“Public service is the noblest good”, H. Wes Pratt and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Awareness, Knowledge and Skills Development along with Cultural Consciousness/Competency while striving for Inclusive Excellence — these are five steps I recommend organizations, institutions, communities and individuals take to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society. It actually begins with the executive leadership exhibiting the commitment and the will to change what has historically been the status quo […]

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Awareness, Knowledge and Skills Development along with Cultural Consciousness/Competency while striving for Inclusive Excellence — these are five steps I recommend organizations, institutions, communities and individuals take to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society. It actually begins with the executive leadership exhibiting the commitment and the will to change what has historically been the status quo when it comes to a lack of diversity and inclusion. We begin by valuing the inclusion of diversity and taking the steps to ensure equity within all the sectors of society.

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 H. Wes Pratt, J.D.

H. Wes Pratt is a lifelong public servant. He’s the assistant to the president/chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. Pratt has worked in the public sectors in local and state governments, in the non-profit sector, and in higher education. He has always championed empowerment through valuing the inclusion of diversity. He was recognized in 2017 as the first ever “417-Breakthrough Award’ winner for his public service and work in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion at Missouri State, in the Springfield community and throughout his lifetime.

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 Springfield, Missouri, attending public schools during the Civil Rights era when people living in the region were often hostile to people of color due to the lack of exposure and cultural consciousness of people in the rural and town communities. I became a student activist at age 15 and community activist due to the mentorship of my pastor and a college professor at the college where I currently work. They organized black and young people of color as a NAACP Youth chapter in 1965 and I was president of the chapter for several years.

I attended college across the street from my high school at Drury University, and after graduation, worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone before leaving to join Upward Bound as director. My activism continued and culminated in me being a candidate for City Council at age 25 (losing by 944 votes in a citywide election). I then decided to go to law school at the University of San Diego School of Law. I subsequently worked in state and local government and was elected to the San Diego City Council in 1987. After serving on the council, I subsequently practiced law in San Diego, became director of the Urban Corps of San Diego, and was appointed as director of the California Conservation Corps by then Governor Gray Davis. When Governor Davis was defeated in a recall election due to the energy crisis, I relocated and became the deputy director of the Job Corps in Maryland in 2004. Eventually, I returned to my hometown of Springfield and began work at Missouri State University in 2008. President Clif Smart appointed me to my current position as assistant to the president/chief diversity officer in January 2016.

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?The Measure of a Man” by Sidney Poitier was a book that was particularly provocative and impactful to me as it chronicled his life and achievements from a young man born into poverty to his highly professional career as a world-renowned actor. It resonated with me because the measure of a man is based upon how a man treats his family or if you believe as I do that all people belong to the human family, it is how we treat our fellow human beings. Simple yet powerful in its value-based formula kind of way.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” is one that I always share with young people who have been marginalized or under-valued by others. The other quote that has been relevant to my life’s work is the motto of the County of San Diego, “Public service is the noblest good.” I have tried to live by the messages in both quotations and that is why I have little tolerance for so-called politicians who serve their personal ends when they should be servant leaders for the people they represent, whether they are elected or appointed.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to effectively address and serve the needs of others and to stand on principle when being required to make decisions that affect the lives and/or livelihoods of those whom you “are charged” with leading and/or representing in the pursuit of a common goal. Many have made statements that capture the essence in the definition of “leadership.” For example, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said something widely quoted since her death, which was simply to “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.

Perhaps, however, one of the most succinct and impactful definitions of leadership, was stated by Albert Schweizer. He said simply that “the three most important ways to lead are … by example … by example … by example.” Leaders do what they do with a passion and a willingness to “step up, stand up, speak up and stay up” for what is right in a way that attracts others to the task(s) at hand in order to make a difference.

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 guess the first thing I do is breathe … and then prepare adequately to be able to make the best decision based upon all the information required. As a leader in my position, whether as an elected, appointed and/or selected position, I would do my homework, get all the relevant information (i.e. facts) and then make a decision based on the facts, the rule of law, as well as my personal and professional experience(s). My wife’s father used to tell her about the six “Ps” — “proper prior planning prevents poor performance” and I believe that is what it boils down to in the final analysis. I also like to work out and be physically active several times a week.

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?

The U.S. historically has failed to adequately deal with the issue of race in this nation and value the inclusion of diversity. The very underpinnings of this nation has been based on the subjugation of others. The failure to recognize that and/or to reconcile that ugly past with the commitment to do and be better as a collective has always been problematic. The great division and the polarization of citizens and residents, have been manipulated by so-called “leaders” who put personal or professional interests ahead of the best interests of citizens and residents, especially those who have been historically underrepresented or excluded from what this nation has and could offer to every man, woman or child who “lives, learns and earns” here. Racial injustice has been a reality for over 400 years and certainly for all of my life. Poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and all other –isms exist and persist because of bias, implicit bias and the lack of cultural consciousness. We as people, it appears, lack the inherent ability to be aware and knowledgeable, or the ability to develop the requisite skills to negotiate our cross-cultural differences in order to truly understand and value those whom we see as different. Diversity is not a new concept, but it has been politicized to meet the selfish needs of those who seek power or more accurately, are “corrupted” by power, position and influence.

So, when a people and/or a nation fail to address its historical and contemporary failures, the problems and issues persist. They become compounded so that eruptions periodically manifest themselves until a collective mass of folks, nationally and internationally, finally see that racial and socio-economic equality exists and that the institutional decision-making processes and decision-makers perpetrate the fallacies in order to retain power and control for their personal and philosophical aggrandizement.

The demonstrations held today, yesterday and throughout the summer in relation to the #BLM movement were not based on folks trying to overthrow government, but based on the realization that racial injustice in our justice system is pervasive. They also are based on the realization that the socio-economic conditions perpetuate disparities in public health, housing, education, etc. So, they stand, but the question remains will they continue to act to change policy, practices and the laws that allow such injustices to persist across the many sectors and facets of American life.

The realization that people are treated poorly, differently and/or unjustly because of their race, nationality, religion or socio-economic status was viewed by millions more who formerly, perhaps because of their naiveté, or because of the privilege, wealth or status didn’t see or realize the historically systemic racism inherent in the promise of America. What many saw, perhaps for the first time, were the unjustified murders of men and women who were beaten or slaughtered because of their race or because of their gender or because of whom they loved.

They saw, perhaps for the first time, and started to understand the disproportionate number of blacks, Latinos, elderly Americans and the ‘essential workers’ who died from COVID-19 that was the latest wake-up call. A wake-up call that compelled them to “step up, stand up, speak up, and stay up” to fight the systemic racism; to challenge and eradicate what they previously refused to see, to acknowledge or that they chose to not see and understand. Our citizens and residents from all backgrounds marched in cities, in towns, in rural areas and in all 50 states and in over 25 nations worldwide to say that indeed, Black lives matter and racial injustice in the justice system, especially with law enforcement, must be eliminated.

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?

As I mentioned, I started out trying to make a difference as a 15-year old teenager in 1965 during the Civil Rights era. Even in college and during law school in the mid-70s, we worked as college students locally and then even as law students we worked to provide access for historically underrepresented and excluded students in law school as part of the admissions process while pursuing our legal studies full time. As a member and president of the Black American Law Students Association, we collaborated with the La Raza Law Students Association, the Asian Law Students Association and the Disadvantaged White Students Association in these efforts to increase access, success and equity for such law students by promoting the inclusion of diversity at the University of San Diego.

After graduating law school, I then worked with state and local public officials in California, including Assemblyman Peter R. Chacon, who initiated the English Limited Language legislation in the state and was replicated nationwide. I then joined the staff of City Council member Leon L. Williams, the first Black city council member appointed to the San Diego City Council in 1969 (the same year incidentally that I graduated from CentralHigh School in Springfield).Subsequently, Council member Williams became the first Black San Diego County Supervisor and I eventually became his chief of staff. In 1987, I was elected to the San Diego City Council representing the Fourth Council District. During my four years in office, I worked to establish the San Diego Housing Trust Fund; the Urban Corps of San Diego; the San Diego Human Rights Commission; served as chair of the Housing Commission and was a champion for the historically underrepresented and excluded citizens, residents and young people.

In 2000, I became the first African American appointed by Governor Gray Davis to lead the California Conservation Corps (CCC) established by former Governor Jerry Brown. The CCC is a state agency in the Department of Resources, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, established during the Depression of the 1930s. It empowers young people from diverse backgrounds through environmental conservation efforts while providing education and career development. These young people are also trained as first responders to fight fires, floods and natural disasters, as well as to preserve the riparian and wildlife habitat.

After the recall of Governor Davis, I was hired as a deputy director at the Maryland Job Corps Centers and then returned to Springfield and was hired at Missouri State University in 2008 as the coordinator for Diversity Outreach and Recruitment. In 2011, I became the director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, and in 2016, hired into my current position as assistant to the president/chief diversity officer (CDO).

As CDO, my staff and I, along with the president and provost of the university, have worked to develop and implement executive level diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to improve the cultural consciousness, awareness, knowledge and skills necessary to negotiate our cross-cultural differences. Our framework we utilize is the Inclusive Excellence Change Model, developed by Dr. Damon A. Williams, which creates the opportunity to utilize the rich diversity of every Missouri State University stakeholder.

We reinstated the Facing Racism Institute (FRI) program on our campus, after it was initially sponsored by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, Missouri State University, Drury University and the Springfield Public Schools. The FRI provides professional development for citywide leaders, employees and faculty to understand racism; how to mitigate it and how we can become advocates and champions for anti-racism. We sponsor the annual Collaborative Diversity Conference that highlights best practices locally, regionally and nationally in diversity, equity and inclusion.

We also have collaborated with the Division for Student Affairs to create the Bears LEAD program, which is a transitional support program for historically underrepresented students entering the university. Additionally, we collaborated to develop the Student Leadership Diversity Institute that develops leaders of student organizations to engage in diversity, equity and inclusion training using a peer mentorship approach. We worked with the Office of the Provost to create the Bear POWER program for developmentally disabled students to attend college and engage in the academic process. These efforts are based, in large part, on our university Long Range Plan. It includes a section on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that is implemented through annual action plans that are adopted and approved by the Board of Governors, the policy-making body for the university.

Furthermore, we are partners with our local public entities in the city and county in establishing the Public Entities Diversity Workgroup that seeks to increase contracting, consulting, construction and employment opportunities for people of color and historically excluded groups. I also served as the co-chair of the Springfield Public Schools Advisory Council to address issues of the lack of cultural consciousness, anti-racism and equal opportunity to increase the number of diverse employees, teachers, counselors and administrators in the school system. Valuing the inclusion of diversity is the responsibility of all citizens and residents including our business, corporate and public sectors.

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?

Missouri State University President Clif Smart states often that a diverse executive team or administrative council provides for better decision-making as the perspectives, experiences and acumen of a diverse leadership gives more insightful and thoughtful process to reach a decision or consensus on deliberative matters. Research indicates that a diverse workforce offers three advantages to employers: (1) Access to a broader pool of potential employees; (2) Ability to relate to diverse customers; and (3) A more productive workforce.

A diverse executive team also makes good business sense! It creates the effective management of workforce diversity that is clearly linked to improvements in organizational performance, effectiveness, profitability and revenue generation:

  • A workplace that values diversity and is more free of discrimination is more productive;
  • Greater employee satisfaction leads to improved productivity and profitability;
  • Reduced employee turnover cuts the cost of having to replace skilled and experienced people; and
  • Harnessing employee skill and perspectives increases creativity and innovation.

The “business case for diversity” has been made in convincing ways. For example, a recent McKinsey study looked at the top executive teams of 180 public firms and found that those firms with more diverse teams outperformed their peers in Return on Equity (ROE) and Earnings before Interest and Taxes (EBIT).

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.

Awareness, Knowledge and Skills Development along with Cultural Consciousness/Competency while striving for Inclusive Excellence — these are five steps I recommend organizations, institutions, communities and individuals take to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society. It actually begins with the executive leadership exhibiting the commitment and the will to change what has historically been the status quo when it comes to a lack of diversity and inclusion. We begin by valuing the inclusion of diversity and taking the steps to ensure equity within all the sectors of society.

Dr. Damon A. Williams’ concept of inclusive excellence ensures that we value and bring the rich diversity of everyone to the pursuit of higher education. I believe this premise is applicable to all sectors as it begins with the awareness that disparate outcomes, opportunities and benefits adversely affect many historically excluded group (HEG) members (many who may be from impoverished backgrounds or whom are more commonly identified currently as Black Indigenous People of Color). When HEGs become valued, respected and treated with dignity, and when the systemic barriers, obstacles and impediments are identified and eliminated, it creates the opportunity for all citizens and residents to reap the benefits associated with the promise of America.

However, the next step is to acquire the knowledge of the underpinnings and reasons why it is critical to work toward cultural consciousness for individuals, as well as organizations, institutions and communities. What actions do we need to identify and address the necessary reasons to promote equity in the places we “live, learn and earn”? Knowledge is necessary to effectively negotiate the cross-cultural barriers that exist that too often prevent all of us from achieving the best of ourselves individually and collectively.

That awareness and knowledge to negotiate our cross-cultural differences constitutes cultural consciousness. Such consciousness provides the foundation for all of us to begin to develop the skill sets wherein we begin to understand and comprehend the challenges that are barriers to equal opportunity, fairness, equity and success. Too many barriers are based upon what compliance practitioners recognize as protective class status, such as race, national origin, religion, political affiliation, disability, veteran status, sex, gender and/or gender identification, while others have to do with the biases and implicit biases we all may possess regarding our differences in thought, socio-economic status, learning styles, immigration status, geographic origins, etc.

Becoming aware, knowledgeable and developing skills that promote valuing the inclusion of diversity allows us to become more culturally conscious as we strive to become more culturally competent. Attaining cultural competency is a continuous process because of its fluidity, and thechanges that human relationships constantly and consistently undergo on a daily, if not hourly, basis. We aspire to be culturally competent, but that inspiration and aspiration is based on our individual social, emotional, experiential natures and the intentional efforts we make to value others with respect and dignity that should humanly be accorded each of us. We possess the capability as human beings living in a complex and ever-changing global society/global economy. The question becomes, do we possess the will to do what we know needs to be done and are we intentional in promoting respect for the value of the inclusion of diversity? In other words, are you as an individual and are we collaboratively willing to “step up, stand up, speak up, and stay up” to make inclusive excellence the reality in our daily lives in all that we do?

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I have “labored in these vineyards” for 55-plus years to work toward addressing the issues that adversely affect so many of our citizens and residents. The issues identified with the killings of Michael Brown, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and numerous others are simply the most recent manifestations of the systemic racism/sexism, particularly as it relates to police community relations. It has persisted in this nation for centuries because we have not forthrightly addressed the issues of racism and sexism in this nation.

The multitudes of men, women and children who are addressing and demonstrating about these issues locally, regionally, nationally and worldwide, gives many of us hope, but we must not only stand up against the -isms pervading the world. It also requires public awareness, education and the continuing growth in knowledge along with the development of skills necessary to negotiate effectively our cross-cultural differences. Therefore, we individually and collectively will have the way to mitigate and eradicate the systemic policies, practices and laws within our institutions, organizations and communities that constitute the underpinnings of the structural racism and sexism that sustain the adverse treatment of historically excluded groups of citizens and residents. For many Black citizens, the hostile and racist treatment has been entrenched for over 400 years and we can only hope that this most recent movement results in changing the political and governmental structures and landscape that have sustained the disparate treatment of the poor people and Black indigenous people of color for generations.

Optimism may be too broad of an overstatement … I remain hopeful that the great majority of American citizens and residents can see what needs to be done, will commit to addressing and acting to eliminate the challenges of racism and sexism and other –isms that diminish us as a nation.

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. 🙂

There are at least five people I would have liked to have dined with; all but one are deceased. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nelson Mandela; Elijah Cummings, the congressman from Baltimore, Maryland, and Congressman John Lewis. Each contributed so much to representative government and the cause of civil rights for all people. Mandela, for example, sacrificed so much of course and yet remained hopeful in the fight against apartheid in South Africa to the extent that after such mistreatment and imprisonment, he still was able to lead his people and his nation as its president to a better nation and a better society, is simply amazing to me. Mandela is, and was a testament to the character inherent in the measure of a man and in the grace it takes to rise above the madness in the oppression of systemic racism/sexism and other -isms that limit all of us as human beings.

However, today the one person I would like to meet and share a meal and conversation with would be former President Barack Obama. President Obama, for me personally and professionally, validated my life’s work and career as a public servant who began as a student and community activist. To dedicate your life and career to efforts to make a difference when you are a teenager is a significant commitment. It certainly has also involved sacrifice not only for me, but also for members of my family. While I believe public service is the epitome of the contributions people can make, it still can be challenging to say the least, in a number of ways, including emotionally, physically and spiritually.

When President Obama was elected in 2008, I remember being at election central watching the returns come in. When it was becoming clear he was going to be our next president, I had to leave the celebration before it really began and go to my home and sit in awe alone, watching the returns on CNN and as I watched, I wept. I wept at the magnitude of the moment and of the promise that moment held. I wept, because in a small way, my personal and professional efforts at empowering the least of us, the historically underrepresented, the historically excluded and the disenfranchised were validated in a most peculiar way, even if only understood by me. My life’s work, though not as lofty, and impactful as President Obama’s election victory, signaled to me that my decision as a young man, a Black teenager from Springfield, Missouri, in the so-called heartland of America, to dedicate his life to make a difference did mean something in the grand scheme of life.

In my opinion, whether many agree with me or not, I believe President Obama was uniquely qualified, suited and gifted to lift this nation, and the promise of America to new heights. However, sadly I have realized that the systemic -isms that historically plague our nation and the blatantly partisan political nature of this nation continue to erect barriers. These barriers prevent our nation from being able to rise above the partisan gymnastics and join together for what could have been in the best interests of all citizens and residents who call America home — such a missed opportunity to live out a vision that is inherent in the notion and the belief that “public service is the noblest good.” Yet, I remain hopeful.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @HwesPratt

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/harold.w.pratt

Email: wpratt@missouristate.edu

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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