Serious, proactive efforts at diversity, equity and inclusion are more important than ever, leaders from the Tuscaloosa area said at a panel dedicated to those subjects Wednesday afternoon.

The panel was the second event in the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama's Next Level Series — seven different public forums scheduled between now and early April that seek to examine all aspects of life in the Tuscaloosa area through discussions with top leaders from the public, private and non-profit sectors.

Wednesday's discussion was moderated by Michele Coley, the only Black woman in Alabama to own and operate her own Allstate insurance agency.

Panel members included Kirk Ingram, the retail operations supervisor at Buffalo Rock; Cresandra Smothers, the Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion and External Engagement at The University of Alabama; Danielle Kimbrough, a community relations manager at Alabama Power and Quin Kelly, an executive board member with the Building Bridges Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

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Coley kicked off the discussion by saying that the idea of prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion has been on the rise in the business world for the last several years as companies realized that more diverse voices and employees generally resulted in higher profitability.

That trend exploded, though, in the immediate aftermath of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department in May 2020. Coley called Floyd's death a marker in the sand and said diversity, equity and inclusion hires skyrocketed more than 100 percent in the months after the incident.

Each panel member discussed the steps their companies have taken and will take to bolster DE&I. Kirk said at Buffalo Rock, major efforts are underway to highlight and provide opportunities to minorities of all kinds, including Black people, women in a male-dominated field and military veterans.

Smothers said at the University, her entire division is dedicated to DE&I, from strengthening recruitment of minority students to improving life for minorities on campus and educating parents about modern life in the Deep South.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

"I've personally had parents who said they were concerned about their [minority] child's safety and I had to assure them, this is not the University of 1956 when Autherine Lucy enrolled, this is not the University of 1963 and the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, this is the University of today," Smothers said. "As part of today, we have to show how we're advancing and we have to reach out to people and show them that diversity, equity and inclusion does exist on our campus."

Kelly, a UA student and Tuscaloosa native, said the relatively new BBI4RR was founded specifically to examine these issues and make Tuscaloosa a better place to live for people of all backgrounds.

"We focus on race education, that's our whole goal," Kelly said. "We are an institute of learning for the topic of racism, we are a think tank about how to communicate, engage and find solutions together. We are a diverse group that loves Tuscaloosa — Roll Tide — and we want to be engaging and constructive, create a dialogue and learn how to problem-solve together."

Those goals may seem lofty, but the panel said they are necessary for the long-term growth and health of the Tuscaloosa area as demographics locally and nationally trend towards the continued growth of minority populations.

The end goal, the panel said, is not to exclude straight, white people from jobs or to give minorities some unfair advantage, but to ensure the playing field is level everywhere — during the hiring process, in advancement opportunities, consideration for leadership positions and more.

Kimbrough and others noted that these conversations may be uncomfortable, but they have to begin now as a younger, more colorful and less traditional generation increasingly demands DE&I from companies, governments and other institutions.

"Our companies can't be successful if we don't have DE&I and we don't have equity in opportunities for our employees," Kimbrough said. "That's what we need to be successful long-term and that's what society is requiring of us."

The Next Level Series will return next Wednesday at 3:30 with a conversation about area infrastructure moderated by Probate Judge Rob Robertson. Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for updates from that panel and the other four left in the Series.

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