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Leaders must work to improve diversity and inclusion

Kevin Beckford is the University of Rochester's first senior director of staff diversity, equity and inclusion, and a member of the town board of Pittsford. (Bennett Loudon)

Kevin Beckford is the University of Rochester’s first senior director of staff diversity, equity and inclusion, and a member of the town board of Pittsford. (Bennett Loudon)

There was a time when homeowners could not sell their houses to people of color. Builders were not allowed to build homes for minorities. And banks would not lend money for that purpose.

That took place in Pittsford, N.Y., the same town that had stops on the Underground Railroad, where slaves were welcomed as they made their way to Canada.

It also is the place where in the last three years slips of paper reading “Make Rochester Great Again — Make Rochester White Again” have been left in yards and on driveways. Where in 2016, just one individual of the nearly 500 teachers and administrators in the school district was a person of color.

It’s also the place where in February, in honor of Black History Month, a class project to highlight famous African-American inventors had a number of photos of white people—including Andrew Jackson and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s cousin—displayed on school walls for weeks without being addressed or taken down by school administrators.

Kevin Beckford, University of Rochester’s first senior director of staff diversity, equity and inclusion, and a member of the town board of Pittsford, used those examples recently to describe how changing a law doesn’t necessarily change a heart, and how structural racism affects all.

“That’s what happens when leaders don’t lead. What’s happening in Pittsford right now isn’t just magic; the leaders ignored the signs,” Beckford told an audience of about 150 people at the Rochester Business Journal’s inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Mastermind Summit, held June 11 at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center. “The community loses when you have inequity.”

The summit gave business owners and leaders an opportunity to learn how committing to a diversity and inclusion plan can entice better talent and improve their bottom lines. Beckford was one of five guests who discussed their real-life experiences in committing to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Beckford, who served as keynote speaker at the half-day event, said we need to ask ourselves why we are OK with inequity.

“I have eyes. I’m on a team that doesn’t have any women on it, no people with disabilities, no people who are gay or lesbian,” Beckford said of numerous businesses in Rochester. “You can see when you walk through out community diversity. We’re here. But when we look at our individual departments and meetings, we’re going to make decisions, we’re giving out projects, we’re giving out contracts (without diverse input).

“I’ll go down to the island to get a tan, to look dark, but I won’t hire a person who’s dark. This is the honest, humble conversation we need to have,” he added. “And there’s no PowerPoint that can help you get there.”

Business leaders and community leaders cannot simply say they are inclusive and diverse and believe in equity.

“We can’t claim that unless we do the work associated with that,” Beckford said. Which is why he and another person of color ran for and won seats on Pittsford’s town board.

In fact, a new group called PittsFORWARD has been formed to work on social justice issues in the town, he noted. The nonpartisan group facilitates ongoing conversations about ethnicity, race and diversity in order to establish a shared experience.

“The change that we seek right now, in terms of equity, is right here in us. It’s not anybody else’s job; it’s ours. Each one of us, when we go back to work tomorrow, should go back with a brand new lens that says I reject the social construct that I’ve been fed, that I’ve lived with and, in fact, may even have benefited from,” Beckford explained. “And I’m going to start with a brand new construct called the human race.”

At Partners & Napier, a Rochester-based creative company with some 160 staffers, diversity and inclusion are woven into the fabric of what its human resources professionals do.

“And we should take it as seriously as any other business decision,” said Makwete Barco, talent acquisition specialist for the advertising agency, during the event’s breakout session, “Cultivating Your Candidate Pool.” “If you ignore diversity and inclusion, if you pretend it has no impact on your organization or how you do business, in 10, 15, 20 years you just might not be relevant.”

Doug Parton, Partners & Napier’s head of talent and director of human resources, cautioned that not every diversity, equity and inclusion program will go swimmingly.

“You will fail. Be humble, but don’t stop,” Parton advised. “If you are not ready for this you will fail worse. It’s our job as HR folks, as leaders of your organization to be ready for that stuff.”

Partners & Napier defines the concept of diversity as encompassing acceptance, and more importantly, respect.

“It means that we as people need to understand that each of us is very unique and then recognize those individual differences,” Barco said. “Inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where our inherent worth and dignity is recognized. An inclusive work environment promotes and sustains a sense of belonging. It values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds and ways of living of each employee.”

Parton said his company’s goal is to encourage and enable people to bring their whole selves to work, where they do not have to change themselves or their identity when they come to work. He suggested that hiring professionals do the personal work.

“In order to go out and make a difference you have to engage communities, you have to be deeply invested, you have to build your networks,” he added. “There is no silver bullet. You have to be involved. You have to be connected.”

Other suggestions from the session included inspiring internal support, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and experimenting with the firm’s diversity. Barco advised hiring professionals to actively be involved in how they build their pipeline and what they really want it to look like.

“You don’t learn that in school,” Parton added. “You want to go out there, build relationships and plant seeds for the future.”

Beckford during his keynote address told the audience they had work to do.

“When you’re making decisions on contracts, ask, ‘Where’s the diversity and supplier diversity?’ If you have staffing firms, you want to ask them … to bring a diverse candidate pool. That’s (the staffing firm’s) job to find where the talent is and bring them to me, and if it’s not diverse it means you’re not looking,” he said.

Beckford recalled using a staffing firm to find a job at one point in his career. He was told he should dumb down his resume because businesses may not believe he had all of the qualifications he did. He left the office.

At one point during his 28 years dealing with structural and institutional racism, Beckford came face-to-face with a subordinate who refused to take direction from him. He considered Beckford a “token” employee. Beckford gave the employee a list of former supervisors for reference and the employee called each of the names on the list and heard glowing reviews.

For the first time, that employee called Beckford “sir.”

“It’s hard to change things one person at a time, but that’s the work we have to do,” Beckford said. “It starts with leaders. You have a responsibility if you’re a leader.”

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021 / @Velvet_Spicer

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