Ryan Haygood, the CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said the author summed up the situation perfectly in his book: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
Haygood said the book describes the present-day status of race relations in New Jersey and the country. Simply put, after a summer of acknowledgement and reflection on all issues around racial equity, we’re at the crossroads the author described.
Haygood, speaking as a panelist on the virtual webinar sponsored by Taft Communications and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, “Words Matter: A discussion on how communications can promote racial equity in the workplace,” said every workplace in New Jersey is faced with the chaos or community option.
The challenge, he said, is to think about how people within a corporation, a small business or large business, or a nonprofit organize around these difficult conversations.
“To move those words into actions in a way that we build community — and we steer clear of the chaos that for too long has characterized not only the natural landscape, but the landscape here in New Jersey,” he said.
But how do you do that: How do you turn the words of the summer into actionable items for the future?
Words do matter — but, as many in the struggle will tell you — actions speak a lot louder than words.
Rina Desai, the director of financial planning and analysis at Panasonic and the vice chair of the NJBIA’s Diversity & Inclusion Council, acknowledged the moment.
“One of the most important things to realize is that there has been a shift in D&I,” she said. “It’s a new way of thinking. And, now, more than ever, innovation and communication go hand in hand with D&I initiatives.”
The statement you put out following the death of George Floyd? That wasn’t enough. Your employees want and expect more, Desai said.
“Some organizations are making bold moves,” she said. “Take a look at Starbucks. After a racial incident at one of their cafes, they shut down completely for one day, costing a million dollars. At Panasonic, we have completely revived the D&I, using multiple strategies focused on communication, education and continuous listening.”
“Leadership communicated their stance on racial equity, and frequently provides communications around D&I so employees see their constant commitment,” Desai said. “We relaunched our (Employee Resource Groups) and all those ERG leaders now sit on an employee council that has a seat at the table with the executives and really can represent the underrepresented. And, lastly, we engage with an external management company to ensure our talent practices, our antibias, as well as continue to educate our leaders and employees.”
According to the fifth annual State of Diversity survey by Taft and the NJBIA, nearly 3 in 4 employees felt their employers should play a role in promoting racial equity in the workplace.
Desai, who has more than 15 years of experience in driving business results through change management, said initiatives around the issue will pay off with attraction and retention, as well as on the bottom line. She cited numerous studies showing double-digit gains for diverse companies and those that take D&I issues seriously. It will show up in the workforce, Desai said.
“Your employees need to know your stance, your presence, and they need to know that you care about them,” she said. “Employees are your brand ambassadors on the frontline. How they feel about equity at the workplace will come out either consciously or unconsciously, good or bad. So, it doesn’t matter if your efforts are only impacting one employee or a thousand. Communication is crucial to foster inclusivity. And, frankly, so satisfied employees mean more productivity.”
Allison Banks-Moore, the chief diversity officer at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, has been around this issue enough to know that there always has been a little talk. But, she said, this talk seems a little different.
“We held listening sessions for all of our employees that were 90-minute sessions,” she said. “The purpose was to really give them the opportunity to be heard, to have everyone around, listen, to hear their stories, to hear their reactions to everything that’s going on. These were very compelling sessions. They were emotionally draining.”
But well worth it from a corporate standpoint.
“(Employees) were very appreciative that we took the time to do it,” she said. “They appreciated the fact that we have the time to give them a forum where they could really speak their truth. And they could be heard, where in most instances, their truth is suppressed. And they never let on how they’re feeling. Some of the comments were similar to: ‘I didn’t know that’s how my coworker felt. They never talked about it.’ But, this gave them that opportunity. And it was really very enlightening.
“So, what do (employees) want to hear? They want to hear more of this, they want more conversations like this, they want to continue this dialogue. It’s not just a once-and-done type of situation. You have to continue this dialogue, because it’s forever changing. It’s not static. To gain understanding, and get that collaboration going, you have to talk about it. And, yes, it’s awkward, and it’s uncomfortable. However, with tools, the proper resources and education and training for those that will facilitate, it can be done, and it has been done and we will continue to do that.”
While Horizon has been out front on the issue, Banks-Moore cautioned against judging those who seemingly have not been.
”Let’s not condemn those that are struggling to get there,” she said. “Because you don’t speak out doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything — you may not necessarily be making it public.
“And, for those that are speaking out, I challenge those companies a year from now, what have you achieved? Where are you at? And where are you going? Because, being vocal is one thing, but actually putting all of this into action is another.”
The conversation went on for an hour. It could have lasted for days. And, isn’t that the point of all of this? Addressing racial equity in the workplace needs to continue. (As does gender equity.)
Banks-Moore hopes it will.
“My jaded side is saying, ‘I want to see what happens a year from now, two years from now, is it still sustainable?’” she said. “‘Are you still just as committed or even more committed than what you are right now? And what have you achieved? What were the gaps? And how did you address those gaps? What’s the outcome, and how are your employees feeling now?’”
Unfortunately, Banks-Moore said, a moment such as this isn’t new.
“This is something that we’ve been experiencing for forever,” she said. “I’m a child of the ’60s, of the civil rights movement. I know about that. I was a part of that. And, so, to see where we were versus where we are now, and the upheaval that has taken place, it makes one question, how far did we get?”
Haygood said he has hope.
“I’ve been really heartened in the throes of these very painful moments: the coronavirus pandemic, the police brutality pandemic, the structural racism pandemic,” he said.
Haygood said the moment can be defined in a picture.
“We’re all standing on a foundation, and the foundation is cracked,” he said. “And those are cracks of structural racism. And it’s through those cracks that our communities are experiencing real earthquakes. And, so, the challenge is, how do we move these conversations into action in a way that builds community in our place of employment and in the broader society in a way that fills in those cracks and helps them build a new foundation?”
Doing so would answer the book’s question: Are we headed to chaos or community?
Haygood said he wishes everyone could read the book. It has stood, he said, the test of time. It was written, after all, in 1967 — making it the ultimate example of how we’ve come so far and how far we still need to go.
Of course, you may have gathered that just by reading the name of the author: Martin Luther King Jr.