The following essay was written by the Founding Students of The HDS Responsible Organization Initiative.
On June 5, 2020, Jamie Dimon was photographed kneeling in front of a local bank alongside branch employees, posed in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Dimon is the chief executive of J.P. Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States and the world’s most valuable bank by market capitalization; his kneeling was heralded as one of the most radical statements, spoken or unspoken, of #BLM support within the financial community.
J.P. Morgan Chase spokeswoman Patricia Wexler added context to the photograph, saying, “Our leaders and our company have done a lot more than kneel, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in combined philanthropic and business resources to address some of the most persistent challenges facing the black community.” Wexler referenced J.P. Morgan Chase programs that support black-owned businesses, invest in affordable housing, and hire individuals who were previously incarcerated.
Yet, as the Washington Post notes, just four percent of J.P. Morgan Chase’s executive leadership is Black, despite years of high-profile initiatives to increase diversity. In the past two years alone, the bank has weathered a $24 million class action lawsuit regarding “uniform and national” racism at its branches and was the subject of a New York Times investigation of racial discrimination toward high-profile banking clients. J.P. Morgan Chase was also involved in reckless trading and valuation behavior that disproportionately harmed Black, Latinx, and impoverished communities during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
So as HDS students, how can we process Dimon’s actions?
2020, with its worldwide pandemic and American re-reckoning with racial injustice, has forced our nation to acknowledge the need for individual and systemic change. Actions taken so far have run the gamut. Some brands, like Ben & Jerry’s, have committed themselves to advocating for action regarding slavery reparations and police reforms. Others joined 28 million people and companies in posting a black square as part of the #BlackoutTuesday Instagram campaign without additional support initiatives. Many companies, like J.P. Morgan Chase, tread somewhere in the middle of this spectrum: increasing their acknowledgement of inequity and violence but sidestepping firm measures of action.
Our HDS community holds explicit and implicit relationships to J.P. Morgan Chase and similar companies, no matter our agreement with Dimon’s actions. Many HDS students, faculty, and alumni work with governments, nonprofits, or in the private sector to realize our ministry or calling. To different extents, we are consumers of clothing brands, grocery businesses, and banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase. At a minimum, we are bound together by a university whose financial endowment invests in other companies with a purse larger than 71 countries’ national economies.
However, more than other Harvard graduate schools, our students at Harvard Divinity School are equipped with the vocabulary and perspective especially suited to critically engage with Dimon’s kneeling. For semesters at a time we study liberation, compassion, and the philosophies of human dignity. To paraphrase our own professor Cornel West, we are trained to see past acts of “inclusion,” “incorporation,” and “symbolic representation” and assert that these gestures are not, in fact, the best we can do. Concurrently, HDS teaches us to recognize and accompany the fullness of people and the teams they lead—their humanity, their divinity. Within any act of critical engagement, we are also called support a path to resolution.
Starting this fall, we are inviting fellow students to join The HDS Responsible Organization Initiative (HDS ROI), a club for students of all backgrounds to wrestle with the fields of business, entrepreneurship, leadership, and management. Our goal is to equip students at HDS and across Harvard with the resources, training, and relationships to lead real action and systemic change—in businesses, endowments, nonprofits, activist groups, and all other organizations that exist within our beloved communities.
Importantly, at HDS ROI, we honor what literary activist Audre Lorde tells us: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Accounting, marketing, strategy, and finance are essentials for sustained operation; however, organizational change requires exploring and adopting unified values that are rooted in lessons beyond business. Our education and experiences at HDS drive us to put business in conversation with theology, philosophy, anthropology, design, and political theory, among other fields. We call upon all Harvard University students to join us and contribute equally.
HDS ROI is a club founded to evaluate, constructively interpret, and steer organizations toward considered action. It is our responsibility to transcend “intermediary” successes and work toward the fulfillment of long-term goals rooted in lasting change and resolution.
From this purview, we can take small and considered steps, from any level within an organization, forward.
—The Founding Students of HDS ROI
If you’re interested in joining us, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.