At a recent panel discussion sponsored by The New York Times, Thomson Reuters and Time Inc., someone asked, "If Obama wins, do we lose?" By "we," the attendee meant those who lead the diversity efforts in corporate America. In other words, will a Barack Obama win create the false impression that America has gotten over its racial issues? And will that in turn give corporate America "permission" to trim or dismantle diversity programs?
The panelists could not quite connect Obama’s ascension to the downfall of diversity programs across the country, but the question did leave me with an uneasy feeling of what exactly the impact might be on the environment most initiatives are grown in if he does win.
Often when I travel to speak to students in college and high school, I encounter young ones proudly boasting that they want to be the president of the Unites States or the president of an advertising agency one day. In the past, I’ve responded with a high five or a smile, but I’d also get a pang of sadness because I knew, based on past and present, the future likely would not hold the door open for this dream.
Maybe the energy of those deferred dreams has somehow powered the momentum of the unique candidacy of Barack Hussein Obama or the recent installation of Torrence Boon as CEO of DaVinci (or Synarchy, or whatever it’s going to be called).
As Obama makes it closer to the highest office in the land, I grow cautious about the emotional transformation that could take place around the importance of diversity in the hearts of those responsible for leading efforts, those that bankroll them, those that benefit from them, and those that resent them. These groups have often coexisted contentiously since the late ’60s. With one foot in the MLK and JFK era and one foot firmly planted in the era of integration, I owe my success to the courageous leadership and sacrifice of these gentlemen, but I am not hindered or bound by a debt I can never repay them. I can only use my success as a renewable currency that will create opportunities for multiple generations of my family and my beloved community.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright recently stated in the midst of his turn on the national stage that "you cannot become what you have not seen." This declaration is the essence of diversity programs in America. Now that we might see a multi-racial president and we will see a black man heading a global [advertising] agency, it’s not the time to consider a re-imagining of or ending to the programs and policies that may have contributed to their success. Successes like these don’t necessarily create a widespread cause for celebration and shouts of "We Made It!" What it does is make the unseen "seen" and that, in turn, provides a path for others to follow. Believe it or not, it is as simple as "if she/he can make it, so can I!"
Veronica Webb said in her acceptance speech for the 2008 Creative Spirit Award during the Black Alumni of Pratt Honors in New York that "because of trailblazers like Pat Cleveland and Iman wearing Valentino in the pages of Ebony, I could finally imagine myself as a model." These women have clearly redefined what beauty looks like and subsequently what the American consumer looks like (not literally!) because they dared to break down walls that were installed long before they could dream of being a cover girl.
I believe that diversity programs are Obama-proof. They’re not going away.
If anything, they have proved that Obama and other American success stories like him are products of their environments—ones that we have to continue to create in order for others to succeed.