CEOs & Business Leaders: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

Interview by Parveen Panwr

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview (H. Wes Pratt, J.D.)

H. Wes Pratt is a lifelong public servant who is the Assistant to the President/Chief Diversity Officer at Missouri State University. Pratt has worked in the public sectors in local and state governments; in the non-profit sector; as well as in higher education and has always championed empowerment through valuing the inclusion of diversity. He was recognized in 2017 as the first ever “417-Breakthrough Award’ winner for his public service and work in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion at Missouri State University, in the Springfield community and throughout his lifetime.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in Springfield, Missouri attending public schools during the Civil Rights era when people living in the region were often hostile to people of color due to the lack of exposure and cultural consciousness of people in the rural and town communities. I became a student activist at age 15 and community activist due to the mentorship of my pastor and a college professor at the college where I am currently work. They organized black and young people of color as a NAACP Youth chapter in 1965 and I was president of the chapter for a number of years.

I attended college across street from my high school at Drury University, and after graduation worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone before leaving to join Upward Bound as Director. My activism continued that culminated in me being a candidate for City Council at age 25 (losing by 944 votes in a city-wide election) and then decided to go to law school at the University of San Diego School of Law. I subsequently worked in state and local government… was elected to S.D. City Council in 1987. I subsequently practiced law in San Diego and eventually was appointed as Director of the California Conservation Corps by then Governor Gray Davis. When Davis was recalled by Arnold “the Terminator” Schwartzenegger, I ended up as Deputy Director of the Job Corps in Maryland in 2004 and eventually returned to my hometown of Springfield and began work at Missouri State University in 2008. President Clif Smart appointed to my current position as Assistant to the President/Chief Diversity Officer in January 2016.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier was a book that was particularly provocative and impactful to me as it chronicled his life and achievements from a young man born into poverty to his highly professional career as a world-renown actor. It resonated with me because the measure of a man is based upon how a man treats his family or if you believe as I do that all people belong to the human family it is how we treat our fellow human beings. Simple yet powerful in its value-based formula kind of way.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” is one that I always share with young people who have been marginalized or under-valued by others. The other quote that has been relevant to my life’s work is the motto of the County of San Diego, “Public service is the noblest good.” I have tried to live by the messages in both quotations and is why I have little tolerance for so-called politicians who serve their personal ends when they should be servant leaders for the people they represent whether they be elected, appointed or annointed.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to effectively address and serve the needs of others and to stand on principle when being required to make decisions that affect the lives and/or livelihoods of those whom you “are charged” with leading and/or representing in the pursuit of a common goal. Many have made statements that capture the essence in the definition of “leadership”. For example, the late USSC Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said something widely quoted since her death that was simply to “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Perhaps, however, one of the most succinct and impactful definitions of leadership, was stated by Albert Schweizer, who said simply that “the three most important ways to lead are…by example…by example…by example.” Leaders do what they do with a passion and a willingness to “step up, stand up, speak up and stay up” for what is right in a way that attracts others to the task(s) at hand in order to make a difference.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I guess the first thing I do is breathe… and then prepare adequately to be able to make the best decision based upon all the information required. As a leader in my position, whether as an elected, appointed, and/or selected position, I would do my homework, get all the relevant information (i.e. facts) and then make a decision based on the facts, the rule of law as well as my personal and professional experience(s). My wife’s father used to tell her about the six “Ps”, “proper prior planning prevents poor performance” and I guess that is what it really gets down to in the final analysis. I also like to work out and be physically active several times a week.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

The U.S. historically has failed to adequately deal with the issue of race in this nation and has also historically failed to value the inclusion of diversity. The very underpinnings of this nation has been based on the subjugation of others and the failure to recognize that and/or to reconcile that ugly past with the commitment to do and be better as a collective has always been problematic. The great division and the polarization of citizens and residents, has been manipulated by so-called “leaders” who put personal or professional interests ahead of the best interests of citizens and residents especially those who have been historically underrepresented or excluded from what this nation has and could offer to every man, woman, or child who “lives, learns, and earns” here.

Racial injustice has been a reality for over 400 years and certainly for all of my life. Poverty, racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and all other –isms exist and persist because of bias, implicit bias and the lack of cultural consciousness. We as people, it appears, lack the inherent ability to be aware, knowledgeable or the ability to develop the requisite skills to negotiate our cross-cultural differences in order to truly understand and value those whom we see as different. Diversity is not a new concept, but it has been politicized to meet the selfish needs of those who seek power or more accurately, are “corrupted” by power, position, and influence.

So when a people, and/or a nation, fail to address its historical and contemporary failures the problems, and issues persist. They become compounded so that eruptions periodically manifest themselves until a collective mass of folks, nationally and internationally, finally see that racial and socio-economic equality exists and that the institutional decision-making processes and decision-makers perpetrate the fallacies in order to retain power and control for their personal and philosophical aggrandizement.

The demonstrations held today, yesterday, and throughout the summer in relation to the #BLM movement were not based on folks trying to overthrow government but based on the realization that racial injustice in our justice system is pervasive. They also are based on the realization that the socio-economic conditions perpetuate disparities in public health, housing, education, etc. So they stand, but the question remains will they continue to act to change policy, practices and the laws that allow such injustices to persist across the many sectors and facets of American life.

The realization that people are treated poorly, differently and/or unjustly because of their race, nationality, religion, or socio-economic status was viewed by millions more who formerly, perhaps because of their naiveté, or because of the privilege, wealth, or status didn’t see or realize the historically systemic racism inherent in the promise of America. What many saw, perhaps for the first time, were the unjustified murders of men and women who were beaten or slaughtered because of their race or because of their gender or because of whom they loved.

They saw, perhaps for the first time, and started to understand the disproportionate number of blacks, Latinos, and elderly Americans and the ‘essential workers’ who died from COVID-19 was the latest “wake-up call”. A ‘wake-up’ call that compelled them to “step up, stand up, speak up, and stay up” to fight the systemic racism. To challenge and eradicate what they previously refused to see, to acknowledge or that they chose to not see and understand. Our citizens and residents from all backgrounds marched in cities, in towns, in rural areas and in all 50 states and in over 25 nations world-wide to say that indeed, that black lives matter…that brown lives matter…and that the lives of our elders DO matter.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

As I mentioned, I started out trying to make difference as a 15-year old teenager in 1965 during the Civil Rights Era. Even during law school, we worked as law students to increase the number of students of color in law school. I then worked with state and local public officials in California including Assemblymember Peter R. Chacon, who initiated English Limited Language legislation in the state; and then for City Councilmember Leon L. Williams, the first black city councilmember appointed to the San Diego City Councilmember in 1969, the same year I graduated from Central High School in Springfield. Subsequently, I was elected to the San Diego City Council in 1987 and during my time in local government established the San Diego Housing Trust Fund; the Urban Corps of San Diego; the San Diego Human Rights Commission and was a champion for the historically underrepresented and excluded citizens and residents.

I became the first African American appointed by Governor Gray Davis to lead the California Conservation Corps (CCC) established by former Governor Jerry Brown. The CCC is a state agency in the Department of Resources, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, established during the Depression of the 1930’s. It empowers young people from diverse backgrounds through environmental conservation efforts while providing education and career development. Young people are also trained as first responders to fight fires, floods and natural disasters as well as to preserve the riparian and wildlife habitat. After the recall of Governor Gray Davis, I was hired as a Deputy Director at the Maryland Job Corps Centers and then returned to Springfield and was hired at Missouri State University in 2008 as the Coordinator for Diversity Outreach and Recruitment. In 2011, I was hired as Director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, and in 2016 hired into my current position as Chief Diversity Officer (CDO).

As CDO, my staff and I, along with the President and Provost of the university have worked to develop and implement executive level diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to improve the the cultural consciousness, awareness, knowledge and skills necessary to negotiate our cross cultural differences. Our framework we utilize is the Inclusive Excellence Change Model, developed by Dr. Damon A. Williams that creates the opportunity to utilize the rich diversity of every Missouri State University stakeholder. We have reinstated the Facing Racism Institute (FRI) on our campus, after it was initially sponsored by our local Chamber of Commerce. The FRI provides professional development for citywide leaders, employees, and faculty to understand racism; how to mitigate it and how we can become advocates and champions for anti-racism. We sponsor the Collaborative Diversity Conference that highlights best practices locally, regionally and nationally in diversity, equity and inclusion.

We also are partners with our local public entities in the city and county in establishing the Public Entities Diversity Workgroup that seeks to increase contracting, consulting, construction and employment opportunities for people of color and historically excluded groups. I also served as the Co-Chair of the Springfield Public Schools Advisory Council to address issues of the lack of cultural consciousness, anti-racism, and equal opportunity to increase the number of diverse employees, teachers, counselors and administrators in the school system. Valuing the inclusion of diversity is the responsibility of all citizens and residents including our business, corporate and public sectors.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The president of our university, Clif Smart, states often that a diverse executive team or administrative council provides for better decision-making as the perspectives, experiences and acumen of a diverse leadership gives more insightful and thoughtful process to reach a decision or consensus on deliberative matters. Research indicates that a diverse workforce offers three advantages to employers: (1) Access to broader pool of potential employees; (2) Ability to relate to diverse customers; and (3) A more productive workforce.

However, a diverse executive team makes good business sense! It creates the effective management of workforce diversity that is clearly linked to improvements in organizational performance, effectiveness, profitability and revenue generation:
A workplace that values diversity and is more free of discrimination is more productive;
Greater employee satisfaction leads to improved productivity and profitability;
Reduced employee turnover cuts the cost of having to replace skilled and experienced people; and
Harnessing employee skill and perspectives increases creativity and innovation.
The “business case for diversity” has been made in convincing ways. For example, a recent McKinsey study looked at the top executive teams of 180 public firms, and found that those firms with more diverse teams outperformed their peers in Return on Equity (ROD) and Earnings before Interest & Taxes (EBIT).

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Awareness, Knowledge and Skills Development along with cultural consciousness and striving for cultural competency. These are five steps I suggest organizations, institutions and individuals take to create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society. It actually begins with the executive leadership exhibiting the commitment and the will to change what has historically been the status quo when it comes to valuing the inclusion of diversity and taking the steps to ensure equity within all the sectors of society.

Dr. Damon A. Williams’ concept of inclusive excellence ensures that we value and bring the rich diversity of everyone to the pursuit of higher education. I believe this premise is applicable to all sectors as it begins with the awareness that disparate outcomes, opportunities, and benefits accrue to many historically excluded group (HEG) members who may be from impoverished backgrounds or whom are more commonly identified currently as Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). When HEGs become valued and the systemic barriers, obstacles and impediments are identified and then eradicated it creates the opportunity for all citizens and residents to reap the benefits associated with the promise of America.

However, the next step is to acquire the knowledge of the underpinnings and reasons why it is critical to work toward cultural consciousness for individuals as well as organizations, institutions, communities. What actions do we need to identify and address the necessary reasons to promote equity in the places we “live, learn, and earn.” Knowledge is necessary to effectively negotiate the cross-cultural barriers that exist that too often prevent all of us from achieving the best of ourselves individually and collectively. 

That awareness and knowledge to effectively negotiate such cross-cultural differences constitutes cultural consciousness. Such consciousness provides the foundation for all of us to begin to develop the skill sets wherein we begin to understand and comprehend the challenges that are barriers to equal opportunity, fairness, equity and success. Too many barriers are based upon what compliance practitioners recognize as protective class status such as race, national origin, religion, political affiliation, disability, veteran status, sex, gender and/or gender identification while others have to do with the biases and implicit biases we all may possess regarding our differences in thought, socio-economic status, learning styles, immigration status, geographic origins, etc.

To effectively become aware, knowledgeable and develop skills that promote valuing the inclusion of diversity allows us to become more culturally conscious as we strive to become more culturally competent. Attaining cultural competency is a continuous process because of its fluidity, and the changes that human relationships constantly and consistently undergo on a daily, if not hourly, basis. We aspire to be culturally competent but that inspiration and aspiration is based on our individual social, emotional, experiential natures and the intentional efforts we make to value others with respect and dignity that should humanly be accorded each of us. We possess the capability as human beings living in a complex and ever changing global society/global economy. The question becomes do we possess the will to do what we know is right in promoting respect for the value of the inclusion of diversity and are we willing to “step up, stand up, speak up, and stay up” to make it the reality in our daily lives in all that we do.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I have labored in these vineyards for 55 plus years to work toward addressing the issues that adversely affect so many of our citizens and residents. The issues identified with the “murders” of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Mizzou demonstrations, the murders of George Floyd, Armuad Arberry and Breonna Taylor are simply the most recent manifestations of the systemic racism/sexism that has persisted in this nation for hundreds of years because we have not forthrightly addressed the issues of racism and sexism in this nation.

The multitudes of men, women, and children who are addressing these issues locally, regionally, nationally, and worldwide, gives many of us hope but we must not only stand up against the -isms pervading the world. It also requires public awareness, education, and the continuing growth in knowledge along with the development of skills necessary to negotiate effectively our cross-cultural differences. Therefore, we individually and collectively will have the way to mitigate and eradicate the systemic policies, practices, regulations, laws and institutions that constitute the underpinnings of the structural racism and sexism that sustain the adverse treatment of historically excluded groups of citizens and residents. For many black citizens the hostile and racist treatment has been entrenched for over 400 years and we can only hope that this most recent movement results in changing the political and governmental structures and landscape that have sustained the disparate treatment of the poor people and black indigenous people of color for generations.

Optimism may be too broad of an overstatement…I remain hopeful that the great majority of American citizens and residents can see what needs to be done and commit to addressing the challenges of racism and sexism.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Nelson Mandela would probably be the person I would like to have a private session with regardless if a meal was involved or not. To endure what he endured and to remain hopeful to the extent that after his mistreatment and imprisonment he still was able to lead his people and his nation to a better society is simply amazing to me. Nelson Mandela is a testament to the character inherent in the measure of a man and in the grace it takes to rise above the madness of our systemic racism/sexism and other -isms that limit all of us as human beings.

How can our readers follow you online?
Twitter: @HwesPratt

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!