October 29, 2020

Racial justice now a core business issue

Today, at the helm of her own company, she draws on those experiences. She works to be sure that her employees are treated fairly, compensated fairly and are given every opportunity possible to thrive.

 

  • There are always ways to improve on these goals, she said. That is why in 2018 Walker-Miller Energy made some strategic and bold business decisions. Among them, the company:
  • Instituted a $15 an hour minimum wage;
  • Began recruiting only team members who embrace the company’s culture of kindness; and
  • Incorporated second-chance policies that give those with criminal records fair opportunities for employment.

 

Offering opportunities to those who have been incarcerated and convicted of felony crimes forced Walker-Miller out of her comfort zone. But that was exactly the place she needed to be. It was where her company needed to go if it was going to make a difference in the community, stand up for the principles she believed were worth fighting for and serving as a leader for others.

“The complications of the criminal justice system and the over-policing of Black and brown people is just so clear,” Walker-Miller said of the decision. “Our philosophy is, if I interview you, and on that first interview I am not interested in you based on the interview, whether you have been incarcerated or not is none of my business. Because I am not interested in you. So why do you have to disclose first off? Why do you have to feed into a bias I may already have by saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I have been incarcerated.’

“(At Walker-Miller Energy) you have an opportunity to tell your story: ‘Yes, I have a conviction, this is what happened.’ And then I have an opportunity to choose you. And that is all that we are asking, that people who have served their sentences have opportunity.”

Breaking down bias

Walker-Miller knows that opportunity is just the start. For Black employees, regardless of the positions they hold, they are battling bias and racism every single day. They are routinely—and often implicitly—asked to buck stereotypes and disprove others’ bias. That often means working harder than others, pretending as though injustices don’t exist, or maintaining grace and poise in the face of offensive statements or actions.

To explain, Walker-Miller recounted business gatherings and conferences where she—dressed as professionally as her colleagues and conducting herself with the same professionalism—has been asked to “refill a drink, correct a food order or give directions because I was a Black face in a very, very white environment.”

When and how she reacted in those situations—and others throughout her career—mattered. No matter how mundane the circumstance may seem, her actions and words spoke for others, not just herself. As unfair as it is, she said, her actions and words spoke for other women and other Black professionals.

So deciding when to speak up and stand your ground in the face of injustice becomes a weighty decision.

Black women “don’t make that choice in a vacuum,” she said. “We make that choice based on who we are speaking with. What environment, what room are we in? What is the context? What happened right before and what do we expect is going to happen if we fight?

“How is it not just going to affect me, but how is it going to affect the women—and particularly the Black women—who come after me? Do we want to choose this fight, and will it make the people in power decide that Black women are just too difficult to deal with? So, I just make the best decision I can.”

There have been plenty of moments throughout her professional career when Walker-Miller has had to weigh her options and decide if should speak out or speak up. The first, she recalled, came before she ever began her first job.

As a young professional making her way into corporate America, she was beginning a career with a new company. And, like all of the new team members, she was to spend three months in Georgia getting to know her new role and her new company. The business even had recommended accommodations for her at the Confederate Inn in Athens, Ga.

“I had to say, ‘I cannot stay at the Confederate Inn,’ ” Walker-Miller said. “And so, before I even started my first day of work, I had to make a decision that simple: What do you fight and what do you accept?”

These stories add to the reasons why businesses need to confront issues of race within their organizations. It’s why this summer’s protests matter to them.

Amplifying Black voices

In this moment in history—where businesses and individuals are being challenged to evaluate themselves and then do and be better—the steps taken by businesses will define their futures.

One thing you can bet on, though, Walker-Miller said, is that the road ahead will not be easy. The conversations will be uncomfortable and emotionally taxing. There are no easy answers or solutions, only steady, honest progress forward. Because the circumstances and the history that brought America to this moment are complex and heart-breaking.

That history, she said, should not be rewritten. Instead, it should be accessible and whole. It is our responsibility to ensure that the stories we share and tell are truthful and genuine so we can “get to a place of understanding and healing.”

“After slavery, Black people moved from being an asset to being a problem to be dealt with,” Walker-Miller said. “And, in many ways we have been treated as such since. It wasn’t addressed then because it was difficult. And racism is even more difficult or as difficult and complicated right now.”

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