As racial injustice issues roil the U.S. and the world, Wells Fargo employees reflect on history and take part in critical and courageous conversations
Originally published on stories.wf.com.
Juneteenth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” commemorates the day when news of the end of enslaved people in the United States finally reached some of the furthest corners of the nation. On June 19, 1865, the last remaining enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy were freed, by order of the Union Army, upon the troops’ arrival in Texas to announce the Emancipation Proclamation — which had actually been issued two years earlier.
Many people regard Juneteenth as a time to strengthen ties with family and their larger communities. It is also a time for reflection, assessment, and planning for the future.
This year, Juneteenth falls during what could be a watershed moment — a period of national reflection on issues of racial injustice. The world has seen numerous violent tragedies involving Black and African Americans and police in recent weeks, resulting in civil unrest. Add to this, violence against smaller groups like Black transgender women, who account for more than 90% of the fatalities in the transgender community, and the devastation is even greater.
Wells Fargo has been providing ways for employees to come together, reflect, and share ideas. Employees have attended virtual listening sessions and fireside chats. On June 4, the company encouraged employees to share a moment of silence in honor of lives lost and the calls for justice and equality. CEO Charlie Scharf sat down to discuss racism with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, and shared a replay of the conversation companywide. On June 16, he also announced an initial set of company commitments to contribute to meaningful change. Here, four Wells Fargo employees share their personal histories and reflections in light of recent events. Their stories represent the critical and courageous conversations being encouraged at Wells Fargo, in collective pursuit of meaningful change.
Growing up in a relatively tough area of Brooklyn, New York, and having survived several encounters with the police, I am proud of the support I receive from family, colleagues, and friends. I am also proud of the relative progress I, and others, have made in both academics and corporate America.
I am also proud of some of the progress the nation has made regarding race relations. From segregation to marriage equality, we have a host of laws on the books designed to prevent discrimination in all aspects of our lives.
But we have not gone far enough! I myself have witnessed overt and unconscious bias, including clear discrimination, in and out of the workplace. Even as a career-credentialed senior leader, I still purposely avoid direct eye contact with police officers to avoid confrontation. As recently as two years ago, after a work event, while wearing a suit and tie, I found my nephew and myself surrounded by police, demanding that we “show our hands, and get on our knees.” It was yet another case of mistaken identity. But these scenarios happen all of the time to many Black men, and tragically some do not survive. It is systemic, and we haven’t gone far enough to correct it.
As a financial institution and as a nation, I believe we haven’t gone far enough. We have a dearth of Black and African American executives in our company, as with most others in the industry. We still see dramatic differences in wealth, income, and homeownership between Blacks and whites. And, of course, we continually see inequitable and frankly dangerous policing tactics in the Black community, particularly toward Black men.
There is good news. In the last few weeks, people of all races have overwhelmingly recognized and confirmed that there is a problem. We must now affirm — as individuals, as a company, and as a nation — that we will not let this moment pass without thoughtfully looking into the mirror and taking stock of how we may be culpable for some of the issues at hand. And we must be very disciplined and precise on measures we will take to fix them. Finally, we really need to thoroughly understand our history so that we don’t accidentally, implicitly fall back into the same practices.
I remain hopeful and inspired that true and lasting change will come!
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I even heard of Juneteenth, and I took Black history courses, and I love Black history. But I first heard about Juneteenth when I was living in Texas, and I was like, “Well, where have I been?” My family has lived in Texas and Maryland, and now here in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I have worked for this company for 24 years. We had three sons. But we have two now.
My middle son was murdered in 2014. I came away from that feeling like the justice system just sucks in cases that are considered “Black on Black crime.” My son was a working man. He voted, he paid his taxes, and was taking care of his family. My son was a beautiful man, inside and out. He was not arrogant; he was humble. He had two children, and now those two children are growing up without a father.
I am from Charleston, West Virginia, originally, and I have seen racism of all types. When I was in junior high, in the ‘70s, Klansmen showed up in their uniforms on the grounds of my school in broad daylight to threaten the school because they didn’t like the books that were being taught. But that kind of memory makes me feel strong, now, because I am aware.
I am proud to be a Black woman. I am proud to have Black sons, Black grandsons, Black granddaughters. I hate to worry about my sons when they are out in the world. If you are a Black man, you are going to have an encounter with police in your lifetime. And it’s sad.
But I am hopeful, I really am. I am praying. And I encourage all young people to vote. We have to vote. I believe in voting. We have to vote! I might not see real change in my lifetime, but I did see a Black president.
In light of the numerous violent tragedies that have recently brought racism into the center of a national conversation, I have been reflecting on the nuanced but common drivers causing the extreme wealth gap in America today. I come from a long family history of entrepreneurs, as do many African Americans. My great-grandparents were sharecroppers in Mississippi, and my grandfather owned his own janitorial business in Sacramento, California.
As I sat at my grandmother’s feet during the 2019 holiday season, she began to walk me through story after story after story of disparate treatment issued to my immediate ancestors. How my great-grandfather was consistently taken advantage of at the end of harvest due to predatory production contracts and debt arrangements, without the ability to negotiate for fear of his family’s safety. How my grandfather was subject to unjust loans for a number of his janitorial vehicles. How my father was denied the purchase of a home in 1991 solely based on the color of his skin (due to racially restrictive covenants).
Black business people and entrepreneurs have been subject to unspeakable terror, inequitable access to capital, state sanctioned eminent domain, and disproportionate access to industry resources. Never in my forefathers’ wildest dreams would they have imagined their grandson working at a world-class financial institution (Wells Fargo) — providing capital to business people and entrepreneurs, but here I am.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how my family story is so common and true to the African American plight in America. How can we undergird the current generation of entrepreneurs, employees, and homeowners for a better, equitable tomorrow?
As a first step, we as a society and as a company must have a full and thorough reconciliation with the recent unjust treatment of African Americans and create safe spaces for lament.
A second step is a radical imagination for restorative capital programs for Black-owned businesses — not just friendly capital, but constructing new investment vehicles for incubators that support African American founders, executive teams, business systems, and infrastructure. It is indeed true that Black women are the fastest growing sector of entrepreneurs in this country, however, many report stagnant-to-declining revenue trends and modest-to-negative profitability when juxtaposed with their non-Black peers. There is a large role for Wells Fargo to play in providing support for Black-owned businesses. I am excited to participate in the solution.
As a third step, I see promise in Wells Fargo’s leadership constructing authentic pathways and real roadmaps for African American advancement, retention, and sponsorship. It also is encouraging to see continuing companywide management training on topics such as implicit bias, microaggressions, and institutional racism.