The power of Black women’s voices
Photo illustration by Julie Morin June 24, 2020
UD Lerner panel brings Black women leaders together for discussion about racial justice
Hundreds of people from the University of Delaware community and beyond spent some of Juneteenth 2020 listening to and learning from a panel of Black women leaders and professionals at a webinar, “Addressing Racism: Advancing Justice in Times of Crisis.” The webinar, co-hosted by the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) and the Lerner Diversity Council (LDC) at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, explored a wide range of topics while also serving as a call to action.
More than 2,000 people registered for the webinar, held on Friday, June 19, including members of the regional business community and universities from around the country. These participants demonstrated significant engagement, submitting more than 150 questions and comments to the subsequent question-and-answer session moderated by Wendy Smith, professor of management and WLI co-director. The webinar was also recorded, and the video is available on the WLI Leadership in Times of Crisis Webinar page.
“The world is watching,” said panel moderator Jennifer Joe, who is the Lerner College’s Whitney Family Endowed Chair of Accounting, Cohen Family Lerner Director of Diversity and Chief Diversity Advocate. “This is a much overdue conversation, but we hope that it will be an honest and open discussion on race matters today.”
Joe and fellow panelists Daphne McRae, Nicole Jeter West and Vina Amankwaa Afrifa began with “a bit of a history lesson,” as Joe described it, discussing subjects like racist discrimination in U.S. housing markets, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on the Black and brown communities due to inequities in health care and more. They also shared the sorrowful history of violence against Black people both past and present, including the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oluwatoyin Salau, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and others.
“I just wanted to make sure that I said their names, because they deserved life,” said Amankwaa Afrifa, who is a senior operations management major at the Lerner College. “These moments are very heavy for myself and for many others that look like me, but in the same breath I’m also happy to see the amount of work many people are putting into creating a new narrative for people of color.”
Panelists were also not afraid to share their personal experiences. They described facing racist comments and behaviors at job interviews, leadership retreats, clothing stores and their own neighborhoods. Jeter West, who is head of marketing and brand engagement for LA 2028 (the Olympic Games organizers) and a Lerner Class of 1999 marketing alumna, described having to discuss lynchings and slavery with her 12-year-old son.
“How do you have that conversation?” she asked, adding that it is an example of white privilege that white parents do not need to have these conversations with their children.
“It is a choice,” Jeter West said. “For us, it’s not a choice. It’s actually now become survival.”
Above all, the panelists remained focused on action. While recent protests have increased public awareness and outspokenness against racism, the discussion’s primary focus was what can happen next to continue to make progress.
“How do we work to make sure that this is not a fad, that the energy is harnessed, and that we see actions?” Joe asked.
McRae, who is vice president of IT Portfolio Management for JPMorgan Chase and an alumna of UD’s MBA program, responded by stressing the importance of discussions like the one she and her fellow panelists were having right at that moment.
“I believe that we can’t be silent... We can’t afford for our light to go out,” she said.
Joe also discussed the importance of allies to this and other movements, describing the importance of straight allies for the LGBTQ movement and of the Jewish community in supporting the Civil Rights movement. Many questions in the Q&A section touched on what allies can do to be supportive, and the panelists had several answers.
Jeter West urged individuals who want to be allies to the Black community to take real action, and not to simply be a “performative ally.” She quoted author Austin Channing Brown, who said, “The work of anti-racism is the work of becoming a better human to other humans.”
To do this, Jeter West said, “It’s not enough to say that you want to be an ally; you have to be about action. And so, even when there is not a person of color in the room and something is said that’s inappropriate, or there is a position that the company is taking that is not going to help but is going to present a barrier to people of color, you need to be able to stand up and speak to that.”
Further, Jeter West said: “Educate yourself on what our Black experience is, on how you can be an ally. There’s no shortage of resources.” The webinar hosts worked with the panelists to compile a list of resources, including books, websites, movies, podcasts, and more, for those who would like to learn more about these topics.
Amankwaa Afrifa also urged those who would like to be allies to “do a little soul searching… If you hear racist conversations amongst your own family members, I need you to correct that speaker and initiate the conversation on why it’s wrong.”
In terms of other concrete future steps, Joe discussed her position as a leader in academia. She advocates for Black history and education on social and economic injustice being “interwoven into the curriculum.”
For companies, Joe continued: “Where you invest your resources is a true indicator about how much you care about diversity and equity. If one-tenth of a percent of your budget is directed at equity and inclusion, you are not serious.”
McRae added that organizational leaders should be deliberate in terms of pairing Black employees with mentors and providing leadership training resources.
“Be very intentional about identifying some of your top-performing employees and leaders for these programs,” McRae said. “They’re there and oftentimes were missed.”
Further, McRae advocated for creating open forums through small focus groups: “As we continue to move forward with this dialogue, you’ll be able to make a better and more personal connection with individuals through small focus groups where individuals feel psychologically safe. Oftentimes in larger groups, we might not feel as safe because of painful experiences, because of other masks that we’ve had to wear.”
Jeter West suggested that these leaders also “start with being mindful… because there are a lot of people being very reactive, and in that reaction, they are speaking and not putting action to their words. There’s a lot of talk and not a lot of walk.”
She pointed out that companies should not just recruit people of color through entry-level programs like internships, but also should provide leadership development at all levels. This should include diversity resources and education within organizations, helping people to “get outside of their bubble of what they know and expanding their awareness.”
“As a young professional that will be entering the business world,” Amankwaa Afrifa added, “I want to see more conversations about financial literacy.” She discussed the importance of providing financial literacy resources to young Black Americans to help correct the racial imbalance in generational wealth.
Throughout this discussion, despite the difficult and at times painful topics discussed, the panelists expressed positivity and hope as people take action now and in the future.
“I’m just so happy to see people using their voices, especially young people, fighting for what they believe in, fighting for what is right, and fighting for people that sometimes cannot fight for themselves,” Amankwaa Afrifa said.
“We cannot sit back,” McRae added. “We have to continue to move forward.”
After the event, Lynn Evans, managing director of the WLI, commented on the motivation behind the event’s organization, as well as on the importance of white people becoming involved in the work of anti-racism.
“As the WLI team was preparing for the last in our webinar series, ‘Leadership in Times of Crisis,’ our country was erupting over racial injustice, and we were compelled to act,” Evans said. “We therefore proposed partnering with the LDC on a final webinar — to educate ourselves, stand as allies and reinforce that white people must join in this effort. As we learned in the webinar, the call to action starts with owning our white privilege, finding new behaviors and working toward dismantling biased institutions. The WLI is committed to encouraging and inspiring white women and men to join in this work.”
Those who were not able to attend can watch the full recording of this webinar on the WLI Leadership in Times of Crisis webpage.