Sara Bowen, vice president of global diversity and inclusion at Boeing Company (No. 27 on the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), spoke with DiversityInc about efforts to serve as an ally to the Black community. She said allyship begins with asking critical questions in an effort to change oppressive systems.
“All of that leads to an exploration of ‘Why are things the way they are?’” she said. “‘Why are there not more people of color, more women, more people from the LGBTQ community in senior levels of leadership?’ You start to ask those questions the more familiar you become with the reality, and that learning helps shape the efforts you take, and those efforts help reshape the systems.”
Bowen, who is bi-racial, said her own racial identity affects her understanding of how she advocates for other underrepresented groups.
“That identity is very much part of my journey … around allyship and my journey of understanding bias. In my own experience of growing up, I was called racial slurs and beaten up on the playground, and that certainly has put me on a path to want to explore how to combat bias and how to be an ally to communities who were subject to similar treatment,” she said.
Bowen went on to explain that although her own experience informs how she advocates as an ally, part of that advocacy involves understanding where her experience differs from others — especially African Americans.
“I will never know what it feels like to be Black in this culture,” she added. “I will never know what it feels like to be African American in corporate America. So, I still have learning to do there to be a better advocate and ally for the African American community.”
Bowen said for her, allyship involves honoring her individual experience with racism while also recognizing that the oppression Black Americans have faced is distinct. “It is of a different quality and a different magnitude than I think other forms of oppression,” she said.
As a mixed-race individual, Bowen acknowledges her privilege and recognizes that others face injustices she does not. “I get to walk out of my house and go get a sandwich without thinking twice about the looks I’m going to get when I walk down the street, the reaction I’m going to get when I walk into the shop. I don’t think twice about that, and there are people who do—and that is a privilege,” she said.
There is also a distinction between being an ally and a savior that Bowen pointed out: Allyship requires opening doors, creating safe spaces for others to be themselves and amplifying the voices of those who are often ignored or silenced. It requires using one’s privilege to create space for others to step up. “It’s really about creating a space for others to shine in their own right, as opposed to shining on their behalf,” she explained.
The actions of allyship translate across races and cultures and begin with empathy and the desire to constantly improve oneself. Bowen said she often fears saying the wrong thing in conversations about racial justice, but instead of shying away from them, she leans into them more.
In response to non-Black allies and corporations being called to extend their activism past cursory statements and half-hearted hiring practices, Bowen said she believes it is important to ensure people have the resources to turn their good intentions into meaningful actions. Internally at Boeing, company leaders have worked to broach the topic of racism with frank conversations. CEO David Calhoun released two statements on racial equality. The first came after George Floyd’s murder and the second came after Calhoun received feedback about his original statement about what more Boeing can do to confront racism.
Boeing has since rolled out a conversation guide for leaders and increased transparency by notifying employees when an individual has been called out for racist behavior. It also pledged to double its $25 million commitment to partnerships that create a range of opportunities for marginalized communities and reach out to other companies on ways they can work together to facilitate change.
Bowen said while individuals may experience feelings of guilt after realizing their complacency in a system that harms certain groups of people, these negative realizations can serve as productive catalysts for action — rather than paralyzing feelings of discomfort.
“Acknowledging to ourselves that we are part of a system that is set up in a certain way, taking responsibility and acknowledging our own part in driving inclusion and creating greater spaces for equity, and then actually taking action to further that vision, I think is a really productive way to process the guilt that people may be feeling.”