7 Powerful Lessons We’ve Learned From Black Authors, Artists, and Advocates

These learnings are sure to broaden your perspective on diversity, social change, and the status quo.

JGI / Jamie Grill
JGI / Jamie Grill

Oftentimes, the lessons that change us for the better are embedded in the works of art, spoken word, or acts of service from those we admire. In honor of Black History Month, we asked the Thrive community to share lessons from Black authors, leaders, artists, and advocates that opened their eyes to new perspectives, inspired them to challenge the status quo, or showed them how to carry themselves with more authenticity and awareness. Which of these lessons resonate the most with you?

What it means to put in the work

“One of the most powerful lessons I learned in life was from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He often put his own spin on Theodore Parker’s words, saying, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ When I reflect on Dr. King’s life, I’m reminded of the importance of hope in driving sustainable social change — but I also realize that the moral arc does not bend on its own. It requires patience, persistence, and people willing to do the work. If we want to see justice realized, we need to be proactive about the process.”

—Simon Tam, nonprofit leader, Cincinnati, OH

The role of microaggressions in everyday life

“Years ago, Wilda Stephenson, an African American educator who was also the director of the program that I taught in, showed me how to anticipate and attempt to derail racial microaggressions when we traveled together. I remember the first time one clicked. We entered a restaurant and the hostess was heading toward the windowless back of the restaurant. I said, ‘Oh, we want to be right up front by the window.  Why would you take us back there?’ I felt Wilda’s hand pat my back as she said, ‘You’re getting it.’”

—Diane Gillespie, emerita professor, Seattle, WA 

How to transform pain into action

“Dorothy Counts-Scoggins was one of the first Black students to enter the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in 1956. The photograph of her walking to school that day later became 1957’s World Press Photo of the Year. She has become a dear mentor of mine. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, I approached Dorothy once again for wise counsel. I’ll never forget her mentorship that day: ‘Dear Stacy, you mustn’t take on the pain around you. You must understand it, and use it as fuel to create change.’”

—Stacy Cassio, CEO, Charlotte, N.C.

The power of self-reflection

“My favorite black author is Ibram X. Kendi. His writing is so clear and it has made a huge difference in my understanding of racism. The key idea I have used personally and at work is this: If something isn’t increasing social equity and diversity, then it’s not anti-racist. The status quo — white dominance and privilege — is racist. So one must ask, do my actions increase social equity or diversity? If they don’t, it’s allowing the status quo of systemic racism to continue. It’s a simple but very powerful question to ask ourselves.”

—Dave Galloway, principal strategist, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

How to find hope in the midst of darkness

“A country polarized by race and politics — not unlike today — caught its collective breath for a moment as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now-iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at the March on Washington. I was a young Black teenager then, living in racial segregation in the South, a kind of lockdown because of Jim Crow laws. On television, I watched civil unrest and bloody clashes, frightened by the rage of people resisting change. Then I heard Dr. King, stirring up hope in the midst of volatility, giving me marching orders. Over the next two years, I would join picket lines and voter registration drives, and be among the first to integrate an all-White university which opened the door to a larger world of cultural experiences.”    

—Dr. Kitty Oliver, author, race relations oral historian, and media producer, Fort Lauderdale, FL

The beauty of collaboration

“I heard Dr. Richard Walley, Order of Australia, speak a few weeks ago about his culture as a Noongar Aboriginal Australian. When he was born, he was given the name of a tree. As he was growing up, he learned everything there was to know about that type of tree. And as a teenager, he learned everything there was to know about a specific animal. As an adult, whenever there is a development or an environmental issue, he can only comment on impacts on that particular tree or animal. Other Noongar people will comment on different flora and fauna. This demonstrates a true democracy as each person has a valuable yet different area of expertise, and nothing can be achieved in life without collaboration.”

—Donna West, coastal facilities manager, Perth, Australia

How to open yourself up to creativity 

“A few months back, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joél Leon, a beautiful writer and artist, for an episode of my podcast. We were discussing life and creativity as working parents during these chaotic times. Joél said, ‘It’s not about waiting for the moment of creativity, but creating ways and instances in which the creativity can show itself to you.’ This mentality was helpful in shifting my perspective and removing myself from the box that often hinders my creative flow. Life in quarantine with an extremely active 2-year-old son paired with work deadlines does not always create the most care-free environment. However, by implementing time for meditation and workouts, my wife and I have allowed ourselves the mental space to be more present in moments creativity presents itself.”

—Kevin Seldon, podcast host, Culver City, CA

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