On Race, Business, and COVID-19: Eight Questions for C. Marie Taylor

C.Marie Taylor with Montgomery County first responders during the April 2020 Leadership Montgomery Core Class Session

By: Carrie Fox, Mission Partners CEO + Jessica Hassanzadeh, Mission Partners Managing Director

Like many in our community and around the world, Mission Partners and Leadership Montgomery made the decision to postpone our annual Spring Convening, The Business Case for Race Equity. The rescheduled event will now take place on October 6th at AMP by Strathmore. To keep this important conversation going between now and October, Mission Partners will share a monthly racial equity blog featuring interviews with business leaders and community members embedded in this work. 

Here’s the first blog in our series featuring an interview between Carrie Fox and  C. Marie Taylor, President and CEO of Leadership Montgomery. 

Q1. Hi C. Marie. Just a few weeks ago, the topic of race equity was pressing on the minds of many major corporations and foundations across the U.S.  But here we are now during a global public health crisis, where no community and no company is immune to the challenges of COVID19. Companies have shifted their efforts to the crisis of now: Keeping their doors open, doing the best they can to keep their employees on payroll, and protecting their customers and clients from COVID19.

At a time like this, when the world is wrapped up in surviving COVID19, why can’t we afford to let down our guard on issues of race equity?  What happens if businesses only think about the health of their bottom line over the health of their workforce?

Thanks, Carrie.  As you’re talking about keeping businesses open, if you think about the frontline workers who are doing that work, they are usually people of color. If you don’t think about race equity, soon you won’t have the staff to keep businesses open. All of this affects what is happening with the economy. It starts from the one person that is giving you the Uber Eats all the way up to Marriott closing its doors. It’s an entire system we have to think about. 

You can’t stop thinking about how all this plays out to the bottom line because when we rebound, who is going to buy your product? There could also be opportunities to change how you’re doing your work but you’re missing those key voices at the table. If you’re not thinking through an equity lens and have the frontline worker standing next to the person that has all the shares — and saying well here’s how we could do business differently — you’re missing all that opportunity by putting it to the side. 

Q2. Related, what kinds of questions should employers and business leaders be asking themselves now, and what outcomes should they be working towards?

They should be asking who is on the frontline, how are we protecting those on the frontline and what systems do we have in place if, God forbid, they get sick. We can’t keep our business going if they don’t have healthcare or access to public transportation. Many frontline workers have to take public transportation, which is almost at a halt. Am I paying them a wage where they can afford to drive to work or have a car? As we’re taking a pause you have to think about transportation, housing, healthcare, even your marketing – you have to look at it through an equity lens because you’re missing an opportunity to learn how to show up after this crisis ends. It would be amazing if business owners could think about, “Well if I was back on that frontline, is this how I wanted to be served as the employee?” If you take off your president hat and look through an equity lens and think I am Bob who is working at Safeway next to Susie with no protection and really back healthcare, is that how I want to be treated? So here is your chance to pause and put yourself back in that position through an equity lens. 


Q3. I know the Kellogg Report, The Business Case for Racial Equity made a big impression on you, and you saw quite a bit of applicability to our community here in Montgomery County. Tell me more about what resonated with you about that report, and why it’s so important to be driving messages of race equity home in Montgomery County.

There are a bunch of things that spoke to me, but one of the big things is how the inequities in healthcare show up and cause a huge burden on the rest of the system. That is completely timely right now. If you think about the three big pillars of the Kellogg report, they talk about housing, education, and healthcare and the gaps in these areas – those are all showing up right now. To tie this back to the economy, if we have the opportunity to do some drastic changes around those inequities now, then perhaps for the next crisis, if there is one,  the economy will be better equipped to not need so many bailouts because there is more equity across the system. Now I don’t need as much, because you gave me more. If you think about these trillion dollar bills that are passing, those resources were there all along but if we had spread it out a little differently and thought through an equity lens, perhaps we wouldn’t need so many of the bailouts that are happening. It will be interesting to see how the bailouts trickle across and down. 


Q4. Montgomery County made history not too long ago with its racial equity bill, but there has been a lot of skepticism in the community about if that will amount to much in terms of real change.  What does having that racial equity bill in place mean to you, and what does success need to look like as a result of the bill?

What success looks like to me is hope for the future and being pragmatic about it. We have leaps and bounds to go. In terms of where we are as a county, it goes back to that point I was making before. We have $5.5 billion in this county in terms of resources. And it’s not until we got to this crisis mode that we start thinking about distributing those resources differently. If we had done that through an equity lens 20 years ago we would have figured out all the pockets of need — or areas kids need laptops to drill down to one specific thing — and they would have already had them. Now you’re scrambling to get them, when we knew all along there are kids that don’t have access to food, laptops, internet, healthcare, eyeglass and now we’re running around trying to figure it out. From this point forward, here’s our opportunity to make a change. Are they going to have voices at the table who are completely affected so they can think about how they do the work? Are they going to talk to parents who don’t have internet, who don’t have laptops, who don’t have cars to get to the food that’s being distributed and figure out how to have a different system so it’s not as hard to get this work done. 

Q5. You work with hundreds of leaders every year, across all sectors. What are some of the themes you hear year after year in LM classes about issues of race? Where do you see progress being made, and where do you think progress needs to happen faster among our region’s leadership?

The number thing I hear is “I didn’t know.” And that speaks volumes to what information has been given to us as children, as adults, or what information we seek — I’m speaking particularly around race, racism, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And particularly these are typically non-people of color who are saying I didn’t know this or I didn’t know that. And then my question is why didn’t they know that; I know all of these things. So what are we doing to help them figure that out?

The thing that gives me a little bit of hope and where I see some change now is there is more willingness to talk about it. People are saying I didn’t know and I’m willing to talk further. And then after there needs to be collaboration, dedication and investment to action. It’s one thing to say I don’t know race is a social construct, but what are you going to do to learn more about that? Or what are you going to do to take it back to your office, educate yourself more, educate your staff and show up a little bit differently. That’s what I would love to see. I see it individually with some companies and I stay hopeful. 

Q6. When it comes to race in the workplace, it seems that we’re often talking around the issues, but very often companies don’t feel equipped to take on the issue. Talking from the perspective of an employer and organizational leader, how have you faced this within Leadership Montgomery, and what guidance or tools would you offer to those who are working to build equitable and inclusive organizations?

We’ve developed an entire body of work called Leadership in Action, it can take organizations from having a two hour conversation about race to a two day conversation about race. We are trying to meet people where they are at the “I don’t know” statement to really investing and changing their organizational culture. We started this work within. We looked at our staffing, business values, core statement and worked with Mission Partners on strategic messaging and planning. So we started internally to figure out what work we needed to do on equity before we took it externally, and from there have been able to launch this work based on the lessons we learned and what we hear are Leadership Montgomery’s core strengths and the community needs. 

Q7. What needs to go into a race equity plan before you put it into the world?

The first thing is that there has to be internal commitment to seeing the work through. There has to be atual dollars and investment, group buy-in from everyone in the organization and you have to have someone from the outside come in and help you. They can take a critical lens to see where there is buy-in or push back to help marry the two. And I think by having someone like Mission Partners or Leadership Montgomery help them figure out that work, they can as a collective body show up differently. This work is sticky, hard, people don’t get it, and there are moments of vulnerability that leaders don’t want to talk about. But on the other side you get a beautiful work product that can help you show up differently and by having an external person or organization they can help you wade through that and really map it out so you don’t feel stuck. For us, we tackled it head on and we brought it outside people to help with this intneral work. 

Q8. We can say culture is formed anywhere, but inside an organizational culture start at the top. It is the tone that we set, the actions we take, and how we talk and engage that others will follow. As we think more about this time of pause, how can leaders show up as it relates to equity and set a culture of vulnerability and inclusion?

As we’re home and trying to figure this work out, it would be great for leaders to start with their gratitude. I’m grateful for great healthcare, that I can work at home, and that I can talk to you through the internet and computer. If I take that gratitude and then unpack it and say who doesn’t have these things? Who can’t work from home? Who doesn’t have access to the internet? Who doesn’t have great healthcare? And then say what is my role in helping in that as a leader? Let’s talk about the internet. I have the internet and I know other people don’t. One thing I can do practically is send information about how you can get access to free internet. I’m on a board and lending them our account so they can continue to conduct meetings. One practical thing you can do in terms of equity — the easy thing right now — work from a place of gratitude, figure out the things that you have and who doesn’t have that. In your business and personal goals, what are the one or two things you can start to tackle? 

Well, it is hard to sum up such a full conversation but the three lessons I have learned talking with you, C. Marie:

  • To start and lead with gratitude
  • To be willing to face what you don’t know and do something about it
  • To use this pause as a place from which to grow

I really appreciated our time together, and the practicality of your insights- especially in this moment of time.  Thanks for all you do, C. Marie.

Thank you, that was an excellent summary!

For additional resources visit: The Meyer Foundation, The Kellogg Foundation, Mission Partners, Leadership Montgomery