…for employees from diverse backgrounds, the workplace is not just about the job, but about navigating a cultural labyrinth as well. Employees are looking for signs they are safe to be themselves, so when they see diverse executive teams, it is a signal that they will not need to sacrifice authenticity for career advancement. Oftentimes, the executive team displayed on a company website is the only view into the employee demographics, so that snapshot is incredibly important for attracting talent. If I aspire to reach the highest levels within a company, but the signal I receive from leadership is that my diversity is not valued, then I’m going to look somewhere else.
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 Carolyn Collins.
Carolyn Collins serves as the Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Gas South, an Atlanta-based natural gas provider that serves more than 300,000 residential, commercial and governmental customers across the Southeast. After graduating from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, Carolyn joined Teach For America, where she continues to serve on the leadership council as the chair of the development committee.
Thank you for joining us Carolyn. 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 am originally from New Haven, Connecticut, but I moved to Atlanta in 2012 as a Teach For America corps member. I had always been involved in work that addressed racial inequity throughout high school and college, but my experience teaching brought that work to life in ways that changed me forever. I’ve tried to carry those lessons with me throughout each of my subsequent roles, and my experience has definitely played a large part in helping me build out the strategy in my current role as Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Gas South.
Is there a particular book that has had a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I find myself constantly rereading Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Several parts of the book recount real examples of microaggressions that either she or a peer experienced. I remember reading the book for the first time and seeing my own life represented through so many of her stories. It was the first time I identified so strongly with a book and felt seen by the author.
Do you have a favorite quote or life lesson to live by? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I love the James Baldwin quote from The Fire Next Time:
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense, but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
He writes this quote while discussing the burden of living under the judgment of others, but I think it rings true for so many areas of life. Love requires us to be courageous, but in the end, it is the thing that liberates us and allows us to be truly authentic.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is the ability to inspire and influence. The best leaders I’ve encountered don’t rely on personal demonstrations of power, but they empower others to act towards a mutual goal. By sharing in decision-making process, they actually make their organization or team stronger.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. What do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I struggle with Imposter Syndrome, so I rely very heavily on personal affirmations. Before an important meeting, I find somewhere private to walk and repeat my affirmations until my heart rate drops to normal. I follow that up by listening to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme music, which is what I’d like to think my personal soundtrack would be if I had one!
Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The US 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?
I think it’s important that we begin by identifying the elements of this crisis. Over the past several months, we’ve seen Black and Hispanic communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and we’ve seen several high-profile stories of police or citizens acting as authorities while killing Black people. Neither of these concerns is new to the Black community and the protests and advocacy around these issues also isn’t new. I do, however, think the shelter-in-place mandates in response to COVID-19 provided a captive audience for these stories in a way that we haven’t seen before. The video footage and news coverage made these issues inescapable for all Americans, and it forced people who may have never personally recognized racial inequities before to reconcile their worldview with what they were seeing on screen. The conversation right now seems to be at a point of overflow, but I think history shows us that these are the moments when real change happens.
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?
Our D&I strategy covers a broad spectrum of work, but the aspect I’ve been very proud of recently has been our education initiatives. In our training over the past year, we’ve been focusing on providing employees with the skills and space to expand their worldview and hold challenging conversations. Three weeks ago, we held Community Conversations, where employees could opt into a time slot to discuss their feelings about the George Floyd case with other employees. Some of our employees needed a safe space to express the emotions they had been suppressing while at work, and others needed to hear what fellow employees had to say to process their own feelings. We provided additional educational resources and gave people ways to stay involved through local community organizations. My hope is that these interactions transform our corporate culture into one where people feel they are protected and valued by each other, not just D&I policies.
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?
There are plenty of answers to this question and I won’t recount them all, but I think there are two that have really stood out to me in my experience within D&I.
First, for employees from diverse backgrounds, the workplace is not just about the job, but about navigating a cultural labyrinth as well. Employees are looking for signs they are safe to be themselves, so when they see diverse executive teams, it is a signal that they will not need to sacrifice authenticity for career advancement. Oftentimes, the executive team displayed on a company website is the only view into the employee demographics, so that snapshot is incredibly important for attracting talent. If I aspire to reach the highest levels within a company, but the signal I receive from leadership is that my diversity is not valued, then I’m going to look somewhere else.
Second, our nation’s demographics are shifting and becoming more diverse, so there is a need for greater cultural awareness in every aspect of business. Each decision we make has intended and unintended consequences, but when all of the decision-makers share a singular perspective, there is a greater likelihood that employees and customers from diverse backgrounds will not be fully represented in those outcomes. We see several stories a year about companies that release ad campaigns or promote policies that negatively impact diverse consumers. Often, these errors are avoidable when we share decision-making power with people whose perspectives don’t mirror our own.
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.
- Expand Our View– I believe the first step in this journey is recognizing we see the world very narrowly and all of our experiences are not universal. We can’t even begin to have a conversation about equity until we acknowledge where there are inequities.
- Learn to Unlearn– There are assumptions, behaviors and patterns of thinking that we all have internalized and need to unlearn. Working toward inclusion will require us to interrogate the various ways we craft policy and distribute opportunity. Until we have the framework to implement a more inclusive way of thinking, we will continue to perpetuate the same outcomes.
- Name the Oppression– You can not solve for a problem that you can not identify. We must get comfortable naming systems, policies and people that have contributed to the marginalization of some communities. We must be honest about the issues to create the right solutions.
- Make Restitution– The past is always with us in the present. We need to reckon with our history if we want to make our nation whole. This request often is interpreted as asking people to atone for the sins of their ancestors, which is not the case. We do, however, need to critically examine the lingering impacts of our early history and work to neutralize them.
- Commit for Life– None of these changes will happen overnight or with the passage of a few laws. It will take intentionality and deliberateness from all of us to ensure we continue to support equity throughout all of our communities.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain how?
I am hopeful that we will see progress from this moment, but I think resolution is a long way off. Societal inequities are more deeply entrenched than many people recognize, so complete resolution is going to be an arduous process that requires resilience. Activists and leaders have long been telling us that this journey is long. Nelson Mandela called it a “long walk to freedom” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I think once we realize we all must commit to this work for our lifetimes, then we will begin to see true transformation.
If you could have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Billy Porter! I am such a fan of him as both an artist and a person. The way he uses his platform to advocate for Black and LGBTQ+ issues is inspirational, and he is not afraid to raise important issues through challenging conversations. He demands that the world sees him for exactly who he is, and I admire that tenacity.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can be found on LinkedIn at Carolyn Collins