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Diversity isn't an item on a bucket list

April 11, 2019

Receiving an unsolicited invitation to speak at the University of Pennsylvania would be on my bucket list if I had one.

I always felt like a bucket list – goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill, life experiences you desire before you die – was for things that were probable. So, what’s the point of a bucket list when your entire life seems like a series of improbabilities?

Here I was being flown over 1,000 miles from Memphis to Philadelphia to join Ivy League executives in a panel discussion about the role of career vision, personal accountability and individual power in achieving diversity in the workplace.

The panel would take place at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arts, Research and Culture House, also known as the ARCH, the historic campus building recently renovated at a cost of $24.5 million to serve as a center "that builds on the cultural diversity of Penn students."

I opened the doors of the ARCH in awe, taking in every bit of a moment I never considered possible. Was I really speaking in the same auditorium where the 47th vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, was greeting students? He is the driving force behind the new Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and professor of management at the university's Wharton School.

As I watched the students pour through the auditorium doors, I recalled reading reports about the number of billionaires University of Pennsylvania has produced – 19 Penn grads were on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people in the U.S. last year. I thought about other alum of the institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1780. They include Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffet, civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan, ten-time Grammy winner John Legend, my favorite designer Tory Burch, tech entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk, and the current president, Donald Trump.

On a (mostly) unpredictable 41-year journey from an impoverished Memphis community, I have often asked myself, “How did I get here?” For a number of years, I had set lofty goals.

My first goal was not to be lost in spaces between the words and numbers of our nation’s entitlement dependent. I had set the goal to graduate high school by 16 years old and complete both an undergraduate and master’s program at the local university. I set the goal to lead an organization whose mission was gender and minority balance across the male-dominated transportation industry. I had even set personal goals to reach a six-figure salary by the time I was 30 years old and to become the first black president of the region’s largest international trade association. However, I never considered I would be called to contribute to a space with such a strong tradition for educational innovation.

I hadn’t learned about diversity in the same manner as my co-panelists, who were both Penn alumni and distinguished human resource leaders. My insight on diversity had come from experience as the diverse candidate or double minority. My experience had come as a benefactor of diverse hiring initiatives that opened doors that would have otherwise been closed to someone like me. I learned when spaces created without me in mind failed to measure my value in the same way as they did men who have dominated the industry for hundreds of years. I would not have assumed my perspective qualified me to jump in the ring with the heavyweights.

I sat on the ARCH stage with my co-panelists as they offered an instructive discussion on “mentoring” and “sponsorship.” My notes included ways I believe career vision, personal accountability and individual power help create diverse workplaces. But I found myself talking about something I never intended to discuss in this forum.

A young man in the audience asked, “How do you keep your mental health when your entire future is in the hands of someone you don’t know whether you can trust?” It wasn’t the question itself that took me off script, but the intensity with which he asked it. His pain was palpable. The entire audience could feel it.

When I opened my mouth, the words that came out were ones I had only said aloud in mental wellness forums: “I tried to commit suicide when I was a junior in college.” (Read more on this experience in an article published by Baptist Memorial Hospital Systems, “How to Recognize and Prevent Suicide.”

I proceeded to share my story of a sponsor I had early in my career who was convinced that only he could usher me to senior management. I told that young man in the audience that no one, even the most well-meaning person, has your future in their hands. And, under no circumstances, do you negotiate with your mental wellness or dignity.

In this building noted for the ornamental detail of its carved stone exterior, it became clear to me why I had deviated from my planned talking points to discuss the importance of mental health and personal power. It is the same reason I don’t have a bucket list.

At some point in my life, it became clear to me that I didn’t need a list to thrive. What I needed was a willingness to show up authentically and compassionately at all times.

In being obedient to that moment, I walked the same halls as Penn alum Beverly Robertson, former president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Beverly recently vacated that position for an appointment as interim president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, making her the first African-American president of the city’s economic development engine.

I believe diversity has been treated, at times, like a goal on a bucket list. You draw the picture of the big organizational dream you want to achieve, and you put a plan together to make that dream a reality. And when challenges are raised that take you outside of that plan, you avoid them and focus on the flurry of goal-oriented activities.

Diversity needs to be viewed more like a grand plan where we can choose every day to show up as our authentic and compassionate selves. When we do that, we will create spaces where a black woman from the poorest Memphis community can stand on the same stage and deliver a message to the next billionaire or the 50th president of the United States.