Learning to Listen
This past Monday, the More Vang staff participated in a day of learning to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. COVID concerns kept us from gathering for a service project, so we chose a book to read as a group and then held an online discussion on the topic of systemic racism. It was an emotional meeting full of stories and observations. After the session, our Executive Vice President wrote to me and stated, “we grew as a company today.” I couldn’t agree more.
I believe the story of how this event came about is worth sharing. This is not meant to be a political message or an expert point of view. It is simply a narrative of our journey towards understanding the issue of systemic racism, both as a country and a business. It begins with a post I penned back in June titled Race and Us—a far from perfect attempt at starting the dialogue.
Shortly after posting the message on our blog, things began to change. People in the office were talking about the post, mostly from a business point of view. Talking about racism doesn’t come naturally for most; it didn’t take long for me to realize that my conversations on the subject were with people who looked just like me. Developing empathy requires first-hand perspective; I needed to learn from someone who had lived in different shoes.
I reached out to an employee I’ve worked alongside for nearly two decades. Marcus began his career here as a driver and now runs our warehousing business. He is also Black. I asked if he had read the post. “It’s a start,” he replied. Marcus looked at me with eyes of wisdom and experience, along with a touch of skepticism. We discussed the idea of forming a group to discuss systemic racism. We settled on a list of names; everyone we approached agreed to participate.
Our first meeting was over lunch in a nearby park. We discussed what we wanted to accomplish and the ramifications of my position within the group. I began by requesting that we avoid politicized and emotional stories and instead focus on the deeper causes of racism. Everyone nodded in agreement, but then we began talking. As we went around the table sharing our experiences, I became overwhelmed with a sense of my own ignorance. It was an emotional trip home that afternoon. I sent a note of apology to the group that night. It was clear I was in no position to dictate the terms of our conversations.
Over the coming weeks, we focused almost entirely on the experiences of the group. We talked about interactions with the police, discrimination in the workplace, and opportunities at More Vang. As the participants began to share more freely, the stories became harder to hear. I was captivated by the power of these first person narratives, and I began to hone my listening skills. I learned to check my wisdom at the door and ask questions about the details I didn’t understand.
One thing that became clear is there were things More Vang could do better, and that’s when Martin Luther King Jr. Day came up. It was our lead pressman Ray who reminded us that it was designated as a day of service. We developed the idea of a book club and settled on Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
Employees across the company were enthusiastic about the idea. One of our developers suggested buying the books from a local black-owned store (Mahogany Books). The text is beautifully written, but it proved to be a difficult read for everyone. The graphic stories of slavery followed by the dehumanizing period of Jim Crow laws explained the intentionality of our racism. It provided a needed perspective on the complexity of the problems we face, but it didn’t come with instruction on how to hold a company-wide book group meeting. I was worried we had overreached.
We began Monday’s event with a review of the text. All four members of the group—Marcus, Ray, Tony and Mo—then shared some of their stories in the context of the structures described in Wilkerson’s book. They spoke of terrifying experiences with the police over routine traffic stops. They described lost jobs and abandoning careers over racist taunts. They relived the experiences of bussing and physical violence as their schools were desegregated. It’s easier to view systemic racism as something that happens on the news, far away from us or in a book like Wilkerson’s. The group’s stories brought the entire idea right inside our office. When the meeting concluded, I was bombarded with participant comments and emotions. It proved to be a great first step towards understanding a complicated problem. We are already working on our next event to be held this Spring.
At the beginning of this journey, Marcus explained that “if you want to empty the room, start talking about race.” I think that’s both true and unfortunate. I can confirm that the first steps towards starting a conversation will be awkward, humbling and prone to mistakes. But this subject and its associated movements are too important to leave unaddressed. I believe the process begins with listening. A shared understanding of the problem will lead to new ideas for a more perfect union, and in our case, a more perfect workplace.
I want to fully acknowledge the efforts of Marcus, Tony, Ray and Mo in helping me transition from looking at the symptoms of racism to seeing the larger challenges, and opportunities, ahead of us. I am in their debt for both the time and patience they’ve extended me.