To kick off Black History Month, HACR communications manager Rachael Whitten joined Cid Wilson, president and CEO of HACR, and Crystal Ashby, interim president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, a non-profit organization that offers development opportunities for Black executives, to discuss how Corporate America and a new government administration can come together to honor Black History Month in a way that both celebrates diversity and sparks lasting change.
Rachael Whitten: Cid, from an Afro-Latino perspective, what’s the significance of Black History Month to you?
Cid Wilson: Black History Month has always been a significant month for me for a variety of reasons. Number one, as a Black man and as someone who has the same experiences of every African American in this country, it’s deeply important that we know our Black history, not only in America, but in the New World. So many Blacks were brought to the New World as slaves throughout Latin America, and in the case of my ancestors, to the Caribbean. February is also a very important for me because it’s Dominican Heritage Month. Given that the Dominican Republic has one of the largest population percentages of Afro-Latinos, it’s that much more of a connecting month to both my Latino and black roots.
RW: Crystal, considering the current socio-political context, how important do you think it is to be intentional about spotlighting the wide range of Black experiences during Black History Month?
Crystal Ashby: First of all, I’ve always had issues with the fact that it’s the shortest month of the year. I always say that we are Black all the time. Using this opportunity to have people focus on [the Black experience] is so critical, especially if you think about the year that we recently had. The impact on the Black community was so adverse, between COVID-19 and the world’s realization that black lives more than matter. The focus this year has to be on eradicating the racism that continues to allow black men in particular to become victims in adverse situations, and that includes [resisting] the ways our democracy has been put at risk.
But there’s also the fact that with Kamala Harris as Vice President, for generations to come, there will never be a time for little girls, and little boys who saw it with Barack Obama when he was President, when they won’t know that the ascension of black men and black women into the two most powerful seats in our country is possible. This is something we can celebrate this month. But we also have to continue to educate, because our biggest issue is that people truly do not understand our history.
RW: We’re going into Black History Month with the inauguration of President Biden still fresh in our minds. From a corporate perspective, how do you envision the landscape of board diversity and corporate diversity in general will change under this new administration?
CW: There is no question that the swearing in of Joe Biden as President of the United States, and Kamala Harris becoming the first woman, first African American, and first South Asian Vice President of the United States is hugely significant. The inauguration was one of the most connecting inaugurations I’ve ever experienced due to the diversity of speakers, including diversity in age, with the beautiful speech by the young poet laureate Amanda Gorman at just 22 years of age. Often at these inaugurations we see people that we don’t connect to from a generational standpoint, and having someone from her generation be a part of this event is a reminder that we can all be a part of this democracy, and also that democracy is connected to all of us. Many of the major things that have [already] happened, including the executive order rescinding the ban on diversity training, are significant, because Corporate America often takes its cadence from the government. And in the absence of that leadership, Corporate America has had to step up. But I’m happy that now Corporate America has a diversity partner in the Biden administration.
CA: I agree. If you look at the way President Biden has chosen to fill the positions in his administration, he is looking to mirror the way the world looks. Women are no longer a minority. There are many people of color in his administration. To Cid’s point, Corporate America had to step up this last year, and there’s been concern about how sustainable those efforts are. With the addition of this administration’s perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion, there’s the potential for these initiatives to continue.
It’s going to be challenging for a while, because change doesn’t happen as quickly as all of us would like. Things that get measured, get done. If [diversity, equity, and inclusion] were business objectives, most people feel it would already be delivered. Businesses are going to be challenged as to how quickly they can facilitate the change that’s needed. It’s not just about being able to bring your whole self to work, but also knowing the value proposition you present as someone who shows up with ideas that may not be aligned with everyone else’s. Having more diverse people in positions of power who look more like Cid and me is going to be a catalyst for organizations to say, we aren’t where we need to be, and we could do more, and we could do it more quickly.
RW: What responsibility do corporations have to observe Black History Month, and beyond that, to take the sentiments behind that observance and use them to advance diversity and inclusion at their own organizations?
CW: There is a responsibility for Corporate America to recognize Black History Month in a very authentic way. Don’t just treat it as a checkmark. Use it as an opportunity to build on your inclusive culture. That includes making sure that everyone is involved with Black History Month, not just your Black employees. I’ll be calling on all of our Latino employees to participate. I would also encourage them to use this as an opportunity to talk about issues that impact all of us as a community, while recognizing the history of Blacks in America and the history of Afro-Latinos within the Latino community. We’ll be emphasizing the importance of Latino ERGs being present for Black History Month activities within their companies.
CA: We often look to the entity that’s being celebrated. For example, during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, we look to Jewish people. You look to the entity that owns it. I think that’s part of the problem, because we all have to own the celebration of these things and recognize our role in them. We don’t exist in a vacuum, we exist in a collective, and we choose how we show up. For instance, African American resource groups or Latinx resource groups can help bring the discussion to the table, but everybody has to take part. As Cid said, don’t make it a check-the-box event. After everything that has happened in the last year, it would be a missed opportunity to not be intentional about the celebration of Black history.
Black History Month is not just a month of reminder, it’s a month of honoring the past, to encourage and change the future. Corporate America is a component of so many people’s lives. It’s where most people spend the majority of their days. How you create that environment in your organization is based on intention. This means the CEO and the C-suite are discussing it. They’ve talked to their top Black executives about it, not to say, “Tell us what to do,” but to say, “We want to be in a place of honor. How do we all come together to really do that?” I’m consistently asking, where do you want to be when this is done? From my perspective, you want every single person in your organization to have been touched by at least one thing that happened during that month. That one thing will hopefully have impacted them in a way that helps them see things differently moving forward.
RW: What’s your best advice for businesses trying to improve equity and inclusion for people of color?
CW: It’s important that our communities know that this is a movement and not a sprint, because when you sprint through issues, you start out very fast, you tie a ribbon around it, and then everything drops off just as you really need to keep the movement going. Going at the right pace is going to be very important. Lasting change is also going to take all of us making sure that we are vocal and active and that we know our own histories. I plan to use a lot of the month just educating Latinos about the history of Afro-Latinos, because the reality is that many of us don’t know that history. We know only about the 13 colonies, and we don’t know about the history of Blacks in the New World. That’s one way we can be active partners with the current administration and with Corporate America.
CA: The socio-economic component of this is education. Corporate America is so responsible for that, but the backstory on how we ended up with the system we have today is not well known, and that’s critical from an educational standpoint. As not-for-profit organizations, we are first and foremost about education, which is why having a month devoted to being vocal and speaking on this issue is so critical. Cid spoke earlier about Amanda Gorman. First of all, wow. But more importantly, one of the things we often hear from leaders in Corporate America is that they don’t know where the [diverse] talent is. When we have a young, 22-year-old woman of color standing in front of the world with such poise, having finished this poem after watching [the insurrection at the Capitol] two weeks earlier, encapsulating everything that the world felt, to then say that you don’t know where the talent is, is a very daunting juxtaposition for us to unpack. [The Black community] keeps showing the talent day in and day out. From watching everyone who contributed to the inauguration, you can see that the scope of the world is so wide, but we often want to narrow it. Black History Month allows us to widen the aperture of how people see us.
RW: How will the ELC and HACR be celebrating Black History Month this year, and what thoughts would you like to leave our readers with as we head into February?
CA: We are trying to make sure that we are pushing the envelope and being more challenging. We’ll highlight people in our community that are not as well known. There are a lot of “we-did-it-first” landmarks that people don’t really know about, so we’re making sure that the educational component is strong. Also, we’re a Black organization, so we should be celebrating ourselves, as well. We have 814 members, and this year especially it feels like there’s a new piece around the celebration of us. To those whom much is given, much is required, and we all still have, to quote John Lewis, some good trouble to get into.
CW: HACR will be doing a webinar on Afro-Latinas on February 10th, bringing together a panel on what it’s like to be a woman, Latina, and Black in America. It’s free and we hope everyone participates. We’re also proud of our collaboration with ELC and our fellow Alliance for Board Diversity organizations, Catalyst and LEAP. Together, we can make a difference. As I like to say, we shall overcome and si, se puede.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.