The bigotry and hatred that was on display in Charlottesville over the weekend, has underscored the need for the fearless pursuit of cultural competency, equality, and inclusion. President Donald Trump, in response to the deadly White supremacist provocation, called for “research” and “understanding.” For many of us, no additional research is required. Action is what is needed. During the fall of 1986, in fact, my close friend, Michael Anthony Smart, had an idea. He wanted to form a Black Student Union (BSU) at our Alhambra High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He wanted to bring people together, amid mounting racial tensions, to educate and be educated about African American history, to advance inter-cultural awareness, mutual respect, educational equity, and academic excellence. “Mike,” as we still call him, was a visionary.
He was also prophetic. He predicted that Alhambra, which was slated to open a magnet program that would attract scores of Black and Latino students from Phoenix’s south and west sides the following fall, lacked cultural competency and would descend into an abyss of racial conflict, White flight, tax base erosion, and under-performance as a result. The influx of large numbers of people of color would send shock waves into Alhambra’s system, he declared, an ecosystem that had been “led by Whites for Whites” for generations. There were no monuments to White power on campus, but White privilege flowed freely through the institution’s arteries.
Alhambra’s small population of Black students, he reasoned, were compelled, despite our marginalized status, to do our part to stir the school away from disaster through cultural triage. He convened our circle of friends, and others, and not long afterward, Alhambra’s first BSU was born. Mike was it’s inaugural president, I became it’s first vice-president, and John Jones, Janel White, Lynn White, Jason Harris, Gina Lang, and Benny Colley rounded out our slate of elected officers. We, a band of 15 and 16-year-olds, were called “reverse racists,” “troublemakers,” “feel-good junkies,” and the “kumbaya crew,” by a number of students, staff, and teachers before we held one event. Some went so far as to invite Neo-Nazis from the Arizona hinterlands in to intimidate and physically harass us into inaction and silence. It didn’t work. We were committed and supported by our families and key members of Alhambra faculty and staff.
A funny thing happened though. Alhambra’s internal culture wars diminished as our guest lectures, workshops, assemblies, dances, barbecues, and other activities brought Alhambra “Lions” of all shapes, sizes, and colors, together. In short order, our BSU had as many non-Black supporters and it did African American members. We learned from each other, spent more time together, worked better together, and it showed.
Alhambra’s principal at the time, Dr. Dave Briggs, a visionary in his own right, embraced our initiative and gave us wide latitude to “express ourselves as long as we were constructive.” When I told my mother that Dr. Briggs green-lighted our Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday talent show, she responded with “he’s letting you organize another assembly?” “Of course,” I said. “Who else can get the b-boys and girls, goths, stoners, metal-heads, theatre kids, preppies and jocks in one room without someone getting hurt?” While the culture wars expanded and intensified beyond our campus, we were inoculated against a destructive outbreak inside of it. Mike’s vision, backed by bold and fearless leadership, brought a huge return on investment (ROI) for all Alhambra stakeholders. Conflict abated, attendance rates improved, and the BSU spawned a number of Black professionals that continue to defy lingering stereotypes and prevailing statistics.
Homogenous comfort zones are still comfort food for many leaders, however, so a number of us are still compelled to fight the the good fight. In fact, “Business must be really good right now,” someone said to me recently. “The nation is so polarized. You must be in high demand.” I was not compensated for my work when I confronted racist football coaches and tangled with Skinheads in high school, nor did I envision a world in which I could “monetize’ my mission. I was “ride or die” for D&I and I still am. I have a family to feed now, but I do so by feeding my passion, and a clear and present need in our society.
I am reminded everyday, however, that D&I work is still a tough sell. This “golden age” of D&I is rather like the “post-racial America” I keep hearing about. Some D&I gurus are doing quite well, but people of color in this arena, ironically and tragically, despite popular perception, are not. “According to a poll of 700 startup founders and CEOs by First Round Capital,” argues Brain Honigman, “only 14 percent of companies have formal plans and policies to encourage inclusion and diversity in the workplace,” even though 66% of our population will be people color in little more than two decades. Indeed, even though D&I specialist have demonstrated for decades that our efforts engender better recruiting and retention, more cohesive organizational cultures, greater innovation, improved problem solving, advanced efficiency, enhanced market optics, and larger profits, these efforts are still dismissed as unworthy of attention and investment on a regular basis. “In truth,” Alan Weiss writes, “diversity must play as integral a role in the nature of business management as does finance, sales, production, recruitment, or any other key accountability. To separate out a diversity goal as a distinct element from the overall organizational setting and dynamics is silly and, worse, doomed to failure.”
When D&I is embraced early and often, however, “too often it means hiring white women,” writes White women.” This trend also keeps social, economic, and political power firmly embedded in White (not to mention able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gendered) communities.The problem is when diversity programs focus on “women” as a whole, they often fall into the trap of prioritizing the majority:
Alas, even though they take themselves quite seriously, silliness and c-suites are like peanut butter and jelly. Most are occupied by White patrician males, who think of themselves as being “down,” but are inclined to engineer workplaces that see, prioritize, and behave as they do. “It’s been well established that we hire in our own image – that we seek those whose backgrounds and skillsets and identities we are comfortable with,” posits Jennifer Brown, author of Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace & The Will To Change. “This is human nature, and yet when it runs rampant, unchecked, and when there is no awareness of the harmful effects of this when it comes to diversifying our workforces, we see the result in our organizational profiles which lack diversity across the board.”
Nevertheless, progress, however incremental, will be made. Alhambra’s BSU knew it in 1987 and I know it now. This is why I keep my team at Diamond Strategies focused and on target. Amid prosperity and austerity, we keep it positive and moving. We understand that to many traditionalists, linear thinkers, and leaders who are out to remake the world in their image, D&I is a frivolous expense at best and transgressive at worst. We have helped create inclusive scenes like the one above with real people, in real time, however, despite the skeptics. Happy people make happy employees, and happy employees make and sustain productive and profitable institutions.
Thanks to Mike, I helped lead Alhambra kicking and screaming into modernity, and I, with my partners at Diamond Strategies, will continue to mine our most precious resource, ourselves, for human advancement. Dollars don’t drive us. The health, wellness, and sustainability of our institutions, communities, society, and species do. When our culturally recalcitrant crew left Alhambra, the BSU collapsed, much of what we had accomplished evaporated, and Alhambra was rocked by a race riot not one year after we graduated. Our worst fears were realized. Nevertheless, we took the recipe for inclusive and productive environments with us, and professionalized it over time, but the core ingredients haven’t changed. They begin and end with investment, education, communication, interaction, transparency, respect, trust, strategic planning, innovation, and vigilance. If only there were more Dr. Briggs’ in the world. In the words of Hayley Mills, some of us still have some “scathingly brilliant ideas.”
Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Founder and CEO of Diamond Strategies, LLC., an award-winning educator, author, community engagement specialist, motivational speaker, Editor-in-Chief of MCUVO!CE, and founder the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, winner of the 2014 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance (DLA) Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University, where he was a professor of history for 16 years. Most recently he was given DLA’s 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Leader Award. He has edited three books, including Hurricane Katrina: America’s Unnatural Disaster, and he is the author of Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. He is currently completing a memoir entitled The Undisputed Truth: A Revolutionary Journey to Black Manhood. He can be followed here and on Twitter at @MCUVOICE, @Dr_Whitaker and DSC can be followed on Twitter at @dstategiesllc.
Feature Photo: by Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker
Alhambra High School Photos: Alhambra High School Yearbook (1987)
Other Photos: iStock