A Labor Leader and a Banker Walk Into a Boardroom

At a board meeting early in my career, I proudly presented a carefully crafted plan to leverage public funds, employ inner city workers, clean up polluted urban land, and integrate the building trades at the same time. I was crushed when an African American community organizer on the board gruffly demanded, "Why do you always want to make the black man clean up your mess?"

We made some changes, she became an enthusiastic supporter, and I still laugh at the memory of my 20-something self, blindsided by the realization that someone with a background nothing like mine might interpret our idea so differently. I'm white, grew up in New Jersey, and was newly married, childless and with a freshly-minted Master's degree when I got to know this long-time Milwaukee activist, a single mother with five kids. She and I learned a lot from each other.

Diversity matters. I now serve on the board of the national think tank Demos, bringing to a group that largely lives in bigger, more vibrant cities the perspective from a more troubled industrial heartland. And as director of the state think tank Policy Matters Ohio, I answer to a board that, in part because it has people from varied backgrounds, teaches me something at every meeting.

Recently a newspaper editorial board made up of four white men attacked Policy Matters as biased because four of our 14 board members have been or are elected union leaders. It got me thinking about the challenges and rewards of diverse leadership that includes worker advocates and the limits of the newspaper's more narrow perspective. A recent report from Demos confirms that leaving out working and middle-income people skews priorities.

Take a retired banker, a farmworker organizer, a children's advocate and an economist. It's not a joke, it's a description of some of the people who help me figure out how to create an Ohio economy that works for all. Others include a political scientist, the president of the union representing nurses and janitors, an adult worker training expert, an author who writes about racial and generational divides, a local labor leader, some smart retirees, the chief financial officer of a private college, a community organizer, a neighborhood revitalization specialist and a human service non-profit director.

It's a healthy mix of women and men, African-American, white, Latino and Asian leaders, people who've lived all over and have deep roots in Ohio. They have amazing insights, vigorous discussions, and sometimes spirited debates. With such varied perspectives, differences of opinion are inevitable, and usually peacefully resolved.

I'm proud that organized labor has a say, along with community, academic and business voices. Having helped secure decent wages, retirement benefits, health insurance, workplace safety, overtime pay and, as the bumper sticker says, the weekend, labor has a special role to play. You probably work for a living and pay your rent or mortgage from your bi-weekly paycheck. If so, it's in part thanks to the labor movement. And if, like too many of us, you don't make enough to pay for essentials and stay debt-free, it might be because powerful elites have often crushed the voice of workers.

My board and similarly diverse staff have identified the need to research jobs and job quality, poverty and how to escape it, education and training, and what the public sector provides and how to pay for it. They've helped craft and advocate for recommendations that will make Ohio more prosperous, equitable, sustainable and inclusive. They've done that in part because of their varied backgrounds.

The leadership of most major institutions neglects labor and community, often leaving out black, Latino, Asian and even women's voices. The newspaper that attacked us may be particularly monolithic, but the National Association of Black Journalists counted only a few dozen African-American senior editors and publishers at newspapers nationwide in 2010. If newspaper editorial boards were more diverse, maybe considering how policy affects working people would be seen not as promoting bias but as preventing it. I've been through an argument or two, because I talk to people who walk in other shoes, who bring passion to the quest to better include the excluded. I'll take our fights over a more uniform conversation any day.