Embed Diversity and inclusion into all processes and functions. It is not just an HR issue. It impacts product design, marketing, IT, finance procurement and other organizational function.
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 Mary-Frances Winters.
Mary-Frances Winters is CEO of The Winters Group, Inc., a 36-year old diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm that has worked with hundreds of clients globally. She has served on national not-for-profit, corporate and university boards, and has received many awards and honors including the ATHENA award, Diversity Pioneer (Profiles in Diversity Journal), The Winds of Change (Forum on Workplace Inclusion) and Forbes Top 10 diversity trailblazers. She is the author of six books, including the recent release of Inclusive Conversations: Fostering Equity Empathy and Belonging Across Differences and Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit.
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?
Igrew up in Niagara Falls, NY, mostly as an only child (I was 15 when my brother was adopted). I was adopted at 18 months old. My dad was a laborer all of his career. My mother did not work outside the home. We were a low-middle class at best. Niagara Falls did not have a lot of racial diversity and I knew from a young age that I was different, and that difference might make a difference.I was in kindergarten in 1956 just two years after the landmark Brown versus Board of Education decision banning segregated schools
One day Bobby, (not his real name) a freckled face white boy called Karen and me the “n” word. We were not exactly sure what it meant, but we knew it was not nice, so we started crying. The teacher came to our rescue and inquired as to why we were crying. After we told her, she called Bobby in to the coatroom as told him that his red hair was ugly, and his freckles were too. While I am not sure a child psychologist would have concurred with the teacher’s approach, it worked for us because Bobby was crying now too.
This was the first time I really knew that I was different and that somebody would be mean to me because of it. Consider the impressionable mind of 5-year-old children and the realization that skin color made Karen and me the subject of disdain. My parents tried to explain what the word meant and how it was used to denigrate “Negroes”. (Yes, I am old enough that we were still referred to as Negroes).
From that day forward, I changed from a carefree little girl to a cautious and insecure one not being sure when somebody might be mean to me again because of the color of my skin. The realization that I might not be accepted by everyone — having to think about it and consider it — was/is stressful and contributes to Black Fatigue.
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?
Native Son by Richard Wright. I was a teenager when I read this book and it so poignantly pointed out how racism plays out especially for Black men. The main character Bigger Thomas actually kills two people. It was out of fear. He is portrayed as a “maddened ape”. Even though it is a really sad and violent story, it stuck with me as to how the system can drive people to heinous crimes. I felt sorry for Bigger and his circumstances.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Good, better best, never let it rest, until your good gets better and your better gets best”. There is not an attribution for this quote as far as I know but it guides my life to never stop striving to do better. When we know better, we do better.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is someone who has the audacity to take a controversial or never heard of position on something and rally others to believe in it simply because it is the right thing to do. Nelson Mandela and Harriett Tubman are two that come to mind who exemplify my definition. They both sacrificed greatly for the greater good. Nelson Mandela — 26 years in jail in his quest to end apartheid. Harriett Tubman-19 trips to free slaves from the north to the south on foot.
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?
I rehearse to myself what I am going to say; I reflect on it often and I pray for God’s will to be done in this situation.
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?
Around the same time as George Floyd’s murder, Amy Cooper (white woman) was walking her dog in Central Park and Chris Cooper (not related, a Black man) was bird watching. He requested that she keep her dog leashed in accordance with park regulations. She refused to do so, and a verbal dispute ensued with Amy Cooper calling 911, ranting that an African American man was threatening her and her dog. Mr. Cooper remained calm throughout the ordeal, urging her to call authorities. Ms. Cooper was fired from her job at a large financial services company.
Already at a heightened level of stress from dealing with the multiple disparate impacts of Covid-19 on Black people, these all too familiar racist incidents were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
These tragic incidents in a short time span in 2020 amplified in gory detail, the centuries-old, willful disregard for Black lives. We were reminded of the period in our history where Black men were lynched, put on public display as a means of terrorizing and controlling. These deaths were examples of a modern-day lynching. And there are so many more examples throughout history of Black people being targeted and killed. One of the most famous atrocities is Emmitt Till, the 14- year old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. There are a number of high-profile cases in recent history such as Trevon Martin (2012), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Botham Jean (2019), Philando Castile (2016), Eric Garner (2014) According to a News One reported 83 unarmed Black men had been killed by police since 2012.
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 started my company 36 years ago. We focus on helping organizations develop, implement, and sustain diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in their organizations. A general theme throughout this work has been a reluctance to talk about race which is one of the reasons I wrote Black Fatigue. We see from the renewed interest in anti-racism as a result of recent incidents that we need to talk about race. I am dedicated my career to attempting to have the tough conversations about race. We cannot give in to fragility.
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?
- To attract and retain top talent. When people of color or women do not see people who look like them ascending to top spots, they will likely leave.
- To meet the needs of a diverse customer base
- To enhance innovation — -diversity brings different thinking.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. 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.
- Acknowledge Whiteness-White people, by and large, say they do not see race. They claim color-blindness. If there was no white there would be no Black and vice-versa. WE live in a racialized world where white is supreme and to make progress to eradicate racism we all have to acknowledge how our identity plays into it.
- Acknowledge the history of mistreatment and violence against Black, indigenous people of color (BIPOC), officially apologize and pay reparations.
- Interrogate processes, practices, policies. Racism, sexism, ageism and other “isms” are deeply rooted in our structures. We have to dig deep to find and dismantle those systems.
- Hold leaders accountable for results. It is key to hold those who hold the power accountable for results and not just representation but also retention and the extent to which they foster inclusion on their teams.
- Embed Diversity and inclusion into all processes and functions. It is not just an HR issue. It impacts product design, marketing, IT, finance procurement and other organizational function.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Not optimistic. White supremacy is too entrenched. White supremacy is not just the extremists. It is an ideology that white is superior that permeates the foundation of our society.
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. 🙂
Maybe Barack Obama to get his unfiltered perspective on what is going on in the world right now.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me on LinkedIn, Mary-Frances Winters, and my company for news and resources, The Winters Group. They can also follow The Winters Group on:
Instagram and Twitter — @thewintersgroup
Facebook — The Winters Group, Inc.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!