By Deborah Bailey,
Special to the AFRO
Long before the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray ignited Baltimore’s volcano of protracted racial inequity, Diane Bell-McKoy was calling on and calling out the business community to end policies and programs reinforcing the structural racism that choked the city’s Black population.
“Structural racism is borne out by the data. Race is such an emotionally embedded issue that people have a hard time with this topic, even when the facts say something different,” McKoy said.
“Structural racism is a social-justice issue- it’s a humanity issue, but most crippling for Black employees, it is an economic issue,” she emphasized.
Bell-McKoy has served as CEO of Associated Black Charities (ABC) for the past 14 years and is a fixture in Baltimore’s civic and public service arenas. She credits her causes to embedded systemic racism in Baltimore with experience gained as lead of Baltimore’s nationally recognized Empowerment Zone in the 1990s.
Fast forward almost three decades later, Bell-McKoy is still walking the difficult walk of holding the city’s corporate elites accountable to basic goals of reinvesting in the majority Black city.
“You don’t dismantle structural racism overnight,” Bell-McKoy said.
The ABC CEO understands dismantling historically racist systems is a long game. Sustainable change on the corporate level only happens with continued, informed, engagement. “You’ve got to look at the data. This is not a feel-good conversation,” she said.
“I’m looking for the transformational leadership you must have. You’ve got to influence the leadership; make sure it’s real for them – and not just a check-box,” she added.
Corporate changes needed to start the process of transforming systemic racism don’t have to be complicated, Bell-McKoy emphasized. A corporation can start by reviewing simple hiring and promotion practices.
“Does that position really require a bachelor’s degree? Or could the corporation offer specialized training to allow a current non-degreed employee to be just as competitive?” Bell-McKoy said, as an example of a simple change in employment practices that can change the economic landscape for Black and Brown employees.
The small-close knit Associated Black Charities staff consists of 10 employees with only three program staff. Bell-McKoy admits she struggles with expectations Baltimoreans have for ABC to facilitate multiple agendas, serving all the organizational needs of the city’s Black community.
“Black led non-profits across the country are very far behind in terms of the resources we get in the world of the non-profit space. So the work we do with organizations really must be focused on the workforce ecosystem,” she said.
“I would hope people would recognize Black organizations don’t have the same level of resources,” Bell-McKoy said, including the nonprofit she leads. “I’m not a Weinberg or a Casey,” Bell-McKoy added, referring to two of Baltimore’s multi-million dollar Baltimore foundations.
Bell-McKoy credits a small cadre of women friends and associates that have helped her remain grounded while challenging systemic racism in Baltimore’s corporate. “I give the greatest credit to a member of the (ABC) team who is not here now, Adar Ayira. She was a partner in the work in helping me keep my sanity,” said Bell-McCoy. “Tonya Terrell. There were people who understood structural racism and were on this journey, perhaps before I was,” she continued.
Ayira is President of Ayira Core Concepts, LLC, an equity consulting firm. Terrell directs Corporate Impact for Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE).
Thinking about what’s ahead, Bell-McKoy sees slivers of future chapters in a speakers’ series ABC conducted this past year featuring several local Black women changemakers and concluding with former Baltimore talk show host, Oprah Winfrey. The series, moderated by Bell-McKoy, caused the longtime social worker to reflect on her vocational roots and the need for greater connection between Black women across economic and generational lines.
“When I think about the next part of my life, I think about Black women coming together,” Bell-McKoy said. “I connected with a number of Black women during COVID-19 that I sensed were in pain,” she said. “I am an empath and I come into a space with my all.”
“I’m there with you with my soul and I want you to be there with your soul,” Bell-McKoy concluded as she spoke about beginning the next chapter of her life, somewhere at the intersection of care for the souls of Black folks and racial equity.
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