I've been traveling in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, joyfully soaking up the changing colors of autumn and the company of family. At my brother and sister-in-law's house, I met a neighbor who is an AT&T project manager, and we had a great conversation about a recent video of AT&T's CEO, Randall Stephenson, speaking to a large group of employee resource managers.
Mr. Stephenson's speech is a powerful and personal account of an epiphany. He described his moment of revelation when he abruptly understood how important race was to Chris, a dear friend who is black—and Stephenson was incredulous that he and his friend of many years had never had a conversation about race.
After expressing a newfound understanding for the value of the Black Lives Matter movement, he concludes his talk with an exhortation to the AT&T employees to go out and begin the difficult discussions of race, telling them:
Do not tolerate each other. Work hard. Move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other. . . . Start the discussion with WHY, why does my colleague feel this way; and then we can discover what needs to be done.Randall Stephenson, AT&T CEO
Please watch this exciting, important speech here.
Not surprisingly, an AT&T company slogan is "Every voice matters," and DiversityInc recently ranked AT&T as #4 on its list of Top 50 Companies for Diversity. Can an international conglomerate really have an impact on how we feel about and address race in our country? I believe it can; it can change the color of these conversations from black-and-white to a vast palette of hues, tones, and vibrancy. My brother in NC reminded me that Charlotte emerged from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement as a leader among Southern states in correcting Jim Crow laws and traditions--and that Charlotte's thriving business community set the stage for this advancement by not tolerating workplace segregation and anti-black hiring practices. Now AT&T is urging its employees to move beyond tolerance--mere tolerance is for cowards, says Stephenson--and blaze new trails of understanding and respect through dialogue.
Because "Every voice matters" has so much in common with the purpose of this Speak Right On blog, I plan in upcoming weeks to reach out to Mr. Stephenson and propose workshops designed to facilitate those difficult discussions of race. I want to begin by inviting Mr. Stephenson and his friend to read chapters 8 and 9 in Speak Right On: Conjuring the Slave Narrative of Dred Scott. Those of you who have read my novel will remember that these two chapters depict a relationship between Dred Scott and Nat Turner: two slave boys who chose vastly different approaches to freedom: one through speaking out in the courts and the other through bloody rebellion.