By Susan Saldibar

Senior Living Foresight recently started a series called Conversations on Race to highlight the Black experience and explore diversity issues in senior living. Steve Moran’s first interview was with Ayana King, the owner of Maximum Communications. Here are some takeaways from that interview.

The fact that this interview happened to coincide with the 57th anniversary of MLK’s March on Washington and his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech was not lost on Steve or Ayana King, Owner of Maximum Communications. For Ayana, it is “divine intervention”, as activism runs deep in her family. In fact, her 72-year-old father, a civil rights activist, was at the anniversary march in Washington D.C. as they spoke. “So it’s a special day for us to be having this conversation,” she tells Steve.

First, a bit about Maximum Communications. Anaya describes it as a two-part operation; part one is consulting and coaching on content strategy, social media, reputation management, and PR. But the second part is all about advocacy for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Moving Up the Ranks Can Be Lonely

Steve asked Ayana to share a bit of her background. She grew up outside Detroit in a diverse neighborhood of Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Indians, and immigrants. So she became comfortable with diversity from an early age. And that included an appreciation for elderly individuals. “When I decided to go back and get my degree, I needed something that was flexible, and I’ve always loved seniors from the time I was a little girl,” she explains. She decided to apply for a job at a nearby senior living community while she finished college. And, as soon as she got her foot in the door, she realized that this was where she was meant to be.

That said, as she moved up the senior living ladder, Ayana found herself increasingly in environments that lacked diversity. “I’ve grown used to being ‘the only’ and by ‘only’ I mean being the only Black woman in spaces where I am, especially now, as a business owner,” she says.

Not All Racism Is as Overt as Using the “N” Word

Steve asked Ayanna to describe times when she’s felt racism and what it’s like. 

“I can probably tell you more about the times when I have not experienced some form of racism,” she tells Steve. “That’s because it’s just part of the ‘fabric’ of America, and I know that upsets some people to hear, but it’s the truth.” And it’s not just the overt form of racism where everybody’s dropping an “n” bomb, she explains. “Sometimes it’s comments like one that sticks out in my mind from the time I was seventeen years old, when somebody said, “You’re pretty for a Black girl,” or, “Wow, you’re so articulate,” or “I didn’t know you graduated.”

Steve’s Confession About His Own “Unconscious Bias”

Steve shared a confession about an airline trip during which he found himself seated next to a young Black man wearing a hoodie. They struck up a conversation. “I asked him about his life, growing up. I expected him to tell me about his life in a ghetto, growing up, and getting out,” Steve tells Ayana. Then he smiles. “But he grew up in a middle-class neighborhood; his father was a football coach, mom’s a professor. I realized that I had built this stereotype that wasn’t fair. It was a good learning experience, although looking at it now, a bit embarrassing.”

Steve’s story hit a nerve with Ayana and she let him know it. “So, let me tell you that, while that was ‘embarrassing’ for you, it is dangerous for us,” she says. “You saw him as someone who grew up in the ghetto. So, what if he did? What if he did?” She goes on to explain that it is that kind of “unconscious bias” that keeps Blacks from getting jobs, from getting promoted, and from getting the same wages as white counterparts. As Ayana says, “It keeps us ‘stuck’.” 

But Ayana applauded Steve for having the guts to tell the story. And, then she shared her own unconscious bias confession. “For a long time I would profile white men in pickup trucks,” she says, with a wry smile. “But let me tell you something. My husband is white. And he drives a pickup truck. So, I saw what I was doing and see how some Black people might see my own husband that way. And it bothered me. Really bothered me.”

Black Residents See People Who Look Like Them: The Housekeepers and Care Aids

Steve wanted to dig deeper. He noted the disturbing contrast between the basically white, educated executive directors populating senior living communities and those they supervise. The frontline employees who tend to be people of color, often coming from completely different cultures. How do you bridge that gap as a leader?

“Leaders need to be able to see that,” Ayana says. “If you don’t invite people of color to the table, you don’t know you’re wrong. And guess what? We’ll talk about you behind your back. We know which companies we don’t want to work for; we go there in desperation; so when you talk about turnover, that’s where it comes from.”

And she pointed out how the residents themselves notice the color divide between the frontline staff and the executive team. “What bothers Blacks who come into a community, whether residents or staff, is to see the people who look like them but are in hourly positions; the housekeepers, care aids,” Ayana tells Steve. And baby boomers notice too. “They grew up multi-cultural. So when they come to a community and see this, even white residents, it may bother them, too,” Ayana says.

“What Am I Doing,” Not “I Should Do This”

Steve raised an all too common scenario. “So I’m in a board meeting. I look around and all I have is white people. I say, “I need to fix this. I don’t know where to go to find someone. The pool is so white. And I don’t want it to look like I’m hiring someone just because they’re black.”

The problem with that, Ayana says, is the knee-jerk reaction from leadership that they need to “hire for this” lack of diversity. Instead, she urges leaders to look around the table and say, “What do we need to do to change ourselves first? Why don’t we build a coalition with some of our frontline staff, folks in the middle, and our leadership team so that we can understand some things better? We get different input, and then maybe add to the leadership team as time goes on.” That’s how the conversation needs to change. “The conversation should always start with “what am I doing, not I should do this,” Ayana says. 

Don’t Expect Your Frontline Staff to be Your Teachers

Steve wondered if CEOs and regional directors should simply go to their frontline or non-white staff and say, “Talk to me. Tell me how we can make it better for you.” 

But Ayana strongly urges caution. “Do not go to your team members if you don’t have a relationship with these folks. If you’ve never asked about their children, if you don’t know anything about them, except that they show up to work. Don’t you dare go and ask them anything,” she warns. “Instead go find out. Go pick up a book about being an ally. Read it. These people are making $9/$10 per hour. And now you want them to be your teacher too? Absolutely not!”

“You Have the Talent There; Get to Know Them.”

This led Steve to another thought. “I find myself thinking, maybe leadership needs a long-term strategy of saying, we’re going to get to know these frontline workers, nurture and mentor them.”

Ayana agrees. “I was fortunate in that I left a job in education as a school operations manager. When I started there I was making $11/hour. A manager noticed me. When I graduated, it was because of her that I moved up in the organization,” she explains. “I had an ED who was a leader, got to know me, I got an opportunity because of that. So, you have talent in your community; you have hourly employees that may have great, brilliant minds. You have the talent there; get to know them.”

3 Critical Actions to Make Black Lives Matter in Your Community

After an amazing 50-minutes of high voltage conversation, Steve asked Ayana to share final thoughts. She had three great ones:

  1. Test your own unconscious bias. We all have biases that keep us from making the workplace fair. She urges everyone to take a test called Project Implicit, part of a Harvard study. It tests your own unconscious bias.
  2. Start educating yourself. Read books and look for podcasts and documentaries that explain the Black experience.
  3. Once you learn, commit to sharing that information. Teach your loved ones and others who are open to hearing your message.

“We’re at work with people more than we’re at home,” Ayana says. “So if we can get this right in the workplace, we can take it with us. We take it to our families, our friend groups, and we can change our communities.” 

You can watch the full interview with Ayana HERE.

You can get in touch with Ayana at www.getmaxcomms.com, or through her LinkedIn and Facebook pages.