By Geoff Curtis
For more than six months, I have been on a journey – one of education, understanding and action. While I’ve always considered myself an inclusive person, the recent and ongoing events specific to anti-Black racism, which have impacted me, my friends and colleagues, have made me realize that I have a lot to learn.
There are two phrases I have repeated a lot lately: “I have to be better” and “I have to do better.” Part of the journey toward “being and doing better” is having conversations with diverse groups of people to understand the “how” behind being and doing better. One of my recent conversations was with Dr. Tia Tyree, a professor at Howard University who teaches both undergraduate and graduate communications courses focused on strategic communications, social media and African Americans. Prior to Howard, her career experience ranges from the news media to public relations in the agency setting to public relations/information in local government.
With increased societal, and specifically corporate, focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and allyship, below are insights from our conversation that resonated most and that will help me and hopefully others find the “how” behind being and doing better.
Create the Space, Stay Consistent
Following the George Floyd tragedy, there was significant unrest in Chicago for more than a week, which culminated in large-scale protests the last weekend in May. The following Monday, I had a team meeting where I encouraged everyone to share their feelings about the recent events. I cried, others on my team cried – it was a moment of organic vulnerability. I had not done anything like that before, but felt it was important to create a safe space where my team felt comfortable in talking through tough issues, but also so that they could hear, see and understand each other.
Creating space isn’t solely about having a meeting. For a company, space creation begins with its mission, which as Dr. Tyree notes “becomes the place where you set the stage and the groundwork for what it is your organization is trying to do.” Using Howard University as the example, she notes that if the mission is to “uplift and educate black students, then we are obligated to have those discussions (about race), obligated to bring our people forward in a way that helps them thrive and survive.” The same approach should apply to corporate America. If organizations construct strong values and core competencies and those are actively embedded in the culture the same obligation, as with the Howard example, exists to help employees thrive and survive.
In addition, Dr. Tyree previously conducted research, looking specifically at corporations, evaluating a concept called the “one-click philosophy” – if something is important to an organization, it will be within one click from the organization’s homepage. For example, if an organization chooses to talk about diversity and inclusion in any online medium, is that same message or information accessible on its website? Further, if company talks about its policies and procedures, are there diversity and inclusion specific policies? Does the company have a diversity and inclusion committee or representative? The point being, as Dr. Tyree notes, visibility and accessibility in an organization make it easier to have a conversation because advocates and channels exist to do so.Finally, by creating space where people feel comfortable sharing, as I did with my team, I am committing to ensuring those conversations happen consistently. As Dr. Tyree noted, consistency helps people continue to feel confident in expressing themselves, but it also acknowledges that issues aren’t being swept under the rug.
Surveys and studies show that diversity and inclusion is now more of a strategic priority for companies than it has been in the past. Companies are increasingly focused on diverse recruiting as well as internal mentoring and leadership programming to nurture diverse talent.
Dr. Tyree recently co-authored a study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Educator titled “Black Broadcast Journalists: Implications of Mentorship and Race in the Newsroom.” The study focused on Black broadcast journalists and in the study, 23 were interviewed about their experiences working in network television news, specifically the role their mentor played to help their professional success. In the study, Dr. Tyree cites earlier research, which shows that when it comes to mentoring minorities, race matters. In her study, seldom did a Black mentee only have a White man as their primary mentor.
I am passionate about mentorship and sponsorship both at and outside of work. However, as a white male, leading a diverse team, I am also increasingly aware of and having conversations about the mentorship needs for my diverse colleagues. According to Dr. Tyree, race does matter in mentorship, but “there are also some people who are living and breathing in a space where they can and do appreciate blackness and can speak to the black experience in a way that their race may not matter as much.” For instance, her two primary mentors, a white male and a white female, both worked at an HBCU and had an understanding and a commitment to black excellence because they lived and worked in that space every day.
So, what is the best approach to mentorship? While there has been an ongoing debate regarding organic mentoring versus structured programming, Dr. Tyree believes that creating a program is key. In her experience, even loosely structured programs are more effective than informal relationships as it allows mentors and mentees to set meeting dates and times to ensure that conversations occur. Regardless if the mentor and mentee relationship is formal or informal, resources are key for the relationship to be successful. For example, Dr. Tyree notes that mentors need general conversation resources as well as to know how to provide resume assistance or understand what to do if your mentee is having an employment issue. The goal is for the mentor and mentee to have the best possible experience and those building the program need to help ensure success.
Dr. Tyree mentioned that because of social media everything is now customer-based and if those customers demand to see a company and its stance on an issue, there is really no choice but to share. Companies with strong values actively embedded in the internal culture should have no issue making those known externally. Similarly, as part of my journey toward “being and doing better” I also need to be accountable and hold others accountable along the way. I need to ensure that my beliefs, opinions and values related to diversity and inclusion are not only known by me, but strongly expressed to others. Be accountable and be proud – show the world how you feel and actions you are taking to make progress.