On culture and diversity in corporate America.

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October 19, 2021

Colin Powell, the Harlem-born four-star general, diplomat, political figure, son of Jamaican immigrants, and first Black U.S. Secretary of State, died Monday from complications associated with a COVID-19 infection. He was 84.

He leaves behind a legacy as complex as the country he loved. An average student of working class parents who found purpose and meaning in the recently de-segregated military. A mature war hero who began his career with a failure to recognize the extent of our crimes in a war that came to haunt him.  An outspoken man who individually broke one glass ceiling after another within institutions that continue to collectively struggle with diversity. A courteous and genial man who wore his station lightly and believed deeply in the American ideal. 

A giant who told truth to power, until he didn’t

Powell was already in fragile health but had been in good spirits. “I’ve got multiple myeloma cancer, and I’ve got Parkinson’s disease. But otherwise I’m fine,” he told journalist and author Bob Woodward last July. “Don’t feel sorry for me, for God’s sakes! I’m [84] years old. I haven’t lost a day of life fighting these two diseases. I’m in good shape.”

Until he wasn’t

Tributes and remembrances continue to pour in from around the world. (Though some wags are using his death as proof that COVID vaccines don’t work, a legacy nobody needs.) But as more thorough appraisals emerge, it might also be worth reflecting on what we need Colin Powell to do for us and why.

It is true that Powell’s extraordinary life is marked by a high-profile failure that he knew was a blot on his record. His public defense of the invasion of Iraq in 2001 was based on faulty intelligence suggesting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. His words were persuasive because of his reputation for integrity. No serious consideration of his career should fail to address that moment.  

But Powell, as a global public figure, was also claimed by so many people for so many reasons. A beacon for Black folks of a certain age who truly understood what he faced as he climbed the ranks. Proof that America is a meritocracy. Hope that a modern Republican could care about diversity. The adult in the room. Evidence that power cannot be trusted. A token. A trailblazer. A peace-seeker. A warmonger.

That’s a lot to ask the only Black man in many powerful rooms to be. But, if nothing else, Powell seemed to understand the assignment and relished his role in the American story. 

So, as the history lessons unfold, let’s abandon the Powell we need him to be and discover the man he actually was, in part because his legacy is also our own. What will we learn about the world if we look at his story with fresh eyes?

I’ll leave you with a quote from his 1994 commencement address at Howard University, though his address is worth revisiting in its entirety. The winter before, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam, had given two speeches at the university in which he made racist and anti-Semitic statements, triggering a national outcry. In his speech, Powell expressed full support for Howard’s decision to allow Muhammad to speak, with this caveat. “[F]or this freedom to hear all views, you bear a burden to sort out wisdom from foolishness.”

Now, it’s our turn.

“Above all,” he told the crowd, “never lose faith in America. Its faults are yours to fix. America is a family. There may be differences and disputes in the family, but we must not allow the family to be broken into warring factions. From the diversity of our people, let us draw strength and not see weakness.”

Ellen McGirt



On Point

Southlake cannot get out of its own way Speaking of history, the Caroll Independent School District in Southland, Texas is back in the news after audio leaked of an administrator trying to help teachers keep parent-protestors at bay by providing books exploring “both sides” of now hot-button issues, in this instance, about the Holocaust. “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” one teacher is heard on the audio. “Believe me, that’s come up,” said Gina Peddy, the Carroll school district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. The school district is struggling to help teachers comply with a restrictive new law that requires teachers to present opposing perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. It’s also the subject of an in-depth podcast that charts in detail how the response to a video of kids saying the n-word devolved into a political battle about diversity training and critical race theory.
NBC News

Solange Knowles opens a free library of rare books by Black authors  The library, described as a “growing media center,” will offer a curated selection of rare and out-of-print works focusing on Black poets, designers, and visual artists. Launched by Saint Heron, Knowles’ creative studio, material can be checked out online and can be borrowed free of charge, including postage both ways. “The dozens of publications, many of them now out of print, constitute an invaluable archive of Black brilliance,” writes Valentina Di Liscia in Hyperallergic. “Highlights include a signed first edition of In Our Terribleness (1970) by the avant-garde poet and playwright Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka); Between the Lines: 70 Drawings and 7 Essays (1988), a monograph of artist Benny Andrews prefaced by Alice Neel; and a signed copy of Julianna Free’s La Tete(1996), a compilation of prose poetry and photography plumbing the intersection of Blackness and femininity.” The mission is compelling. “We believe our community is deserving of access to the stylistically expansive range of Black and Brown voices in poetry, visual art, critical thought and design,” says the welcome page.
Saint Heron Community Library

A star from the rez breaks through Paulina Alexis, an Indigenous Canadian actor, can currently be seen in FX’s Reservation Dogs, a dark comedy series from Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, which boasts the first-ever all-Indigenous writer’s room and slate of directors. “I always wanted to be an actor, but I felt embarrassed to tell anyone my dream,” Ms. Alexis said. “There was no representation on TV. I didn’t think I would make it,” she says in this charming short interview. But the young star, who comes from a family of filmmakers from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Reserve in Alberta, Canada, is about to break through to a wider audience. Enjoy the “who you gonna call?” jokes.
New York Times


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

Meet a secret order of Black women that’s been that has been active for 153 years It’s called the United Order of Tents, and was co-founded by Annetta M. Lane and Harriet Taylor, two formerly enslaved woman in Virginia, in 1867. (Great-great-granddaughter, Annette Richter, is currently a member. )They are a community of black churchwomen; the members refer to each other as “Sister,” but those who have contributed most to the organization are known as “Queen.” There are dozens of chapters across the South and the Northeast; in Norfolk, Virginia, a senior housing complex is named for Lane, and the good works are plenty. "It's like heaven on earth. We're like a family," Billy Terry, a resident of the complex, tells 13 News Now.
13 News Now

Here’s how to call in sick for mental health reasons For most people, it’s still a fraught exercise, how much to disclose about how we really feel. Abeni Jones, an artist, writer, and educator who specializes in race, gender, disability, and race, offers some excellent advice. It’s best to tell the truth, but briefly.“All they really need to know is that you’re going to miss work because you’re ‘not feeling well’ and when they can expect you back,” says Jones. To avoid disclosing too much, you can say,“I have an ADA-protected condition.” And if you’d like to advocate for changes in mental health-related policies in your firm, try making this case: Jones reports that the World Health Organization has shown that every dollar put into supporting employee mental health is returned fourfold in productivity.
Fast Company

Science: Play first, play hard, play now This is the sage advice from Ed O’Brien, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. His lab conducted a series of surveys exploring people’s attitudes toward their preferred timing of leisure activities, particularly if they had other responsibilities looming, like an exam or deadline. People generally opt to finish work first, believing that they won’t enjoy themselves if they’ve got important work yet unfinished. Turns out, most people find leisure activities rewarding no matter when they’re scheduled. “Our findings suggest we may be over-worrying and over-working for future rewards that could be just as pleasurable in the present,” he says. “This is a problem, because, among other benefits, leisure improves our work,” he says. Professor O’Brien is clearly a very smart man. And he’s probably outside right now, playing with a Frisbee and a golden retriever. What are you doing?
Harvard Business Review



[caption id="attachment_3153600" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Who ya gonna call? PAUL-LIN-A! She's ghost-busting through those doors.[/caption]

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