(The following blog is based on the opening of a panel discussion I moderated at the Travel Unity Summit in Auburn, New York on December 7 and 8, 2022)
Learning starts early and doesn't stop
Recently, my 12 year old son came home one evening and shared his day at school. After a few minutes of recounting encounters with friends, games during gym and boring math classes, he became more serious. He played back an exchange in one of his classes when they were doing an assignment to describe a character in a book. A boy sitting next to him got in trouble for something that he had written on his paper. My son recalled that when the teacher walked by and noticed that the boy described the character as “colored” the teacher became agitated and in an angry tone told him what he had written was wrong and that he needed to change it. My son’s reaction was one of confusion and emotion, not understanding why his friend had “gotten in trouble”. After a long discussion with my son about the historical context around the word, I also thought, wow, this really is confusing.
I was also 12 years old when I first became aware of the deeper meaning of skin color. The language we use today didn’t even exist. We didn’t use words and phrases like anti-racism, bipoc, social justice, and global majority. I’ve noticed how much and how rapidly the vocabulary has changed just in the last 3 years, let alone 25. There’s no doubt that I have gotten it wrong and still do today.
Making mistakes leads to growth
Along the way I've had moments I’m not proud of. In 2018, in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders in which 11 congregants were tragically killed, I attended a vigil at our local synagogue that was open for the general public. Following the event, I was deeply moved but also confused and a bit angry. After talking to some others who had similar feelings, I wrote an anonymous letter to the synagogue leadership about how I felt about the proceedings. I expressed to them that I had experienced the vigil as polarizing and politicized. Two years later, when I was identified as the anonymous letter writer, I was persuaded to discuss the matter with the Rabbi and others involved. I realized through this process that how I reacted was a prime example of my white Christian privilege and that it was not about me, or how I experienced that event.
That moment was one of many defining moments on my DEI journey and very humbling. I always considered myself well versed on the issues. I spent my early years in high school and college studying civil rights and participating in campus race dialogues and went on to study abroad in South Africa to learn about Apartheid. But it wasn't until more recently that I realized that this work is just as much if not more about the inward learning and reflection than it is about the outward. I've struggled with my own questions of identity and how to use my voice as a business owner in the tourism and hospitality space on behalf of DEI. The last few years of reflection, training and dialogue on anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion have coincided with my development as a leader and a leadership coach. What I have learned more than anything, is that this work is fundamentally about leadership and how I show up as a leader.
A call to action
A few months ago the moment came when I was called to show up. I received an anonymous email through our hotel website contact form with the following message: "Hi, one of your employees, recently harassed and threatened a beloved member of the local transgender community who also happens to be a combat veteran. For proof see this link... Is this what your hotel stands for??? I’ll never consider staying here again unless action is taken to terminate this persons employment immediately . Everyone else in the lgbtq community is aware of this too and will not stay at your establishment until he is fired."
Receiving this message was deeply upsetting and uncomfortable. But I knew this was the moment that all my work had until now been leading up to. While I couldn't respond to the anonymous person who brought this to our attention, there was public post on instagram to which I could respond. I drafted a response in which we publicly acknowledge the harm done to this member of our community, denounced the act and also committed to addressing the situation internally. While the employee in question had been fired for other reasons already a month before the incident, we took it seriously as a moment to reflect and publicly decry acts of hate such as this one.
Lessons I've learned
There are so many lessons I've learned over the last few years.
Rachel Vandenberg is a leadership coach living in Stowe, Vermont with her husband and three children. Rachel also owns and operates a hotel and attractions property with her family. She sits on the board of the local tourism association and also created a leadership retreat for women leaders in travel.