In the middle of October, my employer's chief human resources officer and I attended a half-day summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, where leaders, activists, lawmakers and business owners came together to talk about race on a local level. These were mostly panels sat with a diverse makeup of people from all walks of life talking about every race-related issue from juvenile sentencing and Confederate symbols to art, policing and equity.
While the subject of race is still a firebrand in social conversations (especially on social media), it's place in the workplace remains to be determined.
What surprised me most about this event was not just that Bank of America sponsored it, but that the bank leader who provided opening remarks, Andrew Plepler, didn't just humor the room of 200-or-so attendees with a standard "thank you for coming" and some "diversity is important" jargon. He set the foundation for how we should now expect the global banking behemoth to behave in the race conversation moving forward.
“We all have a stake in more civil discourse in our country, now more than ever, in solving what has been an intractable problem for years,” he said. “And if we don’t do that, we are looking at a very challenging future in our communities, very challenging places to do business and very challenging places for our employees to live.”
Yes, there's a business case for Bank of America to be an active participant in the conversation. But what that also says to me–as a public relations practitioner AND as an African-American woman–is that I probably should not feel any less emboldened to speak up in the workplace about race, social injustices, even politics than I do when I'm at the dinner table with my family or watching a mayoral debate with friends.
In the age of the diversity construct and particularly today, there's so much at stake both personally and professionally. People of color who have trained, seasoned and aligned themselves with how corporate America works, and found a place for themselves among "the boys club," are not only sensitive about bringing up race at work, but about becoming an active part of the conversation outside of work. (The branding associated with being vocal and brown is much more harmful than simply being brown.)
So what do I do now that I know I can do?
Start by understanding the environment
The wheels have been turning in my brain for more than a year now ignited mostly by the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott here in the Queen City back in September 2016, and the reactions I saw in both my workplace and in the community.
I've thought about where I physically and mentally belong in this conversation; how active I can effectively be; and how can I use my skills to both augment and support the conversation, as well as create a safe space for people like me to come get ideas and find their own spark. I've especially spent a lot of time thinking about how invested my soul is in this conversation as well. (Of late, national and local conversations about race suck the energy out of me, hence my ardent affection for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy.)
I started local, reading about Charlotte's history and scanning for the local headlines that talked about socioeconomics of housing, pay, education, etc. I "liked" and bookmarked reports and findings about race across LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
Next, I got to know who today's local, regional, national and international conversation leaders on race were. Charlotte's own Bree Newsome. Talk show host and comedian Trevor Noah. International activist Malala. Even Charles Barkley who just launched a show called American Race this year. Closer to home, I got to know the likes of Brenda Tindal, the Levine Museum of the New South's historian, and Kerr Putney, Charlotte's police chief, by attending some community dinners and more panel discussions.
Finally, I started to talk to my boss about where I'd been sneaking off to during and immediately after work. I didn't talk to him to get a reaction, but to see if he was interested in having the conversation with me in the first place. I learned quickly that he was interested; I learned even quicker that he is extremely supportive of my interest in bringing the conversation into the workplace. (Another story for another day.)
Finding my place
After a year's worth of listening, watching and waiting, I've decided to use my most natural tool: the pen. I can use it both at work (employee resource groups) and at home (blogging). I communicate most effectively through it. Not to mention it's cathartic for me.
Writing is also a gateway leading to additional channels and vehicles (podcasts, for instance) for participation in the conversation. In communities like Charlotte, diversity of thought is critical in effective conversations. Charlotte being a melting pot of people from all over the world means that the conversation about race will not only happen, but it will happen both as a result of inaction and action.
As far as my apprehension about talking to people at work about race, it's a thing of the past.
And I can blame Andrew Plepler for that.