Q&A with U.S. Bank’s Chief Inclusion Officer, Greg Cunningham

Culture is what we do when we’re not being told what to do, and our friend and Studio/E alum Greg Cunningham is what we consider a cultural artist. In his day job, he guides diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at the little outfit we all know as U.S. Bank. But his work doesn’t stop there. He’s a mentor to many and a friend to even more. He works with several young professionals of all races and genders — a generation he calls uncompromising and appreciative. Greg also happens to be the bank’s Senior Vice President. And for good reason — this man has the vision, foresight, and understanding of what needs to happen in order to break down the systems of racism like nobody we know, and we take comfort in knowing he’s at the helm of such an influential institution.

We had the immense privilege of asking Greg some questions during a recent Studio/E event around the role of access in creating a more equitable world. It wasn’t his job to do it, but Greg enlightened us all to some of his experiences as a Black man in America — and they are eye-opening. Here are some highlights from our conversation with the inimitable Greg Cunningham:

How do you see the role of business and enterprises in creating access as a pathway to self-sustaining prosperity?

It’s all about investment. I grew up in Pittsburg in the late 60s. My dad was an entrepreneur — he owned a butcher shop. Everything we needed to sustain ourselves and to have a healthy, vibrant existence was in our community: the grocery store, the barbershop, my dad’s butcher shop. Then in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. Similar to what we’ve experienced here [in the Twin Cities] recently, inner cities exploded. My dad’s butcher shop was looted and burned down. I remember when he went to the bank to get a loan to reopen his business, but of course he wasn’t going to get a loan. He was a Black man in the 60s — no bank was going to lend him money. It was a white man who ended up lending him the money to open the store back up. My mom was always intentional about sharing this story with us so we wouldn’t be angry and so we’d look at people as individuals, understanding that there were systems and institutions ensuring this disinvestment in black communities and inner cities.

None of these disparities happened by accident. These institutions were put into place to create oppression and disinvestment, but I see the role of businesses now as investing back in these communities and investing back in entrepreneurs. I think the key to rebuilding the community is economic mobility, which happens in two ways in my opinion: 1) We’ve got to close the gap between Black and white homeownership. 2) Then we’ve got to support small businesses so that they can grow, scale, sustain themselves, and create jobs so that resources can be recycled through the community. That’s how communities grow. That’s how schools get better, that’s how healthcare gets better. You don’t find bad schools in wealthy neighborhoods. So, to me, the role of business is doing meaningful business with these entrepreneurs and small businesses who have amazing ideas, products, and services they can deliver. Those of us who sit in these organizations and can influence how resources get applied can start to invest back in these small businesses and communities – not just through philanthropy.

As we’re learning, a lot of these disparities have to do with access (or a lack thereof). How do you define access?

Access is an equitable pathway. Frederick Douglass talked a lot about this notion of just don’t hurt us. We have the capacity, will, talent, and cognitive ability to be successful and live the American dream. But you have to stop preventing us from achieving all that is possible. Essentially what he was saying was to give us access to the tools. Give us access to the same information you have, give us access to the same systems of power — meaning the vote, the ability to hold elective office, the ability to have access to capital for our small businesses; meaning having access to adequate education and adequate healthcare. Access levels the playing field. It’s the tool that allows everybody to at least have an equitable opportunity. To me, that’s what the work around inclusion is. It’s asking how to cast a broader net for everybody. What access allows you to do is make the pie bigger for everybody. When we all win we all win.

I think about art forms like jazz and hip hop, and how Black musicians couldn’t play in white clubs. But these artists created access – they made culture accessible to everybody. Hip hop is pop music; it’s the most popular music genre, and this is because these artists decided to create pathways for themselves. When you let everybody in, you give everybody a seat at the table. I’m talking about true inclusion, not tokenism or counting heads, making sure we’ve got one Black or Hispanic or Asian person on the board. I’m talking about inclusion as a verb. What we’re trying to get to is true inclusion, where my voice is just as valuable yours, my perspective is just as valuable as yours. And that’s what’s missing. We’ll have diversity, but it’s not inclusion.

How do you think about (and how can we encourage others to think about) providing access?

It’s about giving people access to the tools. But I also think about access as validation. What you’re doing when providing access is validating that person’s experience, validating that person’s superpower, validating and providing oxygen and life for that person’s gifts to exist, and the right for those gifts to exist right alongside yours. Access allows each of us the opportunity to declare the importance of our voice, our existence, and our experience for the betterment of the whole – whether it’s the organization, project, or community. I think about it as freeing our individual gifts no matter where they started from, and validating the importance of their existence throughout.

Talk about the notion of colorblindness.

I’ve never believed anybody who’s ever said they don’t see color. I just don’t think it’s true. The really important part is when you say that to someone, you’re denying their experience in the world. It’s saying that my experience isn’t important to you, and that’s privilege. 

You’re a storyteller. How do stories play a role in providing access?

Through our stories is where we find our humanity; that’s where we find what we share in common. The titles go away and all of the things that divide us go away. If there are 50 things that define us, there are probably 5 things that divide us and 45 things we can agree on. Let’s do the 45. That comes about through sharing personal stories. The first thing I want to know is not where you work, I don’t really care about that. I want to know who you are and what you believe in, what you’re passionate about. Those are the things that allow us to find important commonalities that close the gaps.

If I’m a person of privilege and I want to get to know people who are different from me, where do I start?

It starts at home. It starts with family. You want to get uncomfortable? Start having conversations about race and culture with your family, because that’s the root of it all. That’s where you were taught difference – in your house. So often if you’re white you want to ask your Black friends to have a conversation about race. That’s the last thing you should do. Let’s start home with family. Then, make sure you’re populating your network with people who don’t necessarily validate the way you see the world. Change your inputs. Where are you getting your information? What’s on your Twitter feed? We have to expand our inputs so that we’re getting different perspectives. Where you land is where you land, but if you just seek people around you who validate the way you see the world, then you’ll never grow.

How do leaders build an organizational foundation that will stand the test of time of inclusion, and how do we work on expanding our resources to ensure we’re building the organizational foundation?

The foundation of any organizational effort around inclusion starts with this notion of how we recognize and reward. Who’s in leadership and why? Who gets opportunities for leadership and who doesn’t? Who gets to demonstrate their value and who doesn’t? The primary issues you’ll see with women and people of color in particular in organizations is that they don’t feel valued and they rarely get feedback because managers are hesitant to say something wrong. We have to get past the notion of passing people along. They don’t get stretch assignments and we’ll find excuses for why they’re not ready. How do we intentionally give women and people of color stretch assignments and opportunities to really demonstrate their superpowers? Finally, it’s about creating a culture of inclusion, which is much more difficult to define. How do you make sure the environment feels psychologically safe for those employees? How do you also make sure the introverts at the table are having the opportunity to speak up? As leaders, we’re hardwired to show up as the teacher in these situations, but we have to be vulnerable. You have to talk about how it’s uncomfortable for you and how you have more questions than answers around your own journey of inclusion. Because when you talk about your vulnerability, you actually free up other people to do the same. And that creates a much safer environment for those employees you’re trying to help. Until they get to that point there’s always going to be a trust gap. No relationship – I don’t care if you’re talking about a personal or professional relationship – no relationship can exist without trust. Foundational to it all is the assumption of how leadership gets defined and recognized, and how you’re creating an environment where all employees have an opportunity to be successful. And that means asking some different questions around what’s getting in the way.

Do we need to first work on ourselves in order to create a less racist, more inclusive future?

Yes, we all do. Racism is not a verb, it’s not these individual acts perpetrated by what we deem as “bad people.” We all have a role in it, and our behavior ensures that these institutions [of racism] are in place, which ensures these systems remain inflexible. The work starts from within and coming to terms with our own contributions to it without shame. It also requires us not to shame and blame each other when we come to these conversations and make mistakes. I guarantee you we’re going to come together and say the wrong thing sometimes and mess up, but when you assume people have positive intent and you establish a relationship based on trust, you can get past it. So what I would say is, make sure you don’t shut down when you may say something wrong or you don’t know the answer. And hopefully there aren’t people around you who will shame you and blame you, but will continue to support you on that journey.

Everyone wants to act right now. What’s your advice for leaders to take patient, thoughtful action?

This is not a problem to solve and something we can check off and say done, let’s move onto the next thing. We can’t say hey we’ve got this fire burning, let’s put it out and get back to the work we need to do to grow our business. But this is how we need to grow our business! This is business as usual. You’ve got to bake action into your business plan, processes, and budget. I don’t care which organization you’re talking about, no diversity budget, no multicultural budget ever created can deliver the results you want. It’s not possible. It’s got to be baked into the business unit and a part of how you think about your business.

As we work on our own exploration of access and our role as an organization, we are grateful for leaders like Greg Cunningham who possess not only the knowledge, but the generosity to help us on our own journeys. Let’s all work on creating access when and where we can. Because as Greg says, access makes the pie bigger for everybody, and we so badly need that right now.

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