The first step is to reject this false notion that one group of people is superior to another that has been used for centuries to justify unequal treatment.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Valerie Harrison.
Valerie’s formal pursuit of knowledge includes earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia, a juris doctorate from Villanova University School of Law, and a master’s degree in liberal arts and a doctor of philosophy degree in African-American Studies, both from Temple University.
As an attorney, Valerie enjoyed both a corporate legal career and a church-based legal ministry. She provided leadership to a legal ministry that provided free services for the community ranging from criminal record expungements and wills preparation for seniors to career workshops for teens and young adults.
Inspired by her own passion for learning, Valerie was easily drawn to higher education. She came to Temple University as a member of its in-house legal team and now serves as senior advisor to Temple’s president, leading the initiative to strengthen the university’s efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion. As an educator, Valerie’s research and teaching interests involve issues of race, education and the law. She is an adjunct professor at Temple University and a regular speaker at workshops and conferences.
Valerie also served as general counsel at Arcadia University and Lincoln University, and as acting president at Lincoln.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a tight-knit, tree-lined, and well-manicured neighborhood of rowhouses. It was the 1960s and 1970s and we knew everyone on our block and most people who lived on the streets around us. As children, with the possible exception of a monthly scouting meeting, team practice for a sport, or a music lesson, our activities generally were not organized or scheduled. We played outside more than we were indoors and any reasonable adult had the authority to correct and redirect us. As children, we went in and out of each other’s homes, and served as the arms and legs for the old men and women who could no longer shovel snow or carry groceries. My mother died when I was eleven (and my brother was 13). We had the good fortune of a father whose provision and devotion could be counted on. We were the center of his life and always felt special. His reliability along with the support of that community made our world stable and secure. Add to that a healthy dose of laughs, fun, as well as suffering, on the front end of life, and we were equipped to both enjoy and endure what was ahead.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is among my favorites. The science tells us that when children see images of themselves, they will generally copy the behavior. From the teacher to the church music director, I had real life images of black women who carried themselves with dignity and class. But as important, they exuded a confidence that said — at least to me — that I was free to chart my own course professionally and personally. For this reason, Janie Crawford’s story of freedom and liberation in Their Eyes Were Watching God resonated with me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Difficult roads can lead to beautiful destinations.” This is in many ways the rhythm of a balanced life. There are qualities, strengths, and perspectives that are only cultivated with some level of hardship.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
In its simplest form, leadership is about influencing people to contribute to the achievement of particular goals. Those goals can range from keeping the trains on the tracks and running on time to launching the $1 million anti-racism initiative we currently are undertaking at Temple University.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Many faith traditions employ rituals and practices that give its practitioners a sense of centering and peace. My faith tradition leads me to pray, meditate and offer expressions of gratitude or praise.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Racism is evil, ugly and grotesque, but at the same time, it is easy to ignore if it doesn’t impact your life. Americans justified slavery and the discrimination that followed by saying that Black people were inherently inferior and were not entitled to the same opportunities and resources as their white counterparts despite the fact that the fact that humans are virtually 100% the same genetically. A story was devised that paleness equaled superiority and then worth, value and opportunities were attached to how someone looked in a way that unfairly disadvantaged certain individuals and communities and unfairly advantaged other individuals and communities in a variety of areas including education, employment, criminal justice, and health care. The root problem has always been the self-interest of those with power. There are some people who wanted an inordinate and unfair share of the world’s resources. They were willing to exploit and hurt other people to have it. Racist ideas (i.e., the false notion of the superiority of one group over another) have been used to justify racist policies and practices (e.g., slavery, segregation, legally-mandated discrimination, mass incarceration, unfair public school funding) that continue to disadvantage black communities.
The narrative of racial superiority and entitlement is so baked into American culture, for some people it’s often difficult to recognize it as something that is wrong. When history is interpreted and written from the perspective of those with advantage and privilege, there is never a need for change. The narrative also is reinforced by years of being told that all is well –that black people who want to achieve do, and those who don’t have squandered whatever opportunity is given to them. The achievements of some black people are used to justify the continuation of disadvantage for most black people, lulling us into a false belief again that all is well. “Post-racial” is a term many use to describe their sense of wellness.
However, when the perspective of the oppressed and the vulnerable is front and center, the story is much different, and it becomes clear that there is urgency to correcting this false belief in the superiority of one race over another and the mistreatment that flows from it.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
I provide leadership to the institutional equity, diversity and inclusion effort at Temple University. We recently asked ourselves: how do we leverage our strengths? what areas we are best equipped to impact?
As an educational institution, Temple is naturally and primarily focused on education.
The university is uniquely positioned to be a leader in anti-racist education because it is home to the internationally recognized department of Africology and African American Studies. The department’s chair, Dr. Molefi Asante, and its faculty, students and graduates which include actor and activist Jesse Williams, and nationally recognized scholars Ibram Kendi and Eddie Glaude Jr., are among the most significant voices for racial equity of our time. So our new initiative includes a recommitment to the department’s tremendous work.
Another important component of the initiative is providing educational enrichment programs for Philadelphia’s public school students. Systemic racism has led to education disparities and inferior educational opportunities for many black children. For decades, Temple has been standing in the gap for children who have been relegated to these under-resourced schools. Our initiative includes a new academic enrichment and pipeline to college and scholarship program for students in North Philadelphia.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We are seeing resignations and early retirements across industries in some cases because of the difficulty leaders are having managing the complexity and nuance of this moment while not being overwhelmed by it. Going forward, cultural competence may be a more important issue in the workplace, and there is a strong business case that can be made for understanding diversity, equity and inclusion.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- The first step is to reject this false notion that one group of people is superior to another that has been used for centuries to justify unequal treatment.
- The second step is to embrace the notion that the worldview (the culture, history, and value system) of a particular racial or ethnic group of people is just one among many. None is better or universal. While there is certainly significant overlap, each is unique and is not entitled to supersede the variety of other perspectives that people proudly center themselves in.
- Then, let’s do the work of learning how policies and practices (like school funding) perpetuate racism, and feed our own biases.
- We all have biases. The promising news, however, is that training and other tools to help identify our biases has proven to change behavior. Start by taking an Implicit Association Test (implicit.hardvard.edu).
- Then, once we understand how policies and biases are working in the lives of people, we can move to action. Think about how we can leverage our strengths and abilities to make changes in our sphere of influence. Racial equity requires work at every level and in every space. We need as much proficiency in the board room as among young people demonstrating in the street.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Yes, I am very optimistic. My white friends and colleagues tell me that when they were growing up if they indulged their road rage, trespassed, tried a joint, took a better seat at a stadium, or mouthed off to a stranger for cutting in line, it was seen as the normal testing of boundaries or a temporary lapse in judgment, but never as a criminal danger. Now they are beginning to understand how very different it is for people of color because of the color of their skin. And we are also seeing people of all races and ethnicities expressing a desire to move from a general awareness of racism to an understanding of how racist policies and practices still operate in the lives of black people today, and then armed with this knowledge, developing and implementing effective solutions.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
George C. Wolfe. I love live theater. And while I’m not a singer or actor, or director, I’m an enthusiastic consumer and supporter. A good work leaves me not necessarily with every issue resolved, but with a deeper understanding of our shared humanity — our contradictions, our short-sightedness, our inclinations, and most important our capacity for empathy and love. Thinking about where we have influence, theater, for example, is critical in explaining racism; exposing its unfairness and cruelty in a manner that can be understood and digested; pricking the conscience of people; and motivating them to action. George C. Wolfe has done this as good as anyone.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!