February 25, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 25th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet what we all witnessed at the Capitol on January 6 is yet another sobering reminder of how far the United States has to go, how deep and great our divide is.
Then came the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, and Kamala Harris as our nation's first female, Black and Indian American vice president. Any transfer of power brings the prospect of hope, new thinking and innovation, a fresh perspective.
But no one illustrated all of that better than Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate. She is a shining example of this burgeoning potential of the young people we serve at the Y and their ability to bring about change. To be able to talk to our neighbors, respect our differences, and see the humanness and wholeness of one another. There was so much brilliance in Amanda's Inaugural Poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," but these lines in particular resonate with me and our mission at the Y:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us
The YMCA of the North will continue its efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders who will be a part of the solution.
My 14th guest is Steve White, who worked at Pepsi and Colgate-Palmolive before spending over two decades at Comcast. For a decade, he was president of the West Division, where he was responsible for $17 billion in annual revenue with P&L responsibility, and oversaw 30,000 internal and external employees in 13 western states. But last October, he transitioned into a new role, as special counsel to Comcast's CEO, working on a number of initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and leadership programming and development. He is, as you'll quickly find out, a thought leader with an incredible story.
I hope you will enjoy Part 2 of my conversation with Steve White. (You can read part 1 here)
Glen: As it relates to inequality, do you sense anything different now?
Steve: I've often been asked, "Why do you think this moment has been so galvanizing?" And I'm sure there are a lot of people who are much smarter than me. But I believe, Glen, that as a result of COVID, the lack of control that we all feel has manifested itself in a way in this country that we've never been this vulnerable. Maybe not since the Great Depression?
But when you are sitting in your own vulnerability, your own weakness — locked in, some have lost their jobs, some have lost family members — and that opens our hearts to see what was really happening in front of us, when you see this man who is helpless. I truly believe this is why this one is different.
Other times, you feel invincible, you feel that you've got the world covered, and you have this youthful enthusiasm. But I think that had been drained out of the American public, and I think it allowed them to see what was really going on.
Glen: Is there anything you can say about Comcast's reaction and what's different at Comcast now as a result?
Steve: Well, I think the first thing is, it felt safe for everyone to have a conversation. When you're a corporate executive, and you're an African American, the last thing you want to be known for is, "the diversity guy." That is your only claim to fame — and even in the board room, I want to make sure I demonstrate my capability first — so I'm not a "one-trick pony." So I believe what it did is, it opened up the dialogue for conversation. I think that was number one, because what struck me was, my white colleagues saying, "Steve, I had no idea that this was going on in our country," and it just kind of poured out through George Floyd. Now I take some of that responsibility. I think we as leaders, we own some of that responsibility to engage in the conversation, but it's not ours alone. It's the responsibility of our teammates to educate themselves.
The second thing is, if you learn nothing else in corporate America, they're like sheep. They will follow. So when one company comes out and says, "I'm going to do $100 million," and another company says, "I'm going to do $50 million." No one wants to be isolated and not be involved. So it created a moment for us to follow because we certainly weren't the lead dog, but we quickly jumped into the pool.
Number three, it put a face on something that was real. Let me give you an example. It's easy for me, and it's easy for a politician to say, "The government is the problem." So as an American public, you can say, "Yes, I don't like the government" because it is a faceless institution. Or the Post Office. Some people might say, "They're not competent because they're faceless." And it's easy me for me not to have any emotion to something that's faceless.
And so the George Floyd situation put a face on a very ugly situation that had been faceless. Now, all of a sudden, you cannot ignore it. And so that's what I believe ultimately provoked the company into action and recognizing that, "Look, we could be on the wrong side of history."
If there's one thing that we know, no one wants to be viewed as a racist! Shame is a very powerful thing. And ultimately that is what drove action. And now it's my job — and the job of other leaders — to ensure that we never forget this.
Let me give you an example. One of the things about Steven Spielberg, his greatest legacy is to ensure that no one ever forgets Hitler and the atrocities of what he did. The cost of his influence in the movie-making business, his focus is to never allow that face to come off this ugly situation. So when people say, "Well, why do you keep talking about it?" Because we can never let this space come down. No one ever says, "You know what, Steven Spielberg, stop! We've seen enough, no more Schindler's List!" No one says that. That's why it's so important that we not lose the face of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, and I can go on and on.
Glen: I'm curious, what advice would you have for the Y and for me, as a middle-aged white dude, to make a difference?
Steve: Well, I think the YMCA has an immense amount of power and influence because it's actually viewed in a world that is so polarized. If there's a place that someone could be bipartisan, I think the YMCA might be one of the last that can claim that mantle, Glen. Just about every other organization has been politicized.
So I think because of that role, we need you to keep the dialogue going. How do we create a series where you bring these diverse voices? Because I got to tell you, in leading DEI efforts, I've received some pretty horrific letters. But I welcomed them because if they stop talking, that's when we're in trouble.
So anything you and your team can do to use your platform to keep this conversation going, to ensure that those diverse voices — for and against — have space so we can flush this out. I think that's a role of a group called the YMCA, that I believe has that center that can create that environment for conversation.
Then, I think Glen, kind of what you're doing today, is utilizing your platform to talk about it. Maybe it's small, but I posted recently that NASDAQ said it expects companies to have a diverse board. I want to keep that conversation going.
Because here is how we move an organization forward: The men and women who don't come forward, they will be isolated on an island by themselves, and everyone will see them for who they truly are. And the organization will spit them out, not me, not the Black employee. Let's just focus on continuing to move the agenda forward, and keep representation top of mind. Let's make sure we're sharing with our teammates and use surveys so leaders can see the results. So I'm going to keep putting this in their face and that's going to force us to move forward. If not, it'll expose us for a fraud, which I don't believe we are.
But the ones who don't get there, we will isolate them. So the more you and your peers can continue to move this forward, the ones that are not participating, they will be isolated in a way that it will be easy for everyone to see. And then the organization and the country will spit them out in a way that allows us to make real, long-term change.
Glen: I actually love the visual of that, the picture you paint, Steve. We've been zeroing in on a journey within our Y to become multicultural, anti-racist and anti-oppressive. And even using those words, it's fascinating to me, you'd think everybody would be all in. But because we're large and complex — not in the Comcast realm — but large in the Y realm, we're a microcosm of our community. So a whole lot of folks voted on one side, and a whole lot of folks voted on the other in our recent election. And so, invariably, we have these polarized views, and I think that is really an interesting way to paint a picture for our leaders to say, "Hey, it's okay. If they're not going to embrace human dignity for all, we're going to keep on chugging, and we can see the gap grow between where they sit and where the rest of the organization has moved." So that's helpful. A ton of wisdom there!
Steve: I want to add one thing: The other thing that I'm focused on in my part-time capacity, I lead a team, and we've created a council of 23 people. We're going to create a permanent CDO organization. We have it at the corporate level. We're now building on a cable group, men and women who can wake up every morning helping to advance this.
We're going to really come back with a compelling business case of why this makes sense, so even if you're a racist, I don't really care what you say in your bedroom and with your family. What I'm more focused on are your behaviors that keep your foot on my neck from advancing, no pun intended. So my why — the reason I'm on this earth — is to create a table of prosperity where all can sit. I was fired in 1986 from a job, and I believe — in reflection — that was unfair. But at the time, I didn't know that, and I blamed myself. But it became clear in 1986 that I had spent my entire life advancing my agenda. It was all about me. And when I got fired Glen, there was no one coming to my defense. There was no one who said, "Hey, this is wrong. This is unfair!"
This was like having a funeral and no one shows up. Can you imagine living your life, you die and go into an arena with 80,000 people, and no one is cheering? They're all saying either bad things or, "Who was this guy? When was he here?"
So my why is creating a table of prosperity and utilizing that as our strategy to create a compelling business case, particularly in corporate America. So the more people who sit there and contribute, the better.
For Thanksgiving in our house, my mother brings her sweet potato pie. My wife brings the turkey. If you're going to sit at our table, you have to bring something. I bring the Comcast service because I work for Comcast, so that's my contribution! My younger brother has to make the bread.
But everyone brings something, Glen, and when you're at our Thanksgiving table, the feast is abundant!
So that's the other way we isolate, by showing and demonstrating a compelling business case for why this is good for America, why this is good for your organization, why this is even good for you as an individual.
That's another way the YMCA, and you and your other peers can help is, there's a compelling business case here, if we will just open our eyes and see the possibilities.
Think about slavery. How many great ideas died in the cotton fields of America? All of this potential lost. You can't tell me we won as a country. You can't convince me of that.
Glen: As you look at your white peers, what are you counting on that we get done?
Steve: It's one of the things I'm challenging myself to, and thinking about with my son: "How do I get in the struggle?" It's one thing to observe the struggle. It's one thing to even maybe try to understand the struggle. But man, Glen, it's been 35 years since I had to worry about food, or where I was going to live, and 35 years since I've been poor.
When you get a little power, a little position, people want to actually do more and give you more. Like banks. I got banks actually fighting over me, to give me money at low interest rates. I mean, when there's somebody out there, who is making $40,000 a year, and if they could just get a return call from a banker, that would be off the charts in a positive way.
I'll give you an example. There was a Senator named Rob Portman out of Ohio. He was really against gay rights for a lot of years, then he realized his son was gay and boy did his tone turn. Because now, he had an opportunity to actually experience the struggle of what his gay son was going through and now that could actually bring real change in how he thought about things.
Now I'm not saying you got to go live in a housing project for five nights and be away from your family. I don't know the answer; I'm thinking about it because I think that's what's going to take us to the next level of really embracing this in a way because it's hard if your heart's not connected to it.
Glen: Well, I think you make such a great point. How do we put ourselves in those shoes? We have a ready-made function at the Y that has helped me see more clearly the needs of our neighbors, and it's called Youth and Family Services (YFS). Our YFS team members serve as life coaches — true game changers — who are on the street and in the community day in, day out, helping prevent eviction, helping homeless youth, helping young people who have been subject to the sex trade or human trafficking, or giving them the tools to prevent themselves from being sucked in. So the times that I have spent either overnight or on the street with them, it's mind-blowing. That particular team knows what bus stops are predominantly leveraged by traffickers, and they know the signs. I think your encouragement is really spot-on, literally getting out of our comfort zone to empathize and appreciate things on a completely different level.
My last question for you: Would you be willing to share a defining moment or story around race?
Steve: This is going to sound funny when I tell you this. But the cost of that self-confidence, we even doubt each other — and I mean this in the (Black) community. I remember when my mother made the decision — this very courageous decision — to leave her husband because it was not a healthy environment for her kids. I remember, at 10 years old, hearing my family members say, "If you do that, those kids are not going to amount to anything. They're going to end up in prison, on drugs, whatever."
And that sparked something in me at 10 years old. It's one thing to hear it from a stranger. It's another thing to hear from someone that you believe loves you, and I know that they did, and that they still do. But there was a moment of anger that really, really shaped me.
I've never been in a situation where, at least knowingly, I was discriminated against. Where somebody says, "You're the N-word," or "You're this," but you felt it. So in my book, I call it my exhaustion. And my exhaustion comes in two ways.
One, there's the Black exhaustion. When you accomplish something, there's a lot expected of you when you're Black. "Are you giving enough back? Are you bringing enough people along?" It's not enough just to go be successful. You carry the burden of your race on your back, and anyone after you, their opportunities are going to be dictated on how well you do. That's my Black exhaustion — and it's real. And anyone who says it's not is kidding themselves. That's something that our white colleagues don't feel.
Then the other exhaustion is, I know that I have to be better. I know that I have to be special. How do I know? Because there are very few of me!
I mean, what makes me so unique and different that I was the one that made it to the presidency level, top five or six people in the company, and no one has ever done that? So I know to get to this spot, I had to be better because the evidence was there. And so that's what is debilitating. It is the constant exhaustion of trying to push a rock uphill.
And some of us do. But the problem is, most of us don't, and that is the tragedy. See, I don't care if you call me the N-word. What I care about is, being able to take care of my family. Am I going to be employed? Can I just go to work and just be me? I don't know how to wear two faces. I don't know how to take this face off, from 7 to 7, then go home and put on another face. That's exhausting.
Can I just be me? And is that enough? That is the tragedy.
How can it be, in the wealthiest country in the world, that there are men and women waking up today, and they're not sure how they're going to feed their children? And they're disproportionately Black and brown people. Is that an accident?
To learn more about Steve White, click here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race” with next week.