Ben & Jerry’s has seen a lot of changes since its first ice cream parlor opened in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978—including being acquired by multinational corporation Unilever in 2000. Among the things that have remained consistent, however, is the company’s outspokenness on social issues. Helping keep that tradition alive is assistant U.S. activism manager Jabari Paul, a longtime activist with a background in advocacy and philanthropy.
In 2017, Paul joined Ben & Jerry’s to work on its social missions. His parents instilled justice-oriented values in him at an early age—his father, one of the first African American firefighters in Tallahassee, Florida, filed a discrimination lawsuit over the department’s promotion process in the mid-’90s—and his team leverages Ben & Jerry’s many platforms, from scoop shops to social media, to raise awareness and recruit participants in campaigns for LGBTQ, environmental, and social justice issues. “We try very hard for this not to come across as an exercise in marketing,” Paul says, while noting that, “when we have stuck to our values and taken those chances, it has only strengthened brand loyalty for us.”
Tell me about Ben & Jerry’s activism.
We don’t do direct funding. We believe that companies should go beyond giving back to the community through financial resources. We try to bring our fans on a journey with us, build awareness around issues that we care about, and ultimately drive our fans to take action in these movements.
How do you do that?
We partner with organizations that have expertise on these issues. They inform us about how we can be most helpful to their campaign. Take our work with the Second Chances campaign to restore voting rights to 1.4 million [formerly incarcerated] returning citizens in the state of Florida—which passed. We leveraged our product by showing up with ice cream wherever they were doing signature collection, before the amendment had made it on the ballot, to [encourage] people to have a deeper conversation with our partner about the issue.
So you showed up and handed out ice cream?
That’s what we do best [laughs]. Ice cream is a way of bringing people together to talk about complex issues. I have yet to see anyone, at any rally or event we go to, walk up and be angry when they’re confronted with a scoop of ice cream.
Your recent Justice ReMix’d Campaign supports criminal justice reform. Why should an ice cream company be concerned with issues like this?
Our business is at its best when people who live around our factories, distributors, retailers, and shops are doing well. The U.S. has about 5 percent of the world’s population but [nearly] 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
What challenges have you faced doing this under the auspices of a big corporation?
When you’re thinking about the best time to do a flavor launch, let’s say, and that’s being weighed against the most opportune moment for a grassroots organization to uplift an issue—I wish I could say that it’s a clean process, but one of our greatest strengths is our ability to be nimble.
What advice do you have for people who want to drive social change through business?
Philanthropies and corporations have eroded the trust of communities with empty promises or by coming in, achieving an agenda, and then not leaving resources for that community to continue to build itself. I advocate for barn-raising—this old approach where everybody brings their resources and you raise the barn together.
Ben & Jerry’s World-Saver Flavors
Save Our Swirled
Raised awareness on climate change (2015)
Home Sweet Honeycomb
Backed legislation that would help refugees safely resettle in Europe (2017)
Benefited the North Carolina NAACP (2016)
I Dough, I Dough
Celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision (2015)
Supports four organizations that promote inclusivity and social equality (2018-today)