Steve Pemberton looks good in blue. It matches his eyes, a shade of cerulean quite like the sea waters off the coast of Portugal where some of his ancestors originated. The same blue twinkles up in the only little boy photo ever taken of Pemberton. Back then, in foster care, Pemberton knew nothing of his ancestry, his Irish American mother, or his African American father. His focus was survival, as he endured years of abuse in a broken foster care system he wouldn’t escape until his late teens. Leaving that behind, not only did Pemberton make his way to Boston College for two degrees, he went on to lead positive growth and change as chief diversity officer and human relations chief at global corporations, and to run for public office.
Pemberton’s riveting life story of intrigue and triumph, A Chance in the World, was first published in 2012, and made into a movie in 2018. The book was re-issued with an epilogue in 2018, and the young-adult version of the story comes out in April 2021. Because the book is now recommended reading for high schools and colleges nationally, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt is creating a curriculum for it this fall. And it doesn’t end there. The, A Chance in the World nonprofit Pemberton and his wife Tonya founded in 2016 to help kids aging out of foster care bridge the gap to college, keeps growing. Through its influence, the Pembertons actively advocate for youth and at-risk populations in various capacities. And the many “human lighthouses” of hope Pemberton met along the way are the subject of the new book he is writing now—all while heading human resources at Framingham, Massachusetts- based Workhuman.
But today is not a writing day. Today, in the midst of great national unrest, Pemberton’s discussions will focus on social justice and equity for people of color. As we talk, the phone keeps ringing. One after another, corporate leaders call to ask for advice on how they can make shifts against racism. And Zoom conferences with youth organizations navigating through this time of foment are scheduled later.
While each dialogue is different, the life-experience Pemberton draws from bridges them all. Issues of equity weave up, down, around, and through all aspects of his life: Beyond his youth journey as an underprivileged Black, there is the labeling and exclusion he experienced in college by peers who considered him too white to be Black, and too Black to be white. There is the daily vigilance he has to have parenting three teens who despite a privileged upbringing in the Chicago suburbs, experience racial profiling. There are his decades of leadership as a chief diversity officer at monster.com and Walgreens Boots Alliance, and, his frustrating experience running in Massachusetts for a seat in the U.S. Senate, a candidacy short-circuited by entrenched political systems that prevent new hopefuls from successfully challenging incumbents.
Speaking with Pemberton about battling racism individually and corporately, his overarching message is one of actionable hope, through courage and persistence, and a commonality we all have through struggle. Here is what he has to say.
Steve, you speak with a wide range of multicultural youth through organizations nationally. What are kids saying to you now? What are they feeling and expressing?
There is a parallel of struggle that I faced and encountered as a young person that mirrors a lot of the challenges that young people are facing right now. Much of this is currently playing out in the Black Lives Matter movement. They are voicing waves of so many emotions: despair, hope, anger, sadness, frustration. Over all of this, there is an impatience to wait, and absolutely zero tolerance for the justifications people make about the wrongs that are continually happening. Many of these kids are experiencing the same things their parents and grandparents went through. They are joined in that frustration by their white friends who know that their friends can be targeted by some police and white supremacists just because of the color of their skin. It is a very, very difficult thing for them to digest. So, they are not going to wait for change, they are actively pursuing it.
What questions are young people asking you? And how do you answer them?
They ask, “How do you let go of the anger?” “How do you forgive?” “How do you deal?” “How do I move forward in my life?” What I aim for in my answers, is not to negate the anger, frustration, and pain, but to help the kids find strength through the struggle—to pivot and focus on the fight forward. I tell them they are not wrong to feel these emotions, but that they now have to pivot that anger into something positive. Part of that pivot comes from knowing that there are skill sets they have developed that came from the very hardships they suffered. I think fast, for example, because it was a survival mechanism I developed as a child. I also had to focus on possibilities, rather than circumstances, which is how I still choose to face any situation, on any given day. The measure of who you are is not what you suffered, but how you pivot from it to fight forward. Some things are not our fault but they are our responsibility.
You have had decades of experience successfully leading global corporations to greater equity. Many are coming to speak with you now, seeking advice—what are you saying to those who are newer to the conversation?
The first thing I say is, “Don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning the fact that you are not there yet or have a lot of work to do, or that you don’t think you have anything to contribute.” This is a great time to join the conversation. Corporate America is realizing that they have a responsibility not only to their shareholders but to the community they serve—and that means social justice. It’s a time of great reckoning. And we already see progress. In past times of civil unrest, corporations were incredibly cautious because they didn’t want to offend anyone. But now, there is recognition that there is a connection between the people who are protesting and the business community. Many are now making enormous contributions on matters of social justice because they feel that they have a responsibility to do so. And they are moving quickly. We saw a number of companies that immediately declared Juneteenth a company holiday once they realized the cultural significance of that day. And look at Amazon. They didn’t need a long delay to determine that there was bias against people of color in their facial recognition technology. They said, “We are going to suspend the practice now.” Corporate America now realizes that making statements of support alone is not sufficient. Actions are what effect change.
But shouldn’t discussions about race be within the personal sphere, not the workplace?
There used to be a dividing line between personal and professional life, but in these turbulent times, that line has been eliminated. Americans are hungering for conversations and solutions. The workplace might be the best place to have these conversations, especially because every other part of our society has been engaged in some form of segregation or polarization. Where else, in the course of a day, are you more likely to encounter people from multiple races, cultures, generations, and languages, all oriented toward a common goal? The workplace is the perfect place to have those conversations that are normally so difficult to get to.
What if we personally haven’t yet moved forward on more equitable treatment of others, let alone dealt with racism. What steps do we take?
To begin? Understand that Blackness is not a burden to overcome but a beauty to be celebrated. Recognize that there are systemic issues that have long been the African American experience here and the perpetuation of that struggle is not because of a character flaw. I am constantly educating myself about causes and cultures outside my sphere. The disabled community is one example. I don’t need to have a disability to be a champion for the disabled. I do so because I recognize the common threads of isolation, being forgotten, being looked at as “other,” “less than,” or “different.” Those are struggles I can identify with.
What do you see as the biggest impediments to progress?
People have an unwillingness to really wrestle with the core issues—to talk candidly about fears they have in a world that is rapidly diversifying. As a nation, we are far too quick to shift to justifications, and, “what about-isms” rather than saying, “This is not right and needs to change. Now.” Another impediment is the propensity to slide the scales that measure fairness, dignity, and morality depending on who is sitting on that scale. One of our key doctrines says, “We the People,” collectively. It does not say, “We, some of the People.” The lessons we teach our children about truth, fairness, and equality are absolutes. They shouldn’t change depending on race. When we go down the slippery slopes of justification, employing sliding scales when measuring fairness, justice and truth are impeded and our bedrock institutions become weaker. We have seen this happen repeatedly after the shootings of unarmed black men. Soon after each of these men were killed, we saw articles appearing with details of each person’s past life. The insinuation, of course, was that they deserved what happened. That is amoral, untrue, unjust, and wrong.
But change is uncomfortable. Pain, even more so. And we are all masters at avoidance. What can you say to us about avoiding pain and discomfort right now?
During my years involved in this work, I had two roles: to “comfort the afflicted,” and to “afflict the comfortable.” Being uncomfortable is how you grow. It’s how I grow. And on this issue, it’s important to realize that the pain and discomfort caused by racism is not going to go away. You can try to ignore, justify, or explain it away. But it’s still there. And at this time, we are much more aware of the pain racism has caused. It’s no accident that we are seeing the banning of the Confederate flag and that we are seeing monuments coming down. There is finally the realization that the systems and imagery that have been used to perpetuate racism are not accidental. They have been purposeful. We all have to deal with and own up to the pain that those systems and imagery caused. Only out of that reckoning can we build something new. And it’s not enough for the monuments to come down and flags to be removed. The bigger question is what will we put in their place? The path of avoidance, just saying “I don’t want to talk about it,” doesn’t work. Our greatest successes have come when we dared to do the hard things.
Despite the challenges, do you see this as a time of great potential?
I do. But there is a caveat in the word, “potential.” Potential refers to things that you can do, but have not yet done. In and of itself, potential is not the “end.” All it means is that the possibility for change is still alive. To realize that change, the urgent question now becomes, “What am I personally willing to do to make it happen?” That is the question in front of us right now. We have the potential to take this moment and turn it into a sustainable movement that can create a very different, more equitable reality for what it means to be an American. Our responsibility is not to justify or ignore, but to be consistent in our application of what it means to be one nation. To realize that there is a large group of people born in this country for whom life is infinitely harder. In all my years of working against racism, and thinking through the attendant issues, I have never been able to understand why, with the persistence with which Black Americans have fought to have meaning in America, we are not the source of admiration, or at the very least, respect. It should, at least, be that. Thinking of those that came before me, I leave you with this: Whatever successes anybody sees in me are not because I’m an exception, they are because I am a small reflection of the history, and culture of the Black experience in America, and of America herself. It’s a reason to be hopeful but that hope can only be realized when we stand together. It’s our only chance.
To support the work of A Chance in the World visit, stevepemberton.io/foundation.