The Desolate Streets of Ferguson

by Andrés T. Tapia –ferguson_500x279

This commentary originally appeared on the New America Media website.

FERGUSON, Mo. – The protesting crowds have thinned. The 24-7 news army has packed up its equipment and moved on to the next hot spot. But Ferguson is still simmering.

It’s breathtaking enough walking through the business district along Florissant Ave. to see one storefront after another still boarded up either because of broken glass or as a prevention against vandalism or looting. But that scene does not ready my companion and me for the devastation a few streets over on West Florissant Ave., the epicenter of the worst violence in the wake of the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson for the deadly shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

The destruction stretches for nearly a mile on both sides of the wide avenue. I see for the first time the extent of the spillover rage that the TV cameras somehow did not fully capture. There’s the Walgreens, the McDonald’s, the Little Caesars, the Phillips 66, the Toys R Us, the local beauty salon, the local auto shop, the local diners — all torched, with smashed windows and dumpsters in the parking lots used to throw away the burnt, wet, broken debris of those chaotic nights in August and then again in November.

A National Guard armored vehicle rumbles down the avenue. Another is parked near an underpass. Police cars are tucked in business driveways throughout. A large lit up construction sign declares that a key intersection in the area will be closed after 5 pm that day. It’s the intersection where protestors gather nightly.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Ferguson try to go about their daily lives. They walk the streets to the boarded up grocery store for the day’s ingredients or to the deli for the day’s coffee. An artist advertises his upcoming CD release party.

Flashbacks to my growing up in a military dictatorship in Lima, Peru pop up for me. This is what a State of Emergency looked like. The surreality of the mundane of day-to-day life against a backdrop of militarization, physical destruction, deep distrust, and a feeling that further conflagrations lie just below the surface.

At the same time, just as Mother Nature revels in the green shoots that suddenly emerge here and there in a vast expanse of forest decimated by a massive wildfire, there are signs of resilient hope surrounding the armored vehicles, cop cars, and burnt out and boarded up stores.

Nearly every single plank of protective plywood nailed to storefront windows were tagged by peaceful protestors with messages of affirmation. Ferguson Strong. Keep Calm and Pray On. Peace in Ferguson. Natalie’s Cakes and More [Is] Open. Love More. Love is Blk + Wht.

Hundreds of ribbons with more messages of hope and affirmation are tied to wrought iron fences along the avenue. They flutter in front of desolate burnt out buildings as well as a neighborhood school where the students are back at their desks.

I’m in town to meet the Chief Diversity Officer for a national corporation with headquarters on the edge of Ferguson. She tells me about various inclusive events her organization is proud of having conducted inside corporate walls. But just down the street, the still-shuttered restaurants, shops, and bars speak to a tense reality facing the citizens of metropolitan St. Louis who walk through her company’s doors every day. She sees an opportunity for healing dialogue that she has been testing in one-on-one conversations, though she has yet to figure out the best way to go about it organizationally.

She understands the fragility of it all; but also the need to keep pressing on in bringing a torn community together. The task feels enormous since it’s not just about Ferguson but about the still very unfinished work of racial reconciliation and inclusion in America.

But as the positive graffiti and ribbons testify, it can also be brought down to a simple message: “Peace and Justice are two sides of the same coin.”

And these require a people and a nation who care. Do we and can we?

Creating Unity in a Broken Community: Eradicating Violence and Discrimination

This is a guest post by Candi Castleberry Singleton, chief inclusion and diversity officer, UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences. The piece originally appeared on her Facebook page.

by Candi Castleberry Singelton — Mixed group of nations behind the American flag.

Until now, I’ve avoided my deeply personal thoughts about all of this news. My heart is so, so heavy.

At age 12, on my way home from school, I was confronted by six  White LAPD officers who pointed guns at me and accused me of robbing a hamburger stand on 8th Ave. This was clearly not the case. When they were done harassing the 12-year-old me, they just left. Long story short, I’m grateful to be alive.

At age 18, two Black men mugged and dragged me down an alley on Century Blvd. Inglewood PD arrived and caught one of the two. My mind and body were bruised. Needless to say, I’m grateful to be alive.

Years later, I married a police officer, who served for 16 years in the Bay Area. I’ve prayed for him every day because he was a police officer (he’s no longer an officer), also because off duty, he is a Black man.

I’ve spent many days worried about both sides of this situation. We all know that there are both good community citizens and good officers. There are also bad citizens and officers. We simply CAN’T stereotype ALL people, roles, or functions; this doesn’t move any of this forward.

Today, I pray for families, police, collaboration, and peace in our streets and neighborhoods. I pray community leaders and elected officials will listen and hear the voices and concerns of the people they serve.

I pray we will share our point of view responsibly, vote, and do our part to hold each other—including our friends and family—accountable to make our world a better place for ALL to live—with ALL of the differences.

As a Berkeley grad, I’ve done my fair share of protesting and advocating (but nothing compared to those before me.) What I’ve come to believe is we CAN find common ground when we recognize that issues can often be resolved by working together and respecting others. Differences are ONLY barriers when we allow them to be. We can accomplish more working together than alone, meaning Black & White, police & communities, citizens & leaders, etcetera. There is power in the “&”!

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” — John Lennon


TEDxIndianapolis Talk: Why Diversity is Upside Down

by Andrés T. Tapia –

Why is diversity upside-down and how do we with what that means for our lives and our companies? Check out my recent TEDx Talk in Indianapolis, IN. I explore just how much our world’s hyper-diversity has affected practically every aspect of our lives – in our personal relationships, in our communities, and in our companies.



Your Strongest Asset—Your Org Culture—Could Be Your Greatest Barrier to Inclusion

by Andrés T. Tapia – Business People Smiling

Our work in diversity and inclusion demands us to manage through many paradoxes. In part this is due to the work of diversity and inclusion having to surf its way through seeming contradictions. Do these sound familiar?

  • Diverse representation is paramount but we don’t want to focus on the numbers
  • Affirmative Action is about the numbers but you can’t make them quotas
  • If you surface a diversity and inclusion gap you are obliged to do something about it, so it may be better not to find out
  • We need to level the playing the field for those traditionally underrepresented but we can’t do it at the detriment of those who have been in the majority
  • Affinity groups are about affinity but must include everyone who wants to join
  • Diversity and inclusion strategy should expand its reach and be holistic. Address severe talent shortages, emerging marketplace penetration, global team productivity, generate greater creativity and innovation, but, oh by the way, do it with fewer resources
  • We must master best practices processes to move change through our organizations while at the same time be able to freestyle via spontaneous invention to arrive at creative and alternative ways to breakthrough.

There is plenty to explore in each one of these, but here’s one more I want to share and explore in this post:

Are companies with strong corporate cultures inherently more exclusionary?

This question came up in a recent conversation with my colleague Lisa Levey, a thought leader on women’s advancement and work-life integration and author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home, when we were chatting about a couple of clients we are currently working with. She framed it this way, “Enhancing diversity and inclusion within strong work cultures is ultimately a paradox. Strong cultures have a way we do things and a set of norms that dictate behavior. This clarity defines who they are as an organization as well as what—and who—fits. But D&I are about embracing new ideas and new ways of doing things, often challenging the status quo.“

How to address this conundrum that the bold, distinctive culture that has made these companies successful is the same culture that can severely hinder the organization from being truly inclusive?

We’ve witnessed this across the world and it doesn’t matter the industry—retail, manufacturing, managing consulting, pharmaceuticals, finance, and so on. In each of these industries there are longstanding companies with histories more than 100 years old as well as new economy companies barely a decade old that have a palpable and distinct culture that influences the profile of who gets hired, what gets identified as good and poor performance, and in this, of course, who gets developed and promoted.

Adds Lisa, “strong work cultures are typically characterized by a core set of values that influence priorities and bring life to the way work is accomplished.” The end result is that leadership and management is then shaped by these very values and the organization’s narrow interpretations of what the behaviors behind these values should look like.

Clients that have very strong cultures are extremely admirable. It’s easy to find people who have been there 20, 25, 30 years. Their employees have great memories and great pride in their organization—what it has accomplished, what it stands for, and the kind of talent it has attracted and nurtured. These are traits that get you on the Best and Most Admired companies lists.

How ironic then that it can be so painful and difficult that these companies are often the very places where it’s hardest to open up space for people who are different. The very people who are brought in under the auspices of the organization needing greater diversity and inclusion quickly run afoul of the unspoken coda of how to think, how to speak, and how to act.

The organizational system, wired to nurture the coda and conversely reject deviations from it, like a highly effective immune system, treats that difference as a foreign body that must be surrounded by contain-and-reject interventions. Here comes the raised eyebrow, the roll-of-the-eyes, the “we don’t do it that way here” pricks that slowly but surely deflate the confidence of successful-elsewhere talent.

The Achilles Heel of Strong Corporate Cultures

These companies with strong corporate cultures must then face a choice. They can continue business as usual and they may get lucky and for some time may not experience much apparent downside. But they should then be more realistic about how diverse and inclusive they can truly become.

Or, if the case for being more inclusive and diverse has been made forcefully, they can seize this moment to do some self examination, which in this upside down world, is critical as old assumptions are being swept away by the new normal.

To be clear, examining your culture for ways in which it can be inadvertently exclusive does not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are ways to affirm and even hold on to those differentiating distinctive aspects of culture, while letting go of things that have been long cherished and valued that are no longer necessary and long obsolete.

How can you go about this? A few things to think about:

  • Distinguish between requirements and preferences. Do an exercise using the honored late Roosevelt Thomas’ guidance. Determine what is really required to do the work and be successful at your company and what is really a preference that is tied to tradition and the people who came before you that really don’t reflect the new generation of work, clients, customers, and workers.
  • Rethink the assumptions around mentoring. Often mentoring in strong corporate culture environments can become the code word for training people who are different to become just like us. While there’s still a place to help people through mentoring that can increase their chances of success by showing them the ropes, until you do the work of distinguishing between a preference and a requirement, you’re not going to be able to know what is inclusive versus exclusionary advice.
  • Make it safe and inviting for alternative voices to be heard, valued, and acted on. Train legacy leaders and managers on how to seek out alternative voices in their teams and meetings. Reward managers who consistently do so. Profile those who have a different approach than has been the norm. Also design reciprocal mentoring programs—companies with strong corporate cultures often suffer from being too insular. Activate the very premise of diversity, which is to bring alternative thinking to the organization. Formalize and channel this diversity to effectively bring new thinking and life to the organization.

Finally, make this message go viral: in today’s global, hyper-diverse, rapidly changing world, those that don’t keep up with the changes risk getting sidelined. All companies are going to need the diversity of thinking of those who have not fit the formula in that past.

If homogeneity of thinking and behavior was the key to survival before, today it’s a vulnerability. Heterogeneity through those who don’t fit the traditional and previously successful culture could really be the very thing you need more than ever in order to sustain your success in this brave new world.

Comedy & Tragedy: Pop Culture’s Two-Faced Approach to Diversity and Inclusion

by Andrés T. Tapia —comedytragedy

The 2011 Oscars revealed two different tales of diversity’s progress and retro-ness in the entertainment industry.

Eight women — a record — received non-actress awards, which was a nice sequel to Kathryn Bigelow’s breaking of the Oscar glass ceiling last year when her muscular “The Hurt Locker beat out her ex-husband James Cameron’s fantasy “Avatar” for Best Picture and Best Director. This is progress.

But when it came to African Americans, Asians, and Latinos…. Whoop! Nowhere to be found on the nominee list.

This year’s drought is par for the course.

Thirty-eight years would pass after Sidney Poitier (“Lilies of the Field,” 1963) became the first black male to win Best Actor before another African American (Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” 2001) to follow in his footsteps. Since then it’s only been Jamie Foxx (“Ray,” 2004) and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” 2006). As far as African-American women go, Halle Berry (“Monster Ball,” 2001) is the only one to win a Best Actress Oscar.

For a Latino Best Actor, we have to go back to 1950 for Jose Ferrer (“Cyrano de Bergerac,” 1950). That’s it. There are close ones: Anthony Quinn (“Viva Zapata!” 1952, “Lust for Life,” 1956) and Benicio del Toro (Traffic, 2000) as Best Supporting Actors. A Latina or an Asian female has never won Best Actress. The closest Latina? Rita Moreno’s Oscar for her supporting role in “West Side Story” in 1961! Asian winners? Only two males: Yul Brynner (“The King and I,” 1956) and Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi,” 1982).

Looking back through this dismal picture, it’s clear that actors of color achievements peaked in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Ay!

When it comes to pop culture, the entertainment industry is awash in contradictions around diversity. As the most powerful medium to help bring about mainstream societal culture change, it has a long and distinguished record of contributing to inflection points that paved the way to greater inclusion. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in the 1960s truly broke new ground as it suavely told the story of a young white woman bringing her black male friend, played by the elegant Sidney Poitier, to dinner at her racist white parents’ house. It not only broke the interracial relationship taboo, but even today remains a powerful metaphor for bringing an excluded party into the inner sanctum of those doing the excluding.

Who can forget what “Crash” did in moving the race conversation beyond black and white to all the other dimensions of diversity? Or Sean Penn’s dignifying and human portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk (“Milk,” 2008)? Or “White Man’s Burden” (1995) where John Travolta lives in a United States where whites are the oppressed minority and Blacks the ones in charge?

Even schlocky movies like “G.I. Jane” (1997) help transform long standing beliefs, in this case Demi Moore machine gunning her way toward normalizing that women can be warriors too. TV land has also played a significant role in changing culture mores. “Dora the Explorer” has a Latina girl teaching Spanish to white, blue-eyed kids throughout America, while a couple of decades earlier lovable “Ellen” made people laugh their way right out of their prejudices against lesbians and gays.

But Hollywood also perpetuates exclusion. There is so little diversity to be found among directors, writers, and producers, it’s not shocking that the most popular of media does not reflect the world as it exists. Minorities continue to struggle with very few roles available that call for their background and, when they do, it’s usually to play a thug, a homeless person, someone out of the mainstream.

We are not even having a debate about whether a deserving actor of color was passed over. People of color are not even being cast in quality roles in either mainstream story lines or in a film about people of color that would set them up for Oscar contention. Jeff Friday founder of the American Black Film Festival, told CNN for a piece entitled, “Where’s the Diversity at the Oscars?” “We have to challenge the studio system. Why are studios not making films that represent the people of this country?”

And more disturbingly, right now with even the most cutting edge, positive, and high quality efforts to create there are troubling exclusionary blind spots. Last year, I wrote about the patronizing, and therefore exclusionary, white messiah messages of 2010 Oscar nominees “Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “Precious,” and “District 9.” This time, I look at other inadvertent exclusionary ways that show up in the popular TV shows known for their positive diversity impact—“Glee,” “Modern Family,” and “The Cleveland Show”—which I share in my next installment.

Comedy and Tragedy: Pop Culture’s Two-Faced Approach to Diversity and Inclusion, Part 2

by Andrés T. Tapia — comedytragedy

In Part One of this series, I shared my thoughts about the lack of diversity on the big screen. Here, I tackle television.


Although they represent 12 percent of the population, people with disabilities are only one percent of prime-time TV characters. There are even fewer positive, affirming roles for a character with a disability.

So why, in this paean of diversity, is Artie, a character who uses a wheelchair, played by a person without a disability? It’s mind-bending that, in the midst of an exceptionally inclusive move to portray a positive, productive, highly talented character, the Glee producers send a stunningly negative message–as described in an Huffington Post entry– that those with a disability are so not able–that they can’t even be relied on to play one of their own. Wow.

The same thing happened when Abigail Breslin (from “Little Miss Sunshine) was cast as young Helen Keller in the Broadway revival of “The Miracle Worker.” A hearing actor was selected for a deaf role in the off-Broadway “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Daniel Day-Lewis played a man with severe cerebral palsy in “My Left Foot,” and Tom Cruise acted the part of a paralyzed Vietnam veteran in “Born on the Fourth of July.”  Angela Johnson Meadows’ post, “Where is Disability in the Hollywood Diversity Discussion?” offers additional insights.

The Cleveland Show

And why do the creators of “The Cleveland Show,” a smart, funny, and popular TV show about a black family, use a white actor, Mike Henry, to play the lead role of the black family patriarch? Again, in the midst of an inclusionary creation, a resounding exclusionary message is sent that blacks don’t have the skills, not even to portray themselves, not even in voice. Double wow.

We used to shake our heads when hearing about the old times, when white actors put on black face, or when they wore braids to play Native Americans. Now we see: Hollywood is still doing it!

We begin to understand how exclusion begins. It goes back to who’s being allowed to create and cast programs. The character from “The Cleveland Show” has its genesis on “Family Guy,” another animated show with a white creator and an all-white cast providing the characters’ voices. Because it would be inconsistent to change the actor who provided Cleveland’s voice once the character got his own show, the argument goes, it’s necessary to keep the same actor.

So, Cleveland’s visible diversity—and it is great to have a strong character of color in the show—masks the lack of diversity below the waterline among the writers, producers, and actors. Making it, in effect, a blackface cartoon.

Modern Family”

I love this show! Not only is it a contemporary and insightful exploration of today’s diversity issues as they play out in blended families, but it’s consistently hilarious, smart, and incisive in plot and dialogue. I applaud the creators’ and actors’ willingness to explore, through humor, sensitive diversity issues such as: What does it mean to “be a man” for the gay couple of Mitchell and Cameron? What are the lies that spouses, children, and parents tell each other? What cultural tensions exist between Latinos and European Americans that reach beyond superficial jokes about habits to more deeply expose differences in worldviews?


Why are there no black lead characters? For a show that has set out to elaborately address diversity issues in multiple ways, this is a glaring omission. True, it is an unfair burden for one show to address all diversity issues or to address them equally. I understand not only the dilution that would take place from a writing perspective, but also the apparent condescension involved in pandering to all constituencies. But for the African-American dimension to be missing–the genesis diversity issue in American culture–is a statement.

As I think about that inherent statement, and I am speculating here, I don’t believe it’s an “anti” thing. I believe it’s a fear thing. I can imagine a group being overlooked or deemed too small to be addressed, but in a show about diversity one just doesn’t overlook blacks.

Is it possible in today’s environment writers feel relatively safe writing smart, non-edgy, affirming comedy about gays, Latinas, youth, and older people, but not racial issues—particularly black and white issues? Could it be that writers felt they could not lean into making comedy of racial issues, even with their affirming, insightful philosophy to inclusion? And, if so, why not?

This apparent hesitation–actually, avoidance–reflects how too-hot-to-handle race still is in the United States. One sign of psychological health is the ability to laugh at oneself. Or, one’s group. At some level we now can laugh about Latinos, gays, and even our own preoccupation with inclusion, which is all good, but when it comes to race–particularly black and white–in America, we still can’t make it a family prime time laughing matter.

Application to Corporations

Don’t underestimate the corporate diversity implications regarding what pop culture can and cannot manage. If bold Hollywood runs away from dealing with race in a mainstream TV program about diversity, what about corporate America’s ability and readiness to truly deal with race in the workplace?

This is what worries me about the full embrace and emphasis of “inclusion.” I believe inclusion has been a transformational addition to the work of diversity. It should be about all of us. Introverts, analytics, white males included. I worry that in casting this wide net we, at times, end up equating personality and thought pattern differences to the more difficult, painful dynamics of race. And in so doing, we end up minimizing it.

I love inclusion and the concepts behind it, in the same way I love “Modern Family.” But within the good thing there could be a fatal flaw that, if not addressed, could undermine the very thing “Modern Family,” “Glee,” “The Cleveland Show”–or corporate diversity and inclusion–are supposed to be about. That is, addressing at a root level the very things that keep “us versus them” firmly in place.

When we don’t address race head on–all that unfinished business that leaves a disproportionate number of blacks still standing on the bottom rungs–it may just be telling us something troubling about our ability to truly address what matters most as we run off, gleefully, embracing all those other wonderful things.

In Job Hunt, College Degree Still Doesn’t Close Racial Gap

by Andrés T. Tapia —

With Barack Obama in the White House, it seems like race would no longer hinder African-Americans who are on the job market. But according to The New York Times, there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to hiring.

Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. But strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of 2009, as the recession dragged on, was even more pronounced for those with college degrees than those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.

According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 was nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4% compared with 4.4%.

Various academic studies have confirmed that black job seekers continue to have a harder time than whites. A study published several years ago in The American Economic Review titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that applicants with black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names. A more recent study, published this year in The Journal of Labor Economics found white, Asian, and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer blacks than black managers did.

Black job seekers interviewed by the Times conceded that race can be beneficial in some cases, particularly with companies that have diversity programs. But many said they sensed that such opportunities had been cut back over the years and even more during the downturn. Others speculated there was now more of a tendency to deem diversity efforts unnecessary after Barack Obama’s triumph.

A Disheartening Reality: “Whitening” the Resume

A few years ago a study by professors at the University of Chicago and MIT found that resumes with “white-sounding” names got 50 percent more responses than ones with “black-sounding” names. Last week  a story in the New York Times, “Whitening the Resume,” illustrated how some African American job seekers are coping with this injustice: they are removing or deemphasizing identifiers that could identify them as black in the resume screening process. Here are a few examples from the story:

Tahani Tompkins was struggling to get callbacks for job interviews in the Chicago area this year when a friend made a suggestion: Change your name. Instead of Tahani, a distinctively African-American-sounding name, she began going by T. S. Tompkins in applications.

Yvonne Orr, also searching for work in Chicago, removed her bachelor’s degree from Hampton University, a historically black college, leaving just her master’s degree from Spertus Institute, a Jewish school. She also deleted a position she once held at an African-American nonprofit organization and rearranged her references so the first people listed were not black.

This is an example of where calling out differences destructively leads to injustice and to self protective behavior that robs individuals from fully embracing their cultural identity.  The statistics don’t lie here. Behind all the politically correct statements that people make, it is clear that exclusionary behavior still plays out in tangible ways every day. A 50% higher screening out of resumes with “black sounding names” is not a coincidence. While I do not yet know of comparable studies with “Latino sounding” names chances are high the results would be the same.

Outright discrimination is obviously a serious issue that must be vigorously addressed. In addition I believe that there are many who truly are not explicitly discriminatory but who don’t realize their style preferences and their worldviews could inadvertently be screening out good talent.

As I discuss in “The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity,” Diversity training needs to go beyond “tolerance and sensitivity” and actually equip recruiters, hiring managers, and human resources professionals to be culturally competent enough to notice when the screening out is taking place.

It may start with people being able to recognize when that subconscious feeling that may lead to putting the resume least like them in the No pile. But the skill needs to go deeper than when it’s time to assess the minorities who do come in for the interviews. How able are hiring managers to appropriately interpret eye contact, a candidate using “we” instead of “I” language, or whether certain syntax is indicative of poor performance or simply is a languaging preference of different ethnic groups in the US?

Between discrimination and lack of cultural competence we have ended up in the travesty of those who are different working hard at hiding their differences  — to their and everyone else’s detriment.

What do think? How much should those who are different assimilate in the workplace in order to be accepted and advance?