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Lessons of diversity, proximity, and humanity at work

Melinda Halpert, who recently retired from MLT, an organization that works on transforming the careers of minorities, shares what she learned about diversity and inclusion as an older white woman working primarily with younger people of color.
Melinda Halpert is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She recently retired from a career in marketing and consulting.
Melinda Halpert is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She recently retired from a career in marketing and consulting.Courtesy of Melinda Halpert.

Earlier this year, I retired after a long career in nonprofit marketing, the last five years spent at Management Leadership for Tomorrow. MLT’s mission of transforming the careers of underrepresented African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, so they reach their full potential as senior leaders really resonated with me. President Obama had two years left in office when I began working with MLT, and I was excited to delve into diversity and inclusion.

As a consultant, I am used to being the new person in an organization; I’ve learned to adapt and fit in quickly. But when I started with MLT, I felt awkward and unsure of myself. I am an older white woman. Most of my colleagues were younger people of color. Would they engage with me? Dismiss me? In those early days, I wondered if I would ever feel that I belonged at MLT.

I now realize that my initial discomfort was nothing compared to what people of color experience every day—especially in work environments that are invariably overwhelmingly white. I listened to colleagues speak about how exhausting and dispiriting it is to be “the first, the only, or one of the few” minorities in the room; to be judged as the representative of an entire population. That’s a heavy weight to bear and absurdly unfair. I appreciate the grit and tenacity it takes to deal with this relentless question of belonging.

MLT’s CEO John Rice often speaks about the importance of becoming more proximate to people who are different from ourselves, and how our workplaces give us the best chance to do just that. That proved true for me. Working alongside colleagues of varied ethnicities, backgrounds and perspectives not only strengthened the quality of my work, but also broadened my worldview and challenged my assumptions. This proximity helped me to overcome biases I didn’t even know I harbored.

Our day-to-day interactions led to growing familiarity, trust and the opportunity to broach subjects I might have considered only in the abstract. Given the seismic shift in the demand for justice following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I miss being with my colleagues in person, and I miss our candid conversations.

At MLT, I listened a lot. I listened as my co-workers spoke of their own wrenching experiences with racism. I learned about the steady stream of indignities they routinely encounter: “You went to Harvard? The one in Cambridge?” Black women who are tired of white women asking to touch their hair. Co-workers who too often had to brace themselves against the backhanded compliment on how “articulate” they are. And one close colleague who delights in his sons’ soccer games, volunteers on their field trips...and who hears people lock their car doors as he passes down the street. This man is someone to revere, not fear.

With time, collaboration, and many frank and often uncomfortable discussions, I came to feel part of this team and the MLT community. How lucky for me. I got to know a tremendous group of smart, caring, resilient people, many of whom have become friends. I learned much about their lives and my own—including the unearned privilege I’ve taken for granted as a white person.

I grew up with dolls that looked like me, books with characters I could relate to, and TV shows filled with girls who were more like me than not. I assumed that I’d get into a good college, and that my middle-class parents would be able to pay for most of it. I’ve connected with job opportunities through my own networks, composed largely of privileged white people like me. I have two grown sons, but “the talk” I once had with them about handling a police stop —not that I could imagine anything worse than a ticket—was that they were too polite to insist on a lawyer. I never worried about them going out wearing hoodies. Or jogging. Or sitting alone, watching TV in their apartments after work.

When a co-worker gave birth to a gorgeous baby boy, she shared that her joy was clouded by her fears for his future. As a Black child, he is more likely to be harshly disciplined in preschool than his white peers. As a Black teen, he is more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system—or worse. As a Black man in America, even if he graduates with a degree from a top college, he is more likely than his white peers to be unemployed or underemployed in a job that doesn’t require a college degree.

To be clueless is to be callous. I want to be neither. John Rice speaks about being intentional in diversifying our lives, and I’m working on that. I’ve expanded my choice of books and news sources, music and arts offerings, organizations I support. Despite the social challenges of the pandemic, I’m trying to sustain and build diverse circles of friends —in and out of the workplace.

I see and think about racism more deeply now, not only the blatant systemic cruelty, but also the quiet, corrosive kind. The kind of racism that is so pervasive, it has seeped into our everyday interactions. The racism that is so unconscious, those who consider ourselves to be progressive have a hard time acknowledging it. The same Amy Cooper who called the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper, also donated to the campaigns of Barack Obama and Pete Buttigieg. I can’t pretend to understand all that people of color experience because of racism, but I know that I can do more, and that white people can and must do better.

Proximity in the workplace can be a powerful antidote to countering prejudice and recognizing our commonalities. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds respect, compassion, and appreciation of difference. My co-workers helped open my eyes, my mind, and my heart. Their leadership will help bring about a world of greater equity and empathy. And I will be cheering them every step of the way.

Melinda Halpert is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She recently retired from a career in marketing and consulting, where she held senior leadership positions at nonprofits including Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), First Book, and AARP.