Black Like Me

Earlier this week, Kristin Clarke wrote a dynamic piece for ASAE’s Acronym blog entitled White Like Me.  Using the context of the midterm elections which resulted in no African-Americans in the Senate, she describes the continuing frustration of not having more African-Americans serving in association leadership positions.  If you haven’t read it, you can find it here.  As an African-American woman, I wanted to offer my perspective on this topic.

Let’s talk about the pipeline.  The typical career path for a lobbyist is moving up the food chain on Capitol Hill which usually leads to a high-level lobbying position downtown.  Sounds simple, right?  However, just as getting a lobbying job is a matter of “who you know”, so is getting a job on Capitol Hill.  Traditionally, those connections have served white males very well.  So, if you’re already lacking the “who you know” part, it makes it very difficult to get your foot in the door.

The same pipeline challenges exist in the association community.  While it’s not as difficult as getting a congressional position, in many instances, once a job is secured, the career ladder seems to disappear.  Don’t believe me?  Take a walk through your office one day.  Look at those in lower level positions and those who aren’t. I can almost guarantee that most of your lower level staffers are minorities who have held that same position for more than three years.

As association executives who’ve climbed the ladder, it’s our responsibility to reach back.  I can point to many instances in my own career where I was given a helping hand in the form of a reference, a lead on a job, or genuine advice on being the only woman of color in the room.  When was the last time you talked to your administrative assistant about his or her career path?  It’s time we have these conversations and provide professional development.  We didn’t reach our levels of success with degrees and credentials alone.  Mentoring is vital.

The pipeline remains one of the many reasons why we see so few minorities in leadership roles.  However, I leave you with two examples of associations who have made diversity in leadership a priority and have seen the fruits of their labor.  My former employer, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), is currently led by Executive Director Arlene Pietranton, CAE and recent ASAE fellow.  Two of ASHA’s Chief Staff Officers are African-American women, Vicki Deal-Williams and Lemmie McNeilly, CAE and a DELP Scholar.  ASHA’s current President is Tommie L. Robinson, an African-American man and one of several individuals of color who have held this position.

My current employer, the American Psychological Association (APA), is led by its CEO, Dr. Norman Anderson, an African-American man.  My department, the Public Interest Directorate, is led by Dr. Gwen Keita, an African-American woman.  The 2011 President will be Dr. Melba Vasquez, a Hispanic woman and APA’s first president of color.  Progress may be slow, but it’s definitely coming.

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