I still get goosebumps when I think about it: the moment I had the searing personal realization that my assumptions about how the world works don’t necessarily hold true for everyone.
The road to that realization began nearly three years ago, with the fatal police shooting of an African-American man in the parking lot of an apartment complex near one of my company’s locations in Charlotte, North Carolina. Coming amid a rash of other high-profile deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police around the country, the incident sparked immediate protest that turned to rioting and violence followed by several days of high tension throughout the city.
With a significant part of our workforce distraught at these events, and other employees confused by the conflicting accounts of what occurred, my colleagues and I realized we had to respond. There was no ignoring what was on everyone’s mind.
Since then, we’ve made a comprehensive commitment to diversity and inclusion. Our chief executive has joined CEOs from some of America’s largest businesses in the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion initiative; we’ve joined dozens of companies in the Paradigm for Parity coalition to bring gender parity to our corporate leadership structure by 2030; and we now have extensive programs, policies, sponsorships, and recruiting programs designed to embrace the diversity of our workforce, our customers, and the communities we serve.
At the time though, we had no clear playbook for addressing the inflammatory issues encapsulated in the mutually uncomprehending cries of black/blue/all lives matter.
So we took a leap of faith and created an event where all Charlotte-area employees were invited to talk honestly about what they were feeling—with no assurance that it wouldn’t blow up in our faces. It was coming in the midst of a presidential election that had been painfully polarizing along lines of race, gender, and class; and it followed the killing of five police officers just months before, at the conclusion of an otherwise peaceful protest one evening in Dallas.
The room was packed—more than 200 people, about half of whom were black and half were white, had chosen to attend. As the microphone passed from hand to hand, the words of our employees became increasingly personal and emotional.
The remarks of a black, mid-level manager were representative of others who spoke at the event: “I’ve come into work these past few days and I have literally been crying in my cubicle because I can’t believe that this is happening in 2016,” she said. “I can’t check this at the door; this comes to work with me.”
In response, a number of white employees expressed their surprise that these events were having such a direct and powerful impact on colleagues. You could see new understanding dawning on their faces.
Then my own moment of revelation came. A parent who has a teenage son said she had been late for work that morning because she wasn’t willing to let her son walk his usual three blocks to his school bus stop and wait there by himself. “I just didn’t think it was safe for a 13-year-old black boy wearing a hoodie, so I sat with him in the car until the bus came,” she said. “And I really hope he comes home safe tonight.” I saw other black parents, some of them with tears in their eyes, nodding their heads in agreement.
That was when I got goosebumps. My son was 12 at the time; he wore hoodies; he often walked around unaccompanied by a parent. But he is white. I wasn’t worried about whether he would come home alive that night. I had no idea what it felt like as a mother to send my child out into the world every morning and wonder if he would live through the day.
I think a lot of other people in the room were hit with the same revelation. The microphone made its way to another white participant who said he, and some of his colleagues, had previously defended the actions of the police, but now he no longer felt inclined to do so. “As I sat here and listened, I’ve come to a much different understanding,” he said. “Regardless of the merits of the case, I just want to support the people in this room. And what I’ve been trying to figure out in the time that I’ve been sitting here is how to go share what I’ve learned with people who think like me.”
A number of other people confessed to a cluelessness akin to mine. It had never occurred to them, for example, that getting stopped for having a taillight out could have an entirely different meaning for people of color—and potentially far more dire consequences.
That initial, ad hoc forum has since blossomed into a regular program we call Bridging Connections. Every few months we choose a discussion topic based on unignorable, and often contentious, events happening in the world around us. For instance, around the time of the 2017 US presidential inauguration, we convened a forum on political affiliation, which more than at any time in recent memory has divided American friends, colleagues, and even families. We’ve also done other forums on race, on gender, and on LGBT concerns, and we’ve opened up the conversations so that hundreds more employees across the country and around the world can participate by phone and webcast.
The goal is not to manufacture agreement but to create a willingness to understand that makes us stronger. On our campus it has contributed to a new level of cohesion, building bridges between worlds that people didn’t even know were different. And that’s vitally important at a time when we see a backlash against diversity training, and have evidence that mandatory, blaming-and-shaming approaches designed primarily to avoid lawsuits have been ineffective.
Don’t get me wrong. The right kind of diversity training can be valuable for establishing a baseline of knowledge, setting expectations, and enabling everyone to become more self-aware. But for learning about other people in a way that endures, there’s no substitute for goosebumps.
Michelle Murphy is the chief diversity officer and VP for global talent acquisition at Ingersoll Rand.