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April 2021

Urban League CEO Stephanie Hightower’s social justice challenge to business leaders: ‘You have to have some courage’

Courtesy of Columbus Business First
By Hayleigh Colombo
April 28, 2021

Stephanie Hightower is challenging Columbus business leaders to be “instigators, agitators and mediators” in the fight for social justice in Ohio.

The Columbus Urban League president and CEO says it will take more than words to create an inclusive economy in Central Ohio.

Hightower told Columbus Business First that young talent isn’t going to want to move to or stay in Columbus if the state of Ohio, for example, goes down the road of Georgia and puts into place voting reforms that some voting rights advocates say will curtail access to minority voters.

The same goes for if the city doesn’t tackle police reform in order to curtail the killings of Black Columbus residents.

“You had those big corporations who are stepping up (in Georgia) and saying, ‘This kind of injustice is not tolerated,’” Hightower told us. “Who’s going to be our Delta Airlines? Who’s going to be our Coke?

“There’s legislation in the Ohio General Assembly that’s talking about the same stuff. Who’s going to really take that mantle of corporate social justice on and move it forward so that our reputation isn’t going to be tarnished like the state of Georgia’s?”

Ohio Republicans are planning to unveil legislation that would limit in-person voting to the day before elections, tighten Ohio voter ID requirements and make other changes, including a requirement that absentee ballot requests be submitted online.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, recently called his forthcoming bill “balanced” and wrote that “compared to other states’ laws, Ohio will still have far more voting opportunities than in nearly any other state.”

But Democrats have said the proposal, “makes it harder for Ohioans to vote and creates confusion for voters, taking major steps backward in the fight for voting rights in Ohio.”

Hightower said business leaders must realize that, “if you start allowing those kinds of things to happen, it’s going to have a ripple effect on business in the community.”

For example, Major League Baseball earlier this month moved the All-Star game from Georgia in response to the law, and Black faith leaders in Georgia called for a boycott on Home Depot after the company “demonstrated an indifference” to the new law.

“No city’s businesses are immune to this,” Hightower said. “I think for those corporations who have that influence and that power, then they need to take some ownership and responsibility to start having these conversations with legislators and folks to say, ‘You’re hurting your constituent base if you continue down this track. I’m going to have to pull out my business or change my business model. You’re going to put us in a positions where we can’t bring dollars into this state if you continue down this path.’ ”

Hightower said that local business leaders must use their resources and power to speak up against injustice wherever it happens.

It’s not enough to quietly operate in the diversity, equity and inclusion space without speaking up and taking action when it matters, she said.

“All of them have lobbyists,” she said. “Who is going to step up? I’m not expecting them to know all the answers, but you have to have some courage.”

Hightower also used the example of the recent police killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, which is “permeating not only here locally, but nationally and internationally.”

“You have the death of this young girl being showcased on an international stage like the BBC,” Hightower said. “Do we want that reputation if we’re going to try and bring in new businesses and create an inclusive economy? We won’t be able to do that if our reputation as a community is tarnished.”

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