Chief Diversity Officer Greg Cunningham on responding to tragedy in Minneapolis

June 05, 2020

He shares how the death of George Floyd has reawakened personal memories and has spurred professional action.

In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, I helped my dad create a sign that we hung on what remained of his butcher shop that had been burned and looted amid unrest in Pittsburgh.

“Owned by a Soul Brother,” the sign announced.

More than half of a century later, my heart breaks to see so many similar signs in my now hometown of Minneapolis as our community mourns the tragic and unjust death of George Floyd. 

The feeling, sadly, has become all too familiar. In 2016 when I stepped into what would become the Chief Diversity Officer role at U.S. Bank, our Twin Cities community had tragically and unjustly lost another black life at the hands of the police, that of Philando Castile. 

As a company based in Minneapolis, we asked questions at the time about how we could help enact changes to the systemic inequities, socially and financially, that have contributed to what was a recurring tragedy. And from implementing hiring strategies to spending millions with minority-owned suppliers, I am genuinely proud of our work, albeit far from finished.

But over the past week, I have been transported back to those first-hand experiences of 2016, and 1968. 

This has been a painful reawakening of something I have dealt with my entire life. It has also, however, given me energy through a personal sense of obligation coupled with a professional sense of outsized responsibility because of my role. Understanding fully that a Chief Diversity Officer must drive action, my focus has been in moving forward immediately in three primary areas. 

First, companies need to have intentional focus on advancing black leaders in their organizations. Across industries, far too often black professionals are the least represented in senior executive ranks of Corporate America. So many organizations hire for diversity but manage to assimilation, and that is a fundamental problem. We need to be more intentional about creating conditions in which all of our employees can develop leadership, demonstrate creativity and advance professionally. We are steadfast in our commitment to placing equal value on the potential contributions, unique leadership skills and creativity that come with the black experience. We are making progress but need to continue to improve in this area.

Second, large companies need to develop meaningful relationships with black-owned businesses. This will go a long way toward closing the enormous racial wealth gap in this country; where white households average $170K in wealth while black households average just $17K, according to a 2016 study by the Federal Reserve. As bankers, we are trained to examine such dilemmas, challenge common assumptions and create solutions. So, we have convened a cross-functional group of leaders from across the company to determine how we can act most effectively to impact these outcomes locally and nationally. 

And third, company leaders, at all levels, need to be active in denouncing systemic racism and acknowledging privilege. Some of the most emotional conversations I have had over the past week have been with colleagues of all persuasions. Many have been employees wanting to show concern for my well-being and the well-being of fellow coworkers. Others have wanted to help. Some have simply wanted to feel heard. All of it, in the spirit of putting people first.

As we collectively focus on listening over the coming days, weeks and months, we will work to transform these three areas from words to actions. 

Today, in closing, I want to call out one question I have received from so many colleagues. That is, “What can our company do?”

To my 70,000 colleagues, you ARE the company. 

Be the change you want to see. 

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