,” but that is essentially just taking your own paid vacation time with a fancy name from HR. [Reached for comment, a representative from Unum’s Portland office said they we’re “actually unable to disclose any company policy details to external inquiries.”]

It’s not hard to parse out why Unum, and others, don’t offer this day off to their Maine-based staff. Perhaps if the racial makeup of their staff was even slightly more melanized, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. As it stands, choosing not to offer employees the one federal holiday that celebrates and educates folks about the accomplishments of a civil rights hero says something about Unum. It’s a small thing, when thinking of the broken systems perpetuated by corporate America, but here in Maine, it’s telling. 

Who is the person that is willing to point this out to Unum’s management structure, though? Is it an entry-level associate? Unlikely. Is it the middle manager who has a mortgage and two kids? I don’t think so. Is it the senior vice president who has competed in a male-dominated industry by toeing the party line at every opportunity? Nah. Is it the person of color who climbs into corporate leadership after years of service to the company? It’s possible. 

But leaving it up to the people who are most affected by the policy, even when it’s something as small as a paid holiday, is bad allyship. And frankly, it’s shitty. 

So what does it look like to create change at our jobs, when our rent, and our kids, and our savings are dependent upon doing what we’re told? Leaving a job because of our politics and our passions sounds noble, but that in and of itself is an act of privilege. If you can quit your job in a fit of righteousness, more power to you, but I can’t do that, and I don’t think most others can either. 

So it starts small. Start an equity committee — let’s replace the word diversity. We’re not striving for diversity, we’re trying to create equity! (Someone told me this months ago and it’s deeply resonated with me ever since.) Tell your coworkers your salary. Ask for pay transparency. Add your pronouns to your email signature. Model using inclusive language. Add image descriptions to your company Facebook posts. Incorporate your identity into your work. Allow vulnerability to become a central part of your work life. Build empathy with coworkers. Request professional development trainings that work to undercut bias and harassment. 

It’s too much to hope for the fall of capitalism, but maybe we can start social movements within it. 

Sultana Khan is a social justice advocate who works in youth development. Previously, she worked as a national security correspondent and cultural commentator for Gawker Media.

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