Creating a Culture of Diversity by becoming “Color Brave”

  One thing I know for sure: America is in the midst of a culture war, and every week there are explosions on the frontlines. One of the most prevalent and recurrent flare-ups revolve around the issues of race. As I’ve watched the events unfold this past week, the question I’ve continued to ask myself is, “What will it take to create a culture of diversity—an environment based on respecting the dignity of each person and where their unique characteristics and potential contributions are celebrated?” This is one of our nation’s most pressing issues, especially as America becomes more diverse with each, successive generation.

I have experienced the successful impact of arts initiatives used to engage different communities on the issues of class and race. I believe the arts, which universally touch people’s lives, have the power to transcend the issues that separate us. But I also know that the arts are only one frontier needed to tame this tempest. To create a culture of diversity requires that diversity education and discussions about race take place in every sector of American society.

Four years ago, during an impassioned TED Talk, financial dynamo Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, called on America to become “color brave” instead of “color blind.” She described it this way:

 “Race today is still one of the most controversial and uncomfortable issues to discuss in America. Bring it up at the dinner table or the workplace, and the effect is the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail – shock followed by a long silence. Let’s face it, racial discrimination is a long-standing problem that has plagued our country for centuries. But we all know the first step in solving a problem is to stop hiding from it.”

In subsequent interviews, Ms. Hobson said, speaking openly about race—and particularly about diversity in hiring—makes for better businesses and a better society. The following year, as a member of Starbucks Board of Directors, she gave a similar talk at the company’s 2015 Annual Shareholders Meeting.

This past week, Ms. Hobson’s call for “color bravery” was in the spotlight again when Starbucks, under intense scrutiny and criticism from many sectors, closed more than 8,000 of its company-owned stores for a half-day of racial bias training workshops. The training was quickly organized following the arrest in April of two black men in a downtown Philadelphia store, who were waiting for a business meeting with a third colleague. The manager called the police after one of them requested to use the restroom without purchasing anything. The video of the arrest went viral leading to protests and calls for boycotts.

The company’s decision to launch this training has been called a “publicity stunt” and a “whitewash.” But the questions I think we all must ask are: “If we don’t begin here, where DO we begin?” and, more importantly, “What other companies are putting their reputation on the line and spending millions (actually losing millions) to publicly address and discuss the issue of race and the impact racism has on American society?”

According to online feedback about the training, one of the most powerful moments of the Starbucks training actually involved the arts—the participants watched a documentary film created by Stanley Nelson, who was a 2002 MacArthur Foundation recipient and the recipient of multiple Emmy Awards, including for Lifetime Achievement in the category of News and Documentary. The seven-minute documentary created for the training, which is titled “A Story of Access, explores the impact of racial bias within public accommodations, and asks viewers to envision possibilities for a better future. It is narrated by Sherrilynn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

About the racial bias workshops, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz said during an interview, “We realize that four hours of training is not going to solve racial inequity in America.” But Mr. Schultz says he sees it as an important step. He went on to say that the training will be incorporated into employee hiring, and that the 7,000 licensed stores — including those operated by hotels, grocery stores and airports — which did not participate in the initial training, will do so over the next year. This is an extension of Ms. Hobson’s vision—extending “color bravery” to the corporate sector so that it can impact and influence even greater numbers of people.

As a consultant who has engaged in diversity training for cultural institutions and nonprofit organizations for more than 30 years, I believe this is a good beginning; a first step. It demonstrates an awareness that this situation had to change and then the company determined to take responsibility. Putting aside criticism of its bottom-line-driven motivation, it’s important to note that Starbucks began immediately with addressing the issue internally and taking action. That’s where the shift must happen; all change begins within. Nonetheless, the ultimate success of these efforts will be defined by the company’s commitment to long-term training and ongoing follow-up.

What about the rest of us? What can we do to help foster a culture of diversity; a culture that is “color brave?” I believe it begins with awakening to our own biases and the willingness to embrace our own need to change. Let me share a personal experience: When I first worked for George C. Wolfe at the Public Theatre, he asked me to create an audience that looked like a New York City subway stop. My response was, “I only know Black people.” But then I asked myself, “Why is it that you only know Black people?” I could attribute it to lots of factors, including growing up in racially-segregated Chicago. But success in my new job required that I expand my world view. I knew there would be no magic pill—I first had to self-reflect about how I felt about people I considered to be “other” or different from me. Second, I had to develop a healthy curiosity about and a desire to get to know people from diverse communities. Third, I had to examine my values and determine I would take action. In the beginning, my steps were simple—I read books by Latino and Asian authors. I loved opening this window, which allowed me to learn that many of their stories were similar to my own. I hired staff that represented the communities I wanted to engage, Puerto Rican and Filipino.  I could not possibly understand the nuances and dynamics to successfully engage these audiences but I can demonstrate leadership and surround myself with people who could do that.  Later, I made a thorough list of action steps for myself, that included visiting as many of the cultural organizations for the purpose of listening, what was missing, what did they need, what could I do to reflect their culture on the stage within the paradigm of the Public’s mission.

Much of my work with cultural institutions and nonprofits unfolds in a similar manner. I always ask my clients to begin with an internal awareness, and then I help them assess where they are, followed by the creation of action steps. These programs are most successful when the entire executive leadership team, as well as the Board of Directors, are involved and supportive. This allows the organization to drill down to the behavior of everyone connected with the organization or corporation and hold them all accountable. Our behavior is the real indicator of how much we’ve changed.

To truly create a shift in awareness and behavior takes time. Four hundred years of bigotry will not be overcome in four hours, four weeks, four months, or even four years. But as long as we are willing to be proactive about our collective need to be “color brave,” and are conscientious about tackling our own, inherent biases, then I am both hopeful and willing to be patient as I work diligently to create a culture that respects, honors and celebrates diversity. I hope you will make a commitment to join me.