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Bringing Black History Month to Life
By Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D,
Author of Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape

It's Black History Month, when we celebrate and honor those African Americans whose enlightening stories, heroic experiences, amazing discoveries and tremendous contributions are an intricate part of our national fabric.

In the corporate world, there might be speakers who talk about what it means to be an African-American manager or leader. Your reading group might choose a book written by an African-American writer, like Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones or President Obama, that illuminates the cultural nuances that shape the black experience in America. Or you might catch a television special examining the life of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm or, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

These are the expected kinds of activities that the American public has come to expect every February. Recognizing black heritage is important, but I'd like to suggest a different way of celebrating and appreciating Black History Month. Even as we pay tribute to our ancestors, it's time to take a step forward and incorporate the message and meaning of the month into our day-to-day lives all year long. This is more than just a learning experience, but also a valuable exercise in diversity and inclusion that we can bring into our work lives.

So this Black History Month, take a minute and look at your relationships at work. Think of it this way; ask yourself, "who are your allies?"

Webster's defines an ally as a person who co-operates with another person; a supporter or comrade. At work, they are the collection of people who help each other. They support you when times are tough and celebrate with you when all's good. Having allies in different parts of the company is essential. If you're preparing a presentation on a new product, your friend in R & D can give you the back story, while your ally in marketing can help make your visuals extra snazzy.

Allies in the workplace can be men or women, and it's important to have both. But for women what is critically important -- and often overlooked -- is the importance of female allies. Too often, we don't seek each other out as allies. The situation gets even worse across race and culture lines.

So this month, take a minute to look at your allies. Have you developed relationships with people of other races and cultures? Who are the diverse group of people who are watching your back? And since being an ally is a two-way street, whose back are you watching? Who in your crew is a different color than you? If your posse looks a little monochromatic, there is no better time to reach across the color line and establish truly authentic relationships that move beyond race.

If you dare, after you look at your workplace allies, examine your personal life? Who's at your table for dinner? Who do your kids play with? Do all your friends look like you? Are you being a role model for a diverse world?

So go ahead and celebrate history's African-American stars. But at the same time, put a modern spin and real-time meaning on the month by bringing the spirit of diversity out of history and into your every-day life.

© 2010 Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D, author of Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape

Author Bio
Ella LJ Edmondson Bell, Ph.D., author of the new book, Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape (Amistad), is the founder and president of ASCENT-Leading Multicultural Women to the Top, as well as an associate professor of business administration, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University. She is considered by industry and the academy to be one of the leading experts in the management of race, gender and class in the workplace. Her clients include: PepsiCo, American Express, Intel, Goldman Sachs, Booze Allen Hamilton, U.S. Department of Labor are among others. She has written several articles for Essence magazine and wrote the monthly "Working It" column. Frequently quoted by journalists, Dr. Bell has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Black Enterprise, Newsweek, Working Mother, and Fast Company. Dr. Bell lives with her Jack Russell Terrier, Belle in Hanover, New Hampshire and Charlotte, North Carolina.

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