White Leaders, We Must Get Out of Our Comfort Zones (Gretchen Hall Commentary)

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As a white leader, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to facilitate the challenging discussions around systemic racism and inequality. The fear of saying the wrong thing or mishandling your organization’s response to protests happening in your city and across the country may cause hesitation. However, we have those conversations and follow them with action.

I want to tell you what concrete action steps we are implementing at the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau to address this issue, but first I want to give some personal context.

This is an Opinion

While grappling with the devastation COVID-19 has had on my organization, the tourism industry and the entire world, the past few months have weighed even heavier on my heart due to the civil unrest in our country. Watching the news unfold surrounding the murder of George Floyd and thinking about the countless others who have been victims of racial violence and social injustice have been heartbreaking. Honestly, I have been struggling to figure out how I can become more engaged in solutions. I created a statement to our employees, we created a public statement from the organization, we used our social media platforms to engage in #BlackOutTuesday and celebrate Juneteenth, and I even shared an extensive list of anti-racism resources for many of my white friends.

But even then, I knew these efforts were not enough. In a recent conversation, a Black friend and colleague said his white friends could not remain silent if true progress was going to be realized. “They must engage in uncomfortable conversations.” Then he asked a simple question; “Do any of my white friends want to trade places with me?”

I was certainly uncomfortable, and, honestly, my answer to his question was no. I felt real guilt about that answer.

His initial comment was one I could tackle. It reminded me of a quote from Roy T. Bennett, “Great things don’t come from comfort zones.” So here is my story, out of my comfort zone, open and honest about my white privilege and finding ways to engage in broader solutions. As one who seeks action, not just words, I have created measurable initiatives to implement in my organization, and no doubt there will be more.

I write this as a white woman, raised by a white family, in a predominantly conservative, white community in the South. Racism was never a stranger to me. I saw it even from members of my own family.

But I thank God for sports and travel, which exposed me to different races, sexual orientations and cultures. Those experiences, with the support of some in my family, also introduced me to two young, female Black athletes many years ago, and over time allowed me to become a surrogate mother to them.

Right out of college I began coaching summer basketball for 12-year-old girls. Over time, my relationship with one of the girls began to grow into a mentorship off the court as well. As her needs grew, I was able to invest more for her, and before long she was introducing me as “Mom.”

Many years later, one of her college teammates found herself with no place to go and no roof over her head. Daughter No. 1 turned to me for help. Without hesitation our family grew. These girls have been the greatest blessing in my life. They are as much my family as anyone has ever been, and I can’t imagine life without them.

My niece and nephew have never known life without them. They’ve grown up referring to my girls as their “big sisters,” unaware or at least unbothered by the unique nature of our family. Their relationship is proof that racism and hatred are learned traits and a reminder that the work of helping others to unlearn them is arduous but necessary.

I continue to assess my personal experiences and abilities in my professional leadership role to determine how I can use those in meaningful ways. I’ve heard the adage: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Well, maybe I’ve been contributing in small ways to the solution, but I want to do more. I have two amazing Black daughters, and at times I really worry about their safety — and now the safety of their spouses — due to their skin color. I love them with all my heart, but a mother’s love can’t hide them from the danger of being Black.

I have shed many tears watching the news recently and reading countless stories of police brutality and blatant racist acts against people of color. I cry even harder as I ask myself whether my actions have ever been viewed as racist. Have I ever acted consciously or unconsciously in a manner that diminished an individual who was different from me? My tears turn to rage as I hear news stories and watch some in leadership roles continue to make light of the situation or simply choose to pretend there is no societal problem at all.

I can’t remember a period in my lifetime when so much of the world was demanding change and so many were actually listening.

As to those concrete steps: Those of us in positions of leadership cannot remain silent. I’ve had time to listen and think about my own organization and I am committed to advancing these dialogues and driving solutions. I will start with the following initiatives and continue to seek additional ideas to promote inclusion and diversity across our organization and industry.

The LRCVB will:

► Conduct mandatory unconscious bias training for all employees.

► Distribute an equity, diversity and inclusion staff survey to better understand our employees’ thoughts and feelings related to these topics and identify areas of needed improvement.

► Expand our recruitment practices.

► Create a workforce development plan to expose more minority communities to the career possibilities and leadership roles within our industry.

► Promote the importance of voting to all staff and provide additional paid time off on primary and general election days to allow individuals enough time to exercise this right.

► Increase our marketing assets and direct messaging efforts to minority travelers.

► Expand our work with national minority travel groups and meeting professionals on convention marketing efforts.

This list is in no way exhaustive, but it is a start. I want to remind my white colleagues both that we are lucky for not being the victim of racism ourselves and that we cannot expect our Black contemporaries to do all the work of making systemic change. I challenge these colleagues, especially those in leadership roles: Get out of your comfort zone and find ways to make a positive difference. By working toward inclusion and diversity within our workplaces, we will create meaningful social change on many levels.

Gretchen Hall is CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.