My best friend as a kid was Eddie. He lived down the street from me. We both loved baseball, going to the park and riding our bikes around the block. The only difference was he was black and I was white. In our neighborhood, he was part of the majority and I of the minority.
My mother always told me to wash the dirt off of my hands. At the age of about four, I naturally asked my grandmother why Eddie’s skin was always “dirty”. At that time, I didn’t understand that his skin was naturally that color. I assumed that it was dirty because of being told to wash the dirt off my hands.
About twenty years later, my grandmother told me about the time I asked her this question. For her, this was an example of my inquisitive mind. As a young adult hearing about my question, it’s striking that I viewed dark skin as not just skin, but skin that was “dirty”. Fortunately, I was able to have the conversation about skin color differences at a young age to be set straight and view differences as normal.
A few years ago, I began an adventure to digitize my personal and familial photo and video archives. Through this journey back in time that covered more than fifty years, I discovered photos, videos and audio of my time growing up in Bellwood, Illinois. Media that I had never before seen included visual reminders of long ago friends wrapped in partial memories.
1970s Bellwood felt to me like everywhere else in Chicago and around the country. Like most children, I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the world except when we drove to Wisconsin to visit family or went downtown to the Museum of Science and Industry. My neighborhood was my world.
My mom grew up a stone’s throw from where I grew up. Her parents lived in the neighboring town of Maywood, Illinois. My friends weren’t Black, they were Eddie, Handel and Toice. We were born about the same year as George Floyd.
Looking through the photos of my Bellwood years, my only memories were vague snippets of my new bike, the park down the block, our English sheepdog and the convenience store where I built my baseball card collection.
In those pictures representing faded memories, I now see something completely different. I see what easily could be a young George Floyd. I see how the lottery of birth leads to different ends. And I think about what if the roles were reversed. What if white was black and black was white. Would I have been George Floyd? Is it fair that what happened to George Floyd likely won’t happen to me because of my skin color?
Recently, I read this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.
It’s now been four months since the video of George Floyd’s murder left no doubt that there still is systemic racism in the US. Immediately after the protests began, companies rushed, to join in the chorus demanding action. I really believe that many executives leading those companies want to do something to make society more equitable.
Like many companies, we initially published a letter of support for the Black community. We followed that up within a week to engage with employees, donate to BLM supportive causes and encourage participation in social justice initiatives.
Reflecting on how we built the team in Chicago, the earliest employees were friends of mine. Then early hires referred their friends. Eventually, we started looking outside our network to find candidates. By that time, the path was set and we did not represent our community.
I realize now that this is a real world example of systemic racism. It was not intentional, but by not understanding the implications of only hiring from a specific pool of talent, I was perpetuating injustice. After fifteen years, representing our community is not a simple task of hiring one person here or there. This will be a multi-year effort that requires dedication and focus in order for us to represent our community at all levels.
Once we completed our initial reaction to the George Floyd murder, we discussed how we can make systemic changes that result in us better representing our community. We have rolled out four changes:
- Finding Talent — We implemented a requirement that every position has a BIPOC finalist to ensure that we are sourcing outside our typical talent pool.
- Getting Involved — Granted additional PTO to ensure that work does not prevent civic activism, such as voting, activism and volunteerism.
- Education — Offer interactive learning sessions in our learning management system for understanding, identifying and eliminating systemic racism.
- Creating Opportunities — Lifting up our BIPOC employees through a structured mentorship program and internship opportunities.
This won’t be the end of our contributions trying to end systemic racism in America and I know this is but a tiny effort, but if not now, then when? If not us, then who? If not here, then where?
I believe that part of my responsibility is to my community and my society. To me, that means we have to represent our city and we have to ensure equity. We are going to continue working towards these goals and I ask my fellow leaders to join me on this journey to make our cities, our communities and our society better for all.