Business Can Influence Communitys Views On Racism

June 21, 2002
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Part two of this series, published in the Oct. 15 issue of Grand Rapids Business Journal, ended with a question asking whether racism is a bigger problem now than it was before, or whether there has been movement among the business community in the right direction.

Hackett: You add the bellows to this, that makes it worse. In businesses there’s this command and control system. So many people would have to move in one direction at times that we confuse command and leadership, with ‘OK, you can be indignant.’ No. You can’t use that kind of leverage to get people to move. And why has that crept into the methods? And it’s around the world I see this, by the way, not just in America. It’s about control. And it’s a very difficult thing to learn how to handle the kind of leverage you have to move people. And do it in a way that makes them want to follow you, and not cross all these really insensitive places. That’s why I think it’s the number one thing. You have to start back. You’ve already given lots of people lots of control and they haven’t had the training Fred talks about. That means kind of every day you’re running red lights and you don’t even know it. So the socialization is trying to help them. But as Fred said, there’s a more intense experience we’ve got to go through. So we’re sending all the executives through the Healing Racism course. Not with each other, either. And then we’re going to kind of systematically go down the ladder. Try to get our top management through the process. And I can already tell you that it has had a big impact.

BJ: How many companies do you think are doing that in Grand Rapids?

Hackett: All of our collective hero is (D&W Food Centers Chairman) Bob Woodrick, because I think he sends a lot of his people through the program.

Harris: In the room there’s Spartan people, and people from Meijer, Steelcase, Cascade Engineering, St. Mary’s also.

Keller: We must keep telling ourselves this is a prospective thing that we’re doing. To look back does absolutely nothing. It’s enlightening, but it doesn’t change a thing. And we need to be remembering that there’s nothing in our past that is a shining light to doing it better than what we’re doing today.

And that should give us encouragement. And we are on the continuous improvement path. And the continuous improvement path says basically wherever you are today is a given. It’s probably, maybe not OK, but at least it’s a given. Our objective is to make the bar a little higher tomorrow. That’s all we can do in the process. It’s a long process. It’s not going to be overnight. But we sure have to make sure we don’t slip back.

Harris: You didn’t intend to separate business’s responsibility to help shape the community, though. Did you?

Keller: Well, I find myself arguing, and strangely enough I do believe that business has the opportunity to…to influence the community. But I don’t think that we have been thinking about doing this to shape the community. We’re doing it to shape our businesses, because that’s where we have the influence.

BJ: But you are going to need the community because (employees) have to live there.

Keller: Yes, and I just gave a presentation, which I’m fresh from, which really talks about being an agent of the community. We cannot separate ourselves. We must be engaged. And we cannot be thinking in terms of a philanthropic model where we … ‘give back.’ That implies that there’s a separation between the community and business. And that we kind of ‘take’ from the community and are going to ‘give’ it back to them. And to give out of our excess. We can’t use that model anymore. The model we need to use is the model where we’re engaged in these intractable problems together. We want to be working together. But the fact is, in the area of developing understanding around diversity issues, diversity issues are beyond race. There’s no question. But there’s also a caveat to that where you can’t solve the diversity issue without solving the race issue. The issues around diversity are really connected to how we think about our businesses. We need to be aware that our businesses are in business for more than just building shareholder value. That if we are, in fact, focusing on shareholder value exclusively, that’s a pretty slippery slope. And we will soon forget that we’re engaged, and should be engaged, in our communities. And I would contend that’s the very unstable position to be balancing: the community and the business. It’s not something you can easily do with the stroke of a pen. It takes real leadership to balance this, to make decisions, delegate resources to keep both going at the same time. I would contend the organizations that do it well will be, what I would call, in the sustainability zone, where you’re going to have long-term development of the community, and long-term development of the businesses, and be, in fact, very sustainable.

Hackett: There was a document I got from Dallas where they attempted to attack this issue of how business and the community blended. They actually formed a charter of why it was important for business and community to link. And I would say it was a very good motivational tool, saying this is what our purpose is. And they tried to, if I go back to my hand diagram here of this gap they’re trying to make up. Here are things we’re going to set in place. We’re going to need the community to pave over the top of this. We’ll take the time, make the investment, call the meetings, hold the discussions to try and plant some things. Examples are: when we get young minorities into business, and in our communities who haven’t lived here, Margaret Sellers Walker has an orientation meeting for them, and we need to attend that. We need to come and let them know we’re glad they’re in our community, and here’s some things for you to know. I can talk to you about things outside the Steelcase system you may not know about if you do business with them. To create the informal links. That’s an example of a piling, the analogy for business.

You can make investments in the school system, which is something we’re trying to do big time. To try and make our public school system work in ways that people don’t see it as a drag on attraction. Pat (Newby, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools) has been wonderful, engaging the business community on what we can do to help her. I’m trying to think of other examples. We started the socialization effort for smaller companies. Because the little companies don’t have the resources to put together what Fred and I can do. And so we said we’ll help and share with that. This is what was going on in Dallas, the footings, helping them with the footings. Hopefully then there are things to come from that. But there’s a long way to go.

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