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Webinar speakers: It’s OK to have ‘uncomfortable conversations’ around race

Katie Tabeling

The Delaware business community has been silent about race and racism in the workforce for too long, and top business leaders say not only is it time to have the hard talks, it’s time to make the commitment to change corporate culture.

Stephanie Creary

“While you may be expecting your Black friend to step up and make commentary, this is not that time,” said Dr. Tony Allen, the president of Delaware State University. “It’s really on all of us to look deep inside, understand we’re living around an American problem that we can solve together and understand that the moment is ours.”

Allen was joined with Stephanie Creary, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, to speak at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s webinar about the employer’s role in creating opportunities for Black employees.

The first step to institutional change: Have uncomfortable conversations. Creary pointed out that people are socialized to think that paying attention to differences equates to bias. Studies have shown it encourages more biased behavior, she added.

“I’ve learned that people fear being called racist,” Creary said. “Managers can help employees feel less anxious and more efficacious about engaging in these competitions related to race by creating a norm.”

That may create some anxiety, but Allen said that it’s better to have the discussion than to perpetuate a culture of silence. What got us to this point was not enough thoughtful listening and honest dialogue, he added.

“As we have conversations with each other, we will likely say the wrong things,” Allen said. “We’ll not always get it right. Sometimes we’ll get mad with each other, and on balance, I think all of that is OK. What’s not OK is silence.”

Those conversations could lead to some eye-opening revelations about the opportunity gaps. For higher education institutions and employers, it could mean investing into professional development like internships and business mentor programs to give young professionals more exposure.

“There’s a lot of experts at universities and many at consulting firms, so lean on them as you facilitate these conversations with your leadership team,” Creary said.

But not only does it require more opportunities within the company, it requires community buy-in to make a change. Creary used Boston as an example, as The Partnership nonprofit started to work with employers to offer resources and a community for people of color.

“When they have issues around having experiences of racism in the community, they have a community to lean on,” Creary said. “It’s up to the communities and business leaders to help support initiatives that are about trying to recruit and retain people of color in that community location.”

DSU president

Tony Allen | Photo c/o DSU

For offices, it’s also about creating space for Black professionals to speak and engage in the community. Allen said that network already exists, since 50% of African American professionals graduated from a historically black college or university (HBCU). Sixty percent of African American lawyers and doctors have undergraduate degrees from HBCUs.

“[African American] professionals are in your communities and they’re doing all the things that we do to honor our families and our communities,” he said. “What’s most important is your ability to engage those employees. You need to challenge them about helping you create a more diverse workforce.”

But at the end of the day, it’s really about hiring more people of color and changing perspectives of what qualified employees look like in the workforce. It’s not true to say the talent isn’t out there, like so many employers have said before, Allen said.

“You’re not looking hard enough,” he said. “There are many talent pools…the first thought is about getting proximate to those communities that you want to reach.”

Creary outlined a brief plan for companies moving forward, like leaning on experts to guide conversations about race with the leadership team and creating opportunities and resources down the line. Final step: Make a plan to sustain it with concrete targets to hit.

“This is a long game,” she said. “This is not going to be a problem that is going to be resolved anytime soon. Maybe not in my lifetime and maybe not in your lifetime. But you start creating an action plan, I think we’ll be in a much better place a year from now than we are today.”

-Katie Tabeling


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