Bearing Witness to the Black American Freedom Struggle

The RCB class walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.

This spring, 20 Foster MBA students embarked on a personal and professional journey, participating in the inaugural Race, Culture, and Business MBA Immersion program. This program was the work of many hands, starting with Ed deHaan, the Gerhard G. Mueller Endowed Professor in Accounting, recognizing a need to bring tough and important conversations out of the classroom. Professor deHaan reached out to the Global Business Center to see what type of immersive, experiential learning program could be developed to explore the spaces where race, culture, and business intersect. With support from a Foster Purpose Grant, generous donors, and guidance and leadership by local 501(c)3 non-profit, Sankofa Impact, Professor deHaan, and the MBA Program Office’s Norah Fisher, Foster successfully launched the Race, Culture, and Business MBA Immersion to the American South.

Below, participant Rebecca Ballweg, Foster MBA Class of 2023, shares her thoughts on the experience:

“Get proximate. Get uncomfortable. Change the narrative. Stay hopeful.” These words are four steps to create a better society for all – created by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. As we completed a 7-day road trip across the American South over spring break, my classmates and I were asked to reflect on these words.

Get proximate. You don’t have to travel to Alabama or Mississippi to learn about racism in America. But we must bear witness to the people and places at the heart of the Black American freedom struggle. In Montgomery, AL, we spent an evening with Civil Rights foot soldiers Bernard Lafayette, Bob Zellner, and Valda Harris-Montgomery. They shared stories of their efforts to liberate Black Americans while working beside John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They were younger than me when they put their lives on the line for equality, and they reminded us as today’s young people, we must hold the line and take urgent action.

MBA students with Freedom Riders

Meeting with Civil Rights foot soldiers and activists in Montgomery, AL. The foot soldiers are (L to R at bottom): Bob Zellner, Pamela Smith, Valda Harris-Montgomery, Kate Lafayette, Bernard Lafayette, and Willie Thornton.

Get uncomfortable. With guidance from Professor Ed deHaan and Sankofa Impact, we grappled with how lessons from school – profit and loss, business metrics, creating “value” – are not just a playbook for productivity and success, but also for exploitation and oppression. It was hard to find a path where we took what we were witnessing and folded it into daily business decisions. But through tough discussions, vulnerability, and study, we inched our way towards answers.

Change the narrative. I came to business school after working in the criminal justice system. I thought I had left that work behind when I came to Foster. But while visiting the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal fellow opened my eyes to the ties between business and criminal justice: Wage inequality is a force multiplier of mass incarceration. It forces the innocent to accept plea deals and those who cannot afford housing or adequate mental health care to be over-criminalized. Going forward I personally cannot ignore that without proper compensation and working conditions for employees, I will just be a tool of slavery’s current costume, mass incarceration.

The RCB class inside Studio BE in New Orleans, LA, with Elizabeth Lefrere, Studio Director.

Stay hopeful. Fully immersing yourself in the Black American freedom struggle can be painful. But I committed myself to stay hopeful by experiencing Black excellence. Here are just a few examples we saw on the trip:

Just as we did on the trip, I encourage you to listen and look to these examples of Black joy, art, and success as you reflect on your own path to create a more just society for all.

The RCB class outside Studio BE, New Orleans, LA.

This trip was not possible without support from Foster School of Business leadership and Sankofa Impact, a Seattle-based 501(c)3 nonprofit specializing in place-based learning about the Black American freedom struggle.