Destination DC's Elliott Ferguson on Black Lives Matter and tough conversations

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Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association, has been vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement and how corporate America can do better on issues of systemic racism and bias. News editor Johanna Jainchill spoke with Ferguson about what the travel industry should be doing.

Elliott Ferguson
Elliott Ferguson

Q: During a webinar hosted by Blacks in Travel, you said U.S. Travel is having some "uncomfortable" conversations with companies. Can you tell me about those?

A: Now, more than ever, the corporate community -- and we're specifically talking about hospitality -- needs to address some of the inequities and issues tied to the Black community and corporate America. We are dealing with some of the raw emotions tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, the unfortunate circumstances of many Black men losing their lives to police officers, what this whole movement is all about and what it does for the corporate community in terms of breaking down barriers. 

Some of the keywords we used were systemic racism and implicit bias and what the responsibility is of those in charge of companies. Some will be concerned, some don't know what to say, and some will choose to be an ostrich and put their heads in the sand and not really have these conversations with their employees, and not just Black employees. The younger generation is looking at what's happening and wants to see change and to do better. You see Black, white, all ethnic groups, representing millennials and Generation Z. 

So for those who say "my organization is all white" or "I live in a community without a lot of diversity, so I don't need to have this conversation," I'll say, "You're doing a disservice to those who are a part of this movement and trying to understand and engage and hold those who are in charge accountable." 

Q: How were your own experiences part of these conversations?

A: We each shared a time where because of the color of our skin there was systemic racism or implicit bias or plain old ignorance. There is a perception that when you see what's happening to George Floyd and so many others, that it's someone that did something they had no business doing: It had to be a bad person. It's shocking to think that even if this guy did pass a counterfeit $20 bill -- which, if I had one I wouldn't even know it -- should that be the outcome? 

Equally important is the fact that people don't recognize that I could easily have been George Floyd. You look at me and say, he's this and he's that. But America looks at me as a Black man. Outside of my suit and in the environment that you know me in, I've had situations with police that were similar to what happened to a George Floyd but fortunately did not turn into murder. The point that we're trying to make is, don't think this could not happen to the person sitting next to you and that you recognize in this leadership position who is Black. The bottom line is to engage and get people to recognize that these things have happened and continue to happen in the black community. 

Q: What should the travel industry do starting now to be more inclusive and diverse?

A: It starts with more open dialogue and conversations. We had a deeply rooted conversation with our team about the issues we're seeing and why people are protesting. We absolutely don't condone anything tied to broken windows, but here is what I'm feeling as your leader and as a person of color. Let's not marginalize this by looking at it through the lens of broken windows and vandalism. Let's look at the bigger issues and let me tell you how this affects me. 

I am one of very few at this level that look like me. I have been in several environments where I am not considered to be the CEO of the company because of that. Those are some of the softer scenarios I've had to deal with.

You can go deeper, and that gives others an opportunity to search their conscience and be more aware and be an organization where people feel safe talking about their concerns and issues. Employees thanked me for being raw and open. As a Black person I can be a victim of racism on Sunday night but on Monday morning, in the '80s and '90s and early 2000s, I couldn't imagine going to work and expressing myself without being told, "You're making people uncomfortable." In 2020, I'm saying, "I'm sorry if you're uncomfortable, but here's the reality I deal with." 

At this position in my career I feel a responsibility to all of my employees, Black and other, to recognize and to understand how easy it is for us to sweep things under the rug and come back to work and try to do our job, which really makes for a less productive employee, versus having an environment where you feel comfortable talking about things and knowing we're doing things to make a difference. That's what I'm challenging my peers to do. 

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