Embrace Diversity With Stedman Graham

Sept. 21, 2006 — -- In his latest book, "Diversity: Leaders Not Labels," renowned businessman, educator and author Stedman Graham discusses how in the global economy of the 21st century, diversity has become a defining quality of business.

More than ever before, maintaining individuality while accepting others' uniqueness is key to personal and professional success.

By profiling people who have done this, Graham teaches readers how to grow to their full potential.

"Diversity: Leaders Not Labels" is essential for anyone who hopes to excel in all aspects of life.

Read an excerpt from "Diversity: Leaders Not Labels" below:

The Lessons of Whitesboro

First, I must tell you about an instrument of change in my own life, a man who was central to my transition from race-based thinking, a man whom I never met.

As I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, racism still infected the black communities of our country like a plague. It was more conspicuous in the South, but it lingered in the North as well, and New Jersey was no exception.

Whitesboro, New Jersey, was much like other black towns that sprang up across America in response to antiblack violence and segregation. It was also my hometown, my sanctuary, as I grew up. In areas surrounding our town, blacks were still being openly disrespected, shut out of jobs, and treated like second-class citizens. A kid growing up in Whitesboro felt a little more insulated from this day-to-day despair. But the story of this unique town's founder, George Henry White, dates back far before my time there. White, in fact, was born a full century before me. But his legacy lives on in my heart and the hearts of the thousands who have dwelled in Whitesboro over generations.

White was a visionary man who devoted his adult life to securing the most basic rights for the underrepresented. He understood the power of leadership and education in overcoming the label of "second-class citizen." Born in Bladen County, North Carolina, in 1852, he spent much of his childhood in servitude, working as a slave in the humid forests of the region to harvest the precious pine gum used in the making of turpentine and many other common products. He toiled from sunrise to sunset for the benefit of wealthy slave-owning families in a youth he called a "struggle for bread and very little butter."

White was thirteen years old when slavery ended. He knew that extreme poverty was inevitable for most former slaves, so he rededicated his life to helping the legions of newly freed yet disenfranchised men and women gain access to the only thing he knew could give them hope: education. He worked his way through a teaching school and then Howard University in Washington, D.C., later earning a law degree. He got elected to a seat in North Carolina's House of Representatives, where he fervidly petitioned for increased funding of African American schools. He would serve as district attorney in New Bern, North Carolina, and later as state senator.

In 1894, White took an even bolder step, running for a seat in the U.S. Congress. He lost but was not deterred and clawed his way back to capture the post two years later. A brilliant orator, White made impassioned, classic speeches about the prejudices and brutality plaguing African Americans in the South. White, as it turns out, was the last former slave to serve in Congress, and by 1898 was the only African American remaining in the House of Representatives.

White went down in history as the first to introduce an antilynching bill, illuminating his colleagues on the sobering fact that 80 percent of the people who were being lynched across America in his time were African Americans. But White's bill stalled in the Senate, and similar House bills met the same fate over the next hundred years. On June 13, 2005, an antilynching bill finally passed the U.S. Senate, with language apologizing for the many previous failures to address the violence that killed thousands in our nation's past. White's century-old quest for contrition from his country was finally realized.

But that's just one part of the George Henry White story. Back in 1900, White began to realize the hopelessness of pursuing a third term. North Carolina's legislature, you see, had ushered through legislation that banned blacks from voting. White saw the writing on the wall and knew his days in the House were numbered. Before leaving, White delivered his final congressional speech, the historic "Defense of the Negro Race," in January of 1901, refuting white-supremacist claims and recounting how racism had unduly influenced our country's legislative process. He promised that blacks "will rise up again some day and come again" and then spoke his parting words "on behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised and bleeding people -- but God-fearing people -- faithful, industrious, loyal people, rising people, full of potential force."

White's moving farewell speech was in many ways a new beginning. For years, White felt that African Americans could thrive if given the chance to build their own communities. Blacks in the South -- while free in theory -- were still being afforded precious few civil rights when he left office. So White hatched the idea of developing an all-black town somewhere in the North.

Not long after his departure from Congress, White and a handful of loyal friends bought 1,700 acres of a former slave plantation on the southern tip of New Jersey -- in Cape May County -- to birth a town that would soon come to bear his name: Whitesboro.

Early settlers with names such as DeVane, Stanford, and Spaulding -- the latter, my ancestors -- came mostly from North Carolina, followed later by families from New Jersey and surrounding states. Following White's lead, the settlers realized that education was the connection to power, prosperity, and respect and were anxious for their children to develop a strong intellectual foundation and a sense of racial and community pride. A school and church sprang up, as did a lumber mill, grocery stores, a hotel, and other businesses. Largely removed from the prejudices, negative labels, and other racial obstacles of the day, Whitesboro grew to forge a distinctive and rich cultural identity. I became a part of this legacy when I was born to Mary and Stedman Graham in Whitesboro in 1951.

Though we were insulated there, there wasn't a person born in Whitesboro who didn't come to realize how the town was perceived once they traveled outside its city limits -- and that there was a specific set of slurs and labels reserved exclusively for people like them, people like me. There was a saying in south Jersey: "Nothing good comes out of Whitesboro."

So we grew up knowing we were different. And in different mediums, we heard the same message over and over: "You are not as smart as whites." Though we lived in a town with few resources, we were lucky to be blessed with several outstanding, no-nonsense teachers at my school, Whitesboro Grammar School. These teachers took it upon themselves to sternly prepare us for the rough ride ahead. The memorable lessons taught by Charlotte Harmon, Alice Jones, and Ines Edmunds reverberate even today. They insisted we focus heavily on reading, math, and science and impressed upon us that we had better know our lessons well. If we didn't, they would make darn sure our parents knew all about it -- immediately. Our school only went up to fifth grade, and we knew we'd soon be attending white schools outside Whitesboro's city limits. In essence, the teachers were telling us, "We don't want you to go up to those white schools and embarrass us."

So we grew up with a sense of pride in Whitesboro. We respected our family members and we respected the elderly. We didn't tolerate namecalling. However, there was an unwritten rule when I was a kid that white folks weren't allowed in Whitesboro. It was our haven -- our respite. If white people ventured into town, we chased them off, with the exception of sports teams that would come down to our fields for home games.

When that happened, it was a huge event in the community. Because we constantly felt we had to prove ourselves, we knew we had to be twice as good as white kids to get anywhere, and we weren't going to let these guys beat us on our own ball fields. Pride was all we had and pride took over. My family worked hard to develop the few resources we had. We struggled like many families did in Whitesboro. My father was a painter and carpenter, but he would not teach me those skills because he did not want me to follow in his footsteps. He wanted me to get my education and grow up to be something else. Because my father was a person of color, he couldn't get into a painters' union. So he had to take on all the odd jobs that no one else wanted. All his life, he had a sense that he was being put in his place, and that his family was being put in its place too.

You could count on reading anything negative that happened in Whitesboro in the newspaper. Incidents that would have never been significant enough to write about in a white community became news when they happened there. Sometimes that negativity was a self-fulfilling prophecy. A number of my friends and classmates who had been good, smart, and athletic kids turned on themselves and got involved with drugs. Some were sent to prison. They were looking for a way out and often didn't find one.

Students were bused from Whitesboro to attend Middle Township schools, where I attended an integrated high school. I was a drum major there, a basketball player and founder and president of a club called Betterment Through Understanding (BTU). I was a Boy Scout and was treasurer of the freshman class. As active as I was, I still hadn't come to fully understand the real value of education.

I was always pressing, always trying to convince myself and others that I was good enough. We were living only in the moment because we had to, most of us thought. As I grew to high school age, I internalized a lot of rage. We had been disrespected for so many years that we felt we had to prove ourselves. Our self-esteem had been diminished. That led to physical intimidation. When we were about fourteen or fifteen, several of us would walk into places outside Whitesboro and feel all eyes in the room on us. We'd turn around, look menacingly at them, and bellow, "What are you looking at?"

But most of our parents in that era "stepped in line." They bought into this whole race-based consciousness and were unwittingly enforcing it. They were always aware of how they carried themselves, and hence, so were we. I had to watch every move I was making because I felt I was always in jeopardy: I had to work at fitting in. Away from Whitesboro, the realities of racial bias were hitting me hard, and I would often internalize racial incidents that went on in my high school. There was always some race-based controversy.

As a person of mixed Native American and African American ancestry, I was light-skinned. Because of that, I suppose, I was a little more palatable to white America than some. But "light-skinned" became a selfattached label and a stigma for me. We were all subdivided into differently shaded groups that often marked how much money, culture and, class we were due. And I felt I was naturally entitled to a little more because of the lightness of my skin. I might even be able to get into doors that darker-skinned blacks could not, I thought. It took me a long time to realize that such race-based thinking was to my detriment. Instead of focusing on my academic merits, I was becoming class-complacent and class-conscious.

There was a time in my life when I said to myself, "I don't know how a black man makes it. How do I get past the labels and the psyche of the world and all this separation?" After all, our world is a place that seems to shout out, "We are going to put up all these obstacles and create a system that labels you and keeps you locked in with bars all around you. We know you're probably not going to make it, but if you somehow do, well, that's amazing. We might even throw you a bone if you get out."

I never imagined in my wildest dreams that success in life was more about understanding who I really was. For the longest time, I thought I would be happy if I got lucky enough to get inside the white world even just a bit. Of course, there were certain unwritten rules you had to follow to accomplish this. You had to be subservient in the way you talked and acted. You had to walk softly. Otherwise, you would be knocked back into your place.

Obviously, we felt as if the whole world was telling us what we could and couldn't do, and it seemed the bar had been lowered for African Americans. When counselors told us to "stay in school," they usually didn't mean "go on to college." They just meant we should finish high school. We were even told by a school counselor that we shouldn't plan on going to college to become a doctor or lawyer or dentist because those weren't the professions that people of color could choose.

Hundreds of years of labeling and programming have affected millions of lives. Imagine how many legacies would have been different if people were free to believe that they could be anything they wanted.

But it was a little different for me back then. I was headed to college. Blessed with athletic ability, I led my basketball team in scoring. I had scholarship offers from schools all over the country when I was a sophomore. I even thought, "Maybe I'll be able to play professional sports." For a lot of us, sports represented a way out. But we knew in the back of our minds that some of us weren't going to make it out that way. We didn't have a lot of vision beyond that one hope.

Sometimes, when I wasn't in school or playing ball, I would help my mother clean houses in white, upscale beach towns such as Stone Harbor and Avalon. Their owners would arrive for the summer season in new cars and hang out at the beach all day, tanning and indulging. Then they'd come home and order in food. My mother and I would look at each other in amazement at this exotic lifestyle, as if to say, "What is all this?" These houses were huge. They seemed like a fantasy land -- like Disneyland. Coming out of Whitesboro, I found the experience even more surreal. That's how I grew up in the fifties and sixties -- in a disjointed, divided world. I had no control of my long-term thinking. It was all too common for many in that era to grow up reacting emotionally instead turning on the brain.

I realize in hindsight that what I was trying to do was fill that hole in my heart. I think about this often, especially now that one of my main roles is teaching other people how to process their upbringing and move forward based on a nine-step methodology -- a process that I will address a little later in this book in a leadership and diversity context.

There is a huge dichotomy between what I knew when I was growing up and what I know today. My life has taught me that many people are still stuck in these "places" and aren't really able to take more control over their lives and explore the great possibilities they hold. Over the years, I turned all those things that happened to me and to my family into motivators, never forgetting and never getting comfortable.

Fortunately for me, my parents were there to encourage me to never quit and to do my best always. And in much of Whitesboro, that same spirit of determination prevailed, passed down through the generations from our town founder, Mr. White.

If that same spirit of determination is not in you, you're going to have a tough time making it in this changing, demanding world. The only way you can move forward through this life is with a passion for what you do, a lifelong commitment to develop your skills, and an ethic of hard work. Eventually, I would return to Whitesboro a changed, more enlightened man. In the interim, I learned much more about the psychology of racebased thought and race-based exploitation. I have been visiting Africa annually for years. On one such occasion, I was with a U.S. group visiting an impoverished village, accompanied by members of a charitable organization, who were mostly white. As we waited in a van listening to a member of the organization talk about the pathetic state of some of these poor, malnourished African kids, one of the folks said, "It is sad how the people in this region are so poor." I remember replying, "Let's talk about where this poverty really came from. Consider all the rich farmland that was once in this part of the world. If all those people from everywhere else around the world didn't come in and feed off this land, mine the diamonds, and take all the minerals out of the ground without putting anything back, it wouldn't have happened. They plundered all the resources.

Before you knew it, the whole continent was divided up like a pile of treasure. They weakened the foundation when they did this. They left no infrastructure behind for the people whose resources they stole. That seemed to be their plan all along. It was a setup. Then people came over trying to help and ended up taking control. What we need to do is create opportunity and move forward -- to leave something meaningful behind. People here couldn't even farm their own land or feed themselves. They couldn't benefit from the wealth of their country because of this negative outside influence. Isn't it a shame that we have all these starving children now?" As the folks from the charity sat there listening, their eyes sort of widened, and one said, "You know, you're right. That is what happened." When you realize what your legacy is -- and frame it in a way that helps you understand how you got where you are -- you can achieve perspective on your life, I came to understand. Instead of feeling diminished by the past, I position it this way: "What can I learn from that past that can propel me beyond it?"

That's the first step toward transcending -- moving past the constraints that others have imposed on you -- and transforming into a more productive and accepting human being. I realized that this challenge was twofold for me: I needed to reprogram how I felt about myself and see myself for my own unique qualities, not someone else's stereotypical view of me. As a rule, people don't tell us how to do this. Too many of us just look at past oppression and mistreatment and say, "Woe is me."

Of course, struggle is not unique to people of color. Almost all of us have endured some sort of major struggle. We are the same in that way. What we all need and want is love and respect and someone to care for us. That binds us. We just come from different cultures -- be they Whitesboro or White Plains -- and many of us see our lives only from that vantage point.

It took me a long time to move out and away from the bad things in my life and embrace the good things -- to transcend my past. Only from that point on was I truly able to move into my imagination and my possibilities and my identity. But it's an ongoing process. If I execute it every single day, it will be reinforced and much more effective. If I don't, I fall back into old traps.

Continuing reinforcement of positive values is paramount to anyone's transformation.

Though my home base is now in Chicago, I return to Whitesboro several times a year. Over the years, the more I thought about what I've received in wisdom and perspective from this distinctive New Jersey town, the more I knew I must give something back. So when I came back to town in 1989, it was with an agenda: to form a nonprofit grassroots organization called Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro.

In the original spirit of community pride instilled by town founder George White, I felt an obligation to aid in the town's social and economic revival. Through Concerned Citizens, we members seek to raise money and form partnerships with the county, the community, and several local organizations to help restore the vitality of Whitesboro. We have added streetlights, fixed sidewalks, and shored up aging infrastructure, as well as built voter registration programs, senior citizens' programs, family support services, recreational programs, scholarship programs, and other educational opportunities for youth.

Our overall goal is to help "the Boro" transform, stay vital, and welcome systemic change that will lead to stronger leadership and a healthier community.

Through Concerned Citizens under the leadership of a man named Bernie Blanks, and with the support of the committee and local residents, we continue to make a concerted effort to preserve and promote local pride in the town's unusual history and distinctive character. From the beginning of this effort, we wanted to stand up for our community and help give it representation.

Without that reinforcement, advocacy, and commitment, Whitesboro could descend to the status of a "second-class citizen" town. We owe it to George Henry White and the original settlers of Whitesboro to honor their founding ethics and not let that happen.