At a glance, my coming-of-age story isn’t unlike many of yours. But at a deeper look, it’s strikingly different. My story begins in San Antonio, Texas during the American Civil Rights movement. The son of a proud father and a doting mother, I believed that the world was my oyster as long as I worked hard enough.
Against the backdrop of a country that wasn’t necessarily embracing a kid who looked like me, I had a family that both encouraged and provided me with the opportunities I would need to succeed. So, when I think of the similarities and differences of where we are in this country today, and where we were during the sixties, it gives me pause.
History Repeats Itself
Images of protests and civil unrest flash across the screen, calls for change are shouted from the weary and emboldened alike. These are the outcries of a people saying enough is enough, something has to give. Do the placards read Black lives matter, or We Shall Overcome? Is this summer 2020 or is this the 1963 March on Washington? The conversations I’ve had with my Black sons about how to act and what to do in the event of an interaction with the police, are the same conversations my father had with my brother and me. They are conversations my white colleagues and peers don’t usually have.
From Reconstruction (a 12-year period after the American Civil War that scholar W.E.B. DuBois called a “brief moment in the sun”) to the series of events encompassing the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties, Black Americans and our allies have been fighting for equal rights under the law for centuries. It was just over 150 years ago, in the summer of 1868, when the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—equal protection under the law.
“Why provide this brief history lesson?” you ask. Because people of color, women, persons living with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are still fighting for equality and equity under the law in a number of areas. We have to ask ourselves whether we’re a part of the problem. We need to understand the why of the matter. Even still, I truly believe we’re at a pivotal time in our history—a moment ripe with opportunity— and we have the tools to begin dismantling some of the pervasive systems which have kept so many from reaching their full potential.
Why This Time Feels Different
When it comes to systemic racism, inequality and inequity, as a society we are at an inflection point. On an individual level, we’re beginning to see humanity in one another. According to a recent Harris Poll, when asked whether this moment in the racial equality movement “feels different” than in the past, the vast majority (75%) of people (across generational, racial and political lines) agreed this time does feel different. So, while I am frustrated at times, I am also hopeful.
One of the reasons this time feels different is that businesses and corporations are taking a stand. We are collectively asking ourselves why: Why are there still such stark inequities in policy? Why am I at the receiving end of uncomfortable stares when I walk into certain spaces, and why am I assumed to be in a subservient role because of my race? Why haven’t corporations figured out how to protect all their stakeholders and break down barriers to climbing the corporate ladder (note: this is where you and I come in)? Why is the justice system stacked against Black and Brown people? Until we break down these barriers, the why will continue to haunt us.
In the 1960s, the protests and riots were in many instances contained to Black neighborhoods. Today, as these protests expand outside of those neighborhoods, people are more concerned, and we have their attention. Today, look at a company’s corporate messaging and you’ll likely see recent statements of unity and commitments to improving diversity and inclusion within their organizations. Why the shift? Corporations are being viewed through a new lens, and people want to know where they stand. This summer, the Business Roundtable released a statement calling on “national, local and civic leaders to take urgent, thoughtful action to prevent future tragedies and to help our communities heal.” It’s not enough to be a bystander or silent ally anymore. Both employees and consumers expect corporations to not only perform well, but to financially support causes that matter. According to a poll by Morning Consult, “Among all adults, as well as both Black and white consumers, more people than not said that if a company declined to make an official statement about the protests, that would cause them to see a brand in a less favorable light.”
David S. Huntley also serves as Chair of the Advisory Council for the Ethisphere Equity and Social Justice Initiative, convened to share leading practices, resources, case studies, conversations, and shared experiences from global companies and leaders like Huntley.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As compliance leaders, we’re often ambassadors for integrity and ethics in business. And, we have the power to create change within our respective organizations. Within compliance at AT&T, we often use the phrase, Just Do the Right Thing; it’s a call to action that helps us inspire an ethical culture.
As Chair of a newly formed Advisory Council under the Ethisphere Initiative for Equity and Social Justice, I will work with my colleagues to share best practices and define measurable ways companies can make a difference over the short and long term. We know the old playbook doesn’t get us where we need to go, so how do we drive meaningful change? Here’s where I believe we can start:
- Take a look around the room. Who has a seat at the table? Do we have the best minds representing diverse perspectives or are we operating in echo chambers? Do we notice when there’s a lack of diversity in the room? Are we using our access to the highest levels of our organization to create meaningful change? At AT&T, I know we’re holding a mirror up and asking ourselves these vital questions. These challenges are even more pronounced in a virtual environment.
- Accountability and transparency. It’s not enough to hold ourselves accountable, we must hold others accountable even when it’s uncomfortable. We need to operate with a sense of urgency. In order for this time to be different, we will need to use data to inform our decisions. Where is there room for improvement? Can we put pen to paper and show we’ve done our homework? How are we benchmarking and measuring month-to-month, year-over-year progress? Now’s the time to be bold in our actions, just like we are in other aspects of the business.
- Take a stand. I’m proud AT&T has been at the forefront of championing these issues for decades in demonstrative and significant ways. One of our company values is Stand for Equality. In the 1960s, we were one of the first companies to endorse the Civil Rights Act, and we’ve long supported national social justice organizations. Yet, even by our own accounts, we still have work to do. From the work our External and Legislative Affairs teams have been doing to address police reform, to our efforts supporting community economic development, at AT&T, we’ve put our stake in the ground.
We have a moral and business obligation to engage on these fundamental issues of equity and fairness. In order for this time to truly be different, our actions and our words must speak louder than ever to support our country in ending racial injustice. For me, the risk of falling short is far too great.
About the Expert:
David S. Huntley is Senior Executive Vice President & Chief Compliance Officer of AT&T Inc. He is responsible for developing policies to safeguard the privacy of customer and employee information, verifying compliance with the legal and regulatory requirements of the countries and jurisdictions where AT&T operates, and ensuring adherence to internal compliance requirements. His responsibilities also include accessibility compliance oversight. David has held this role since December 2014.
David was appointed to this role after serving as senior vice president and assistant general counsel-AT&T Services. In this role, he oversaw a nationwide team responsible for providing legal support to the Home Solutions and Global Marketing organizations. He was also responsible for Legal administration.
David currently serves on the boards of Texas Capital Bancshares, Inc., AT LAST!, the Baylor Health Care System Foundation and the Dallas Citizens Council. In addition, he is a Trustee of the Southern Methodist University Board, and a member of the Texas Business Hall of Fame, the Executive Leadership Council, and the Business Ethics Leadership Alliance (BELA) Executive Steering Committee.