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Valerie Jarrett: Culture Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight

May 17, 2016, 1:18 PM UTC
Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett
Kris Connor—Getty Images

In April, I attended a two-part White House briefing that brought together some 30 CEOs and senior executives from bold-faced corporate names—AT&T, Caterpillar, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, GM, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Staples, Starbucks, UPS, Walgreens, and Xerox, among them—to talk candidly about diversity and inclusion in the C-suite, supply chain, and the workforce as a whole. Turns out, Major League Baseball is doing cutting edge work on supply chain diversity. Who knew?

Valerie Jarrett, who is President Obama’s longest serving senior adviser and runs his Office for Public Engagement, told me later, “I was impressed with the number of executives who highlighted their recognition that diversity is a strength and who shared their best practices with us.” The CEOs were clearly there to do the work. “Competitors in the room were very open about their approach, recognizing that achieving their goal of diversity and inclusion is more important than their competition.”

We talked by phone about why diversity matters, what it means to be a good corporate citizen and whether the President has done enough on the racial divide in America. “Anyone who thought over night that we would heal wounds that are old and deep was being naïve.” [The first of two parts. The interview has been lightly edited for length.

How did the briefing on corporate diversity come about?

Since day one, it’s been a priority of President Obama to ensure that in our great country everyone gets a fair shot. And so, we have been exploring ways of expanding the pool of opportunity to everyone, because although talent is ubiquitous, opportunity is not. And as we engage in outreach with the business community, as well as a range of stakeholders, the concern about inclusion comes up continuously. And so as a part of our continued efforts to strengthen the commitment of the President and his administration to equal opportunity, we thought it would be productive to bring in the private-sector decision makers for a brainstorming session on diversity and inclusion. And indeed we had a real frank and open session with them.

What were your impressions?

I was impressed with the number of executives who highlighted their recognition that diversity is a strength, and who shared their best practices with us, innovative approaches that they are taking to achieve their goals. One example is the Conference Board, which is a not for profit business membership association. They announced their effort to create a global corporate diversity initiative to assist companies in building their efforts on this issue.

When we speak of equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion are really at the core of that effort. I was also heartened to see how open executives were to listen to one another. The clear signal they gave to us was that they were going to go back and challenge their teams to think strategically and proactively about what more they could do to support expanding opportunity.

There is a strong business case for diversity. Is there a moral case as well?

Well, the President certainly believes that in this land of opportunity, we have a moral obligation to one another. But frankly, in addition to doing what’s right, the President makes the business case for why this should be a priority for the private sector. And because the business case is so compelling, it is sustainable. The moral case may vary from leader to leader as companies change leadership, but the business case is self-perpetuating.

Even our small businesses, thanks to the internet, must be globally competitive. If you are competing in a global marketplace, it’s important that your strategies and decision making process is broadly informed. And that happens when you surround yourself with a diverse talent pool. So there is a clear business case to be made for it; the evidence is mounting, and in addition to that, the President speaks quite often about our responsibilities as citizens of our country. And corporate citizenship is just as important as individual citizenship.

This has been an historic presidency, but it’s hard to feel optimistic about where the country is on race.

I’m very proud of the President’s record when it comes to inclusion, and race is a very important part of that. Again, as he said last week at his commencement speech at Howard University, he had no expectations that his election would signal a post racial society. And anyone who thought over night that we would heal wounds that are old and deep was being naïve. However, the fact that we have seen across the country reactions to injustice that have mobilized – particularly young people- to engage and be a part of the solution, it’s heartening.

I think there were some people in this country who thought that all was well because of the symbolism of our first black president. But that ignores the history of our country where progress has always taken time. And to change a culture doesn’t happen overnight. It happens gradually. And we have to take the long view coupled with that fierce urgency of now. And having organizations sprout up such as Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, and the youth organizations of the NAACP, and the Urban League, and The National Action Network is very encouraging.

Obviously, it wasn’t just Michael Brown who died at the hands of law enforcement. There have been far too many Michael Browns throughout our history. The President was willing to talk openly about these issues, as he has throughout his Administration, and to really challenge us all to figure out how we can do better.

Do you have any examples?

I think the 21st century task force report that he commissioned is a great example. You have a young head of Teach for America in the St. Louis area, Brittany Packnett who, reluctantly, I might add, joined the task force because she wasn’t sure if her voice would be welcomed or heard. And she discovered that she had the ability to ensure that the task force recommended concrete policies that would not have been in the report if it weren’t for her participation.

I say all of this to say that there are so many positive signs of ordinary people rolling up their sleeves prepared to work hard to perfect our union. They inspire me and give me reason to feel hopeful.


Should the President have talked about race more?

Some say that the President should have led a conversation on race. I say that the two speeches that he gave that really focused on race – the first in Philadelphia during his first campaign, and more recently in Charleston, at Reverend Clementa Pickney’s funeral – were given at a time where he felt his voice could move our country forward in a positive direction. He’s never been interested in speaking for speaking’s sake. These are not issues that lend themselves to discussions in a vacuum. People have to be open and ready to listen.

And he sang!

The first time he sang I told him not to do it in New York. Al Green? Don’t do it! Don’t do it! And he did it! And from that moment on, you can’t tell him not to sing anymore, that’s for sure. I had goosebumps on my arm. He had even warned us that he might sing. And when I heard him pause, I knew he was looking for the right way to capture the tone – it still sent goosebumps up my arm.

Tomorrow: How the shooting of Michael Brown turned into a Presidential mandate to save boys and young men of color.