Historian Discusses the Value of Storytelling to Enhance Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

To commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Burns & McDonnell invited Hannibal B. Johnson to share his insights on diversity, equity and inclusion. As an attorney, author and historian, Johnson has a thoughtful perspective about the past and the value of storytelling to support diversity and elevate everyone.

Johnson speaks with Leon Harden, strategy manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at Burns & McDonnell, about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, leveraging diverse teams to improve service delivery and collegiality, and the value of grace during polarized times.




Leon Harden: Thank you so much for being here today, Hannibal. I know you’re famous for a lot of things, but also a fist bump. I’ll take some of that.

Hannibal B. Johnson: Great to be here.

LH: Thank you for taking the time to have a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion. From your standpoint, being an author and a historian, there’s a new renewed interest in diversity, equity and inclusion, especially in corporate spaces. What would you say is the historical impact of this sort of education and training and understanding around these issues?

HBJ: Well, I think what we’re looking for in corporate and other cultures is a working environment that really celebrates and elevates everybody in the environment. That of necessity requires that we do a little work around diversity, equity and inclusion — understanding who’s in the space, what their needs are and how it can best bring the team, if you will, together in a way that is collaborative and produces a result that is superior to the result that individuals isolated could achieve. That really is the value of diversity, equity and inclusion.

LH: What is the historical impact of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and the Greenwood District and Black Wall Street? How do stories like that impact us today?

HBJ: So, it’s interesting that you talk about narrative as something that’s really important. About 20 years ago, there were more than 100 survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre alive. Their stories were chronicled and recorded by a statewide commission. Most of those people are now gone.

But in talking to some of those individuals, what they wanted more than anything else was for their story to be told. It’s really a form of validation of them as individuals, as human beings entitled to dignity and worth and value. So, that really is what I think many, if not most people, want. They want other people to understand their story, their life experience, their narrative.

Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” So, part of the point is not making the same mistakes over and over and over. And understanding and knowing our real history, warts and all, is critical to avoiding the mistakes of the past.

LH: Yeah. Could you say more about grace, especially in a polarized time like this?

HBJ: Yeah. I’ve always believed that it’s important to give — especially in the diversity, equity and inclusion space — give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best, in terms of intentions, from the other person.

LH: In your mind in 50 years or 100 years, what do companies who have done this really well look like? What are the indicators of good work in this space?

HBJ: We know through a number of academic studies — including the Harvard Business Review and all sorts of other places — that have looked at diversity, equity and inclusion and said that diverse teams produce better results because of the various perspectives brought to bear on any given issue. Diversity, equity and inclusion opens up markets that might not have been available prior to that. It lessens litigation because there’s more collegiality and cooperation in the workplace, and it’s less likely that lawsuits are going to be filed internally. So there are all sorts of benefits that are quantifiable at some point, around diversity, equity and inclusion.

LH: Hannibal, thank you so much for joining me in this important conversation today. I’m excited that you’re here, that we have the opportunity to navigate through some of these issues in the DE&I space.

HBJ: Absolutely. I’m delighted to be here.


This post is part of Together By Design, a quarterly business diversity newsletter published by Burns & McDonnell to advance a community of inclusion. This newsletter features stories of great opportunity, leaders who bring out the best in others, innovative approaches, and diverse perspectives that shape the business community and the world at large.

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