Transcript: Listen to Learn and Lead

Tampa Bay African American leaders talk about how our Business community can help with current racial tensions

On May 25, in Minneapolis, George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, was slain by a police officer. He was held down, with a knee on his neck, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

The video was circulated on social media and spurred a social justice movement that spanned throughout the United States and around the world.

The TBBW staff received a phone call from a dear friend the following Monday morning, Paul Huszar, CEO, president and majority owner of VetCor, a restoration company in Tampa. He said, “We need to do something. We need to have a conversation. Our community needs it.”

And so we did. Here’s the conversation, in full. It is long but it was too important to not include the whole conversation.

Bridgette Bello, TBBW CEO and Publisher, and Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, moderated the discussion.

Homans: We want to start by giving each of our panelists some time to introduce themselves and share what brought you here today and some personal insights related to the issue of race relations that will help our audience get to know you a little better. Tonjua Williams, can we start with you?

Williams: Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this very important panel. I’m a native St. Petersburg girl. I was born and raised right here, and have seen over the years many acts of racism that have changed our lives. What we’ve seen over the past week isn’t new to us, at least as African Americans or black individuals, because it’s been happening for centuries.

I’m here today because I want to be a part of the solution but also, I’d like to be a part of something that truly creates change. There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of people saying I feel so bad, or this is horrible, but it’s time for us to do something because we know a house divided cannot stand and when you have children come to you to say, do they want to kill me? Will I be alive? Am I worthy?

This weekend, my godson asked me, “Why do they want to hurt us?” And I said, “I don’t think it’s everyone.” He says, “They don’t want to see me grow up?” You see things on Facebook where people are asking young boys what they want to be when they grow up, and they say “I just want to be alive.” We’re a different world right now and we’ve got to make some changes because we can’t keep living the way we are living.

I do believe education is just one of the solutions. There are so many others that need to take place to help African Americans get a piece of the American Dream. I think we’ve lost our way. And for African Americans, maybe we never had it. Maybe we never had that chance to follow our dreams.

Also I’m here because, as the first African American female to be president of a 93-year-old institution, I felt that it is right for people to see people who made it if that’s what you want to call it. I don’t think that’s what it is, but to see there are opportunities.

Campbell: Thank you to everyone that’s on this call. I’m a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I was originally born in Connecticut. I served in the military for a number of years, but I decided to make Tampa my home. I have started, and sold, three companies over the years and I’ve been a part of this community. I have been on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, I’m currently the vice-chair for the CEO Council of Tampa Bay and I serve on the board of Baycare Health System.

I know this is a very sensitive topic, but it’s important. One of the things I wanted to do was … Brian Butler is a very good friend of mine, and as many of you may have read his account recently in the Tampa Bay Times, I wanted to share a recent example of how I was treated. I don’t talk about it very much. But I thought it was important to share my story because when I do tell people, they are shocked.

I was here in Tampa. I had a visitor from out of town. I was being a bit of a tour guide; it was actually my best man from my wedding. I started by taking him over to International Plaza and then we went down to the SoHo District. I got pulled over by a local police officer. He asked me what was wrong with my car. I thought that was a strange question, but said, “Nothing, officer.”

He asked me to step out of the car. He asked me if I had been drinking, which I acknowledged I had had one beer at the first location we were at, and we were heading to the next location. I was very honest. He wanted to do a field sobriety test. So now, here I am on South Howard Avenue. I’m pulled over in a parking lot with blue lights flashing and I’m doing a field sobriety test. Obviously, I passed it with flying colors. No issues with license or registration. I was obviously being very respectful. As I was turning to leave, as he had dismissed me, I chastised myself for getting myself into this type of situation. As I did, the police officer essentially bum-rushed me, chest-butted me, spit in my face, pointed his finger several inches from my nose and was yelling at me at the top of his lungs, saying, “What did you say? What did you say?”

I had to figure out how I could deescalate that situation pretty quickly. I said, “Officer, I was merely castigating myself for getting into this situation.” And he cocked his head and said, “What?” I repeated myself, and he said, “Oh. OK, well get out of here.”

I would say that your natural reaction, when someone rushes into your face, is to push away and step back. I knew that I could not react in a normal fashion because clearly, I had a lot to lose. And, I had to figure out how I could deescalate the situation. And I tell that story, and most people are shocked and ask me if I reported the incident … and I often have to chuckle at those suggestions, you simply don’t do that.

I also wanted to be here today to give business leaders, and owners of companies, some suggestions of what they can do in your organizations to address some of these issues. I don’t have every answer to every question but I have run large organizations both in government, and the military, and in my own companies. I wanted to give business leaders some very concrete steps of what they can do to start to move the needle.

Homans: How about Brian?

Butler: This is not an easy conversation. And I actually wish that I wasn’t here. I wish that we were not having this conversation. I wrote the letter last week (which ran in the Tampa Bay Times) because I hadn’t slept in a couple of days. I’ve gotten hundreds of replies, from people from around the country, asking me what they should do, asking me to speak, asking me to talk to their organizations and some responses weren’t so nice.

I wrote the letter because my mom and dad marched during the civil rights movement. I wrote the letter because they raised us to make a difference. I wrote the letter because I saw an opportunity that may have allowed one other person to just express how they’re feeling at this moment. But I had no idea that the letter would take on a life of its own, and perhaps, play some role in why we’re doing this today.

I’m a retired Army officer, I’m a business owner and the father of a black son. I’m a black father with a son and I worry about him every day.

I know this is hard. But it was hard in Selma, [Ala.,] it was hard during the March on Washington, but I also know that making a difference starts with individuals doing hard things. It starts in our homes and it starts in our circles. I hope my son never has to do anything like this. I hope we take advantage of where we are, and what’s going on right here today, and we move this community, and this nation, forward.

Homans: And Bemetra?

Simmons: Thank you for having me. I’m honored to participate. I am not a native Floridian. I’m the opposite of Brian and Hugh in that I am an Air Force brat. I grew up in 10 states, and several countries, and have seen America in all different facets. I’ve been in Tampa for about eight years now and I’m proud to say that Tampa is my forever home.

I love it here and I’m here because I want to be a part of the conversation. I spent about 15 years working in financial services and banking. I like to say I’ve “retired” from corporate America and have a new career in the nonprofit sector, working with United Way Suncoast, and I’m hoping like the rest of the panelists have stated, that we are able to share some thoughts and tangible things that people can do beginning tomorrow, to advance this conversation.

Bemetra Simmons

Similar to what Hugh said, I’m just one person. These are my thoughts; these are my ideas. And we’re just going to do our best and be direct, and honest, and have a courageous conversation this evening.

“Part of being a leader is that you have to have courageous conversations about a lot of things.” — Bemetra Simmons

Bello: Thank you, Bemetra, and thank you for agreeing to participate. It’s been a tough couple of days having conversations with you guys. I’m looking at myself and my nose is red, and my eyes are red because every time we get on these calls you make me cry. Bemetra, since you were just talking, I’d like you to share your assessment of race relations in the Tampa Bay region. Have they gotten better over the past 10 years? Are we progressing? Are we doing anything right? Or are we right where we were 10 years ago?

Simmons: From my viewpoint, we are working to get better. I don’t think we are where we want to be. And I don’t think we are where we were. The fact that we had nearly 600 people sign up for this today, says that we want to be better. That we don’t want to be where we are today. In the eight years, I’ve been here, there’s been an improvement. You see the various programs, and organizations, that are working very hard on this tirelessly on a day in day out basis.

I definitely think we have a long way to go. But we’re certainly not where we were when I moved here eight years ago.

Homans: Brian let me ask you: In the past couple of days, we’ve talked as a group about understanding the why and the what before we start to talk about some solutions. And this is a big question, but we understand the gaps between white and black Americans in education, jobs and income, health and so many different areas. What is the root cause of those gaps? What’s the systemic problem that we should understand before we try to fix it?

Butler: I think too often we see the data but we forget that those are individuals that make up those data sets. When you read about a school in Hillsborough County that’s lagging behind the others, I challenge individuals to go into that school and try to figure out why or it’s just another “great slide” or another data point that we can talk about.

I believe that, too often, we simply forget that these are people and that we can do things as individuals to help change the circumstances of these people. Each one of us. We’re lagging so far behind, and you talked about earlier, the incarceration rates. I think the unemployment rate is something like 14 percent in Hillsborough County right now, I would bet its closer to 25 percent for African Americans, or maybe higher.

Brian Butler

Look at the COVID rate around the country and see where those deaths came from, those deaths didn’t come from just COVID. They came from people who don’t have access to good health care. They came from people that don’t have access to good jobs and good food, they live in food deserts.

“We have to focus on our sphere of influence. We can’t change all the problems of the world but we can start with the sphere of influence each of us has.” — Brian Butler

Bello: Thanks, Brian. Dr. Williams, we talk a lot at SPC about economic mobility. It starts with education; it starts with a very young child with access to our education system. There was a statement that was put out this week by the Florida Education Association and it said that our state’s education system is separate and unequal. Is that true in your opinion, and, if so, how do we fix it?

Williams: I’m going to piggyback a little bit off of Brian’s comment when he talked about being able to see the people behind the data. A big part of separate, and unequal, has a lot to do with understanding that these are humans and we’re setting the trajectory of their lives by the opportunities and the access that they have or don’t have. And many African Americans don’t have access to better schools or better programs, that will help them succeed. I will say that the divide has probably gotten even worse with COVID, as we add digital and technology pieces in there for achievement, it just further divides the haves and the have-nots.

And so to me, being able to value others and train your employees to appreciate people of color and appreciate people who look different, who speak differently, who have a different opinion or way of movement, when we talk about equity, I don’t think we talk about equity in the true sense of the term. It’s not equality. It’s not saying everyone gets the same thing, or one size fits all, it talks about individual people getting exactly what they need to be successful. And in our education system, we don’t teach for equity, we teach for numbers and success. Did you pass? Or did you not? And I think that as Brian said, we’re changing the number and not the students. And many times students of color, specifically African Americans, are left behind. And when you start behind the start line, it takes a lot more effort to get through the race. It’s almost like a 4-by-4 race. If the baton is given to you 20 kilometers later, you’ve got a long way to go to catch up. So I think many of us are running, we’re really trying to be in the race, but the baton is not being passed to us for us to grab it and run. I think we’re losing people.

Homans: Thank you, Tonjua, and thank you, Hugh, for sharing your very personal story with us before. Another question for you is here in the Deep South and a part of Florida’s heritage, is the confederacy and the war memorials and Confederate flags and symbols like that. We have a huge flag that was flying off Interstate 75 that was just taken down for a few days and will surely be put back up. I’m wondering how you feel when you drive past one of these memorials, or by that huge flag, or when you see groups actively engaged in promoting these symbols. What’s your perspective on that?

Campbell: I will tell you that, it’s not so simple. First off, I was raised in Connecticut and in the south side of Chicago and we were always taught that the Confederate flag was a symbol of hate going back to the Civil War. But it was interesting, a few years ago, I was up in Citrus County and I saw, believe it or not, this sign on a double-wide [trailer] and it had the Confederate flag out there and the sign was “Heritage, not Hate.” So to me, that meant this thing has become more nuanced. It’s not as simple as it was before. There are some people that are proud of their heritage in the South and that flag is a part of it. So I can appreciate that. I get it. I don’t think we should change history

If your intent, when you’re flying that flag, is to intimidate, then, yes, clearly that’s a problem. No one wants to be intimidated. But if you’re proud of your heritage I get it. You can’t change that, you’re proud of that. That’s OK.

So I think that times are changing. Am I personally offended by it? Not anymore. Can it be intimidating? Absolutely.

You should probably have a conversation with the person who is flying that flag and ask them what their intent is? Are you merely proud of your heritage and the South? Or do you really not like me because of the color of my skin?

Hugh Campbell

Simmons: I hear what Hugh is saying and I can appreciate that, but I can only speak for myself. The Confederate flag for me represents nothing but pain. And there are modern-day hate groups that use the Confederate flag to advocate their hate message. I don’t see heritage; I just see pain. And I know people use it as an oppressive symbol.

“As you go back into your communities and your organizations, I would challenge you, are you going to be that one person that says, ‘Hey, man, that’s enough?’”  — Hugh Campbell

Bello: With limited bandwidth and not a lot of exposure, normally, to racial tensions, what can we as business owners, and leaders, do to promote constructive dialogue on these issues?

Simmons: The first thing is to find a way to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Part of being a leader is that you have to have courageous conversations about a lot of things. Terminating people, nobody likes to do that. Making the decision to have layoffs…this is no different as a leader. You have to put yourself in a place and get comfortable doing that.

The other thing that I would say, as business leaders, if your organization does not have affinity groups, start them. If you do have them, attend them. Not to go and participate, but to go and to listen. To hear what the diverse employees in your organization are saying. What are some of the things they like about the culture, what are some of the things they find challenging about the culture?

There are a lot of great organizations here in the Tampa Bay area that does this type of work. They will come and do a diversity, inclusion and equity assessment of your business and give you a roadmap for how you’re doing.

Inclusivity, run by Erik Smith, does a great job. Community Tampa Bay does a good job with that. Bring them in to do workshops for your organizations and leadership team.

Those are three tangible things leaders can do immediately within their organizations.

Bello: Tonjua, would you like to add anything to that?

Williams: Thank you, Bemetra. Good comments. I would add one more thing. I think it’s important for all businesses to reflect on what they expect. Which means they need to have a diverse staff. There are still too many organizations that have not either been able to hire a person of color or they haven’t thought about it. You need to have some folks on your staff that are minorities and I think that they need to be in some of the middle, to high, management positions, not just all on the lower level.

Homans: Do Hugh and Brian have anything to add? You both work a lot with companies in a consulting role.

Butler: Four or five quick points I want to make. Number one, we all need to look at ourselves and ask hard questions of ourselves and the organizations that we are a part of. If everyone at the leadership level looks just like you, then there is something wrong.

We have to look at our social circles and the people we have in those circles, that we accept guidance and wisdom from. If everybody in your circle is just like you, then there’s probably something wrong.

We have to focus on our sphere of influence. We can’t change all the problems of the world but we can start with the sphere of influence each of us has. Whether that sphere is at your dining room table, or that sphere is in your break room, or the sphere is on the soccer field while you’re on the sidelines watching your kids. You can focus on your sphere of influence.

And, lastly, we must be intentionally observant. We can walk by things every day and pretend they don’t exist. Or we can put a magnifying glass on it, look deeper and ask questions about it. In all aspects of all of our lives.

Campbell: We’re at the point here, where “these are the things you can do.” If you’re a leader of an organization, I think one of the questions that came in was, “How can we support and respect our African American employees right now?”

It’s very simple. Ask them. What does that require? It requires you to have a conversation with an employee that you may, or may not, have conversations with on a daily basis.

Regardless of the size of the organization, pull someone in your office, or go down and see those people, and just have a conversation. That doesn’t cost money. Might take a little bit of your time, but ask them. Go talk to them. That’s’ how you can begin to move the needle.

Brian said something about the people in your circle. I would challenge everyone if you hear an offhand comment or joke, and I know it’s easier to let it slide, to giggle and move on and it’s much more difficult but say, “Hey, I’m not sure we should be talking like that,” or “Where’s that coming from? Are you sure about that?”

When I do public speaking, I challenge people in the room to go find your local media and ask them, are you required to start every broadcast focusing on three or four knuckleheads, and then, by the way, I might have a good story later in the broadcast?

For every bad apple, there are probably a thousand others that are not.

When you’re making hiring decisions, do you automatically look to people you know? Take a little extra effort and try to find some diverse candidates, because there are some great people out there waiting for their chance.

Bello: Bemetra, how would you address the people who are ready and willing to support Black Lives Matter, but are not willing to kneel during the national anthem?

Simmons: I would say, everything is not mutually exclusive. Support what you want to support in a way that is comfortable. The point of Black Lives Matter is not to be exclusive of anyone else. You don’t have to say things like “white lives matter” because they’re treated as if they matter, you don’t have to say it.

The point of Black Lives Matter is, you can see what happened in Minneapolis, not only was it a tragedy but then it gets put on a loop over and over again. We don’t even do that with dogs or cats, our pets. We treat them with respect. That’s what we’re looking for, is to be treated with respect. It’s a life and a life that can be stomped out if you need to, if you feel unsafe, you can stomp it out and it’s allowed.

Homans: Brian, let me ask you, what’s your perspective on the underlying issue of why we have seen so many cases of white police officers killing unarmed black men? Is it a systemic issue or is it a case of some bad apples and some bad hiring decisions? How prevalent is it and what can we do about it?

Butler: There’s a lot packed into that question. We have a systemic issue of racism in this country that we haven’t faced. So with that systemic issue of racism, we have created an environment that allows people to do things like that. This allows people to believe that they can get away with it and it’s going to be OK because if you look at the number of officers that have been charged, it’s a very small percentage of those that have killed unarmed black men over the last 50 years.

Until we confront the larger issue, and until we confront the policies that are related to the issue, we will continue to see this. There are some bad apples but overwhelmingly the law enforcement folks that I come across are good people. They’re good honorable men and women trying to do their job every day. But there’s a small percentage of them, just like the rest of our society, that believe they can so they continue to do it.

Campbell: Police officers have a tough job and they have to deal with a wide variety of things. But these incidents that happen over and over again, it would be very helpful if our friends on this call, and in the community, if you see that incident, don’t be silent about it. George Floyd was [killed] very slowly, and everybody knows that’s wrong. So you shouldn’t be silent about that. As Brian just said, the vast majority of law enforcement are fine people that put their lives on the line, every day, and they have a very difficult job. However, in those instances when it’s very obvious that a crime has been committed, they should stand to justice just like everyone else.

Bello: We want to come away with tangibles, and you’ve definitely given us some things that we can start doing right now, but one of the earlier questions I asked was, “Have we made any progress over the last 10 years?” If someone was to ask us that 10 years from now what kind of specific metrics should we be using in our personal life, our businesses and our community to see whether or not we’re making progress? How do we measure that?

Simmons: I think it would look like a picture from Facebook, or social media, of what you did over the weekend and everyone in the picture doesn’t look alike. If you’re doing something social, you’re with people of different backgrounds. You would never play a round of golf with just your putter and try to make every shot with your putter. Different shots require a different club because that club can do something different for you. That’s the whole point of diversity.

Williams: I definitely agree with what Bemetra just shared. I would say 10 years from now I would like to see more minorities with an education, not even degrees necessarily, but whether it’s certifications or short term training to be able to climb the economic mobility ladder. To be able to live their lives.

Fewer people in jail, fewer people without health care, people who have houses and are able to buy property and do things they have not been able to do. Access to opportunity. Where there are fewer roadblocks to success. Where there are things set up to keep people moving forward. Pathways that are built to help people move forward. And I know we have some of those in different pockets. We do. America does have opportunities for people who really want it, but when you have a household with generation after generation of underemployment, undereducation and a lack of resources, and support, and lack the emotional help to help you move from one level to the next, it is very difficult to dig yourself out of that.

Something has to change on the outside. And I think something that would be evident would be more educated individuals. People not living in poverty. Folks getting more jobs and being in a higher wage bracket then we are now. If we’re still in the same situation we are in now, it’s because we’ve been doing the same things we’ve been doing. This isn’t the first conversation; this isn’t the first time we’ve had these types of crises. I think technology has blown it up, where things are being seen much quicker than before, so for some people it feels like this is brand new.

Tonjua Williams

For me, it’s not new. We’ve seen it and, in many cases, experienced it. I think seeing people respecting lives, people respecting people, especially African Americans and people of color, it’s important that we’re valued. So bringing that to the table that this is an important thing to do. It’s critical and that’s going to be the only way we can jump over this hump.

“I think we’ve lost our way. And for African Americans, maybe we never had it.”  — Tonjua Williams

Butler: I want to put a really basic spin on it. People do business with and people hire people, that they like, value and trust. So if we were all in a room together right now, and I asked people to raise their hands if they had someone different than you at your dinner table over the last week or two, and I understand COVID has changed all of that temporarily, but if everybody asked themselves that question, the answer will tell you a lot. And in 10 years from now, if we had the same group together and we asked that same question, the answer would tell us a lot.

Homans: For companies that are trying to build more diverse leadership, should they be establishing some goals, or metrics, or is it just enough to put in the effort? How do we set some targets and structure?

Butler: The government often gives us goals. In corporate America, we shouldn’t have to need those goals. We should establish our own. Each company should take a look at themselves and decide what they can do. A company of 10 people is certainly not the same as a company of 10,000 people, but each company has to look at itself and say, “I’m happy with where we are.”

I pull up a lot of websites from a lot of companies and I look at their leadership teams, there’s just not a lot of companies that have people in senior positions that look like me. What are we saying to the young people as they look up and they don’t see anybody that looks like them?

I think each organization, and each company has to make their own decision and then do what’s best for them. Sadly, some may decide they’re just not going to do it or they’re going to study it for a little while longer.

Simmons: I think it’s simpler than that. I think that companies should look like their customer base. Companies should look like the community that they serve. And we don’t live in any homogenous communities. The clients aren’t homogeneous so the leadership shouldn’t be homogeneous.

Campbell: My perspective is, you’re almost silly not to. You guys have heard the stories of some company rolling out a product and they name the product something, and, for example, in the Latin community, the word means something completely different and the product flops.

If you want to be successful, diversity is a great tool to get you there and it would be silly not to.

Look at Tampa Bay. This is an amazing community of people that come from everywhere. Why would you not want to take advantage of that and increase your market share and penetrate those places you’re not selling to? Why would you not want to do that? You don’t need metrics, or the government telling you to do X, Y and Z.

I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in and people will say, “Well, I never really thought of it that way.”

Butler: At my company, we have a very diverse team. But it’s intentional. I create it to be intentionally diverse because I love getting different points of view from other people. I love hearing what they have to say. I love pushing them a little bit for them to speak up in our meetings. I love understanding their background and how they got to be where they are.

It’s so rewarding for me, which also means it becomes rewarding for our clients. Because we come at it from, not just the point of view of what Brian thinks but, the way that others think. That’s fun for me and I enjoy it.

Bello: There was something that Hugh said yesterday that really made an impact on me, and the rest of the people on my team, and we’ve repeated it probably 10 times in the last 24 hours. Hugh, hopefully, you remember what I’m talking about. I want to make sure that message gets through before we close today.

Campbell: It’s something very simple we can take away. With the George Floyd incident part of the tragedy was, what if one of the other officers had merely gone over and said, “Hey, man, that’s enough. Get off his neck.”

As you go back into your communities, and your organizations, I challenge you to be that one person that says, “Hey man, that’s enough?” ♦

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