By Jackie Krentzman
UPS’s Executive Communications Manager, Janet Stovall, has a radical idea: Put the leadership for the field of diversity and inclusion in the hands of communicators.
“Right now, the communications team is typically called in to help with D&I after a decision has been made to help execute that decision,” she says. “But I believe communications people should be there at the beginning, shaping those strategies and decisions. It is critical that new initiatives are designed and communicated in a way that ensures buy-in.”
Stovall has a long history of fearlessly advocating for new ideas and new ways of doing things. In the 1980s, when she arrived at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, as a freshman, she was floored to immediately encounter blatant racism. Instead of running scared, she initiated some difficult conversations and devised a plan that led to changes that disrupted seemingly ingrained ways of doing things.
In her role as manager of executive communications for UPS, Stovall serves as the primary speechwriter for the CEO, making her one of the few executive speechwriters of color in the Fortune 500. Prior to joining UPS, she founded and served as principal of Point Communications, a marketing communications and PR consultancy.
Stovall graduated from Davidson College with a degree in English. She is acting president of the Davidson Black Alumni Network and a member of the college’s Commission on Race and Slavery. She earned a master of professional studies in integrated marketing communications from Georgetown University. Stovall’s TED Talk challenging businesses to get serious about inclusion has been viewed over 1.6 million times.
Diversity Woman: You have said that nowadays corporations can lead the way in addressing racism in America. Why is that?
Janet Stovall: In this current time and place, corporations have both the responsibility and the power that used to reside in the federal government to address racism and redress inequities. Many employees acknowledge this. Recently, the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that 58 percent of employees say that they consider their employer to be a trustworthy source of information about contentious social issues. And 76 percent say they would want CEOs to take the lead on change, instead of expecting change to be coming from the government.
We live in such polarized times that people don’t know whom to trust. But corporations—where many people have worked for years—often do inspire trust. This is a great opportunity for us [in corporate D&I roles] to educate and help make changes around not just workplace issues, but issues that transcend the workplace, such as racism.
DW: You’ve said that you don’t like the words diversity, inclusion, and equity. Why not?
JS: For starters, diversity is really just a numbers game, bodies in the building. Inclusion is about permission to pass. Equity is sort of an exculpatory, false equivalency: we want to say we are equal, but we know we aren’t—really, people are fooling themselves.
I like the word leveling better. It indicates an active role: we have to do something. The other words represent end states—but leveling is a means to an end. It recognizes that we are not on an equal playing field, and using that word says we are going to do something about it. By using the word leveling, you are saying you have to be consistent and committed to make diversity and inclusion work.
Finally, I don’t like those words together, because the acronym spells DIE!
DW: Tell us about the racism and exclusion you experienced at Davidson.
JS: I remember the first time it hit me that I was in a whole different world. I walked out of my dorm one day into a sea of men in Confederate uniforms and women in antebellum dresses. I thought I was in a dream. I said to my friend, “Do you see this? Am I the only one to have a problem with this?” He told me they do it all the time. I walked up to a soldier and said, “What the hell is this? Why is it OK?” He explained it was to celebrate heritage. I said, “No, you can’t do this.” I raised hell for several years—raised enough hell to get these displays kicked off campus.
I have learned over the years that while individual acts of racism are hurtful, in the grand scheme of things they are irrelevant. Racism is not bigotry; racism is structural and institutional. So with this incident at Davidson, I railed and cried and even withdrew from school. Then, I began thinking about it on a much deeper level and realized that I can’t fix these individual acts of racism, but I can address the institutional response.
DW: How did your upbringing give you courage to confront overt racism in college?
JS: I attended a pretty evenly integrated public school in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I was co-president of the Student Council and president of the Latin Club and the National Honor Society. I assumed that being smart and being a leader meant that you were somehow immune to racism. And in many ways, that was true.
Also true is that my small town was so segregated that I didn’t even realize white people lived such radically different lives. We didn’t socialize after school. Or at least I didn’t. We didn’t have a lot of public racial unrest in Rocky Mount because everybody stayed in their places.
The summer before I went to Davidson, my car was in the shop and the A/C at home was on the blink. To avoid a total meltdown, I spent the time on the couch reading. I dug through my mom’s closet looking for anything I hadn’t already read and found The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots. I learned about behaviors I had not ever recognized as racist, conditions of disparity that had been invisible to me, and historical injustices no one taught in school and my parents never discussed at home.
So I came into Davidson with eyes wide open and walked into everything I suddenly understood to be true.
DW: How do you best leverage your position as a speechwriter for your CEO?
JS: From what I can tell, I may be the only woman of color who is a speechwriter for a CEO [David Abney] at a Fortune 500 company. People believe that speechwriters should look like them. So I leverage the value I provide by often suggesting a different way of saying something. I can build bridges when I write for him in a way that a white male cannot.
When I interviewed for this job, the head of PR was hemming and hawing, and I said, “What is it? Just ask me. You want to ask how I’m going to fit in. I get it. Most CEOs are older white guys, and most of their speechwriters are older white guys. But now CEOs must talk to women, people of color, divorcées, mothers, people who live in the north, and in the south. Guess how many boxes I check off and therefore how many bridges I can build.”
Our CEO, who is from Mississippi, listens. I believe he values my input.
DW: How can people be their genuine selves in the workplace and also be seen as a “good fit.”
JS: I’m a firm believer that you must acknowledge your own diversity—there are people who don’t see it as positive and instead see it as something to get around or hide. When I got in the workforce in the mid-1980s in New York, we used to wear oxford suits with ties around our necks—we dressed like men to fit in with the boys!
Some people today have a modified version of that—they don’t want to highlight their diversity—but I believe you can’t hide your diversity. At least I can’t. I am selective about which diversity I highlight. When I walk into a room, I’m black before I’m a woman—I don’t have a choice. So I think about how I can leverage my diversity as a value add. You have to understand how your diversity fits into the bigger picture at your company. By itself, your diversity without conscious inclusion or respect for diversity can be divisive and counterproductive. You can’t force people in a room to get along with each other. They won’t. It’s not natural—you have to be conscious about it.
DW: How do we talk about race in the workplace? Or is that even appropriate?
JS: I don’t think we have a choice. If you are surrounded by the racial animus that surrounds us now, you bring that to work. Racism is stressful. I use the word weather—being black and a women in our society weathers you.
In terms of how to talk about race in the workplace, it depends on what we are trying to do.
When Tim Ryan became the lead partner at PwC, it was around the time  that several African American men were shot by police. He saw that people were whispering about it. He said, “We can’t ignore this.” So he set up spaces for people to talk about it and let off steam. That is an example of what companies can do. Race in the workplace cannot be ignored, and it will be a growing issue with the browning of America. DW