Walking on a Fresh Tree: From the African diaspora to diversity

Rosalind McLymontThe Bena people of Tanzania have a saying, ?Walk on a fresh tree, the dry one will break.? It?s a saying about choices, advising us to be aware of our choices, to choose what is in our best interest over that which will destroy or weaken us. Not confusing ?dry? with ?old,? it exhorts us to approach life with all the ebullience and flexibility of a fresh tree, rather than live the tentative life of a tree that is brittle and sapped of energy.

Three signs that the African diaspora is walking on a fresh tree marked my birthday week in March. First, at the risk of angering the United States, the economically and militarily might-less countries of the Caribbean took a united stand against the manner in which democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power and from his country. Second, African countries began to demand more of a say in the decision making of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, institutions that exert an extraordinary amount of influence on their social and economic well being. Finally, Carver Bancorp Inc., founded 56 years ago on African- and Caribbean-American get-up-and-go, made its first purchase of another bank and became the nation?s largest African-American-owned community bank.

In its focus on diversity in this month?s issue, TNJ decided to walk on a fresh tree. Whereas last year we examined diversity in the utilities sector, this year we turned our attention to the retail industry. Instead of having diversity managers comment on their programs, frustrations, successes and wish lists, we decided to let the companies? programs speak for themselves. We would simply give the specifics of each company?s diversity program. Where better to begin than with the top retailers in our region? The companies that wound up on our list are merchandisers of toys, books, clothing, footwear, fine jewelry, home accessories, food and pharmaceuticals. Given their size and prominence in our local communities, we assumed ?diversity? was a factor in their operating policies.

We were wrong.

Based on our reporting, the commitment to diversity does not appear to be as strong throughout the corporate sector as the highly publicized and recognized diversity efforts of the country?s leading corporations seem to indicate. Further down the line, where every American touches and feels corporate America day in and day out, it?s a different kettle of fish.

Our queries clearly were unwelcome. Numerous phone calls were not returned; e-mails were not answered. One senior public affairs executive chose to communicate with us through a nervous administrative assistant, who pointed us to the company?s Web site. Another stated flatly that it did not want to be included in our report at all, then recanted and promised to send us a written statement. That statement still had not arrived at press time.

Only two of the 10 companies we queried responded enthusiastically, as shown in our report on page 20.

Sometimes, when you walk on a fresh tree, you end up trampling a few dry ones.