As the Proximity Initiative was taking shape at Cisco last year, the realities of the inequality and injustice plaguing our communities began sparking worldwide outrage. The horrific events of 2020 became a sobering wake-up call: they brought me to the realization that I had drastically misunderstood the pervasive, systemic nature of racism and other forms of discrimination, and underestimated their effects on my neighbors, friends, and coworkers. I found myself in moments of vulnerability that I never expected, including crying in front of a few hundred employees in an All Hands call. Most of my tears were for the atrocities unfolding all around us, but many were for the realization that I had been blind to so much.
These circumstances pushed me to lean further into the experiences of people who are different from me – people who are underrepresented, marginalized, or vulnerable in some way. In fact, one of the responsibilities for business leaders like myself in the Proximity Initiative is to reach out and engage with these individuals – to get proximate with them.
This post is neither a tutorial nor a how-to; there are no quick tips here. I share some of my journey with personal humility along with immense pride in Cisco’s commitment to power an inclusive future for all. I’m just a few months in and I can honestly say that every conversation has been unique. There has been understandable stumbling, awkwardness, and apprehension, as well as moments of powerful openness and trust. But each one-on-one has been priceless in helping me understand some of the life experiences of fellow Cisco team members and helping guide my journey to learn more. I am profoundly grateful for each team member who has engaged with and helped educate me.
I’m discovering that it’s vital to be transparent and earn trust when talking about diversity and inclusion. If you don’t actually put the subject on the table, you’re never going to learn anything. This was challenging in some of my early Proximity discussions. Growing up, it was understood that you should never directly acknowledge someone’s race or gender in a conversation. I was nervous about that. But I realized that when I was transparent and said, “Look, this is what I’m trying to learn. You can be as open as you want – or not,” people began to see that I genuinely care, and more of them began to open up.
I’m also finding that you have to accept what people are, and are not, willing to share. It requires a posture of humility: it’s not about me “achieving” anything, or a check-in in which I can say afterward, “Now I know the answer!” Some people have opened up tremendously. Others still have not – and that’s fine. My goal is not to see how far I can take it. My goal is to meet you where you are.
There’s no denying many of these conversations have been difficult, but we have experienced tangible progress. When negative issues were brought up, I was able to say, “Hey, I didn’t realize that was a problem, but we’re going to fix it.” And we did. Some employees have needed further support, advocacy, or sponsorship, and I have been pleased to provide that, too. I’ve only just gotten started and I’m already seeing the words of lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson ring true: “…When you are proximate, details emerge, insights emerge, understandings emerge, that you will not achieve from a distance. There is power in proximity.”
These discussions will likely continue to take me out of my comfort zone, and that’s a good thing. I’m learning to accept that discomfort is part of the process. In the book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” writer Austin Channing Brown says, “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort. It’s not a comfortable conversation for any of us. It is risky and messy.” I suspect that is true of dismantling many forms of injustice and discrimination.
A team member recently told me, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” This may very well be a lifelong cycle of learning and growth, and we’re all at different places. Some of us may hit the ground running and move a little faster than others. Regardless of where you are in that journey, I encourage you to join me and take the first steps toward proximity and a kinder, more equitable world.