Area Black Business Leaders on Dealing With Systemic Racism

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Birmingham Business Journal

Over the past two months, businesses in Birmingham and around the nation have made statements condemning systemic racism and making commitments to be agents for change. But one call to action has been the need to listen, to understand and to empathize as companies determine which actions would be most impactful. With that in mind, the Birmingham Business Journal (BBJ) reached out to Black business leaders from across the region. The goal was to share their stories, their feelings, their insights and the changes they believe would move our community forward. Here are some of their words.

(For a full listing of quotes, click here)

“I would want business leaders to know that being a Black entrepreneur in Birmingham is difficult. There needs to be more funding, networking and support. The statements posted this week about corporate support for the Black community must be followed by action. I would often get excited seeing the quotes about what companies are doing to engage with Black entrepreneurs only to find it was just a soundbite. Nothing they actually intended to do. For Birmingham to foster a truly diverse ecosystem where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, there needs to be admission and understanding that racial disparities exist. Just because it’s not your experience and you aren’t aware of it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. The second is intentional and consistent investment into Black entrepreneurs. This can be accomplished first and foremost by large corporations purchasing products and services from Black-owned companies (contracts often appear to be awarded based on who you know, not the merit of what you offer). Also by inviting Black entrepreneurs to high-level networking events, getting creative to form channel partnerships for promotion and offering mentoring programs where executives coach minority startups.”

Cecilia Pearson

Founder and CEO

Babypalooza

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“I’m a Birmingham native who attended a forcibly integrated Over-the-Mountain school system. I graduated from the University of Alabama. I’ve built a successful career with a global business advisory firm. My wife, who serves as a judge, and I live in a safe neighborhood with our two beautiful children. We enjoy a diverse group of friends and acquaintances. Many would point to us as a clear example of the type of racial and social justice progress we’ve made in Birmingham. I bristle at this idea because many of the same systems of oppression that plagued the Black community 60 years ago still exist today, having only morphed to fit the times. All too often I still find myself as the only Black professional in the room. I routinely see the career advancement of Black colleagues stifled by unconscious bias (and sometimes overt racism) in the workplace. I want to be a source of hope for our Birmingham business community and beyond.  However, more than anything, I want our business leaders to commit themselves to a proactive stance toward uplifting Black professionals. The data shows a clear connection between organizations who embrace diversity and inclusion and superior financial performance. Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams are 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. So, if the pursuit of a more just and fair playing field as it relates to Black economic opportunity isn’t enough motivation to spur you to action, consider your bottom line.”

Daryl R. Grant

Managing Director

KPMG

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“Birmingham’s business leaders have a purposeful opportunity to thoughtfully execute their diversity and inclusion clause that’s often backwashed in day-to-day operations. We are now at an intersection where providing platforms to talk and listen is nearly mute. Business leaders need to transition to invite practitioners to implement equitable, inclusive practices and change policies to decrease the systemic biases, racism and injustices in their companies and governing boards. I believe businesses should view diversity as necessary as performance metrics. It’s not just diversity of race, but gender and thought. It has always been important for leaders to call out disputes of social injustice and racism; it’s now even more becoming for leaders to take a responsible approach to educate and implement. Less talking, more action is needed.”

Coreata Houser

Economic Development/Neighborhood Revitalization

City of Birmingham

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“I think the business world needs to know it’s not the same playing field for Black/brown businesses, and loans and mortgages should not be accessed the same way. Credit pays a huge factor in getting a loan. It’s hard to get a loan if you are a renter. A renter can pay their rent on time for 12 months and still have a negative score because rent does not positively impact scores. If the homeowner does the same thing, their score increases. Redlining was a real thing in the Black community, and more minorities are renters than homeowners. One way to build wealth is through real estate. Property managers should be required to report monthly to the credit bureaus. The way to obtain real estate is through great credit scores.  Additionally, the business world needs to understand the plight of its Black and brown employees. Over these past two weeks, our employees (majority Black) had to endure the pain of witnessing the killing of a man that looks just like them. The anxiety and stress that comes with the situation not only affects their personal lives, but also their work lives. They have to come in with smiles on their faces while all along on the inside they want to scream or tear something up. During the curfew, they had to jump through hoops just to go home from leaving the job at 7 p.m., after losing needed hours. They were stopped by police and had their information checked, adding to their anxiety, when they did nothing wrong. Personal mental days should be an option for employees. Sometimes, it’s hard to get a doctor’s note for something like that. Employers need to understand there is a crisis in the Black community and there has been for a long time. We as business leaders have to change this.”

Zebbie Carney

CEO/Founder

Eugene’s Hot Chicken

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“It is time to have emanicipatory hope that law can serve liberation rather than domination. Our current inequitable law must be changed in order to achieve liberation. It is important to realize that changing the law can only do so much. Above all, we must change people’s hearts to achieve social justice. As a member of the business community, there are glass ceilings that the generation before me were not able to break. Today, those same ceilings exist. The difference is many people in power decide to ignore the glass ceiling if they aren’t bumping into it everyday. To address that it starts with us right now, to individually and collectively respect one another as we work together no matter the race, orientation, gender, or sex. This can be accomplished by simply saying hello to someone who does not look like you. More Joint Ventures should be required by Owners with projects. This is the only way to increase wealth in the minority community. Minority, “especially Black Owned”, who have licenses and certifications should be at the table on larger projects in order to scale. This must be intentional by those in power to require Joint Venture relationships in the Request for Proposal process. Leaders seem to be afraid to make this a requirement in the RFP process. Large businesses will do joint ventures if required, because they want to win businesses. Owner’s must be more intentional. There is a difference in Small Business versus Disadvantaged Businesses Enterprises. Often times the Disadvantaged Business is the Black Owned Business, who have not had equal access or opportunities to achieve wealth. Often in Birmingham, deference is given to Small Businesses, which are often not minority Black Owned businesses. There must be attention to Disadvantage Businesses who are hiring people who live in HubZone areas. These are the businesses that are addressing social equity issues for the have nots. It’s time to stop giving excuses for why we can’t equalize the business playing field and reward the businesses that are especially targeting members of our City who would not normally be hired or given job opportunities. In return, this would have a dramatic decrease on crime in OUR City.”

L’Tryce Slade

Principal

Slade Land Use, Environmental and Transportation Planning, LLC

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“If I am candid, I have had a difficult time processing the recent events in our country. Being a Black woman, mother, business owner and a human being has created a world of emotions. I feel numb. On the one hand, I am filled with anger, wrath and can understand how people want to burn buildings and destroy things. How many more young lives have to be cut short or dismantled because of someone’s unconscious bias?

On the other hand, I feel the pain of the small business owners who worked hard to get where they are, and now their businesses are victims of crimes. As a mother, I look at my two little girls and am thankful I don’t have a boy. I should not have to feel that way. The death of a Black man by a racist cop is a scenario that has played out time and time again. However, this is the first time in my lifetime I have seen people of other races band with African-Americans fighting for equality.  Let me be clear. I have met some amazing white, Lebanese men that work for BPD; they genuinely are men of valor. It is the few racist cops that are ruining it for my friends. My prayer is that this time change comes.

I believe companies can help ignite that change by diversifying their platform. Birmingham is more than 70% African-American. There is no reason why there is a lack of minority representation when hiring small businesses. I would encourage everyone to be intentional when spending their money by supporting Black-owned businesses. I challenge companies to get out of their comfort zone by seeking minority contractors. Provide us the opportunity to prove that we are just as good and just as qualified as anyone else. To truly achieve equality, we must embrace diversity.”

Chasiti Shepherd

Owner and President

BGrace Media

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“I’m fully aware that as a senior tech executive I must be excellent in everything I do so that my failures don’t taint or diminish those of my successor. I don’t get to enjoy the luxury of not carrying the weight that my performance or lack thereof may hurt other people of color that aspire to reach the levels that I have. I refuse to let the narrative become, ‘the last Black woman in this position didn’t do X or Y.’ That’s the reality of Black executives as a collective. Every Black professional understands this and thereby works to make sure that any successor has a fair shot. As an individual, I occasionally like to wear my hair braided, but as an executive, I know it’s considered ‘unprofessional.’ So I don’t braid it as much as I’d like to. It is such a systematic problem that legislation had to be passed in California, New York, New Jersey and now Virginia, making it illegal to discriminate against Black women for the way our hair grows out of our scalps. It’s called the Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act, or CROWN Act. To achieve and maintain the success that I have comes with the always-present decision: Do I diminish my Blackness and conform, or do I be myself? The latter, often viewed as going against the grain, puts me at risk of being judged and placed into the stereotypical basket of the collective. It’s a problem Black women face collectively every day. These two small examples don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the challenges Black executives face. We operate in a duality only understood by other Black executives. The higher you go, the lonelier it gets. Although, today, we don’t get to ‘bring our whole selves to work,’ as William Kahn suggested. I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that our stories and experiences will begin to dismantle a system that has worked against our collective interest for far too long. Transforming that system starts with companies being intentional about recruiting from HBCUs, having Black representation in top leaderships positions and offering training on bias in the office.”

Martha Underwood

Founder

ExecutivEstrogen

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“Anyone walking the streets of Birmingham will notice that George Floyd’s murder, hundreds of miles away, opened old wounds here in our community, wounds we thought perhaps had healed. We now know those wounds have not healed, so we must decide what to do about them. While our first instinct might be to cover those wounds to ease discomfort, the most effective leaders will resist that urge.  Birmingham’s business leaders must use this opportunity to think critically about how systemic racism affects their businesses. We need to use this time to listen to the lived experiences of others with empathy and without defensiveness. We need to stay uncomfortable until the wounds are adequately addressed. It is time for business leaders to use their collective voices to dismantle the systemic inequality that exists within our communities and our organizations. We are at a tipping point. Now, we each have to put our weight on the side of change. #Black Lives Matter #Birmingham Strong.”

Kira Fonteneau

Partner

Five Points Law

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“Birmingham is a good city with a very intriguing story to tell. After 30 years in Birmingham, we continue to defend our story, so others know the progress we continue to make in this beautiful city. Is there more work to be done, absolutely?

As once a part of corporate life for a short time at the start of my career in the early ’90s, it was not easy for Black people then, and maybe even now, to enter management-level positions or be considered for such a growth paths like our white counterparts. I encourage all organizations to reevaluate their leadership, the decision makers, the board members. Does your top tier represent and look like your mid-level and lower-level tiers of team members?

I find it challenging to conceive that one can speak for others that do not look like them and do not have their same struggles. If we truly want to accomplish equality and justice for all, then we need diversity and inclusion at the very top of all corporations. We all have internal biases and with a variance in leadership, our biases are checked and others hold us accountable so together we work for the good of the company and our employees. It is incumbent on us to do a roll call in our organizations, and beginning with the top. The time is now to have the tough conversations with your leadership.

We are calling for intentional restructuring at the top. This is how we begin bridging the gaps in wealth and disparities with race.”

Darlene Wilson

Managing Principal

Relay Accounting Management

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“’I Can’t Breathe.’” The final words of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have been uttered by thousands more Black men and women, whose tragic deaths at the hands of police officers remain senseless, humiliating, demoralizing, and horrific. Too many African American citizens in this country have died, or received unequal justice, because their humanity is ignored or denied by law enforcement. Those words symbolize a cry of desperation and hope that our society will recognize, value, and HOLD HIGH THE HUMANITY OF BLACK LIVES.

This is important to reflect on because decisions are made each day that do not value the intrinsic humanity of Black lives and Black communities. A disregard for humanity leads to the destruction of sacred lives, and undergirds the intersectional disparities within our community, deeply bred from discrimination and racism, such as poverty, health, education, environment, and economic opportunities. These are generational issues, of which our community has extensive experience. The underlying factors are deeply rooted in beliefs about race and culture that we must address through education and dialogue.

Birmingham has led the nation in many ways over the years, making a transformational impact on the struggle for human and civil rights.

The sacrifices of so many have become learning experiences for us all. We have the potential to become a great community, but we must address our wounds from generations of marginalization and disenfranchisement, laid bare with recent events. We must put aside a culture of silence and ensure that decisions and actions reflect a commitment to stand against racial injustice. At the Ballard House, our work with children and adults uses historical context and engaged dialogue to build bridges of understanding, respect, and positive action to reduce discrimination and minimize disparities created as a result of racial perceptions and attitudes. As we reflect on our history and the events of our times, let us commit to act with mutual respect in all personal, business, and communal decisions, and HOLD HIGH THE HUMANITY OF BLACK LIVES.”

Majella Chube Hamilton

Executive Director

The Ballard House Project, Inc.

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“A daughter of segregation and attorney for vulnerable citizens, I witness the pain/struggles of interactions with social services, the police and the “justice” system embodying a history of being a commodity, terror, trauma, oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and poverty. “Why is Ending Racism a Debate?” It’s exhausting providing a voice for the voiceless while being told that racism and white privilege does not exist. “It is their fault.” George Floyd was murdered by police sworn to protect and serve. Why protest? It’s a breaking point to be heard. But rioting is a symptom of centuries of evil. When people are not heard, they act out saying “see us.”

Transformational leaders empathize, become community allies educating to eliminate racism and pursue justice, engender trust, morally outraged by systematic racism and police brutality, use their influence for reform, policy and change to an economic system where money enables white people to thrive and Black people to beg. Dr. King said “we need leaders not in love with money but in love with Justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with Humanity.” The city must be viewed as progressive with a dynamic economy fueled by a diverse workforce to encourage world commerce. ”

 Barbara Luckett

Managing Attorney

Legal Services Alabama

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“I want business leaders to know that racism is alive and well. We go to work daily and pretend that it does not exist. Employers and employees do not touch on the subject because it is still a very sensitive matter. The only way to combat it is to have conversations that involve the elephant in the room. Business leaders need to incorporate ongoing training as a part of their business culture and not only limiting it to orientation. The recent events are highlighting the feelings many have had for years. Not only are African Americans ready for change but all races as witnessed by the multicultural crowds that are protesting. Businesses, business leaders and economic forces are a strong catalyst in any movement that can invoke swift change. The uncomfortable emotions feel good because diamonds are formed from great pressure.”

Jeremy Spratling

Principal

Corporate Facilities Management Inc.

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Business leaders can and must do more to address the systemic racial issues of our communities. Not only do communities of color have to confront the racial and ethnic disparities of Covid-19, which has resulted in massive unemployment rates, but these communities also continue to face the legacies and current manifestations of racism. It is not enough to offer platitudes or express sympathies for the injustice these communities face.

Do our leadership teams and boards reflect the communities that we serve? Do we have the right personnel to fully serve our communities? What are we doing to remove policies that disenfranchise, marginalize, and criminalize communities of color?

For the immigrant community at large we must continue to address the language barriers that prevent full participation in our state.  Our undocumented community still faces the damaging consequences of the anti-immigrant bill HB56 that purposefully limits full access to entrepreneurial and educational opportunities. Finally, we must address the collaboration of law enforcement with ICE that breeds mistrust with government officials. The past few weeks have demonstrated that we have not done enough and stayed silent for far too long.  #blacklivesmatter #nohumanbeingisillegal

Carlos E. Alemán, Ph.D.

Deputy Director

Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama

https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2020/06/12/its-time-to-listen.html