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Last month, as part of preparing for the Genesys inaugural celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we were blessed with an incredible opportunity to sit down with one of the remaining living icons of the civil rights movement, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. He’s in his late 70s now and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. His speech is difficult to parse, but he still thinks about the civil rights struggle with a perspective that few can match. In our hour together, he covered a lot of ground. But one thing stuck out for me as a particular challenge that he seemed to be asking us all to take up: To meet this moment head on. Here is how he phrased it.
Reverend Jackson was describing how, throughout his lifetime, he’d watched generations of Black Americans address the struggle for equality differently — each doing what they could according to the times they lived in. He talked about when Howard University students protested in the 1930s to stop lynchings. He talked about how, in 1955, Dr. King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He talked about the challenges of his own time with Dr. King working on the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. And then he talked about how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was different than anything that preceded it. He said that BLM is our generation “addressing today without any preparation.” Moreover, he talked about the movement’s impact on the election. In his opinion, the movement had achieved a “political consciousness,” and successfully translated that consciousness into electoral victory.
This, undeniably, is one version of us meeting this moment head on.
As we begin our annual celebration of Black History Month, his words still echo. I began to ponder our diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategy for 2021 anew. My conclusion? It’s time for us to fight even harder to meet our generation’s challenges, to address our today, as the Reverend put it. It’s time to speak up. It’s time to speak out. It’s time to fix what we can — where we can. It’s time for boldness of thought and action.
In the intervening weeks, I’ve had a lot of moments for self-reflection about this. I also hosted the first multiday virtual offsite for the Genesys DE&I team. That gave me the opportunity to work with others to boil down our strategy for the year into an actionable plan, one that’s going to illustrate for our colleagues how we can do better. That is us meeting our “today” moment.
It’s every generation’s duty to be more fearless than the last. Spending an hour with Reverend Jackson was a sharp reminder of exactly how high that bar is. It was a reminder of how Black Americans have an obligation to keep pushing, to speak out, to challenge the status quo and to continue working to ensure each successive generation is better than the previous one. This Black History Month, I feel that obligation more personally — with more immediacy than ever before.
Part of the reason for that is because of what the “before” was for me personally. I spent the bulk of my career working in sales and professional services roles. I started out like many Black men in corporate America — not exactly wearing a mask but not being my “whole self” at work either. I was trying to make my physical stature less imposing for others. Suppressing passion to avoid being labelled angry or too aggressive. Shaving every day even though — and if you don’t know this, ask a Black man about it — shaving for me and a great many Black men causes painful razor bumps that get infected. I “went along to get along,” as the old axiom goes, not selling out by any stretch, but not taking on unnecessary risk either. I accepted any assignment to prove myself. And dressed more “professionally” than my peers by design. I made myself unimpeachable for the corporate context I found myself in.
I want the next group of professionals like me to feel included in ways that I didn’t. The month of February seems like a perfect time to commit to that goal.
Black History Month has always had a special place in my heart, but this year it just “hits different,” as my kids say. It feels more personal — equal parts obligation and celebration. The celebration part is easy. It’s the obligation part that’s hard.
Black History Month just puts a more personal spin on it. I want the next generation to meet their “todays” without having to be as cloaked as I was. I want to push systems to accept people and behaviors that are authentically Black as equal in professional environments. That’s why our inclusion group for Black employees put together an entire month of events, covering topics ranging from wellness to professional development to personal history. I couldn’t be prouder. I’ve waited years for this.
So, this Black History Month, I’m encouraging my Black peers and colleagues to embrace my challenge. Let’s push each other to be the voices that challenge corporations to get with the times. Let’s push them to be more current in their worldviews, hiring practices, promotion planning and support systems as they pertain to Black people. Given how the last eight months have played out, we owe it to each other. All in all, it might just prove to be my favorite way to celebrate Black History Month.
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