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Four Black CEOs host candid conversations on race, leadership

Association execs take private discussions public with 'Texts to Table'
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CEOs from left to right: Boynes, Shannon, Mills Clement and Washingon

July 24, 2020
By Lori Sharn

The four friends reached out to each other for support in processing and responding to—both personally and professionally—the May 25 killing of George Floyd. The horrific video of the Black man’s death during an arrest by white police officers was unfortunately all too familiar to the Black association CEOs.
 
Those private exchanges were often conducted over text messages. Now the group has “put it all on the table” by taking the conversation public. The first episode of “Texts to Table” launched July 7 on Facebook and YouTube. During the hour-long discussion, the four executives talk about their reactions to Floyd’s death and being a Black person and a CEO.

“We wanted to let the curtain back and have others outside of the Black community hear what our challenges are,” said Shawn Boynes, executive director of the American Association for Anatomy. “And then also for Black professionals that were struggling, we wanted to amplify their challenges so that people appreciated that this is not an easy time for us.”

Donté Shannon, CEO of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.” The Texts to Table Facebook page has more than 1,200 likes and scores of comments, while the July 7 video has been viewed more than 3,000 times. A podcast is also available. The website is TextstoTable.com.

“We’ve heard from colleagues both within associations but also outside associations who have appreciated … the ability to see four Black CEOs have a candid conversation about race and leadership in this country, and also to hear our experiences navigating this with staff and with other colleagues as well,” Shannon said. “We had people taking it back to their staff.”

DELP scholars and ASAE Fellows
The co-hosts also include Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of Realtors, and Irving Washington, executive director of the Online News Association.

All four executives are graduates of ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program, where they connected with each other and the DELP alumni network. All have been named ASAE Fellows, an honor that comes with a commitment to advancing the association community.

“We found a weird intersection of talking about an uncomfortable topic in both a humorous and serious and informative way, and we’d like to encourage that in other workplaces,” Washington said.

They offer sometimes differing perspectives on how to talk about issues of racial injustice, diversity and inclusion with associations and other potential allies.

Mills Clement said associations should not be silent as leaders of their industries or professions and should also speak up for people of color on their staff.

“Are (staff) supported? Do they have an outlet? Do they have the space to share these feelings and thoughts? I can confidently say the majority don’t just from the feedback we’ve gotten from our conversation and from our own experience when we weren’t in the C-suite,” Mills Clement said. “You need to be intentional about it. There’s nothing worse than having a George Floyd killing—because this can be anybody any day—and walking into that office the next day and no one saying a word. It’s such an empty and lonely and isolating and insulting feeling and I’ve been in that space far too many times, which is part of why I do speak up now.”

Washington, however, said some people do need to be quiet. In a July 16 CNN opinion article, he wrote that too many allies are feeling pressure to say something without really understanding what they are speaking up for.
“Racism is both systemic and personal,” Washington wrote. “For organizations, it means talking to your Black employees first, before that Black Lives Matter press release goes public. You can’t combat the system if you haven’t addressed matters within your own network.”

Boynes said he gets the sense that a lot of CEOs are fearful of opening up any kind of conversation with their teams because they either don’t know what to do or aren’t prepared for the response.

“I don’t get that. We’re in this moment and no one can just put their head in the sand and ignore it. I don’t understand why so many executives are holding back from dealing with this tough issue,” Boynes said.

Building a community
Washington said the Texts to Table platform aims to keep the energy and momentum going to help build a community of leaders committed to anti-racism. In the first episode, the CEOs urged everyone to adopt a personal pledge: “I will do better.”

The next episode will be released Aug. 4 at 8 p.m. One topic for the second episode is code-switching—how Black people face pressure to alter how they express themselves to fit a white standard for professionalism. Facebook posts between episodes include book recommendations and sharing links to what other people are saying online.

“We’re not here to tell you what to think. We’re just here to make you think," Washington said. “That’s difficult for associations. They want a playbook and they want the strategy guide and this is just different.”