Valerie White of LISC NYC: “Acknowledge that inequality is systemic”

Acknowledge that inequality is systemic. Until we truly acknowledge that inequality can be found in all corners of business, government, and everyday life and that inequality is the system upon which our nation was built, then we will never make real progress towards creating an inclusive and equitable society. This is step one in business, […]

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Acknowledge that inequality is systemic. Until we truly acknowledge that inequality can be found in all corners of business, government, and everyday life and that inequality is the system upon which our nation was built, then we will never make real progress towards creating an inclusive and equitable society. This is step one in business, but it is also step one for our society as a whole.

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 White, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC NYC).

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 East Fishkill, New York, which when I was growing up was a middle-class, suburban area. When I was growing up there in the ‘70’s, East Fishkill was not made up of a diverse population, so because of that, much of what I learned about my own culture came from my parents and grandparents — both of which made sure that my siblings and I were not only well-grounded in our Black culture, but we clearly understood the historical inequities in our country and what we would have to face in our personal and professional lives as we grew up.

My family was proud of and steeped in that culture, which to be frank was quite different from everyone around us during that time.

I went to Fordham University in the Bronx for my undergraduate degree, and from that point on I never looked back from New York City, which is where I’ve lived since the 1980s.

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?

“Teacher of Business,” written by James McGraw. Its underlying theme that influenced me when I first read it, and to this day still influences my work, is how important it is to be true to your work. “Teacher of Business” makes it clear that it is our obligation that we meet a standard of excellence in our work that can allow others to rely on and trust in it.

The book resonated with me the most in that it took all elements of what my parents had taught me growing up — hard work, work ethic, and pursuit of excellence — and turned it into a real philosophy that works in both business and my personal life.

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

“You will never go wrong, if you do the right thing.” Or “Integrity is doing the right thing; even when no one is watching.” C.S. Lewis

You know what’s right, and you do what’s right, and if you operate by those two principles then you’ll always be able to trust that you will be moving in the right direction. No one has to see you do the right thing, but ultimately doing what’s right will always steer you in the right direction. I see and experience this time and again throughout my life, and I see it so many others’ lives as well.

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

Leadership means forming collaboration with a team, accepting that there will always be distinct differences in what members of that team can contribute, and, in turn, identifying the particular strength of those differences and utilizing them to move forward a vision or mission.

Leadership also means helping your team members achieve and grow. It is important to not only identify challenges that team members may have; but also develop scenarios and provide the support to help mitigate those challenges so that employee has a professional growth experience. . When there is a particular challenge getting in the way of personal or organizational growth, it is a leader’s job to close the gap created by that particular challenge — and if it cannot be closed, then a good leader will help their team member grow around that gap.

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?

We’re in this era of a global pandemic where many of the things that we used to do to avail ourselves of our stresses are no longer possible. Not only that, but there are now additional worries that were not-existent — or less frequent — that we now have to grapple with in addition to everything else. I think it’s extremely important we all recognize that as we work with others in this pandemic world.

There are two things I would offer as ways to prepare your body and mind before a high stakes meeting, talk, or decision. One, be prepared. Be prepared for what you are talking about and well-informed about the decision that is going to be made. I always try to identify three or four key points that are important to a meeting or decision — and I go back to those key points right before that event or decision. It helps me bring everything into focus.

Second, and related to the first point, is to bring a hyper-focus to the matter at-hand. We shouldn’t let matters outside of our control dictate or influence our thinking on what’s in front of us. Circumstances that we cannot control must be thrown to the side so we can allow our mind to focus on what’s at stake — which should bring you back to those three or four key points that are central to your decision-making process.

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?

It didn’t evolve to a boiling point — it’s been boiling for the past 400 years. This is the state of how we exist in this country — it’s ingrained in our people, our laws, and our institutions. It’s systemic.

I think all Americans know that there are inequalities and racial differences that influence life daily. We all know — whether we say it out loud or not — that races of different people are treated differently. But, it’s often so much easier to ignore it, say nothing about it, and keep on keeping on through our own lives — at least for the people who do not endure systemic racism and benefit from privilege.

What happens periodically, however, is that there will be a particular incident that is just so blatantly public and blatantly racist, wrong, and heart-wrenching that you cannot turn away and for an ensuing period of time everyone is upset. Guilt causes action in the near-term, but then it’s easy to revert back to our own silos once that guilt eventually recedes.

Everyone knew there was Jim Crow. But it wasn’t until there was broadcast television that Americans were forced daily to watch the tragedy unfolding right in front of their eyes on the nightly news. Soon, thereafter came the Civil Right Act.

You couldn’t turn away from George Floyd being suffocated to death for eight minutes. Eight minutes that Americans all across the country couldn’t turn away from. It was so blatantly wrong and upsetting. Americans were once again guilted into action, and here we are eight months later still talking about inclusivity and justice.

This cycle of racism, guilt, and withdrawal will continue, and these “boiling points” will continue to become self-evident every so often until we acknowledge as a country that systemic racism is engrained in how our country was built, and how we’ve operated now for some 245 years. Until we directly face the racism that built this country and our institutions, and in turn address it in a consequential manner, then we will continue to cycle back and forth between the daily simmer of racism and the life-shattering boiling points that we have seen far too many times in our nation’s history.

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 have always been intimately involved with diversity & inclusion initiatives at every place that I have worked because diversity & inclusion is intimately tied to my life.

It is a responsibility that I hold near and dear to me because I believe that I had certain benefits that most Black Americans haven’t had, though that doesn’t mean that I’m not reminded sometime everyday by somebody that I am a Black woman; and the inequities that are societally inherent by the very nature of my being.

The first time I was really able to get involved in diversity & inclusion initiatives was when I worked at Standard & Poor’s. It was at a time when investors wanted to see diversity in the C-Suite — it was good for business; it was good for people. I was on the employee resources group, and I made sure that even though I wasn’t a recruiter, that I played an integral role in the hiring process.

Why? Because when a new class of analysts came in and there were no Black recruits, and I would ask why, I was told there were no qualified candidates interested in the job. So, I went out to where I knew there were qualified Black applicants looking for entry-level analyst positions and I recruited them myself. I didn’t want the appearance of diversity & inclusion, I was ready to go out of my way to make sure it was a reality.

Now, as the executive director of LISC NYC, our entire vision stands on the foundation of racial and economic equity. Everything we do, everyone we serve, is accomplished and considered through the lens of diversity & inclusion — whether it’s investing in neighborhoods, small businesses, or housing.

LISC National also has a Diversity, Inclusion, Equality & Justice Committee that I serve on, too.

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?

Having a diverse executive team allows an organization, firm, or corporation to make decisions that benefit everyone and grow the impact and reach of your work. It’s also a matter of the ‘bottom line’. Without the diversity of thoughts and experiences in developing business strategies or running an organization, mission and key goals will miss the very global nature of how our society functions and will impact the ability of the organization to be successful and nimble in today’s business environment.

I see this every day at LISC NYC, the organization of which I am the executive director. Our team is built of 14 staff members, all of whom are either minority or female New Yorkers. The diversity of our team leads to the broadest range of ideas for how we can effect change and generate impact in the communities we serve.

We all come from different backgrounds and life experiences, and for that reason, we all interpret circumstances differently, and it’s that interpretation that helps devise an array of solutions and ideas that can be considered.

Also, as leaders in the business, corporate, and civic world, it’s on us to ensure that our leadership is diverse. If we don’t lead from the front on this critical issue of diversity & inclusion, then who will?

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.

  1. Acknowledge that inequality is systemic. Until we truly acknowledge that inequality can be found in all corners of business, government, and everyday life and that inequality is the system upon which our nation was built, then we will never make real progress towards creating an inclusive and equitable society. This is step one in business, but it is also step one for our society as a whole.
  2. Be committed to looking at precisely where in the system inequity is and unapologetically work to address and change those inequities. Like everything else in business and in life, the only way to fully address a problem is to directly address its root cause. In the case of inequity, it’s built into our system of being, which will require a systemic approach to address it fully.
  3. Recognize that everyone is not going to be willing to make these changes. It’s easy to get down on ourselves, or down on our society, for everyone not doing enough to make the world a fairer more just place. The truth of the matter is that inequality is so engrained in society that its difficult at this point to expect that everyone will strive to be truly inclusive. But keep pushing. Also, it’s important to realize that adherence is not equal to buy-in. Do what you can to address inequity and inequality in your daily life, and let your action be the motivator for those around you. Nonetheless, if the system itself is fixed so that inequities are not allowed and our system is truly equal — personal biases and philosophies will be irrelevant and not used to create division or prohibit inclusion.
  4. Ensure that inclusivity is paramount to how you do business. Inclusivity must be broad. When we are conducting business, our focus should always be on inclusivity — it must always be paramount. Inclusivity should be a foremost consideration when we choose whom we do business for and with, how we staff our organization, how we build our policies, what we advocate for internally and externally. Inclusivity isn’t the side-show; it must be the show.
  5. Hold ourselves accountable. As leaders in business, people are always watching. It’s critical that we always hold ourselves accountable and that we live by these concepts of diversity & inclusion, both in the office and in our daily and personal lives.

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

There’s been positive progress recently, and as I’ve noted before, this moment that some might call a boiling point has been boiling longer than it has during previous points of guilt, pain, and action.

That said — outside of guilt which still seems somewhat palpable across the country, there has yet to be any real permanent action towards systemic change outside of talk.

I’m optimistic because what is there without optimism, but, systemically, I still don’t think we’ve taken even a first step to addressing the racial injustices that our nation was built upon.

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. 🙂

Mellody Hobson. What an extraordinary story of success as a Black woman who accepts and so unapologetically and eloquently messages the struggles that we Black woman face as we seek to excel in our society.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow the work of my incredible organization, LISC NYC by visiting our website, following us on Twitter, or checking in on our LinkedIn page.

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

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