Susan Smith Blakely

One Professional Woman’s View of Effective Dialogue about Race

The tragic and alarming issues with race relations in our country are effecting all of our lives, whether we actually experience these events or simply read about them or watch live footage of them on television.  As law professionals, we are often asked to step to the front to help solve these problems, in both large and small ways.  Here is one way that a woman professional accepted her responsibility.

Goldman Sachs is encouraging employees to talk about race at work, and Edith Cooper, Head of Human Capital Management for Goldman Sachs, has taken it very seriously.  Below is the article that she wrote for Banking & Finance, which was posted recently on LinkedIn.  I encourage you all to read it and to start your own dialogues about race in your workplaces.  There is so much work to do on these issues, and Edith Cooper gives us a road map for that initiative in this thoughtful piece.

"As the head of Human Capital Management for Goldman Sachs, I believe our ability to create a corporate culture where people can come together to share ideas, solve problems and, in that process, learn from one another defines the strength of our organization. Ultimately, our experience at work is a collection of interactions with the people around us. When those interactions are stimulating and challenging and take place in an environment of inclusivity and collaboration, you have a better experience and, in turn, you perform better…because as a result of those varied inputs and insights, you are better.

Unfortunately, we are living through a period where, in some places, our differences are driving divisiveness. Like everyone else, I watch the news, see the headlines and am impacted by the images of communities torn apart by violence and divided by distrust. The topic of race is on my mind, it’s a discussion I have with my family and friends and it’s something that I bring to work. Of course my experience, I know, is not unique. The pervasiveness of current events affects everyone at our firm from summer interns to senior leaders. I know this because at Goldman Sachs we’re starting to talk about it…

More specifically, in the wake of the Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas and most recent events, the leadership at our firm decided we needed to provide forums for our people to share their perspectives and engage in this important discussion. With impassioned questions pertaining to race, fair treatment and equal opportunity being asked both in public and in private, we knew this was not a topic we could ignore. With this in mind, we posed the question: how do the recent events affecting us as people, in turn, affect our interactions at work?

The unthinkable tragedies taking place across our country are painful. Each new event brings with it shock and sadness, and as we try to make sense of the senseless, we can be left feeling confused and powerless. While the path to resolution seems unclear, one thing is certain – if we want to make real progress, we must engage in an open conversation about race. Through dialogue, we stand to gain an understanding of how each person’s experiences shape the lens through which he or she sees society. Conversations about race can be difficult and fraught with the risk of saying “the wrong thing”. As a result, too often people say nothing at all. But silence has meaning and can be interpreted as indifference – or worse.

I am a black woman, a mother, a wife and a professional. I am the daughter of a dentist and a sister to four siblings. I’m a runner, a golfer and a knitter. I graduated from an Ivy League school and earned an MBA. I’ve spent the past 30 years working on Wall Street, half of those as a partner at Goldman Sachs.

I am frequently asked “what country are you from” (I grew up in Brooklyn). I’ve been questioned about whether I really went to Harvard (I did) or how I got in (I applied). I’ve been asked to serve the coffee at a client meeting (despite being there to “run” the meeting) and have been mistaken as the coat check receptionist at my son’s school event. And, on the flip side, it’s also been suggested to me that I’m not “black black” because of the success I have had, or even where I live.

Early in my career, I returned home from a business trip feeling worn down. “I’m losing confidence and feeling isolated,” I told my husband. People frequently assumed I was the most junior person in the room, when in fact, I was the most senior. I constantly needed to share my credentials when nobody else had to share theirs. And, more often than not, I was the only black person – the only black woman – in the meeting. “E, pick your head up,” my husband said. “The good news is they’ll never forget you.” He was right – people did remember me. From then on, I tried to turn obstacles into opportunities and focused on making an impact at work – which I could control – rather than the perceptions of others – which I could not.

Focusing on what you can control and taking mindful steps and positive action towards what matters to you are things I learned from my parents, who grew up in the segregated South. They moved to New York with a singular goal – they wanted to raise their children free from the institutionalized racism they had known during their lives. They believed that through education the doors of opportunity would be opened; and, they were right. While I have faced some setbacks along the way, I live an incredibly fortunate life and am deeply aware of the privilege that is mine. That same privilege, which affords me extraordinary opportunity, also compels me to share – in fact, instills in me a responsibility to share – my experiences in the hope of advancing the diversity dialogue. It is in that spirit that I offer a few lessons I have learned on my journey, including those difficult interactions that seemed to be based primarily on the color of my skin:

  • Engage in this dialogue; don’t be silent
  • Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be tempered by the simplest acts most of us learned as children: listen well, choose your words with care and respect others
  • Focusing on our differences is easy and divisive; leveraging what we have in common is harder, but will effect positive change for all

I know that many people in our country are being very personally and negatively impacted by the tragic events of recent months. In the face of this, my “lessons learned” feel, even to me, more than a bit inadequate. That said, I honestly believe that a mandatory first step in addressing the issues surrounding race is conversation – because honest dialogue reaps understanding and understanding reaps progress."

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Lawyerist. Com, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law, and she is the recipient of a Lawyer Monthly Women in Law Award 2016.

Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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