As the President of the IL Diversity Council, I have the privilege of working closely with our board of directors and having been with the council since its inception I have had the pleasure of partnering with Bethany Florek, Director of Human Resources at Greeley and Hansen, our councils Vice President. Bethany is this quarters Board Spotlight Leader.

During Black History month, on February 21st, much to my surprise I shared a theatre with Bethany and several of her colleagues who were attending a viewing of “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media”, hosted by Comcast NBC Universal at the renowned DuSable Museum of African American History here in Chicago. From Executive Producer and NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack comes this new documentary film that examines how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and leaders of the civil rights movement used the power of print and visual media, especially television, to awaken America to the shame and injustice of racial inequality. Marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media” is a gripping account of American history told like never before by an all-star lineup of civil rights leaders, pioneering African-American reporters who chronicled the movement, journalists from across generations, as well as present-day activists who have adopted the tactics of their forbearers to shine a light on inequality in the modern era. The film offers a fresh look at the historic civil rights movement and combines first-hand personal recollections with rare, archival footage and photographs – some of which will be broadcast on network television for the first time.

Hope & Fury

The day after sharing this space with Bethany, I reached out to her to discuss her experience and this is where we landed; an authentic, transparent and candid conversation.

Q: Bethany, what was your first introduction to African American History?

A: Cherie, first, thank you for being my friend, and having this ongoing conversation with me. I learn so much from you, and I appreciate your encouragement and openness. After watching Hope and Fury, and viewing the section on the Little Rock Nine, one of the things that kept going through in my head was, I first learned about the Little Rock Nine from watching The Ernest Green Story, a made for TV movie that aired on the Disney Channel (back when you had to buy the Disney Channel), they played it all the time so I probably watched it at least a dozen times, it was clearly appropriate for all audiences, OK to be shown on the Disney Channel for my then 3rd grade mind, so “good triumphed and everything was OK by the end of the movie.” While the film is outstanding and has earned recognition for its depiction of historical events, the movie lacked the grittiness that Hope and Fury revealed from many different perspectives about the situation…but, what keeps repeating in my mind is, I first learned about schools being segregated, the real danger children faced, and hatred many felt for black people, came from the Disney Channel. That says it all, in terms of white privilege.

Q: What have been some of the most memorable or impactful African American historical experiences and why?

A: What Hope and Fury made me wonder was, if you are a millennial and did not live through this time period (or I guess even if you are not a millennial), do you know who Emmett Till is? Have you seen the photo of him taken after his mother demanded that his casket be opened? Do you know the historical background of phrases and statements like “Black Power” and “Black Lives Matter” come from? Have you taken time to understand what those phrases mean to someone who is black?

Q: What were the most impactful takeaways from the Hope and Fury experience?

A: Wow, I appreciated and learned a lot watching Hope and Fury. As I shared with you, I spent some time processing so many things – I felt an immediate sense of shame that I didn’t know about some of these events and history covered in the film, I felt really embarrassed. I felt a huge urge that people my age probably didn’t know either, not because they were actively avoiding the topic, but because they were able to live their (my) (privileged) lives not having to view/know/learn about this part of our country’s past through it’s painful lens. I hope that people watch Hope and Fury — and while it is certainly not easy to see certain images, it’s important. Believe me, it was not lost on me at all that one of the goals of Hope and Fury was to demonstrate how impactful images were in telling the story during that time, reporting was critical, visually reporting the events was essential in capturing the nation’s attention. Media needed to cover the Little Rock Nine going to school, the demonstrations, the sit-ins, the violence being used against Americans, so that people across the country, who were living in comfort, would know what was happening and could help rally to create change and provide support.

Q: Talk to me about your consciousness on privilege?

A: In the context of viewing Hope and Fury, one of the things I want to say is that my whiteness has afforded me the opportunity to have a more “comfortable” understanding of history, which can and does shape how one views events described in the media, current events, political news headlines, etc. What I have learned is that I/ we need to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. I have learned that feeling ashamed or bad about having privilege is not a productive emotion, while yes, we need to process and explore our emotional reactions, dig into why we feel certain ways or have certain perspectives, but productively, we have to use privilege to help people that are different from us. There is no shame in privilege, but there is a responsibility.

Q: How does a white woman advocate as a change agent for diversity, equity and inclusion?

A: I think white women can and need to play a (big) part – in the workplace we can be allies, we can check ourselves and others against microaggressions, challenge cultural biases, we can use our place of authority and influence in our organizations to create inclusive teams that foster a sense of belonging. We can speak up on behalf of others. I think this all starts from knowing yourself well, being comfortable with your personal values and leadership style – which will build and grow genuine rapport with others. This will increase your level of influence, and that is when you can leverage business needs and strategy as a change agent for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Self-reflection, awareness, empathy, openness to listening and learning, are all good starting places for those that want to be advocates and agents of change.

Bethany Florek (left), Cherie Coleman (right)
ILDC Women in Leadership Symposium, March 28, 2019

This transcript is but a fraction of the conversations and collaborations that Bethany and I have shared over the years and countless more to follow. It’s my hope that this dialogue and privileged but humbled perspective be an inspiration and guidepost to others seeking awareness and awakening. The more we learn and become grounded in what we know, the more we realize how much we don’t know. The journey isn’t limited to just one month of commemoration or celebration for this or that affinity group but rather a lifelong journey of exploration and enlightenment. Start the conversation, be generous in sharing, open to challenging norms and launch the knowledge transfer!

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