I am fortunate to have worked in challenging and dynamic organizations during my career, such as a clean energy transportation association, where I headed the membership, marketing and meetings departments. The membership consisted of utility company executives and auto- manufacturer executives – it was not the most diverse group. I was often the only woman and certainly the only person of color in the room. This experience was a mixed bag; it taught me how to speak up when it wasn’t always comfortable, but it also had me longing for more diversity – diversity of thoughts, perspectives and experiences that I feel would have been so beneficial to the conversations that I was having with influencers and thought leaders in the clean energy space.
I remember attending events and being very excited when I did see a person of color – we would cross the room with huge grins on our faces like long lost cousins! Although it was nice to see one or two people at a few events, I often think about what truly needs to happen for diversity to be the norm and not just a myriad of discussions. Organizations must continue to stress the strategic importance of diversity and inclusion from the leadership level, including why it is a priority.
I’m reminded of a conversation that I had years ago with a boss who was a self-described “Hippy from the Golden State.” Though a real character, he was authentic, kind and loved everyone. He managed a team of over 50 people with responsibility for 500. One day I stopped by his office and he was upset because he had just gotten word from the top brass that there were new hiring criteria that were essentially diversity quotas that they had to meet. Well, my boss was upset by this mandate because he felt that he would always hire the “best candidate” for the position and that the new mandate could have a negative effect on building a diverse workforce. He went on and on about how now managers were mandated to hire six diverse candidates out of twenty – or some similar math – and how that would have a negative effect because what if twenty of the “best candidates” were diverse? I could see his point. But then I remembered my boss sharing with me how he got his job. He didn’t have to go through the hiring process because his friend picked up the phone and offered him the job.
I reminded him of this and asked him was he the “best qualified” for his position? He thought and simply stated “I’m not sure, and there’s no way of knowing because the job was never posted – it was given to me.” Our conversation changed his mind and he became the biggest diversity champion in the company. I don’t tell this story that often, but I felt compelled to share it today, as the News Media Alliance celebrates Black History Month.
I am always filled with a range of emotions each year during Black History Month, as it reminds me of sacrifices that were made by brave men and women – some whose stories are not as well known. This year I have been reflecting on the importance of diversity, specifically as it relates to my experiences throughout my professional journey as an African American/Cuban woman. It’s been over 10 years since those transportation association days—I’m now in the news industry, but still often the only person of color in a room. Lonnae O’Neal, from The Undefeated said it best when she questioned “why the country is more brown than ever but mainstream journalism is so white.”
I am committed to doing my part to ensure a more diverse and inclusive news community. Diverse staff tell diverse stories, through innovative methods and experiences. Nationally, Hispanic, black and Asian women make up less than 5 percent of newsroom personnel at traditional print and online news publications, according to 2016 data from the American Society of News Editors.
We at the News Media Alliance are committed to this issue. Programs like our Rising Stars contest is one way that we seek to highlight young and diverse talent. In February, please visit our blog for a celebration of newsmakers of color. Then, in March, enjoy Women’s History Month with powerful and inspiring stories from female editors, journalists and publishers. It is time our newsrooms reflect the beautiful and diverse populous they inform.
Michelle Harris is VP, Membership & Business Development at the News Media Alliance.