Reckoning with the past to shape the future of DEI

June 16, 2022
Cunningham at the National Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

Greg Cunningham reflects on a tour he took earlier this year to visit sites, museums and memorials dedicated to America’s race relations and civil rights history in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Greg Cunningham, Chief Diversity Officer at U.S. Bank, was one of 40 leaders from the Twin Cities who participated in the Center for Economic Inclusion’s Reckoning for Truth, Trust and Racial Justice Tour in late March. Cunningham shares his experience and insights into why this trip was important for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at U.S. Bank and the Twin Cities.

While at the National Peace and Justice Memorial, you took a moment of reflection in front of a fountain with the words, “Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documented, many whose names will never be known. They are honored here.” Would you mind sharing what you were thinking at that moment?

Honestly, I was thinking of the cruelty that African Americans in this country suffered during 250 years of slavery and then another 150 years of legal and systemic terror through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and far into the 20th century. That our history must reflect the resilience, perseverance, and sheer determination of a people to triumph despite unspeakable oppression. I was thinking how important the work we are doing in DEI is to bring truth and reconciliation into our work around equity, because I believe they are sequential.

During the tour of historic Old Alabama Town, the guide noted that many slaves knew they would never be remembered by their names, so they left their fingerprints imprinted on the bricks in their living quarters to say, “you may not know me, but I was here; I existed.” How would you apply the concept of fingerprints to the diversity, equity and inclusion work at U.S. Bank and your leadership?

One of the unique aspects of my job and doing the work of DEI in general, is the sobering fact that you may never actually see the fruits of your labor. The true benefit of the work that you are doing will be realized by generations to follow. Our company is over 100 years old and the work we are doing today is preparing us to be successful for the next 100 years.

When you are primarily responsible for systematic change, it becomes clear immediately the transformation doesn’t happen in the short term. What was so powerful about visiting these memorials for me was understanding that each of them knew that what they were doing and who they were fighting for was all of us, not themselves. The real heroes of our nation’s promise are the nameless and faceless who died anonymously fighting for freedom and justice. That’s what the fingerprints are all about. You may not know me, but if you see this fingerprint, it means I sacrificed for YOU.

I am standing here in a much better place because that person lived. Hopefully, the work we are doing today to advance equity will benefit the generations coming behind us in a way that is meaningful, and someone may see a fingerprint that I’ve left.

Can you talk about how elements of this tour underscored the importance of allyship in achieving equity and inclusion?

It’s always fascinating to me that history often associates the Civil Rights Movement as only benefitting Black people. The Civil Rights Movement was clearly spurred on by the suffering of Black people, but at its core, it was a call to action for America to live up to its highest aspiration. So, in that context, we must be in allyship with each other. As Dr. King said in his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” “in a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Our business resource groups (BRGs) are the primary avenue by which we drive allyship at U.S. Bank. I’m always fascinated and incredibly proud of how intentional our resource groups are in solidarity with one another around DEI issues. Our Development Network and BRGs are the secret sauce of our company’s culture, I’m certain of that.

How will what you learned and experienced during the Reckoning for Truth tour enrich diversity, equity and inclusion work at U.S. Bank and in the Twin Cities?

There is no doubt in my mind that experiences like this continue to help me and help us as an organization grow. As you’ve heard me say many times, none of us learns and grows from a place of comfort. We will only grow by being uncomfortable at times. The more we can become accustomed to being uncomfortable and talking about issues of equity, the more we will advance our efforts around DEI. There have been a few times when I’ve felt more discomfort when revisiting these painful reminders of our nation’s history. However, I’m more optimistic than ever about the future. Together, we can power the potential in all of us.

I want to thank the Center for Economic Inclusion, its founder and chief executive officer, Tawanna Black, and staff for organizing this life-changing experience. I’d also like to acknowledge Urban Agenda radio and podcast host Lissa Jones for facilitating deep and meaningful discussions during the trip. Much gratitude to Wendy Helgeson, who, with the CEI team, coordinated the experience, accommodations, and special venue access and kept everyone on schedule. Thank you to our speakers, Jake Williams and Joyce Nadine Parish O’Neil, who spoke poignantly about their experience with slavery, civil rights and justice. Finally, to the participants who openly and honestly bared their souls and emotions and who committed to imprinting their fingerprints in our communities to make them more just and equitable, we thank you.

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