Business Leaders Candidly Discuss Regions Diversity

June 20, 2002
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The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce this week salutes minority-owned businesses during its annual Minority Business Celebration. One year ago the Chamber established a panel of business leaders to discuss racism specifically within the business community, an outgrowth of panel discussions of racism in the general community during the early and late ’90s, published as a series by sister publication Grand Rapids Magazine, and establishment of Chamber Centers for Healing Racism. Staff members of the Business Journal and Magazine held a round-table discussion with the Chamber panel to determine the effect of these Chamber discussions and that of a joint meeting and panel discussion with the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. The panel met this summer, prior to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.

Panel members are: Steelcase President and CEO James Hackett, Cascade Engineering Chairman and CEO Fred P. Keller, Chamber President John H. Brown and H&H Metal Source International President Brian Harris.
BJ: The Chamber and Rotary Club Downtown have established Centers for Healing Racism and made a point of minority business inclusion in other specific programs. Is business now leading the community in these issues? What do you expect to happen by your leadership?

James Hackett: I’ll tell you the irony is business started its journey by trying to socialize the understanding: How to give business a social conscience about the issue. And that’s the irony. So now you’re asking, how do you give society a business perspective? And yet that’s where we all started.

Business can take things systematically and in a flow basis when you’re talking about production or you’re talking about the issue of educating people about diversity. All the early programs were socializing people to differences, principally because we’re global companies. And so we sat in this very room with the Chamber and talked about (how) this was good business because we do business all over the world. Fred’s got plants in Eastern Europe, and Steelcase is in Saudi Arabia, and we had to have people understand the broader view of the world. In pursuit of that, now back within our own domain, how well do we adapt ourselves to the situation?

The first layer of education is: Do you understand the society in which you live? Do you understand the diversity? We had to put everyone through this training, which was a massive undertaking. It’s been replicated by other companies here in town. And yet I also said in the (joint Chamber, Economic Club) meeting, that that’s not enough. You only get so far in socializing. You have to literally make the meaningful changes. We’re starting to outline what those are. Society isn’t aware of how serious business has stepped up. The issue is a fair characterization.

Fred Keller: You know the business proposition, the value proposition, is the same, but it’s clearer in business. If you have a work force that is going to be more and more dependent upon understanding, and coping with, and dealing with and engaging diversity, they’ll be more productive. They’ll have fresher ideas. It’s not a direct correlation, but you can hypothesize how it affects productivity. You might retain more people, more talent. And also you might find your customers more engaging because they, too, have objectives. So, there’s a very clear value proposition in business around diversity.

 I don’t believe that the community has identified, as clearly as business has, the value proposition. It’s vague enough in business, but it’s something we’ve been able to get a hold of, whether it’s the marketing, merchandising to new demographics or getting new pools of resources. In the community you have to look at infrastructure. Infrastructure suffers as a result of not embracing diversity. That is the value proposition. And that’s not real clear, and it’s not easy for the common person to get a hold of.

Hackett: The thing is we’ve been pointing to in our root cause kind of discussion with Fred’s team, that to the degree we can get the community on board we actually increase business success rate. And so we look at that “best of class” kind of city — cities where diversity seems to be thriving in business — and you’ll find the community works extremely well in tandem to that. One test is asking young minorities where (they) prefer to live and why, which we’ve done in surveys. Grand Rapids doesn’t hit high on their list because it doesn’t seem an inviting place. Or when we transfer people in and out of the city, that’s an issue that comes up. There are other cities they would prefer. Atlanta would be one; Chicago. There seems to be a broader base for acceptance and integration.

BJ: I think you mentioned in the presentation to the Chamber and the Economic Club the fact that you brought in some people, like 15 to 20, from the Atlanta area, and then they were gone. What do you do about that?

Hackett: From the Atlanta colleges. Well, we assessed what went wrong, and we found that the mentoring program was one of the weaknesses. And creating a stage where people can thrive. In the meeting I talk about familiar family, business creating this drama about being part of something. And it’s worked so well in our community with Meijer, Steelcase, Bissell and Amway and Cascade Engineering. People having the ability to see themselves in that family portrait is what makes it everyone’s home. Just the sheer demographics shifting, mixture of our populations. If they can’t look into that picture and say, ‘Hey, I’m in that portrait,’ you’re going to lose out eventually. What I’m trying to point out to the community, this is really building on the basis by which you build great companies. You made people who didn’t have your last name feel like they’re part of your company. That’s how, in fact, it worked.

Keller:  I’m focused on process. It’s just one of my faults I guess. I just think about how things happen, process-wise. We’ve been experiencing a modern industrial world for maybe the last 50 years, and it’s changed radically in the last 15. And we have really just begun, in the total scheme of things, an understanding and a movement toward making any real change sociologically. We’ve been focused for all these many generations, especially in the last 50 years, on how to do things financially. But it hasn’t been … we haven’t really allowed sociology to enter very much — except for places to improve productivity, perhaps. And the process of opening up that dialog, that sociological dialog, in corporate America is just beginning to happen. I think that’s very, very important.

Brian (Harris) makes the case very convincingly: This is an economic proposition. And it is. It’s all about economics and sociology. I don’t think we can separate those two. And for corporate America to have a sociological discussion is brand new stuff. We’re kind of on the leading edge of it. And as dysfunctional as America behaves in this area of diversity, from a world perspective, I think we all agree we are leading. I don’t know of another country that does a better job of confronting and dealing with diversity as an example. And so we don’t have any real benchmarks worldwide to look at from the standpoint of where do we go, how do we do this.

Hackett: We were talking about cities that we could use to assess our effectiveness. Toronto would be one I would throw out there. Let’s say there are very few.

BJ: When you do all of this training — your employees have all been through diversity sensitivity training — why doesn’t that automatically just take? Why aren’t they, like those who come through the Chamber’s Center for Healing Racism, saying, “It’s profound. It changed my life.”

Hackett: This is my big issue. Because we’ve gotten so far in socializing. It’s like building a piling to narrow a gap. And we’ve built these pilings, but now we have to span to the other side. The other side is the more advanced, more mature view of the world. A more sophisticated, more diverse world. What it’s about is teaching people about the issue versus practicing. And I think that’s the code question. If you can break that … ah … you’d end up with real meaningful change. We’ve been trying different ideas to teach them, asked them to participate in seminars.

The irony of this is so striking. This weekend I happened to hear on the radio station — a talk show — where they were extolling the virtues of Warner Bros. for pulling back the Bugs Bunny cartoons that are viewed as being racist. And we had just seen the ethnic notions video on racism. So I heard the announcements on the radio being so ill informed about why — because they were trying to create a little controversy on the station obviously to get calls. But Bugs Bunny had been used as an example in the ethnic notions of how myths are perpetuated.

One of the bases of the video is how myths are perpetuated — through humor. Things that you would view as safe do as much damage as things that you would say are outwardly hostile; say, the Ku Klux Klan. Everyone knows it, but … there are things that come from more insidious sources, you can’t even root it out. And so the Bugs Bunny, one of them is about a black character in the cartoon being distracted by Bugs rolling dice. That was an example of one issue they took up.

There are three or four like that. Warner Brothers, thank goodness, saw them, and they were going to edit them, and then they said let’s just pull the whole cartoon. Why do we have to do it? They had some big world event about their history, anniversary of Bugs Bunny. The irony of it was listening to this guy on the radio saying, ‘I’m against all forms of censorship.’ So then you’re asking me the question, about the gap, and I was thinking about him. Because he sees that as a basis for, ‘Well, if I stand up in favor of that kind of thing — leaving our communities, leaving our lexicon, leaving our humor — I’ll be viewed as a censor.’ Now why is that? There are certain things in the white community we wouldn’t let out at all. But that would not be viewed as censorship. That would be viewed more as moral behavior. So it’s about this gap in trying to cross over into what morality is. And I think Fred is right about a new sense of societal responsibility.

My father was a very smart man and once said in a town meeting that he really tried his best to understand this issue, but there was so much around him that taught him otherwise. I think we’re just a different group. We didn’t have to grow up with all that. So we now have to kind of take a position. We can’t be quiet about it.

BJ: One of the other elements that you talked about was whether, well, that Grand Rapids is a clique anyway. Grand Rapids is a special case because it’s this big clique. And there’s a clique within the black community as well as the white community. So it’s impenetrable for anyone of either culture, or any culture, to get into Grand Rapids. Does it start there? Does it start where communities have protected themselves, and people who didn’t graduate from City High automatically have one strike?

I talked to a reporter today from the Grand Rapids Press who is taking a job down south, who said the same thing. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but she felt Grand Rapids in general was unfriendly, impenetrable, in a lot of ways.

Harris: Even the mainstream folks here will say it’s unfriendly. Ah … it’s not just those who are outside the mainstream who find it unfriendly, it’s those who are here (who) recognize (it), and there’s some celebration of that, and some pride because Grand Rapids is self-sustaining and, you know, a self-built, self-maintained kind of place. Makes the challenge … difficult.

That’s not a surprise. I mean, I think that both insiders and outsiders recognize that’s what Grand Rapids is. And there’s something to celebrate about that. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Some people say it as a criticism. There’s good and bad with that.

I’ve had good results in Houston, and Texas was easier than Georgia was. I lived in a lot of different cities. I lived in Detroit, Atlanta, Cincinnati. And Grand Rapids was not as attractive when I came, when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older it (is). And the kids — you put your children through the school systems, and the churches, that is probably the best way to get involved in the community. And I’m not sure that’s the way you get involved in every other community that I got involved in.

The school system, they clue you into the process more. Which has made our school system very attractive, because we want parents’ involvement. My wife was telling me just this weekend about a couple from Chicago we know through mutual friends, and they’re saying it’s so difficult to meet people. My wife’s saying, ‘Isn’t that terrible.’ Now, why, I don’t know. Because I know none of us harbor that kind of ‘stay away’ kind of thing.

BJ: The question is, if it’s that difficult no matter what your background? I mean … we’re seeing a mirror in the black community; we’re hearing the same thing. We’re hearing the same thing from new members of the black community. So does that happen because each community is protecting itself? And then does it merge?

Harris: I think you mentioned about the cliques. At least my observation is — and I find it interesting — that no one seems to be troubled over the ‘clannishness’ of the Hispanic community, or the ‘clannishness’ of the Asian community. But when it comes to the clannishness of the African-American or white community, now there’s some tension. And I’m not sure I fully understand why. And with the demographics being what they are, the Hispanic community is the fastest growing one, and yet there’s not a lot of tension there. But they’re quite self-sufficient. So I don’t understand it. I can’t answer the question. I don’t like to focus on how close knit Grand Rapids is. I only pointed out an obstacle that we’ll face. But to spend too much time on it requires way too much work to figure out its origins.

BJ: Does it just take another generation?

Harris: No.

Hackett: Well, I think some other catalysts, like places where it’s really intensely successful, I think there’s something about the academic structure. You know, where they have a center of learning where they bring together all kinds of different people. Having a knowledge-based industry where it’s color-blind. It’s ethnic-blind. It’s just knowledge. I think that speeds this transformation. We haven’t been a knowledge-based economy here.

Keller: But there is something to the idea that this community was built on entrepreneuralism. There’s a culture of ‘take care of yourself first.’ There may be something to that. That we need to work collectively. I think maybe we’re going down the wrong track, here, focusing on the idea of how hard it is for folks to break into Grand Rapids.

I think the key, for me, the key factor is that we’ve got to be continuing to improve our understanding of each other as individuals and as communities. That’s a long, hard … well, maybe it’s not so hard, maybe it can be fun. I’d like to think it can be fun.

Hackett: You remember, though, that book I gave you. I don’t know whether you kept it (laughter). But they show the graph where we went backwards in percent of our diversity in our recent population. You guys aware of that?

Here’s what I mean: In the rest of what you call benchmark cities, diversity as a percent of their total population is enriched. Where our total population in both categories grew, but the percentage of the total declined. So it means we became less diverse, between the ‘90s and the year 2000 census.

Harris: Something to note: We spend too much time trying to figure out why it happens. You will find those who find the value of that. It’s like talking about race. It’s a very difficult conversation to have. To talk about racism without winding up putting guilt on those who may or may not have anything consciously to do with it. They find themselves in a defensive position and then learning doesn’t occur. So it’s not so much about why we got where we are — try to provide enough background so we can understand that — but where it is we’re going, and work toward that accordingly as opposed to trying to pigeon-hole stuff. I don’t pigeonhole stuff because history just doesn’t pigeonhole easily. I don’t like to even use the word racism. I just like to use bias, race-bias, systematic kind of bias.

Keller: I don’t think the dialogue or thought process for us is: How do we influence the community? We’re really trying to focus on our businesses, I think. And because that’s where we have some degree of — I won’t say control because you never control your business — but influence. The fact is, if the belief system is ‘if enough businesses do this, we might have a better community.’ But we’re not in the business of trying to influence the community directly on this issue, I don’t think at this point in time.

BJ: But at the same time we’re touching on the issue of tension in the community. And so when they leave the office, that becomes foremost.

Keller: Yeah, but the point is … the objective is … I believe we’re trying to do the right thing. But the right thing for us is what we have control over within our own businesses. And that will have an impact on the community. I think we believe that. I don’t think it’s our job, at this point, or our desire, to directly take this to the community. If the community wants to take it up … I think what we can learn … There are environments that can feel safe to talk about issues of diversity. And those environments are really cool. It’s wonderful to have them. And we need to create more. And businesses can be an area where that is the case. They traditionally have not been necessarily. But we want them to take a bigger role. That’s something we can influence. Now if the community, at the same time, has places where we can have safe dialogue — and I think there are places doing work in that area —that’s really beneficial. We want to be able to have more of those opportunities.  

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