After 13 years at Porter Novelli, I’ve had plenty of proud moments — team and personal accolades, client achievements, even moments where the work we’ve done has made real and significant impact. As meaningful as all of that is, however, my proudest PN moment, without question, has to do with trust, vulnerability and courage mixed in with awkwardness and fear and sadness. The day was July 8, 2016. It followed a series of senseless deaths involving Black men and police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (July 5); Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota (July 6); and Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa in Dallas, Texas (July 7).
The mood in our office and around the country was quiet and somber. Like others all around the country, we were confused and mourning.
The home page of ad agency Weiden & Kennedy’s web site perfectly summed up the thoughts of many during a tumultuous time in July 2016.
Our then PN Atlanta Managing Director Melissa Taylor had been thinking about what to do. As a leadership team, we brought our staff together for another matter, but the gathering was an opportunity to address our grief. Melissa started things off by confessing she didn’t know what to say or do. She simply gave us space to speak or be silent, to remain stoic or to weep. So we shared and we listened as we cried hot, angry, cold, sad tears.
Demeika Thompson shared about a recent evening when the power had gone out in her neighborhood. She and her husband’s instincts were to go check on their neighbors’ well-being. However, her husband, as a Black man, had to reconsider lest his actions be misconstrued and put him in danger. Dwayna Haley shared her turmoil both as a Black woman, a mother, and a wife of a Black law enforcement officer. Another person shared how, just the night before, a loved one had been followed by the police. She was gripped with fear, wondering if he would make it home that night. One by one, others gave words to their emotions. Jana Thomas confessed she didn’t know what to say, but she offered to make “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts for anyone who wanted one and maybe we could take a picture in support. Anonymously, one of our interns at the time volunteered to come to Jana’s home over the weekend to help. We each struggled to consider what we could do.
There was no playbook. We simply gathered. We stumbled. We were awkward. We listened generously and we practiced empathy. We gained a measure of understanding we didn’t have the day before.
This moment would never have occurred if we weren’t part of a diverse and inclusive team; if we weren’t part of a culture where we could be honest and vulnerable. After the weekend, we did a simple thing: We wore t-shirts. We took a picture. We hugged. We supported each other.
Porter Novelli Atlanta staff members gather to support one another and affirm: Black lives matter.
Moments like this are why diversity and inclusion is so critical. It’s why workplace culture is so important. As a society, we tend to self-segregate. Whether it’s our neighborhoods, our places of worship, the schools our children attend, or our social circles, we rarely if ever get the opportunity to encounter those that are not like us in a real way. I believe the workplace can be different. It’s a place that can challenge our stereotypes, where we can learn to work together as a team, where we can do great things and make an impact.
Following our time of sharing, I made a public confession on Facebook and, each day since, I’ve been working to make good on the commitments I made:
I’m committing to the discomfort; to the mistakes past, present and future; to apologize; to learn; to stand in support of my friends and colleagues to affirm that Black lives matter; to grieve for those who died unjustly including the officers in Dallas; to acknowledge… because some things should be acknowledged; and to figure out what to do next; but, as a first step, to ultimately and simply care.
As part of our Porter Novelli “We Stand for Love” campaign, I’m recommitting myself to these goals. I hope you join me.
Soon Mee Kim is executive vice president and Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader for Porter Novelli.