Where were you on January 6, 2021? What were you doing as a man walked through the US Capitol building proudly displaying the confederate flag? How did you feel? For me, I had an array of emotions that, quite frankly, I’m still dealing with. As a person of color that has faced acts of racial injustice in the past, I was profoundly disturbed by what I saw. As troubling as the events of that day were, that one image of that flag is something I cannot forget.
Two days later, on the morning of January 8, I woke up and followed my morning routine before work: greeted my family, brewed a cup of tea, and went for walk with my dog, Emma. Later that morning, I was scheduled to present our Corporate Social Justice plan to our America Sales Leadership team. However, there was something inside me compelling me to change the narrative.
I thought of my heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. What would they do in this moment? I thought about all my black and brown colleagues, my grandparents, my immediate family, and in particular, my special needs son, Bryce. I thought of the courage he displays each and every day just facing the challenges of trying to fit in and be accepted as “normal.” By the time I reached home, I knew what I was going to do. I patted Bryce on the head and said, “Your Daddy is going to take a big risk today.”
A few hours later, I had 50 of the top America Sales Leaders in the organization on a Webex meeting. Fortunately, I had previously met with each leader and established a level of trust. We had gathered to talk about Cisco’s Social Justice Action Plan, but I told them that first, I had something else on my mind. That in the spirit of creating proximity, I wanted to share how recent events had affected me — I wanted to share my authentic self so they could truly see and hear me.
I witnessed many of the leaders instantly pick their heads up in attention. I shared my screen to show a picture of the man walking through the US Capitol building holding the confederate flag, and I posed this question to them:
“How are your African American/Black employees feeling as they see this picture? Do you know?”
The meeting went silent, all eyes glued on the screen. Time stood still. I paused for ten seconds, but it felt like ten minutes. I broke the silence by sharing what this picture represented to me. This man, walking so confidently through the Capitol Building displaying the Confederate flag with an air of intimidation and privilege served as a strong reminder of the systemic challenges that are still prevalent today. For me, this stark image encapsulated 400 years of oppression for Black and African Americans – from slavery, to mass incarceration, to Jim Crow, and a host of other racial injustices.
Despite the initial silence, the remainder of the meeting was filled with the exchange of personal stories, emotions, and inspiration. Many of the leaders reached out to me after the meeting because the discussion had a profound impact on them, and they appreciated the personal reflection. Although I originally worried this conversation was a major risk, it was met with gratitude and unlocked a dialogue that had never been broached with this team. I felt comfort knowing that they had my back and provided me with the safety to have a discussion on the topic. The time I had spent getting proximate with our leaders had opened the door to this authentic, vulnerable, and transformative experience.
I’m so proud of our 200+ leaders who are engaging in Cisco’s Inclusion Proximity Initiative. Over the last 18 months, we’ve had over 500+ meetings. Both our leaders (98%) and employees (91%) who participated have found incredible value in these discussions, and we’ve announced two major “upgrades” to the program: Employees will have the opportunity to volunteer to participate in the program and we have developed a Leader Readiness guide for our participating Executives. In the future, we will include an invitation to all Cisco Inclusive Employee Communities as we continue to Power an Inclusive Future for All through the Proximity Initiative.
Call to Action
My call to action is simple. Ask yourself, when was the last time you were vulnerable, transparent, and authentic with someone different than you at work or in your personal life? Did it unlock new conversations or inspire others to action?
Let’s challenge one another to take difference to heart – to find more ways to lead with empathy and authenticity. The next time you feel driven to take action or emboldened to do something different, I hope you think of this blog and feel encouraged to take the next big step.