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May 02, 2021

Difficult conversations about race and DEI can carry emotional weight

By Allison Torres Burtka | Crain’s Detroit Business

Conversations about race and other elements of diversity, equity and inclusion can be difficult. Opening up can be emotional and personal, especially if people are sharing a painful experience or admitting that they’ve made mistakes. People may be used to keeping the emotional and personal outside of work.”

When I first entered the workforce, I remember my mom would always tell me, ‘Leave work at work and leave home at home,’ ” but that’s not realistic, said Gary Abernathy, vice president of practice development at Marsh & McLennan Agency. “Regardless of what our title is, we’re an individual first.”

Abernathy has led sensitive conversations about race in the past year. “I always tell people that I can’t speak for everyone that’s Black or African American, but I can tell you my experience,” he said. For example: “Gary, as a Black male, is likely carrying a lot of trauma, a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear and anger right now,” he said.

“We ask everyone to be empathetic,” Abernathy said. “Because we often see each other how we show up in the office today, but we don’t know the journeys in the past that many of us have taken to get there and the struggles that we’re having today.”

DivDat President Jason Bierkle said learning about customers who lack easy access to online banking and bill paying, which many of us take for granted, has made him more sensitive to what other people might be going through. “We did this one focus group, and I’ll never forget that one person said that they would walk in to make a delinquent payment, and the cashier would give them the stink eye,” which made them feel bad, he said. “We don’t know what certain segments of our population are going through and how they’re impacted by this environment we’re living in right now.”

Talking about DEI issues can take an emotional toll. “For many of our colleagues, seeing this social injustice and unrest, it felt like almost a new experience for them, and they just couldn’t understand where it was coming from,” Abernathy said. “And then for many of our colleagues in the minority community, this is a way of life, unfortunately.”

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