Kuma, Can you tell us about yourself?
I often describe myself as “diversity personified”. I am in an intergenerational, interracial marriage, my husband of six years is 33 years older than I am. Together we are raising our 3-year-old boy and my sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. My father was an African immigrant who came to this country as a foreign exchange student where he met my very religious Southern Baptist mother. I am a career woman who is bringing home the bacon, while my 78-year-old husband is the caregiver and primary parent in the home. There were so many areas of diversity described above, but only a few had to do with my race and gender. There is so much more that connects us as people than separates us, regardless of race, gender and sexual orientation. Everyone has a role to play in working to address inequity and increase diversity and inclusion in our workplaces and communities.
How did you start your career in DEI or Social Impact?
I’m not sure anyone grows up saying they want to have difficult conversations about race, ability, sexual orientation and the like each and every day. I certainly didn’t have any early aspirations to focus on DEI in my younger years. Honestly, one day I came into work as the Executive Director of Workforce and Talent Attraction of a local Chamber of Commerce and was told they needed someone to focus on strategies around DEI and that person was now me. I was in shock and a bit frustrated. I was thinking, “Why does the black woman have to do diversity work? Diversity work is hard, am I being set up for failure?” What I came to realize is that this new role wasn’t done to me, but it was done for me and my community. I was given an opportunity to lead when no one knew the direction to go with regard to diverse, inclusive and equitable organizational outcomes. I was given the chance to not only change my focus on work, but the chance to create understanding between hearts and minds as well as policy and practice.
Tell us about a personal experience on why our world needs more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?
Historically, there are not many women and black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), sitting at tables of influence. It’s been well over a 400-year old system of disparity, inequity across many of societies systems and structures. As a DEI consultant, I now get to empower dominant groups, mostly straight white males, to utilize an equity lens to at the very least begin to think about and question who might be absent from those settings where women and BIPOC are not visible and able to voice varying thoughts and perspectives. One day, after a critical interview our CEO had for an industry award, one of the interviewers called me to say how impacted they were by the words of the CEO regarding his understanding of equity and its importance for the business community. That is not me, a black woman sharing the value of DEI, but when a member of the dominant group can articulate and express the value of the work and its benefits to him personally and professionally, that’s the value of DEI. That is why our world needs more of it! I can’t snap my fingers to change the visible diversity of a room. I can ensure that every room has someone championing this work of DEI, using their own power and influence to create lasting change.
What does DEI mean to you?
DEI is more than the way we “say” we do our work. DEI is and should be the way work gets done. It is a part of every facet of every organization, from strategy to recruitment, professional development, succession planning, organizational sustainability, community engagement and economic impact.
It’s not a trend or a buzzword. Business practices that are grounded in DEI principles is an insurance policy to ensure relevance, value, marketability and sustainability for an organization now and into the future.
What is your proudest moment as a DEI professional?
My proudest moments as a DEI professional stem from when I am not the person who is giving voice to underrepresented, marginalized groups, but when white men or members of a dominant group are thinking about how their actions impact those around them.
Here in Tulsa, when my CEO said that our organization needed to include diversity, equity and inclusion as part of our strategic plan and added several key performance indicators to ensure accountability, I was over the moon. A strategy is a long-term effort and adding metrics provides teeth and tactical ways to be successful or evaluate where organizations can fall short.
Lila Watson, an Aboriginal advocate has a quote that has stuck with me recently.
“If you are coming to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.”
When individuals and organizations can shift from simply “helping” to recognizing their very liberation, success, and sustainability is bound up with that of the communities they serve and those they employ, that is when I am proudest!
Why is DEI important to you as an individual?
I live DEI each and every day. I can’t escape its presence in my life. It’s important that we celebrate, empathize, and recognize the beauty, power, and collective impact we can have when we embrace our differences and use them to our advantage.
If Kuma could change one thing in terms of DEI, what would that be?
If I could change one thing in terms of DEI, it would be how politicized words like diversity, inclusion and equity have become in recent years. When I talk and share the business case for leveraging DEI as part of an organizations’’ competitive advantage, I don’t believe that speaks to any political party, or viewpoint that should be polarizing. DEI is a business benefit. Inclusion increases retention, productivity and your bottom line, profitability. Nothing about respect, dignity, equity, equality, the facts about racism, implicit bias and other topics should be associated with the divisive and negative rhetoric that seems to be overlaid with those terms.
What is stopping your community, organization or company from achieving a more equal and equitable world?
Fear. We have avoided talking. We stopped sharing and sitting with people across differences and sharing stories, perspective, hurts, challenges, and triumphs together. We worry that we will say the wrong thing. We stress about losing vital relationships because of cancel culture and how easy people find it to cut people of differing views and opinions out of our lives.
It’s cliché, but our communities, nonprofits, municipalities, companies, and philanthropic organizations must get comfortable with being uncomfortable and confront tough issues. These issues may be their founding, where they fall short of their core values and the ability to discuss the barriers to more women and BIPOC having the same access and opportunity as others within their organization.
Kuma, If you could say one thing to the leader in your community, organization or your company about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, what would you say?
This Joseph Joubert quote comes to mind. “Equity is truth in action.” My mama always said something similar with this familiar phrase, “Talk is cheap.” Let’s stop talking about the surface and intangible actions we can take toward more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations and communities.
Leverage DEI consultants, local chambers of commerce, to create action plans and toolkits to help support strategies that will have a deep and lasting positive impact on marginalized populations and support economic prosperity for all.
Why did you want to do this interview?
I feel I have a unique perspective on the work of DEI. I believe that every person has a role to play in the work. Certainly, our white friends and allies have a critical role in undoing the damage that 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racism, over-policing, and underrepresentation in leadership across numerous systems in society. Again, there is more that connects us than separates us. I hope my voice can help more individuals and organizations understand that and move toward real action.