An Open Letter On Diversity And Privilege

As is my tradition every February 28th, I acknowledge my dad’s birthday. As it happens, he would have been 100 this year.

Born in 1915 in Baltimore, MD, he lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, was married to the same woman over 50 years, and raised 3 sons alongside our remarkable mother. He was successful in business, and as they say, when you look up “tough as nails” in Webster’s, you would find his picture. As he mellowed, he was very much about family.

He died just short of his 90th birthday. He played golf on the day he died, and never spent a day in the hospital as a patient. If you are a reader of this blog, you know it is named after the advice he gave me when I became a manager.

Needless to say, that’s not the only advice he gave or opinion he held. I find it remarkable that as I age and raise my own family with another remarkable woman, I find myself every now and again in a time warp where he and I are one. I suspect, in fact I know, that this is a common experience. Not all of these moments are comfortable, and in fact much of who I am is framed in the context of not only ‘what would dad do’, but more often, ‘what would he not do?’ These are very different times, and the America he knew is not the America I know. That’s not an excuse, but more of a reality check.

His America was one where being male and white opened doors and access to opportunity at times – independent of education or ability. The same access was clearly denied to people of color, women, and to the poor. Not always, but more often than not.

Intellectually, I know this is wrong. Emotionally, I know this is wrong. Morally, I know this is wrong. As a people of faith, we believe in our baptismal covenant, and my personal challenge is to understand how to lean into it and act on it in all that I do.

The America I live in is not that different than my dad’s. Privilege is still ascribed to being white and male, and it still is an enormous challenge to bring to all that same access to opportunity. The work I (we) are committed to at ECS is all about providing equal access to opportunity and giving those in poverty the tools and skills they can use to lift themselves up and out of poverty.

So here is the hard part if you are white and male doing this work … or any work for that matter: You don’t necessarily know you are privileged unless you work hard to understand it and the implications. Your rules are not everybody’s rules. And you know what they say about assumptions. We all know folks born on third base who think they hit a triple. You can talk about privilege, but do you know the implications and reality for many in our society? In these times, you need to know the difference between third base and not having access to the ball park, let alone playing the game. I am not saying privilege can’t be earned, but depending on your DNA, the path can be so very different.

The key here is to dig in, to sit and talk, to be open to conversation about this, to acknowledge that this is hard conversation, because for all of us, there’s an elephant in the middle of the room. Then the real challenge, the courageous challenge, is to act on these conversations and in everything you do, to think about equal access to opportunity, and if you are in a position of authority, to not only advocate for equal access, but to provide it. This is my commitment. It always has been and always will be.

My thoughts on talent are well known. I am a fan of hiring the best available individual, period. I am committed to making sure I am looking at all, and I mean all, of the available individuals. I am a fan of talent, I am a fan of the diversity of talent, and the data will back me up on the associated performance that diversity brings to an organization. I am also committed to talent development for individuals in place who buy into our mission, values, and purpose, and, who based on their history, do this work and do it well.

Our work at ECS is to make sure that individuals in poverty – black, white, or other, male and female, young and old, straight or gay – have access or the tools that access choice, and in turn, opportunity. That same commitment stands for our employees and all that we work with and stand with. We are committed to advocate for equal access, for choice, and for opportunity, but acknowledge that talent trumps and therefore education, safety, wellness, and security are fundamental in the road to equal access.

I am the product of my upbringing and I am proud of my accomplishments and my families’ traditions and values. As I reflect on what would be my father’s 100th year, I also know I am not him, that times have changed, that the DNA that is very much a part of me needs to acknowledge my history and that I actively participate in changing it. I would like very much for my children as they look back on my 100th to see a different America and to see access to opportunity as a given. Talk about legacy and a challenge for the current generation.

I invite all of us to engage in this work and to do so with honesty, respect, and to answer this call with the ambition that ECS can lead this work and be an example of this work. Jerry Riordan talks about the turbulence that comes from a plane when it changes altitude – it is always better when you know it is coming, but come it will. This is no different. Please know all of you are teaching me much, and I am grateful for all that you do and what we are doing together. Our clients will be better if we get this right.

Time to lean in, every day.