I can still see the vehicle—that ominous gray Dodge Challenger with tinted windows and black rims—burning rubber and smashing into a group of counter-protesters demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia. The video image haunts me like a recurring, fright-filled nightmare. Was that real? Tragically, yes. It was as real as the horrifying, deadly bullets raining down from the Mandalay Bay Hotel room of Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas, and the devastating hurricanes that ravaged Caribbean islands and Gulf Coast cities in recent weeks.
Mother Nature we cannot control. But our own destructive anger and hatred—when it lashes out like a storm from inside us and tears down the social relations of this nation—we can control. What was it that made 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio allegedly press on the gas pedal and plow into that crowd? As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month to raise awareness about the many contributions of America’s workers with disabilities, I want to encourage us to consider the issues faced by any person who has, or might have, a disability.
Fields, after all, appears to have faced personal demons for some time. According to police records, he was barely a teenager in 2010 when his mother, who uses a wheelchair, locked herself in a bathroom, called 911 and said her son had struck her in the head and put his hands over her mouth when she told him to stop playing a video game. On another occasion, records show, he brandished a 12-inch knife.
I won’t speculate about what was behind Fields’ actions as a boy. And, I will not—I cannot—condone his deadly actions on that Charlottesville street, August 12th. All the chaos and tragedy, however, motivate me to encourage my fellow Diversity & Inclusion practitioners and workplace leaders to create environments where we can speak with, listen to, and truly understand one another.
Too often as business leaders, we see little else but the bottom line. We’re focused on the number of “widgets” we’re responsible for producing, or the solutions required to produce those widgets. We rarely pause to look closely enough so that we really see each other and the people we lead.
At inQUEST, we sometimes take clients through an exercise we call “Insiders/Outsiders.” The activity demonstrates the significance of creating an atmosphere where everyone—whether perceived to be an insider or an outsider—is, as we like to say, “welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.” Of course, people have differences. Each of us thinks very differently, for instance. But if we listen to and respect one another, it’s a wonderful thing to see how our differences can add value.
The calamity on August 12th brought a mix of outrage and mourning, not unlike the feelings that must have swirled inside many witnessing and participating in the peaceful demonstrations of the early 1960s. Back then, innocent protesters faced violent supremacists who used clubs and fists to accomplish what James Fields allegedly tried with his vehicle.
Fields’ deadly act hurled us into a sort of civil rights time warp. The anachronistic anthem protests at recent NFL games only accentuate the chasm between Americans’ ideology today. And, let’s face it, the ideological gap often stretches between racial lines.
As leaders of people, you and I have the responsibility to bridge that gap. I am reminded that James Baldwin’s exceptional essays in his best-selling 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, were a response to America’s social and racial injustices of the time. He wrote, “We, black [people] and white [people], deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation.” That sentiment is as relevant today as it was then.
It’s easy to forget that even in the face of racism’s ram-rodding iniquity, blacks and whites do have a history of supporting one another. Whether it’s amid the brutality of hurricanes, violence or racism (or heck, even all three, as we’ve faced in recent weeks) minding the principles of inclusion will pull us through.