Before George Floyd, there was Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many, many more. The list of black lives lost due to racism and police brutality is long. Frustration over the lack of action and police reform has spurred widespread protests across the nation over the past week.
Black meeting professionals shared their thoughts on their own experiences, the protests and the need for greater diversity in the events industry.
"Today our nation is burning and whether you agree with the protests, the unrest, the charges of guilt or innocence, one thing is for sure: Our nation is at odds, which means that we as a people are at odds," said Jason Dunn, group vice president of diversity sales and inclusion for the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau and chair of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals, in a video message shared on June 1. "To be very vulnerable with you, it means that I am at odds. As a father, as a hospitality professional, as the leader of this organization and as a black man, I'm struggling just like some of you with belief in humanity and the possibility that maybe hate is stronger than love and that maybe the human spirit isn't as strong as we once believed it to be."
Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC and national chair for the U.S. Travel Association, agreed and noted that the recent events have forced many in the black community to relive their own painful memories of racism and police encounters.
"If you're a person of color such as myself, you're reflecting on instances where you may have experienced profiling by the police and are blessed that it didn't turn out the same way it did for George Floyd and so many others," said Ferguson. "But I think we are all now realizing that it is important that we share more about being black in the hospitality industry, in America and in corporate America. People look at us dressed in a suit and they look at our sense of accomplishment and assume that some of these same levels of racism and profiling are not afforded to us. Unfortunately, that's not the case. We all have experiences that are very painful, and this really resonates and hits home."
"We'll replace broken glass. We'll remove graffiti. I don't condone looting, but these things will be replaced. But the lives lost will never be replaced."
Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC
Since May 26, the day after George Floyd's death, protesters have gathered day after day in every major city demanding justice. The protests began in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed after police officers kept a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Now, chants of "I can't breathe" and "black lives matter" can be heard across the country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta and New York to Washington, D.C.
While many protests have remained peaceful, some have turned violent. Hotels and convention centers, including the Sofitel Washington D.C. Lafayette Square and the Georgia World Congress Center, are among the properties that have been damaged. But Ferguson noted that stories of looting and unrest should not distract from the main message of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I don't think that the true essence of these protests is tied to damage and destruction," he said. "Unfortunately, there is a component of that that we saw on Monday and Tuesday … But we'll rebound. We'll replace broken glass. We'll remove graffiti. I don't condone looting, but these things will be replaced. But the lives lost will never be replaced. I think that the messaging cannot be diluted by the unfortunate things that we've seen on TV."
Doubling Down on Diversity
Racial diversity has been a growing priority for the meeting and hospitality industries over the past few years, but Dunn notes that it has likely been pushed to the back burner as organizations grapple with COVID-19. Doing so, however, would be a mistake, he says. Dunn urged organizations to double down on diversity and equality.
"History has an unsettling way of repeating itself, particularly if one chooses to turn a blind eye. We must not ignore the challenge we face as a nation and to be more direct, as an industry. It is the challenge of diversity and inclusion, race and equity," said Dunn in the video to NCBMP members. "Although COVID-19 is very real and the unrest is at our front door, there are many organizations and corporations that are choosing to eliminate diversity among their staff. They are pushing to the side diversity markets and violating their core values. In other words, diversity has been silenced. It has been deemed nonessential, which means you have been silenced and deemed nonessential."
"History has an unsettling way of repeating itself, particularly if one chooses to turn a blind eye. We must not ignore the challenge we face as a nation and to be more direct, as an industry."
Jason Dunn, National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals
According to Dunn, black representation has long been lacking at the highest ranks of leadership.
"Before NCBMP, there were no African American CEOs in CVBs," he said. The organization, which is dedicated to educating and supporting black meeting planners, was founded in 1983. "There were none in convention centers, very few general managers of hotels and very few meeting planners of nonethnic organizations. And there were only 15 African Americans employed within 500 CVBs at the time. This was just 37 years ago."
Significant gains have been made since then. Still, Ferguson, who heads the CVB for the nation's capital, notes there is a long way to go.
"We've talked about it for years and we've been talking about it recently in terms of the lack of diversity, especially as you look at the professional corporate pyramid and at the top," he said. "I think that arguably some of my peers will say that this is a truly diverse industry. I don't argue that the hospitality industry affords an opportunity for and clearly has diversity on most levels, but not at the top … I think it's the responsibility of people like myself, my peers and others to continue to focus on the true importance of diversity at all levels within this industry. I think it's been marginal at best, but it is clearly a subject and a topic that is important to so many of us."
Diversifying an organization's employee base is also a smart business move, says Solomon Herbert, owner of Black Meetings & Tourism magazine. "They bring a different perspective to the table and are more sensitive to the needs of a diverse audience of meeting professionals ... If your destination, hotel or convention center wants to attract visitors and conferences from the African-American market segment, you will be far more successful in your efforts if you have people on staff that look like and relate to this sector."
The Path Forward
In addition to enhanced diversity, industry leaders stressed the need for open and ongoing dialogue between black Americans and their white counterparts. Organizations can help facilitate these conversations and give voice to those who have been silenced for so long.
"I've been in this industry since the eighties. And I'd never had a sense that when I came to work and had on a suit that I could share some of the experiences that I've had in terms of racism, discrimination or profiling because it would be frowned upon or maybe I'd lose my job," Ferguson said. "I think now is an opportunity for us to circle around and share those stories because I think that white America needs to recognize that the pain is much deeper than what they might perceive."
Ferguson urged white Americans to engage in dialogue with their black colleagues, educate themselves on what is happening and channel that outrage over current injustices into change.
"Be outraged. White America should be equally outraged."
Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC
"These videos are surfacing and telling the story, but the issue has been reoccurring for decades. And there are so many instances of people whose lives were lost but there was no video," he said. "Now is a chance to really recognize it and see it for yourself. Be outraged. White America should be equally outraged."
But that outrage and ensuing action must last beyond this week for any change to occur, he continued.
"Pausing meetings for a week and then restarting without truly having the dialogue within your organizations is not the answer," Ferguson said. "It's like how we react to mass shootings and everything else that we hear about. On Friday, we're outraged but by Monday, we're not… I don't think this is going away anytime soon without change. And I hope it does not go away without change."