by Ronn Levine
The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.
In the song titled The Room Where It Happens from the hit musical Hamilton, we hear how decisions get made, “but we’ll never really know what got discussed. Click-boom then it happened. And no one else was in the room where it happened.”
For starters—because, of course, there is so much more on their plates—Kaylen Tucker and Randy Townsend want to make sure that there is a mix of people in AM&P’s rooms where it happens. We’re talking where programming gets decided, important awards get doled out, event panels are chosen, webinars emerge, etc.
“For example, we’ve got this awards category for lifetime achievement, and another one for emerging leaders,” said Townsend, director of publications operations for the American Geophysical Union. “I’m going to be on those committees. We want to be thinking about those processes from an equity perspective. It’s easy to get used to the way we’ve always thought. Sometimes you need that person in the room to challenge that thought. ‘You’re close, but you’re still missing something.’
“I want to make sure we’re expanding that approach on this and other programs. It will take all of us. Kaylen and I on this initiative, but every committee in every aspect of the organization should have these aspirations. Kaylen and I—and we hope others—will be encouraging that extra thought, that extra question. ‘We’re almost done here, but let’s look around the room and see what we’re missing.’”
“We will know when we don’t need this initiative when the extra questions are part of the existing questions,” Tucker added. “Here’s when you know when it’s working: When I don’t have to be in the room, when it’s automatic.”
“This initiative” is a groundbreaking one for AM&P—and SIIA. Jeff Joseph, president of SIIA (AM&P’s parent organization), did not want Townsend and Tucker to head just another committee. He wants the important DEI work they will be doing infused throughout all of AM&P’s vital committees—where the work and the volunteers, so crucial to the organization, live and breathe—and their leadership to help inform the way SIIA approaches DEI as well.
“We represent through our colleagues, a block of professionals in organizations that cover many topics,” Tucker said on a recent Zoom call with Townsend and myself. “I’m representing school principals, you’re in the geophysical union—we’re people of all things. So for us to come together and start to think about how to get at that business imperative, not just about people of color or individuals in pain, but that hostility is actually hurting your business.
"Use the education industry for example. Research shows that when students have the opportunity to learn from Black teachers that not only do Black children reach higher achievement, but children of all backgrounds thrive. So it is important to focus on recruiting and retaining Black teachers—who are underrepresented in the field.
“We’ve just started to think this [initiative] through,” Tucker continued. “This is long-term initiative with several stages—looking within the AM&P organization and thinking about some of the elements: the programming, topics we cover, the reputation that we have, looking at every aspect. I would think stage two is being able to share recommendations and how other professional organizations can do the same.”
It’s no news flash to say that this year has been different from any other in history. However, with all the uncertainty, tragedy and racial imperatives has come a realization that, “If not now, when,” in terms of confronting the social problems that have affected all of our personal and business lives. It’s agreed that we just can’t live by the old excuses any more.
“Yes, you really touched on my hope with this initiative going forward,” Townsend said. “We have had a lot of great talk that sounds like what we need to hear at this time. This year has brought a tremendous amount of attention to social injustices that have been occurring for decades, centuries even and for quite some time for people of color. This has generated organizational letters—sounds of support. ‘My organization believes in this and that.’
“What I would like to do with our initiative is to take a look at those letters—‘This is what you said, stand by and believe. What’s the follow through?’ Because the commitment to the execution is going to be key. How’s it going to stand up when the President talks about defunding programs about DEI on a federal level? Despite what occurs there, are you going to stand by the commitment because it was who you say you are or just the politically right thing to do at the time?
“For those who have a sincere desire to remain committed to those beliefs, it begs the question, ‘What can I do next?’” Townsend continued. “It’s a real big challenge what Kaylen and I put our attention towards—a big challenge to find those success stories. ‘This is what was attempted to do, and here’s how we succeeded or what didn’t work out, but these are lessons learned.’”
For Tucker, it has been the start of a new era. As more people speak out, the conversation shifts from name calling to the calling out of an accepted system of bias and inequality.
“What could potentially be different now, I think, in the struggle, has been a big shift in terms of people’s understanding of systemic and institutional racism and how that functions, even casually,” she said. “Ten years ago the talk about race was too much about the individual, my individual actions, my experience. With the conversation taking place today, people are starting to understand the systemic and institutional biases and ideas, not just someone called a person a name. That helps us get to a different place, to start thinking about practices and [initiatives like this] that help get us to that place.”
One area where they can make an immediate impact is on events—with panels, webinar speakers, keynotes, organizing committees. The time has come to move beyond where decision makers only reach out to people they know. When Bloomberg womandated that none of their male staff could appear on a panel that doesn’t have at least one woman on it, it was a start. For that to be expanded to people of color, it will take a belief that diversity of thought is the best way to move forward.
“You have to have leadership that values and supports the goals that we’re going to do this differently,” Tucker said. “Every organization has to have their own practices.”
Diversity is also a business imperative, and leadership must be told by marketers and communications people that selling the same old thing won’t work anymore. “Whatever the measurement is, it’s not going to fly if it’s too homogenous,” she said. “I can’t market a conference [like that].”
Townsend touched on something else—a habit where women and people of color are treated differently on panels. I offered the example of a recent panel of women CEOs, and the first question began with, “As a woman…”
“Maybe one day we’ll get it together, but we’re still seeing [that type of bias],” he said. “I don’t know if the moderator was intentionally starting off by putting professionals in a box, but it’s not fair to the success they’ve achieved and the challenges they represent. It shouldn’t be framed that way.”
“You and I volunteered for this initiative,” Tucker said to Townsend, “because we’re both extremely excited and interested in doing this work. We happen to be Black but white people need to do this as well. They didn’t cause these inequities. In order to get to a safe place, it can’t just be Black people championing this cause and offering these solutions. It would be missing the mark.”
“Allyship is so critical,” Townsend said. “Not because it’s popular, or it’s in this particular news cycle, but because it has real impact on the quality of organizational makeup, your lives, and the potential of what you can accomplish and achieve as a diverse group of professionals.
“It’s nice to say, ‘Kaylen, we know what you’re going through, we stand by you,’ but what does that really mean? Let’s focus on the whys—why ally support is so critical—and then come up with some hows. How do we create the cultural and organizational change? So that we’re not just inviting people to join the party, but we’re creating organizations where their tribe is comfortable and welcomed.”
At the end, Tucker said she looks forward to their assignment but knows change doesn’t come easy. “What are you going to give up?” she asked. “You might have to give something up. Maybe it’s just giving up the luxury of using traditional practices, because we can no longer operate like that.”
Ronn Levine is editorial director of SIIA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.