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We need to stumble into the mess as the future of our country depends on engaging in uncomfortable but essential conversations about race, equity & inclusion

Craig Zelizer

November 3, 2016

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a wonderful session organized by Media Impact Funders and Net Impact in Philadelphia on "Paving the Way for an Equitable Future: A discussion about race, equity and inclusion."

The event was designed to be a frank and open dialogue about the role of business in supporting a more equitable future. Three pioneers in the field of education, equity and workforce developed shared their insights about how the US can achieve greater racial equality.

The speakers included:
Tiffany Cooper Gueye, Ph.D., CEO, Bell @tiffanygueye 
Rahsaan Harris, Ph.D., President & CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, @RKHarrisPhd
William R. Hite Jr., Ed.D, Superintendent, the School District of Philadelphia, @SDPHite

The session was moderated by Vince Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders, @VinceDaily



You might wonder why an event on convening the business community and aspiring professionals would focus on the issue of racial equity and justice. Net Impact and Media Impact Funders have each respectively working on programming and dialogue related to achieving greater racial equity in the US. They are doing this as this is one of they challenges facing the United States in general and also businesses in particular. In introducing the context, Liz Maw, the CEO of Net Impact explained how several years ago she the huge void on many college campuses across the country around educating and engaging students with the knowledge and skills to address racial equity. Seeing this is a critical area for current and future changemakers, Net Impact convened a group of leading experts and developed a curriculum to help enskill students with the tools to engage in the challenging conversation around racial equity and began a number of other programs to advance racial equity. (For some of NI's work and resources on the topic see https://www.netimpact.org/programs/impact-racial-equity )They also created a new Racial equity fellows program in which 30 students this year are getting training and working on their respective campuses to advance dialogue and action.

Media Impact Funders is focused on supporting diverse independent media in the US. A key part of their work is trying to support diverse media and also help shape the narrative about how racial issues and equity is addressed in the country.

The panelists each talked about some key experiences that have greatly influenced their personal understanding of race and in part helped motivate their careers of action to help change systems to better support equity. It is clear that racial injustice and inequity are very much present in the US on a daily basis in our culture, educational system, media, justice and economic system. Racial inequity is not a thing of the past and although some progress has been made the issues still confronting the US (as well as many countries in the world are huge).

It is beyond the scope of this single blog post to cover the vey rich presentations and subsequent discussion, but I do want to highlight five key points:

1) The US needs to have a honest, difficult and ongoing conversation about race - As was highlighted, this will be messy, difficult and uncomfortable. If we do this we can work towards being a nation that has a shared vision of the future that helps the country progress. But if we don't do this, we are likely to have a very difficult and divided future, where the country will stagnant and we will be fighting over crumbs.
2) Engaging in discussions and action around racial equity is smart business -Engaging in difficult but productive conversation and action around racial justice is not only the right thing to do in moral terms but also for the bottom line of business.As Dr. Harris said, "the current business imperative is reaching new markets. If you do authentic work and engage with communities, they will be very loyal and also help you make money." Those businesses work on addressing racial equity in hiring, operations, sourcing will be more likely to thrive and grow. Those that do not will become increasingly irrelevant in the future.
3) This is messy stuff - All speakers said talking about race, can be difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable. It is important to approach difference with empathy, to ask difficult questions and work to bridge divides. As Dr. Harris stated, "We need to stumble into the mess as the future of our country depends on this."
4) Business needs to focus on skills and not pedigrees - One of the key points speakers made is that all too often people tend to stay within the social networks they already know. This can mean that for hiring decisions employers will focus on their own networks and this can ignore many incredibly talented individuals who may not have gone to an ivy league or top tier university. Businesses and managers should work to focus on hiring talented individuals from many backgrounds and focus on competencies and skills, rather that just what school someone may have gone to. This often requires a change in hiring and cultural practices. It is also important to create more linkages between business and diverse communities through training programs, reaching out to communities, mentorship, etc.
5) Striving for Equity isn't easy, but it essential - Dr. Gueye shared a wonderful definition of equity from a colleague, "Equity is quality access to people, resource and information, in a way that understands and reflects where one is coming from, where one is and where one is going". Dr. Hite added that equity s "pushing all students to excellent regardless of their background". He also commented, "Excellence without equity is privilege. Equity without excellence is tokenism." Putting equity into practice is not easy, as it can lead to thought choices about resources, upset the status quo, but it should serve as guiding star to help inform decisions.

This was a fantastic session and I was so pleased to see such an honest discussion as part of the Net Impact conference. It is clear that for the future of the country, our young people that we need to take a much bolder and direct approach to having more uncomfortable conversations, to work towards concrete policy and business changes and that we can work towards a much more positive and equitable future. It is unlikely we will get a magic future where inequity has ended, but we can do so much, much better.


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