As a business that builds communities, we’re searching our souls after George Floyd’s death. Not every company has the corporate culture to discuss this openly, but at McKissack & McKissack we do and we must, especially given our purpose as an AEC firm that uses design to enrich people lives.
Speaking for the entire team, we were proud that two of our most compelling projects—the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)—became backdrops for peaceful protests and thoughtful discourse. We were also moved when demonstrators protesting Floyd’s death stopped near the NMAAHC to mark his last 8 minutes and 46 seconds of life. But we were horrified when police fired tear gas to clear streets near the White House. Our hearts go out to the Floyd family, the demonstrators— who look like any of our children, the police officers who put their lives on the line and business owners who face new barriers and threats to their livelihood.
While these meaningful landmarks—and all the other special spaces we plan, build and revitalize—were put to good use in recent days and remained undistributed, we know that has not been the case across the country. Other important sites and structures have been exposed to violence and suffered destruction. We hope we can close the chapter on such physical devastation going forward. But the current turn of events makes our mission to build vibrant, peaceful and prosperous communities seem like a more distant goal.
We know from our professional training and personal values how to approach complex projects,and believe its time to own our role in managing this one. True leaders are empathetic to the root causes of this tragedy. They’re focused on collaborating to find equitable solutions. We need more leaders. We need—and aim—to lead.
Time’s Up for Racial Division
With that in mind, Floyd’s tragic death led us to devote our virtual town hall meeting last week to a discussion on racism and personal bias. We cleared the business-as-usual agenda–the 401(k) plan, the K-12 construction management update–and spent the hour talking through our feelings. We shared our thoughts about racism and personal biases that had been ingrained since childhood in breakout groups, then came together to review our feelings. We found unity in one basic premise: The time is up for racial division. We must find solutions for racial reconciliation—an effort that is sure to be on going for all of us.
That says a lot about the values and beliefs of McKissack’s team members, corporate values and priorities. We place our principles above all else, and strive to maintain them. Yet we don’t have easy answers.
We feel the hurt and anxiety of this moment, but today’s shock waves still pale beside the legacy of 1619, the first days of American slavery. In 400 years, racial discrimination has moved from a straightforward fact of law to a hazy matter of plausible deniability. The senseless killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others, show how dangerous it has been to let racism go unchecked.
Our fear of conflict has only made confrontation inevitable. The young protestors are standing up for justice. Their diversity is encouraging–people from different races,lifestyles and perspectives, who recognize their personal responsibility to end the discrimination that has brought us all to this low point. They are bringing a broken system to the surface so we can fix it.
Inspire Hope and Trust
I’ve written before about the circular economy of care on which we built our corporate culture. It’s about building a better self, so that we can contribute to a better team. Healthy teams put aside ego, pettiness and posturing, own up to their responsibilities and speak their mind in smart and productive ways. Those characteristics are what we need to put aside bias and hate. Our corporate values tell us that the only way to solve significant problems is to put issues on the table, hear out every member of the team, review facts and start to look for common ground. Only then can we come together as a group and work toward a solution.
We’ve been engaged with the architecture,engineering and construction trades in community building projects, but many of us want to have more impact as a group. Making physical improvements might be where we can be most effective, but it’s not the only way to be good citizens. Our country has embarked on a complex project with many stakeholders. It is a renovation, and we are in the demolition stage. And like any construction project, we listen to where every party is coming from and come back with innovative solutions that work.
We can’t solve the nation’s problems, but our purpose is to do our part. Our country’s character is in jeopardy, and we must embark on a project to rebuild its character. It will certainly be our most complex, demanding and important project to date. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Working for the end of bias and hate will take all hands.
(Photo Credit: Lukas Pietrzak, @ltpietrzak)