The first thing we must all do to be free

Everybody deserves to be somebody. Yet at every workplace I visit - all of them modern companies in developed countries - I see limits that prevent people from realizing this basic right. 

Some of the limits are at a corporate level. We preach innovation, collaboration, and purpose - “We must change the culture!” - yet the need for control and allocation of power makes it unsafe for those who seek to actually change the status quo. 

Some of the limits are at an individual level. We share universal needs and wants: respect, recognition, the opportunity to contribute. Yet we also share a heightened sensitivity to our status in an organization (and the world at large), and most of us hold back until we know it’s safe.

It isn’t always safe, of course, and so even the simplest of acts are questioned. Can I approach that person? Can I say this? Can I write that? You quickly learn there are unwritten protocols for who gets to say and do what they think is best, for who matters.

Reflecting on this made me search for a speech from fifty years ago, of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. The recording was only discovered recently. I listened to it multiple times. 

No matter where people are assembled…. The cry is always the same: "We want to be free.” I would like to suggest some of the things you must do in order to be truly free. The first thing we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebody-ness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person. 

He was speaking to an audience that faced oppression more severe than anything at a modern workplace, more than anything I can imagine. Yet even in those dire, unsafe circumstances he told them not to wait for change but to realize more of their potential now, through action, with whatever was available to them. 

We must make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. We must not wait for the day of full emancipation before we set out to achieve certain basic developments in our lives.

Quoting a poem by Douglas Malloch, King exhorted the students to “be the best of whatever you are.” That advice applies to each of us now as it did then. Yes, the people and environment around you may not make it easy. But don’t let anybody - even yourself - make you feel that you are nobody.