Workplaces Where Everyone is Not Alike

The United States Post Office
Bear Mountain State Park
September 26. 1999

By Larry H. Spruill

I am deeply honored for being invited to be your keynote speaker this morning. Other than going to my house of worship, I could think of nothing better to do this morning than coming out to lovely Bear Mountain and having a conversation with you about the power of change, culture, diversity and the counting down of the minutes, hours, and days to the year two thousand. There are less than 100 days to the beginning of a new year, new decade, new century and new millennium. We are coming to the close of a thousand year period. This is an extraordinary event. No one living on earth will live to see another time as the beginning of a new millennium.

There is so much anxiety about 12:01 am, January 1, 2000. I am not one to panic about the computer glitch issue. If the worse case scenario happens there is nothing I can do about that anyway. As I get older, I find worrying an extremely wasteful activity. What I am most concerned about is January 2nd and beyond. I am concerned about the millennium changes that are already here. I am concerned about things like the impact of the increasing diversity at my workplace, in my community, in public services, fire, police, local government, schools and yes even the postal services. How will these agencies and institutions handle not only the technological changes taking place in the workplace but the ethnic and cultural shifts in our places of work and public service agencies.

I am from an old American family. Yes, I am of African descent. But I am also a very proud American. I have traced my family roots on both sides to 18th century America. I have links as far back as 1767, in North Carolina. There was no Declaration of Independence nor Constitution and Bill of Rights then. But my direct descendants were here as slaves. People of color are not new to this land.

In 1951, my mother and father moved from the South to Mount Vernon, New York. They were fleeing Jim Crow, rural poverty and limited opportunities. I was just a little boy. They came North because they believed that the American Dream was yet alive. My parents were an old American family. They believed in the American Promise and Dream. They had sense enough to know that if success was not available in North Carolina then they perhaps they could get it for their children somewhere else in America.

The Spruill family was among many Post-World War II families with a Dream and found themselves on the Move. All five of their children made it. Four of them now have Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D.s. None of us have been drug addicts or served time or been under criminal justice supervision of any kind. I have shared my short family biography to answer the next question. Why are so many people from so many different places on the planet earth trying to come to the United States of America? They have heard about and believe in the American Promise and Dream.

We are living in a strange time. There is a shift taking place. From sea to shining sea, America and Americans are changing. People from all over the world are still coming to America. But for what? Most come seeking a chance to experience upward social mobility. People want to improve the lives of their families.

Over the past 200 years, the English, Irish, Scotch, Germans, Swedes, Slavs, Italians, and Greeks have come and have cashed in on the promise and dream. I believe that the American Promise and Dream is still alive. It remains a global magnet drawing the tired and the poor and hopeless to our shores. As a nation, we are still trying to say yes…come on… work hard and be blessed in the land where the thirteen stripped and fifty stared banner waves. They still come. They still come.

I am a baby-boomer. I came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of you may not know what the Post Office meant to poor people some 50 years ago. The Post Office was the one place that people of color could hope to get employment that would immediately put them on a pathway to middle class lifestyles.

When I was growing up, if your father or mother worked at the Post Office you were considered middle class and living well. A Post Office job was considered status employment. Poor people going to work at the post office were able to move out of slums and public housing and buy homes and send their children to college. One could experience the good life in America simply by working at the P.O.

Years ago, many a college graduate came home and went to work at the P.O. However, the beauty of working at the P.O. was that a college degree was not necessary for employment. Getting on at the Post Office was a blessing. It was prestigious, stable and steady work. Through dedicated hard work at the P.O. prosperity was assured. The P.O. was a ticket to the middle classes. People dreamed of retiring from the P.O.

Being a mail man (now mail carrier/the pc version) had status. The mailman was a respectable and trusted member of the community. The mail man was an admired and recognized public servant…on par with policemen, firemen, teachers, and city workers. Every day, Mr. Rodgers on PBS used to sing…It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood…well back then, the neighborhood was sprinkled with faithful and friendly mailmen, police officers, firemen, and sanitation workers. Times have changed. Things are different.

So, we are just 100 days from Y2K–we nervously sense that even greater changes are on the way. In the dark days of the Great Depression, FDR assured us by saying…We really do have nothing to fear but fear itself. The same is true as we enter next century America. We are entering an era of even greater opportunities with a different looking and speaking American people.

On every dollar bill there is the phrase…”e pluribus unnum“…”out of many one.” Multiculturalism and pluralism is so much a part of our promise and creed that we put it on our money. How are we doing with the promise today? That is what worries me one hundred days before Y2K. Can we…do we still have the will to try to make the many and the different. among us…that is you and me one nation…under God and indivisible?

I submit to you today that we are in the midst of our nation’s most difficult cultural crisis in its history. There is a cultural shift taking place. It is happening now as I speak.

Culture is everything and and culture is being expressed everywhere. We all must live with our own cultural baggage. Culture is what keeps us sane and balanced. Culture is what gives stability to our families and communities. Culture is about people. The increasing cultural diversity in our nation is complicated because people are complicated.

We bring our culture and ethnicity to work everyday. We have to live with the culture and ethnicity of all of our coworkers and they have to deal with our daily cultural baggage. Our cultural selves must flow and not be obstacles in the work place. Culture must not hinder productivity in the work place. But it is becoming an increasing problem.

If we do not deal with culture, diversity and change and their pervasive influence on our lives and relationships at home, in the community and at workplace Y2K will be extremely problematic not because of computers but our inability to create a sensitive and productive multiracial, multiethnic and pluralistic community and workplace.

By the year 2020–52% of Westchester County, the quintessential suburban community also known as the Golden Apple will be minority or people of color…Most of them will be Latinos. The Browning of America is real…the browning of our schools is real…the browning of our consumer markets is real…and the browning of our workplaces are real.

The nations Fortune 500 corporations have declared that the most valuable employees in corporate America today and tomorrow are not necessarily the most well educated (and education is important)—they are not those who are the most technologically proficient (and technical literacy is more important than ever)…but the most valuable employees of today and tomorrow are those who can effectively handle diversity and change.

At workplaces where everyone is not alike, diversity and change are real challenges. Did you know that by 2056, when someone born today will be almost 56 years old, the “average” American resident, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau of Statistics will trace his or her descent to Latin America, Africa or the Asian world, the Pacific Islands, Arabia–almost anywhere but white Europe. In San Jose, California people with the Vietnamese last name Nguyen outnumber the Joneses in the telephone book 14 columns to eight.

In Houston Texas, at the Sesame Hut Restaurant, a Korean immigrant owner trains Hispanic workers to prepare Chinese-style food for a largely black clientèle. Let’s bring it closer to home. In Mount Vernon there are two restaurants, owned by Greeks, who train Latino short order cooks to prepare soul food style breakfasts, fish and grits, etc. for their African American customers…

So we stand 100 days from a new century…a new millennium…a new America…a new county…a new sense of community…The tongues and voices will sound different…The people will look even more different…Our neighborhoods and workplaces will feel different.

But in this world of differences…In the workplace where everyone is not alike…how will I respond to you? How will you respond to me? Can I ask who are you? Can I tell you who I am? Can I tell you who I really am…that is my cultural being? Do you care to know?

In the workplace where everyone is not alike–I need to know how you feel about me? I know you really want to know how I feel about you? We do more than work when we show up and punch the clock? Don’t we?

We learn many things all day long. We learn how to get along…get through the day without conflict. We learn how to be culturally invisible. We learn how to take our difference and go unnoticed all day long. The changes in our society are escalating so fast that we will not be able to do this much longer. I believe it was an Asian man in a postal uniform that was singled out and killed in a hate crime this summer in Las Vegas.

In the workplace where everyone is not alike–that world of differences will eventually have to be dealt with. We must recognize and accept our differences and celebrate them…while at the same time place greater emphasis on the things that make us the same…

In the workplace our values are usually the same…What are they? Life…Liberty…the pursuit of happiness…Freedom…Justice..Equity… Due Process…and most of all…Opportunity… Opportunity…Opportunity to bless our families and children from our hard labor…What each and everyone of us want…with all of our differences…is peace and prosperity…peace and prosperity for ourselves and families. These values have no racial boundaries…they have no linguistic and ethnic boundaries…They are universal desires…They are human aspirations…They are also the essence of the American Promise and Dream.

The future is an eclectic one…it is a mixed bag of people. Along with the Browning of America…there is the Graying of America. Westchester County…The Golden Apple for example will become browner but also grayer and grayer…

Yes, nationally, women, people of color, and immigrants (many of whom are non-English speaking) represent more than 50% of the present workforce. Next year, 85% of the people entering the workforce will be female, African American, Asian American, Latino, or new immigrants.
An equally important fact is that two million “older” workers, between ages 50 and 64, are ready, willing, and able to work and are not being utilized. By 2020, one out of every four workers will be age 55 or older.

Will the workplace be ready to deal with these new realities of color, culture, and age? How will we respond when the workforce swells with a rainbow of faces of color and a bright tapestry of cultures and vibrant and energized graying elderly workers? Will they be allowed to enrich our communities, houses of worship, commercial centers and our workplaces.

This new America that I speak of can be a renewal, and exciting renaissance, a culturally vibrant and prosperous beginning of a new era. The unfinished business of the American democratic experiment began some 225 years ago is soon to face its greatest challenge…will it renew itself with the cultural infusion and integration of our new immigrants?

Will our nation recognize and embrace the potency and power of the brown faces and different tongues from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and even Africa? Will we accept the truth that is before us…which is that the browning and graying of our beloved nation is a next century re-creative process? We are getting the youth and vitality we need through our recent immigrant families and our healthier and longer living seniors are remaining in the workplace to share their wisdom, skills and know-how with the younger and browner workforce.

In closing, I want to caution us all…the world is still a very dangerous place…especially for people who love peace, truth, justice and all of humanity. Our nation is still the bright star and hope of humanity. We are not threatened as a nation from without…the Soviet Union has collapsed and is struggling just to feed itself.

Just one hundred days from Y2K, our greatest danger and national threat is from within the hearts and souls of the American people. We are yet unable as a nation to confront the ignorance of racism and bigotry. We are yet to make a commitment…citizen by citizen…family by family…supervisor by supervisor…worker by worker and in workplace to workplace to courageously confront and root out insensitivity and discrimination against people who are different.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, and venerated and sainted Mother Theresa before she died declared America the most impoverished nation in the world. How could a nation who has so much of everything be so poor? She said that America has lost its moral treasures and ideals. She said that we leave little for our people to believe in and be nourished with. She said we no longer offer the world the moral guidance and hope initiated by the founding fathers. I am not sure that I entirely agree with her.

One thing for sure…we still have one another. We look different than the Founding Fathers. We speak different languages and even often have different religious faiths that the Founding Fathers. But one thing is certain…without the success of the new rainbow American workforce…our nation cannot succeed in the days and years to come after January 1, 2000.

One other thing for certain is that all humanity is creative and intelligent. Humanity…and I mean all of humanity…black, brown, and white humanity have enriched and creative minds. I like Albert Einstein’s definition of intelligence…He said intelligence is knowing what to do when we do not know what to do. I love it.

We have an idea of what Y2K holds for those of us working in workplaces where everyone is not alike. We may not know everything we need to know. But we do know that our nation will need skilled workers to sustain its global leadership. We are the workforce of today and tomorrow. We will not let America down.

We will be the the workers who can effectively handle change and diversity. We will be the workers who will be the problems solvers in the work place. We have and continue to have the intellectual capacity to do what Einstein suggested…We will find out what to do when we do not know what to do. Our diversity will not be a deficit.

The browning and aging of our workforce will breathe new life into our national economy and enable America to sustain its competitive edge for another glorious century. The Postal Service will serve a model of what the American workers will be able to achieve in the Brave New World. God bless you all and God Bless America.