Being the Only Dot of Diversity

August 17, 2021

In the fall of 1967, I was bussed from the projects in Gary, IN, to a better (all-white) school several miles away in the suburbs. I was devastated—and afraid. I’d seen news reports of how we weren’t wanted and what happened to some of those students. Then my mom qualified for low-income housing near the school. When we moved to a home closer to the new school, for-sale signs started going up all around us.

In 1969, I began high school. Though the school had been integrated for a couple of years, the cheerleading squad still consisted of all blondes and had been chosen by an elderly, white English teacher for years. Several of us wanted to be cheerleaders but didn’t see how we’d ever have a chance given the current selection method. So we protested for more diversity in the cheer squads and were successful. We also requested that the English teacher be replaced by representatives of the student body and the gym teacher. That year for the first time, the school had Blacks on the cheer squads—three on varsity and two on junior varsity. This real integration had an impact on everyone in the school. We were proud and gratified, knowing that we’d been heard and were being a catalyst for change. I graduated in 1973 with friends of many backgrounds and ethnicities.

These and many other experiences encouraged me to seek a life with diverse environments for work and play for me and my son. They taught me, that no matter what, to be true to myself. They taught me that I shouldn’t limit my dreams, to make and honor commitments, and that there’s no substitute for hard work.

As a new SMPS member, I was also new to marketing and the A/E/C industries. I started serving on a committee right away and made connections I still treasure after nearly 10 years. However, there’s a but. After serving on the SMPS Dallas board and attending countless events and regional conferences, I realized I’d changed in ways that SMPS had not. I was accustomed to the vanilla-ness of the A/E/C industries. In fact, I was accustomed to being the only dot of diversity in many settings throughout my career. This lack of diversity suddenly felt very personal. I retreated into my introvertive self, having grown weary of industry events where I encountered few people who looked like me. Being 60+ and Black in the A/E/C industries—and in SMPS—felt lonely. The alone-ness I felt was despite the many friends and acquaintances I have in SMPS Dallas and SMPS Fort Worth.

The tragic and senseless events that surfaced in 2020 were shocking and disheartening and ripped the scab off the wound that is racism in America. I sobbed for America and my existence in it, feeling like I was back in the 60s and 70s, only with a much better understanding of what was happening around me and why. In short order, especially after May 25, 2020, my inbox was crowded with statements from many firms and organizations taking a stand against violence and affirming that they will not tolerate racism. To me, the initial SMPS response was lukewarm, but I was happy to learn of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force that was formed shortly thereafter. It’s reassuring to know that the organization to which I’ve given and received so much is taking steps to be part of the solution.

Diversity can’t be achieved without opportunity in the workplace or in life, so the issue of “privilege” will hopefully be a bigger part of the DEI conversation. My professional and personal experiences have taught me that privilege in itself isn’t a bad thing.  However, it becomes a negative force when used selfishly and territorially because it provides opportunity only to a select few. It also reinforces the barriers (real or perceived) preventing opportunities for others.

I recently discussed the topic of privilege with a long-time friend who, by sharing her privilege, opened doors by referring me to interview for a position… My friend said she referred me because she knew my work ethic. She knew my character. She knew me.

My life experiences have taught me that we can have a diverse world, and that from whom much is given, much is required and, indeed, expected.  Having been blessed with an abundant life that includes a sweet career, it’s my responsibility to share my knowledge and experiences with my colleagues, and to glean all I can from them. And as I lean into the autumn of my career, it will be my privilege to watch those who come after me work in an A/E/C environment that’s more reflective of the world in which we live.

 

Article written by Ruth Hunter-Hill, marketing manager for Purdy-McGuire. Ruth can be reached at RHunter-Hill@Purdy-McGuire.com.