A small, but growing, grassroots coalition of business leaders has started pushing for the community to become more inclusive with more diversity.
On May 9, a dozen business leaders signed a full-page ad in the Messenger-Inquirer headlined “Inclusion: the ultimate bridge for Owensboro’s future.”
It said, among other things, “We believe in diversity because the things that make us the same and the things that make us different are both incredibly valuable assets. As a business community, we know that characteristics often used to divide people do not promote growth and progress for all.”
The growing movement began with Jimmy Staton, president and chief executive officer of Southern Star Central Gas Pipeline, and Dave Roberts, distribution general manager at UniFirst Corp.
Staton said, “Dave and I have been working on this for a little while. We often wait for government to address issues. But we thought that business has a role in this. For us to be successful, we have to be inclusive.”
He said, “We were confident that the business community would want this. Some are hesitant to step out on issues because they’re afraid it will hurt their business. But people are pretty open to this.”
‘Right thing to do’ Roberts said, “Jimmy and I had talked. We wanted to engage a dialogue with others. It’s the right thing to do. These are things that most organizations have as values.”
He said, “It’s an opportunity for Owensboro to step forward. We see it as a key to economic development. The community will be stymied if it is not inclusive.”
In 2017, just before he left his role as president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. to become president of The Malcolm Bryant Corp., Madison Silvert addressed the diversity issue in a speech to the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Rooster Booster Breakfast.Barrier to progress.
Barrier to progress
“Our biggest barrier to progress is our lack of diversity,” he said then. “Unless we’re a welcoming community, our workforce will not grow.”
Silvert said, “Our demographics are not like the United States’ or even Kentucky’s.”
The U.S. Census Bureau said that 61.6% of the nation’s population was white in 2015.
Kentucky’s was 87.03%, Silvert said.
Daviess County’s was 91.7% and Owensboro’s was 92.69%.
At the time, City-data.com ranked Owensboro as the 29th whitest metropolitan area in the nation.
Silvert told the chamber that the community has to “wake up” and become more welcoming to a diverse population.
“The millennial workforce wants to be in a diverse and creative place,” he said. “We have the creative. We need the diverse.”
Silvert received a standing ovation at the end of the speech.
He was one of the 12 signers of the newspaper ad last week.
‘Dignity and respect’
“We’re saying as business leaders that we expect to do business in a community that’s inclusive and welcoming,” Silvert said. “One that values treating fellow human beings with dignity and respect. Communities can’t prosper and grow if they are not respectful and inclusive.”
He said, “It’s not only moral but economic. We hope that community leaders will want to discuss it. Some meetings have already occurred. We hope more businesses will make inclusiveness part of their business. We hope it will become a way of life. It starts with each of us saying it’s important to us.”
Silvert said, “There have been conversations for years. National companies have diversity and inclusiveness policies that are sometimes hard to fulfill in rural America.”
Roberts said, “The feedback was all positive. I was a little scared when I started making calls. But everyone was overwhelmingly positive.”
He said, “We met with a wide range of people. We want to continue the dialogue and engage the broad business community. How do we enhance the community?”
In January, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed across a mural at Kendall-Perkins Park.
A juvenile was arrested last week on charges of spraying the graffiti.
“We were appalled,” Roberts said. “Prejudice is very hard to overcome. But if enough employers take a stand, it will help.”
Staton said America is changing and Owensboro needs to get ready for the future.
“By 2050, 25% of the workforce will be African-American, 25% will be Hispanic, 25% will be Asian and 25% will be white,” he said. “We have to be welcoming if we want to grow. We want to make our point clear. We want to be welcoming. We want a productive agenda.”
PBS recently said that whites will “become a minority, dropping below 50% of the U.S. population in around the year of 2045.”
And the story said, “However, on the first day of 2020, whites under age 18 were already in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people.”
Progress has been made, Staton said. “But there are still a lot of barriers out there that I didn’t have to face, but others do.”
Both Roberts and Staton said they were disappointed that Daviess Fiscal Court failed to approve a “fairness ordinance” in 2020 that the local LGBTQ community had supported.
But Roberts said, “Our goal isn’t political. It’s to do what’s right. This is a broad-based arm-in-arm effort to engage stakeholders. We’re forming a coalition that will meet and help enhance the community.”
Staton said, “The next step is to organize, expand the group, broaden the coalition and get a dialogue going.”
He said, “Owensboro is such an idyllic community. We want to see a reasoned advancement of the community.”
Staton said, “So much of the change being proposed across the country is out of anger. We don’t want to see that. We want to advance the whole community. This is very cool for the community.”
He said, “We have an opportunity to show that we are a welcoming community. We want to get our point of view across and make people aware of the things we think are important.”
By Keith Lawrence Messenger-Inquirer